The Hard Facts on Hardshells

These waterproof, breathable jackets are designed to defend the body against winter’s worst elements. But new materials and innovative construction reveal a softer side to hardshell protection.
Essentials hardshells

The hardshell has long been celebrated as one of the greatest evolutionary leaps in technical outdoor apparel. Hydro-phobic laminates such as Gore-Tex were groundbreaking, making synthetic fabrics impervious to moisture and wind while still allowing perspiration to escape. But evolution—as it’s wont to do—took another leap forward a few years ago. In came the softshell, offering increased breathability, more flexibility and less weight. The hardshell, however, is far from obsolete. In fact, it’s still superior in soppy and windy conditions. To compete against the benefits of softshells, hardshell manufacturers use sonic welding, in which fabric edges are thermally cut and then bonded together, on seams and zippers—thus eliminating the weight and small puncture holes of traditional stitching—and four-way stretch fabrics that are highly flexible and breathable. Plus, hardshells generally offer components such as powder skirts, internal and external pockets, removable or stowaway hoods and even built-in mp3-player controls. Most softshells can’t do that. Here are 18 hardshells that hold up against the weather—and the softshell competition.

Material Usually a synthetic fiber—nylon or polyester—laminated with Gore-Tex or a similar breathable water repellent coating or membrane. Two- and three-layer constructions offer different weight and warmth options. New four-way stretch fabrics are more flexible than their stiffer predecessors.

Thermal Body Mapping Originally used in base layers, it places thicker or warmer material in key areas, such as the core, and cooler, wicking fabrics in areas that retain heat and produce moisture, such as the chest and back.

Seams Taped or sonically welded seams are 20 percent lighter than traditional stitching and eliminate small puncture holes, which allow water and wind to enter.

Hoods, Powder Skirts, Cuffs, Sleeves Zip-off and stowaway options mean these weighty features can be removed for warmer, faster-paced days.

Vents Conditions change quickly on the mountain, but you can’t. Underarm and chest vents are easy to adjust on the fly to control airflow and perspiration as temperatures rise.

Pockets Not just a place to put your car keys, pockets may do double duty as lined hand-warmers, vents, see-through lift-ticket holders and even wired compartments with built-in controls for iPods or cell phones.