“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.
THE LOW DOWN
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.”
Many 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.”
Waterproof/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.
The 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.”