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What is the Difference Between a Rain Jacket and a Hard Shell?

What is a hard shell jacket?

Hard shell jackets are a burly type of rain jacket, usually made with waterproof/breathable fabric, that is used for cold weather hiking as a windproof and waterproof clothing layer. They have a richer set of temperature regulation features and pockets than warm weather rain jackets to help you avoid perspiration and to keep extra gloves, hats, and navigation instruments close at hand for easy access.

Hard shell jackets are also heavier and thicker than many rain jackets, especially minimalist rain jackets where the emphasis is on low weight. In addition to better durability, a thicker hard shell jacket will be significantly warmer than a thin rain jacket which you’ll appreciate on cold days. This thickness is often expressed in terms of “denier.” For example, many hard shell jackets have a denier of 50D or more, while many hiking rain jackets are 30D, 20D, or less.

Recommended Men’s and Women’s Hard Shells

Outdoor Research Foray II JacketOutdoor Research Aspire II Jacket
Rab Downpour Eco JacketRab Downpour Eco Jacket
Patagonia Torrentshell 3LPatagonia Torrentshell 3L
Rab Kinetic Alpine 2.0Rab Kinetic Alpine 2.0
Arcteryx Alpha SVArcteryx Alpha SV
Arcteryx Beta AR JacketArcteryx Beta AR Jacket
Fjallraven Keb Eco Shell JacketFjallraven Keb Eco Shell Jacket
Patagonia Triolet JacketPatagonia Triolet Jacket
Montbell Storm Cruiser JacketMontbell Storm Cruiser Jacket
REI Flash Stretch JacketREI Flash Stretch Jacket

What then are the most important features to consider when buying a hard shell jacket for hiking, particularly as the weather gets cooler in autumn or in spring shoulder season conditions?

Hard Shell Jacket Guide

The following features are especially important for hikers and backpackers to look for in a hard shell:

  • Fully adjustable hood
  • Hip-belt compatible pockets
  • Lots of large zippered pockets
  • Temperature management features
    • Pit zips or torso zips
    • Two-way front zipper
    • Adjustable hook and loop (velcro) wrist closures
    • Drawcord hem closure

Fully Adjustable Hood

When choosing a hard shell for hiking and backpacking try to avoid ones that are “helmet compatible” unless you have a huge Godzilla-sized head.  Unfortunately, the majority of hard shell jackets are intended for skiers and climbers who wear protective helmets, not hikers. Oversize hoods rob your head of warmth, they can be difficult to control in the high wind and retard your side vision.

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 to block the wind, and a high collar that covers your neck and mouth. All of these features will help protect your face from the cold wind and rain and help you stay warmer.

Hipbelt Compatible Pockets

Additionally, 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 shell 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. They’re great for carrying spare gloves, and hats, and keeping navigation tools within easy reach. They’re also good for keeping snacks within easy reach.

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. When you have to keep moving to stay warm or get to your destination before nightfall, not having to stop constantly is a big bonus.

Temperature Management Features

In winter, you want to limit the amount you perspire by actively managing your warmth level. The key to doing this involves venting excess warmth by venting or removing layers. A good hard shell should provide several ways for you to dump excess heat without having to take it off completely, including:

  • Pit zips or torso zips that you can open to release excess heat so you sweat less.
  • Adjustable hook and loop wrist closures: These help regulate the body heat at your wrists where the blood flows close to the surface of your skin. You can open them to let cold air reach your wrists or pull your sleeves up to vent heat. If you’re cold, you can wrap the closures around the gauntlets of your gloves to prevent heat from escaping.
  • 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 or snow from blowing up between your legs and robbing your torso heat.
You’ll appreciate a higher denier jacket when they’re still ice and snow on the ground or the cold wind blows. (Photo courtesy of Ken Robichaud.)
You’ll appreciate a higher-denier jacket when there’s still ice and snow on the ground or the cold wind blows. (Photo courtesy of Ken Robichaud.)

What about Breathability Ratings?

Your mileage may vary, but I don’t think premium breathability ratings are all that important on winter hiking hard shells if you get a jacket that has good temperature regulation features and you actively manage your warmth and perspiration level when hiking. High levels of breathability can’t hurt, but I don’t think paying extra for them is really worth it. If you get too hot, venting your hard shell is going to keep you a lot drier and a lot faster than waiting for water vapor to move across a breathable membrane.

Moreover, 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.

Purchase Advice

You can spend an arm and a leg on a winter hard shell jacket if you want. But if you’re willing to forego the allure of Arcteryx’s overpriced jackets, you can find comparatively less expensive shells that have fully adjustable hoods, lots of pockets for storing extra hats and gloves, and temperature options like pit-zips or torso zips.

We think the jackets from Outdoor Research provide the best balance in terms of features and price, but everyone has different preferences and sizing needs. No jacket is perfect in all respects, so you’ll probably have to make some tradeoffs during your selection process.

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  1. I just ordered the Mountain Hardwear Sky Ridge™ GORE-TEX Jacket L, Dark Copper for $210, but most shops wanted $350. I’ll use it mainly for skiing, but may use it for hiking. I have several other old rain shells in various levels of wear and age. I know many friends that have Arcteryx coats, but perhaps they have thicker checkbooks than my own.

  2. Every jacket I test, I mention the advantages of a two-way zipper for fit, comfort, and access. It’s amazing how few manufacturers respect the wearer.

  3. A hard shell isn’t a separate category of waterproof jacket – it’s simply a completely waterproof, windproof and breathable jacket cf /vs a soft shell, which is not completely waterproof. The term only came into use when soft shells became a thing.

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