Guy Gear

Shell jacket buying guide

jacket-200x148“I love climbing because it’s a very intense experience when you’re immersed in nature,” says 24-year-old Colin Haley. “It forces you to really focus because your survival is dependent on doing things right and making smart decisions.”

As an elite mountaineer, Haley makes smart decisions both high atop mountain peaks as well as in the local outfitter store. Haley knows plenty about shell jackets, so we asked him to help us out with this Guy Gear buyer’s guide.

WAIT! Although the following is still great advice, the Gear Guy is currently researching new models and writing an update to this article. Watch for his updated tips and reviews in the April 2015 issue of Boys’ Life.


There are two types of shell jackets. Hard shells are what most people think of when they talk about outdoor jackets. These are lightweight hooded jackets designed to keep out wind and rain. Standard rain slickers are considered hard shells, too, but we’re focusing on hard shells that are also breathable, meaning they wick sweat away from your body.

“If you’re wearing something that doesn’t breathe, you’re going to sweat and get all the rest of your insulation wet because none of the moisture is going to be able to leave,” Haley says. “Soft shells are woven jackets that are wind- and water-resistant and totally breathable.”

jacket21Many soft shells use a durable water-repellent (a.k.a. DWR) coating on the jacket’s surface to make it shed rain.

One For All? If you can afford only one jacket, which type should you buy?

“I would recommend a simple lightweight hard shell,” Haley says. Hard shells are necessary equipment for heavy wind and wet weather because a soft shell simply won’t give you the needed protection. That said, if you can afford both, a soft shell is ideal for about 80 percent of your outdoor activities, and you can keep a lightweight, waterproof hard shell in your backpack for the nasty weather.

Hard vs. Soft: “Soft shells are generally more supple and more breathable but less windproof and less waterproof,” Haley says. “Hard shells typically don’t fit quite as nice, but they’re usually more waterproof, more windproof and lighter weight.”

jacket5Waterproof/Breathable: These are marketing words you’ll hear used to describe hard shells. Usually these jackets are built with two to three layers of material, including a special membrane layer that keeps weather out while letting your sweat escape.

“A common misconception when people are looking for a shell jacket is they think they need to see the words 100 percent waterproof on the tag,” Haley says. “Depending on your activity you might want a decent amount of waterproofness, but don’t get hung up on it.”

Also, there are a wide variety of waterproof/breathable materials on the market. Some are more heavily advertised than others, but often the generic or “house brand” waterproof/breathable fabrics offered by manufacturers will work just as well for you. Gore-Tex, for example, is a fine product, but it’s only one of many waterproof/breathable fabrics.

Fit: “You want a shell jacket to be decently trim. You don’t want it to be bulking out and getting in the way of your mobility,” Haley says. “To make sure it fits right, raise your arms over your head and make sure the bottom of the shell jacket doesn’t come up above your waist.”

For hard shells, see that you have enough room to layer it over a fleece. Soft shells should be more formfitting. If you’ll be wearing a backpack waist belt or climbing harness, consider how the jacket may interfere with that.

jacket1The hood: “A really well-designed hood that lets you see well is something a lot of people probably don’t think about a lot,” Haley says. “But it’s really important because with poorly designed hoods, you can barely do anything. Every time you turn your head you’re looking into the side of the hood.”

Look for a hood that has good coverage, can fit over a climbing helmet (if you’ll be climbing) and is able to cinch down tight to your face so it doesn’t obstruct your view.

Bells and whistles: MP3 pockets, hydration bladders, pit-zips, etc. You’ll see tricked-out shells in the stores with these things, but Haley says keep it simple. “Don’t look for tons of bells and whistles and extra features. Most of the best shell jackets are quite simple. My ideal jacket is really lightweight and just has a well-designed hood, two chest pockets and no pit-zips.”

Try before you buy: “You can probably find good jackets online,” Haley says, “but I think if people have a place where they can buy a jacket in person, it’s always best because they can try it on.”

Comments about “Shell jacket buying guide”

  1. Scout says:

    I love my Arcteryx Alpha AR jacket and Marmot Randonnee pants peace

  2. cattail says:

    I have a north face hyvent and it’s awesome. I also have columbia titanium shell pants, and both are great

  3. All adventure says:

    i got a north face hyvent on sale for $40 and it works great, some say its second best on the market after gore- tex

  4. non boy-scout says:


  5. az3 says:

    cool story bro

  6. Ranger97 says:

    I found a hard shell jacket on sale at Sam’s a couple of years ago, and it is perfect. It is lightwieght and totally waterproof, yet packs small and is roomy enough to put on over layers. It goes in my bag for every outdoor activity all year.

  7. coolman360 says:

    I have a military surplus jacket and it works pretty well.

    • T102 says:

      Same here. My whole troop uses army surplus everything. We each have our own army (half) tent. It is awesome to use surplus. It is low priced, functional, and high quality

  8. runnerdude11 says:

    Best jacket I have ever owned is the Columbia Titanium skiing outerwear jacket. It is waterproof, and has pockets on the side that can open to let in air. It also has arm pockets for my keys.

  9. He says:

    I have a waterproof bratheable softshell. It’s Columbia brand, and is really nice!

  10. Used Frogtogs for Philmont says:

    I went to philmont last year and obviously before going i bought rain gear because without it, the trip wouldve been miserable. The brand i got was called frog toggs, and they are amazing. they are breathable, 100% waterproof, compactable, they dry quickly, extremely light weight, and really really good priced. they also blocked the wind. they are a backpackers dream. lol. if u plan on going on a backpacking trip, i suggest you check them out

  11. War Monger says:

    The odd thing is, when I go to war with the others in my troop, I wear the cheap stuff. The cheap is actually pretty good.

    (we do war games on every outing)

  12. DK says:

    I have a pac tech one and it works fine. It’s getting too small though.

  13. GEAR MAN says:

    You can find good rain gear for usually pretty decent prices. I got lucky with my gear. I found a Gore-Tex Paclite shell for $40 at Sportsman’s Warehouse!! Gore-Tex usually costs about $100-$180, but I found a great price. But for day hikes, I just bring a light poncho or something like that. Even a big trash bag can do the job, but it’s not recommended.

  14. Scouting101 says:

    I have a Cherokee light weight 100% waterproof jacket

  15. scowt999 says:

    i have a nike waterproof shell. IT WORKS!!!!!!!

  16. cable says:

    i like the green

  17. dutalbrichis says:

    the blue jackit is cool

  18. BBT says:

    How good is Goretex?

    • XMilScouter says:

      I use Gore-Tex shell & pants. 100% waterproof, 100% windproof, perfect for an all-day soaker. Gore-Text is typically heavier than Polypropylene, but not by much. Expensive, but worth it.

  19. mens leather jackets says:

    I actually found the info very useful. I like the red one best anyway.

  20. zachary says:

    I like the red one

  21. sydermaster says:

    Spyder jackets are the warmest best jackest I’ve ever worn! Pretty expensive at $299.99

  22. hawaii101scout says:

    I have a pair of REI rain pants and a Columbia titanium rain shell and they are the best I’ve ever had!!! I live in Hawaii so they get LOTS of use, espesially this last winter when Haleiwa town was flooded and people could kayak in the street!!!

  23. powerchimp says:

    what brand would you recomend? for hardshell.

  24. speedy says:

    that is the best jacket i have ever seen

  25. 13adabing says:

    im not much of winter camping person but i think with this information about wat type of “shells” is best suited 4 is awesome!!!

  26. snakeman says:

    this was very helpful in picking out a spring and summer jacket for camp

  27. higher says:

    What company makes that blue jacket?

  28. wheel says:

    works the best

  29. Da Bears says:

    I love these jackets

  30. Yeah Boi says:

    Best jacket

  31. lower365 says:

    too bad i dont have one

  32. rob says:

    These Jakets are awsome for camping.

  33. Joey says:

    Cool jacket

  34. jamba says:

    My dad just got one of those blue jackets, and it’s amazing.

  35. HenryParrot says:

    I have one similair to that one, they work very well.

  36. wubba says:

    bast jacket ever!!!

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