Hard Shell Jackets are best used in winter conditions as a windproof clothing layer and an extension of your packing system, with lots of pockets that provide easy access to gloves, hats, snacks, and navigation instruments so you don’t have to stop and take bone chilling rest breaks. While hard shell jackets are usually made with waterproof/breathable fabrics, they’re too heavy, too warm, and over-featured for use as hiking rain jackets in warmer weather and you’d be far better off with a minimalist rain jacket like the Outdoor Research Helium II and a Frogg Toggs Ultra Lite Rain Jacket.
What then are the most important features to consider when buying a winter hard shell?
Hard Shell Features
There are a couple of features that are especially important for winter hikers to look for in a hard shell:
- Fully adjustable hood that’s NOT helmet compatible
- Hip-belt compatible pockets
- Lots of large zippered pockets
- Layering Features
- Two-way front zipper
- Adjustable hook and loop (velcro) wrist closures
- Drawcord hem closure
Fully Adjustable Hood
When choosing a hard shell make sure the hood is NOT helmet compatible, unless you have a huge Godzilla-sized head. The majority of hard shell jackets are intended for skiers and climbers who wear protective helmets. What you should look for is a fully adjustable hood with a rear volume adjustment so you can shrink the hood size to fit your head, side pulls so you can adjust the size of the face opening, a wire or shapeable brim to shield your eyes from wind and snow, and a high collar that covers your neck and mouth. All of these features will help protect your face from frostbite and help you stay warmer.
Hip-belt Compatible Pockets
Look for hard shell jackets that have chest or side pockets that are higher up in the torso so you can access them when wearing a backpack hip-belt. This can be a hard feature to find on hard shells jackets, so look carefully. Hard shell jackets from Outdoor Research and Rab are often pretty safe bets in this regard, but be sure to check before purchasing one.
Lots of Zippered Pockets
You can’t have too many hard shell pockets in winter. They’re great for carrying spare gloves, hats, and keeping navigation tools in easy reach. They’re also good for keeping snacks from freezing if stored next to your body. I view my hard shell jacket pockets as an extension of my backpack because the extra storage cuts down on the number of times I have to stop to get clothes or food out of my pack. You have to keep moving in winter to stay warm and to get to your destination before nightfall.
In winter, you want to limit the amount you perspire by acting managing your warmth level. They key to doing this involves venting excess warmth by removing, or venting layers. A good hard shell should provide several ways for you to dump excess heat without having to take it off completely. Here are some of the most important features to look for when comparing different jackets.
- Adjustable Hook and Loop (Velcro) Wrist Closures: These help regulate the body heat at your wrists where the blood flows close to the surface of your skin. They can be worn under gloves or over them depending on your preference and the glove type.
- Two way-front zipper: If you pull the bottom half up, you can dump a lot of excess torso heat, poncho-style.
- Hem drawcord: Cinch it closed to keep the wind from blowing up between your legs and ribbing your torso heat.
What should you look for in terms of breathability ratings when looking at hard shell jackets?
To be honest, I don’t trust the breathability ratings published by manufacturers because they’re measured in ideal laboratory conditions that have little to do with actual use.
Pit zips and torso-length venting, like Outdoor Research’s Torso Flow (shown here) feature trump breathability claims any day.
If you get too hot, venting your hard shell is going to cool and dry you off far more quickly than waiting for water vapor to move across a breathable membrane.
But getting a hard shell that’s NOT made with a waterproof/breathable fabric is virtually impossible these days. Just remember that the features on these jackets are far more important than their breathability ratings. Stay focused on that and you’ll get yourself a good hard shell jacket that you can hang onto for a while for winter hiking and backpacking.
- Outdoor Research Foray Jacket
- Outdoor Research Aspire Jacket (women’s)
- Outdoor Research Panorama Jacket
Where to start? Check out the hard shells listed here from Outdoor Research. OR is the best and virtually only outdoor manufacturer that has a good selection of jackets with the features I list above. I’ve been using the OR Foray myself going on 5 years and still think it’s an awesome winter shell that checks all the boxes.