Winter Hiking Hard Shell Jacket Guide

Winter Hiking Hardshell Jacket Guide

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

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.

What then are the most important features to consider when buying a hard shell jacket for winter hiking?

Hard Shell Features

The following features are especially important for winter 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 winter hiking 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 winter 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 frostbite 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 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.

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.

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.

Recommended Hard Shell Jackets for Winter Hiking

Where to start? 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.

Make / ModelPrice
Arcteryx Alpha SV$799
Arcteryx Beta AR Jacket$599
Arcteryx Beta LT Jacket$399
Fjallraven Keb Eco Shell Jacket$500
Outdoor Research Foray Jacket$215
Patagonia Triolet Jacket$399
Rab Kinetic Alpine 2.0$280
REI Stormbolt GTX$279
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. 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. Why is a winter hard shell warmer? Is it more windproof? or better cinches at the wrists, neck etc? Or is it the slightly thicker fabric?

    • Mainly it’s just thickness. Lightweight rain jackets are made with 7-15 denier fabric, whereas winter shells are made with 40-80 denier fabric. The added thickness makes them much warmer. So does the fact that they’re 3-layer jackets with a proper interior liner fabric to protect the waterproof/breathable membrane. If you try to hike with a really thin rain jacket in winter, at least in New Hampshire, you’ll be awful cold.

  2. A vote for the OR Foray/Aspire. No complaints after several years of use.

  3. I’ve always carried a light, breathable (35+CFM) wind shell and a lightweight waterproof jacket. Combined they weigh the same as a heavier “hardshell” jacket and give me more versatility. I only use the waterproof jacket if I’m getting hit by high winds, taking a break, or if it’s warm enough for precipitation to get me wet. If I’m mostly hiking in sheltered forests and the temps are too cold for wet precip, then I often only bring the wind shell. Currently I use a black diamond alpine start when its not too cold or my OR ferrosi anorak when its a bit colder because it can accommodate more layers underneath. I’ve always followed the strategy of more insulation and more breathability rather than less layers and less breathability.

    But I suppose if I was regularly hiking in exposed areas with high winds then I would value a hardshell more. There is really no one correct answer to outdoor clothing.

  4. Would the new Patagonia Torrentshell 3L be a solid option?

  5. Is there a women’s version of the Foray?

    You have such excellent, thorough reviews. I wish they were more inclusive of your female followers. Your winter hiking boot review did not include any women’s boots with 400 g of Thinsulate. Oboz isn’t making insulated boots this year, and several of the women’s versions of the boots listed have 200 g. Do these boot makers actually think men have colder feet than women or are they simply not interested in selling their wares to 50% of the population? Thanks for all you do!

    • I really do try to make my articles inclusive of women. The problem is that it’s really hard to know what the female versions are named if they differ from the product names that manufacturers make for men. For the Foray, I believe it’s the “Aspire” as Wanda points out in a comment above.
      As for the boot makers, their lack of products for women is inexcusable. It was bad before the current supply chain issues out there but now it’s even worse.

    • Mommy on the trail

      Alice, did you considered the last version of the wonderful Columbia Bugaboot? I loved the 2 years ago model (Bugaboot IV, with Michelin outsoles). This year they made the Powderhouse Omni-Heat Titanium 3D Outdry boot. This model seems very close to the one I loved. No Thinsulate but 600g of insulation plus thermal-reflective lining, and they are rated -65F. There is also the hi-gripping Michelin outsole.
      I’d like to have them for snowshoeing.

  6. if you are not a fast hiker or going uphill those jackets will not keep you warm when it gets really cold and windy.
    Perhaps over 40 F. you can get by. Get caught out in under 40F with wind and without the right layers, a tent and good sleeping bag ( real good) you will be in big trouble like those hikers who were not prepared properly and ended up on the White Mountians victims list.

  7. Marmot Alpinist didn’t make the cut??

  8. Mommy on the trail

    What about the Helly Hansen Odin 9 Worlds 2.0?
    It has everything, but unfortunately no 2-way front zip.
    I love it, but I found it’s not breathable at all, even with all the 4 ventilation zips opened.

  9. I got an REI DryPoint GTX this summer on sale. It’s incredibly breathable. I never had 3-layer Gore-tex before, and it’s the first Gore-tex I’ve ever tried in probably the last 25 years or so of using it, that actually performs as is claimed. Although it does feel much colder due to that high flow through the membrane.

    Any ideas on how to keep the hood of these jackets from being so loud in heavy rain? It really hurts my ears. I’m thinking of making a thin fleece cover that is sewn into the hood over the ears to dampen the sound of rain hitting there. It’s really bad with the ultralight jackets especially. My summer silnylon jacket is no better.

    • I used an REI DryPoint GTX all last winter, mainly for off-trail winter hiking, and really liked it. It stood up really well, fit great, and was just the right blend of thermal protection/weight.

      I wear a wide brim hat with all my summer raincoats. I’m not bothered by sound and when its dry, the hat provides sun protection.

  10. Where does the Marmot Minimalist jacket rank? Too thin?

  11. Is the sizing on shell jackets designed for multiple underneath or do people usually size up?

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