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How to Choose a Hard Shell Jacket for Winter Hiking

Hard shell jackets are a burly type of rain jacket designed for use in winter conditions as a windproof and waterproof clothing layer. They have a richer set of layering and storage features from warm weather rain jackets to help you avoid perspiration and carry extra gloves, hats, and navigation instruments.

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
  • 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 try to avoid ones that are “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.

Hipbelt 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.

Layering features

In winter, you want to limit the amount you perspire by acting managing your warmth level. The 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. They also let you pull your sleeves up to vent heat.
  • 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.

Breathability Ratings

What should you look for in terms of breathability ratings when looking at hard shell jackets?

Pit zips and torso-length venting, like Outdoor Research's Toro flow feature trump breathability claims any day.
Pit -zips and torso vents are much more effective than breathable membranes

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 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.

Recommended Hard Shell Jackets

Where to start? You can spend an arm and a leg for a winter hard shell jacket if you want. But if you’re willing to forego the allure of 3 layer Gore-tex Jackets, you can find comparatively inexpensive shells that have fully adjustable hoods, lots of pockets for storing extra hats and gloves, and layering options like pit-zips or torso zips.

Make / ModelPrice
Arcteryx Alpha AR Jacket$575
Arcteryx Beta LT Jacket$525
Fjallraven Keb Eco Shell Jacket$500
Outdoor Research Apollo Jacket$99
Outdoor Research Foray Jacket$215
Outdoor Research Panorama Point Jacket$179
Marmot Alpinist Jacket$375
Patagonia Triolet Jacket$399
REI Drypoint GTX Jacket$249
REI XeroDry Jacket$159

Here’s a list of jackets at many different price points that meet the criteria we’ve laid out and that we recommend you check out. We think the jackets from Outdoor Research are the best value in terms of features and price, but everyone has different preferences and sizing needs.

Editor's note: Help support this site by making your next gear purchase through one of the links above. Click a link, buy what you need, and the seller will contribute a portion of the purchase price to support SectionHiker's unsponsored gear reviews, articles, and hiking guides.

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3 comments

  1. I still use an ancient EMS (Eastern Mountain Sports) GTX mountain parka with 2-way front zipper and pit zips. It has done well by me even though the inside waist snow skirt elastic has given up the ghost.

    At other times I use a slightly shorter REI Kimtah eVent parka that has no pit zips yet is very breathable, sometimes too much in cold, high winds. It is one size larger for use over down or fleece garments.

  2. I want one of the jackets with a wire or shapeable brim. But I can’t find one. They must be few and far betw as I have spent two hours on line this afternoon looking at a LOT of jackets!

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