Arc'teryx alpha fl jacket

The wonderful world of hardshell jackets

Weather changes with the season but a hardshell jacket will keep the wind off your shoulders and rain off your ears.

An overnighter to Point Reyes was soggy to begin with and though it turned out fine, worry going up the trail almost ruined the experience. This was the one time I hadn’t brought my hardshell and I regretted it the entire time… As did my girlfriend, to whom I yammered about on multiple occasions the importance of bringing one along. I’m eating my words as I type this article.

Hardshell jackets
No hardshell? No problem, if you don’t mind drying out your gear for hours.

For beginners, hardshells jackets are the weirdest concept to grab. Basically a thin cover for rain or wind that slides on over warming layers, they are somewhat singular in use, but boundless in how, or when, you use them. This differs from everyday jackets that combine insulation and ‘weatherproofyness’ into one. They seem daunting and expensive, but ever since I bought one I’ve used mine in countless situations.

REI has a nice guide on the technology and how to choose your first hardshell, but the basics are quick to cover. (Hardshell pun!)

  1. Most hardshells for outdoor use are waterproof* and breathable. A must if you’re going to stay comfortable moving around in wet environments. *Note that these jackets aren’t technically completely waterproof. A breathable membrane and coating sheds virtually all water, but dirt, oils, and sweat-out means some rain can soak through.
  2. Hardshells are great at blocking gusts and eliminating windchill, something that can keep you warm in specific situations without added bulk.
  3. They don’t have to be pricey, but expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $150 for an entry level model. They get crazy expensive very fast, but for beginners around $100 should suffice. Every penny is completely worth it.
oahu, hawaii
A Patagonia hardshell keeps Mia dry from tropical storms in Hawaii

Why buy a hardshell? Flexibility.

I’ve used mine almost year round and in many different types of weather. The most obvious time is the rainy season and winter; unexpected storms or heavy mist can be thwarted by keeping a hardshell close at hand. Even spring or summer can find ways to make you uncomfortable. The tops of mountain throw bitter wind and hardshells simply laugh at that sort of thing.

The other benefit is having the option of putting a hardshell on top of other insulating layers. I’ve seen days where all I needed was a puffy jacket, but wasn’t quite sure if more moisture was headed my way. On the other hand, one summer backpacking trip needed both because of chilly nights and a constant breeze. While they don’t technically offer warmth through insulation, many times, blocking wind can stop the chilling effects from wind.


In the end, it comes down to versatility and what you pay. I shelled out quite a lot for my Arc’teryx Alpha FL but with how much I it, it’s become a worthy investment. A go-to for whenever it rains, even on the way to the office, mine has become a familiar friend and I think you’ll be surprised in much the same way.


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