Regardless of whether you’re a professional alpinist or a walker, you depend on hardshell jackets to get you through heavy rains. For this reason, weatherproof jackets have become an integral part of any and all outdoor gear. There are so many manufacturers that offer even more waterproof jackets, all of which promise to be your go-to jacket for all sorts of activities.
There are so many that it’s almost impossible to navigate through this jungle of hardshells. But, that’s why we’re here! In the following, we’d like to give you a few pointers for your next jacket.
What is a hardshell?
This question is pretty easy to answer: Hardshell jackets are waterproof, windproof and breathable. This means that whilst water cannot permeate the jacket, water vapour can pass through, sweat can escape to the outside. This effect is primarily achieved by applying a membrane or a coating to the inside of the jacket.
Membrane or coating?
This is one of the main things you should consider when looking for the perfect jacket: High-quality membranes are more durable than coatings and therefore keep the jacket waterproof for a longer period of time. Coatings, on the other hand, wear away more quickly, so the jacket will eventually lose its waterproof properties.
How long the piece of clothing remains waterproof heavily depends on the quality of the material and the way it is used. For example, if you’re planning on going on a long trekking tour with a heavy pack, a membrane would be the better choice. The well-known manufacturers are Gore-Tex, Dermizax, HyVent and Sympatex. For the occasional bit of weather protection when jogging, cycling or bouldering, jackets with a coating should usually do the trick.
2 Layers or 3 Layers? What about 2.5 Layers?
In 3-layered jackets, the outer fabric, membrane and lining are laminated together. The membrane is thereby completely protected from friction. The jacket is lightweight but still very durable. In 2 -layered jackets, the membrane and outer fabric are joined together, whilst the inner layer is a separate fabric that hangs on the inside. However, the inner layer can rub against the membrane, which is why 2-layered jackets are not quite as durable as 3-layered jackets. 2.5 layered jackets have the advantage that the membrane is protected by an additional layer.
However, it is only a partial protective layer, such as the carbon layer in the Gore-Tex Paclite. Other manufacturers use honeycomb structure to protect the membrane. These are lighter and more breathable, but they sacrifice durability. 2.5-layered jackets are indeed tougher than 2-layered jackets, but only partially compatible with rucksacks.
All in all, we can say that their compatibility with rucksacks is less dependent upon the number of layers than on the materials used. So, be sure to read the product descriptions for detailed information on where the jacket’s intended area of use.
A jacket that you always carry with you in your pack should be durable, first and foremost. The pack size shouldn’t really be an issue here. However, if you only plan on wearing the jacket when it rains and otherwise just keeping it in your rucksack, then the pack size is a deciding factor. Both a small pack size and low weight are very important. For example, the 289g Mountain Hardwear Plasmic Jacket would be very packable and would undoubtedly fit in any rucksack.
It’s usually not difficult to find a durable jacket for bad weather. But, whether or not it’s the right jacket for you depends much more on the details.
Underarm zips, featured in the Patagonia Torrentshell Jacket, for example, allow air to pass through both ways and is essential for high-intensity activities. For even if the fabric is breathable, a jacket can only allow a certain amount of water vapour to pass through, and its doing so depends on the temperature and humidity. Underarm zips make it possible for you to directly ventilate the part of the body where you sweat most. Plus, these openings allow far more water vapour to escape to the outside than the material would. What’s more, they are positioned in such a way as to allow you to use them even when it’s raining (because rain tends to fall from the sky, not the ground)
Position of the pockets
If you’ve ever worn a rucksack with a waist belt, you’ve probably noticed that the little devil covers up your jacket pockets, making them essentially useless. Many hardshell jackets, such as the Spire jacket from Marmot, are thus equipped with pockets that are positioned higher up on the jacket than normal hand pockets. That way, the waist belt won’t cover them up. This feature is not just really convenient, but absolutely necessary! For not only do waist and hip belts tend to cover up jacket pockets, climbing harnesses do too. So, if you’re a climber and in the market for a new jacket, listen up!
Reinforced shoulders and elbows
The membrane is the heart of every hardshell. If you protect it, you’ll drastically extend the life span of the jacket. Having reinforced sections really helps with this. They are particularly suited for areas exposed to the most wear and promise additional protection for the jacket. Thus, heavy packs won’t stand a chance against jackets like the Millet K Pro GTX.
Helmet-compatible and adjustable hoods
Whether you’re alpineor ice climbing, caving, mountaineering or biking – wearing a helmet is mandatory! However, your head needs protection not only from falling rocks etc., but also from rain, snow and water in general. Thus, the hood should fit either over or under the helmet. If the hood is adjustable, it will adapt to both the head’s shape and the movements nicely, giving you a clear view, even in the rain.
Drawstrings on jackets like the L.I.M III Q Jacket allow you to find that perfect, individualised fit. Plus, they prevent unwanted cold air from seeping in at the waist, neck and wrists. For protection around your head, you can always adjust the hood. Ideally, the drawstrings will be equipped longer straps so that they can also be operated with gloves.
Freedom of movement
There are jackets such as the Berghaus Mount Asgard II that have so-called underarm gussets. These inserts allow for excellent upward arm mobility, which is a great feature for not only climbing and bouldering but also cyclists. There are also jackets with an elastic blend of material, such as the Mountain Hardwear Seraction Jacket, which is made of Dry. Q Elite Stretch 3L and elastane.
There are two ways to design a waterproof zip: you can use technical zips, which are manufactured to be waterproof, or the traditional cover flap, which serves to prevent water from getting in. In any case, if the zips are not protected, the jacket won’t be able to keep the water completey out of the jacket. It’s a more of question of taste as to which option you prefer. The coated zips are more lightweight than an additional cover flap. However, there’s always the risk of the waterproofing deteriorating over time as a result of frequent use, resulting in leaks.
A zip like the one on the ‘Gipfelgrat Jacket’ by Mammut, which you can open in both directions, has the advantage that it gives you more flexibility when it comes to ventilating the jacket. If you want to protect your neck from the wind but still have part of the jacket open, simply use the bottom end! This is something that comes in handy whilst wearing a climbing harness as well, since you have the option of opening the jacket at the bottom and pulling it over the harness. This way, the harness will still work but will remain covered by the jacket.
Gloves can make finicky zips a real pain in the neck, so much so that you’d usually have to take off your gloves in order to reach the contents of your pockets or open the underarm zips. But, with long pull tabs, you can open the zips effortlessly, even with the thickest mittens on. Brilliant in cold weather! If the jacket doesn’t already have these practical additions, they can be retrofitted very easily.
A waterproof jacket keeps water droplets out and thus works as an effective barrier in the rain, whilst still allowing water vapour (sweat) to pass through. However, this is only the basis of a jacket’s water vapour permeability. Other factors usually play a much more important role and have a significant impact on the breathability, such as your body temperature and the outside temperature. If the outside temperature is very high, the jacket’s breathability will be greatly reduced.
Finding the right layers to wear underneath a hardshell is pretty important as well. A base and mid layer with moisture-wicking properties is capable of transporting sweat away from the body to the next layer and via the hardshell to the outside, whilst a normal cotton t-shirt would inevitably remain damp. When engaged in strenuous activities, we can produces several litres of sweat, which even a high-end membrane is incapable of transporting to the outside as quickly as we would like. The lack of waterproofing treatment can lead to the fabric becoming saturated with water and consequently inhibiting the water vapour permeability.
Why would a hardshell suddenly allow water to pass through?
After you’ve ruled out the possibility of the water being your own sweat, there’s only a few possibilities left. Oftentimes, a damaged membrane is the reason for this. Even if there’s no obvious rip in the material, the membrane could have been damaged by some external factors. Roughly woven outer fabric leaves enough room for even the finest of dirt particles to penetrate the material. These act like sandpaper and can wear down the membrane without you even noticing it, making it permeable to water. Holes and smaller tears resulting from the jacket getting caught on something or falls can be taped up using repair kits or professionally mended by manufacturers and service partners.
However, the reason for this is usually the wrong or even complete lack of maintenance and care. When we wear our jackets, the finest skin and dirt particles are deposited on the inside. If the dirt has settled in the pores of the membrane, it draws moisture from the outside into the jacket’s interior. This can be fixed quickly by washing the garment and applying a waterproof treatment. However, be sure not use fabric softeners, as it would clog the pores. Since even regular detergents may contain a small amount of fabric softener without advertising it, we recommend you use a detergent specifically made for these kinds of garments. These do not contain fabric softeners, will clean at low temperatures required and are environmentally friendly.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask our experts in customer service. Hannes, our expert on textiles and clothing, can be reached by phone at +49 (0)7121/70 12 0 or via e-mail.