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Shell jacket buying guide

There’s no bad weather — just bad gear and bad attitudes. Rainy and windy? No problem. Just bring along a waterproof/windproof rain shell. Here’s how to buy a good one.



There are two types of shell jackets — hard shells and soft shells.

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

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.


If you can afford only one jacket, you should buy a simple lightweight hard shell. 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.


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


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. 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.


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. 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, make sure it’s roomy enough to allow for layering when it’s cold. Soft shells should be more form fitting. If you’ll be wearing a backpack waist belt or climbing harness, consider how the jacket may interfere with that.



A really well-designed hood that lets you see well is something a lot of people probably don’t think about a lot, 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.


Always look for a jacket that’s seam-sealed. That said, keep in mind it doesn’t matter how much you spend, in a downpour even the most expensive jackets will probably eventually wet-out.


Even though shell jackets claim breathability, the truth is that a rain shell is going to be a little clammy. So look for one with pit zips (zippers that open the sides of the jacket under your arms) because they help with breathability, especially when you’re being active.


MP3 pockets, hydration bladders, etc. You’ll see tricked-out shells in the stores with these things, but it’s best to keep it simple. The ideal jacket is really lightweight and just has a well-designed hood, two chest pockets and fully sealed seams.


You can probably find good jackets online, but it’s always best to buy in person because you can try it on.


In general, the more you spend on a jacket, the more bells and whistles you’ll get. Also, higher-end waterproof jackets tend to be more breathable.

If you happen to fit into kids’ sizes rather than adult jackets, you can save lots of cash on a jacket while still getting the same waterproof/windproof performance.


Gear Guy combed the stores to find the best new jackets (and some old tried-and-true ones) that are both cool and affordable.

All these rain shells are similar. Each is made of waterproof breathable nylon with fully sealed seams, and adjustable hood and chest pockets, and each is very packable. The differences come down to price, style and the addition of features like armpit zips for added breathability.

All prices are MSRP — manufacturer’s suggested retail price. You can often find better deals in stores or online.


($50 boys, $90 adult;

This mesh-lined jacket is more comfortable in warmer temps. 8.4 oz./13.4 oz.



The Loke is a full-featured jacket (including pit zips) for just a hundred bucks. 9.4 oz.



Probably the best choice for backpacking, this one has pit zips that unzip all the way from the waist to easily accommodate a backpack waistbelt. 14.5 oz.


($65 boys, $100 adult;

This one’s a classic — it has been around forever! And for good reason. The PreCip is a great jacket at a good price. Plus, it comes with pit zips. 9.7 oz./13 oz.


($40 boys, $55 adult;

The kids’ sizing on this jacket is the best deal in our roundup. The inner mesh liner keeps the shell of your skin in warm weather. 8 oz./14 oz.



Offered only in boys’ sizing, this waterproof jacket comes with a nice chest pocket and an adjustable hood. 12.4 oz.

43 Comments on Shell jacket buying guide

  1. Wonderful article and love how you broke down the different types and prices. Love the pictures of them in real time and to see members of Pack 647 in the ad!

  2. Or you can use a large plastic trash bag. Just cut holes for your head and arms!

  3. Buy Frog Togs. Cost less than all the name brands in your article. They are waterproof and breathable. And for the cost of just a jacket you get pants too! Very cost effective.

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

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

  6. All adventure // October 29, 2012 at 10:01 am // Reply

    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

  7. non boy-scout // October 24, 2012 at 7:06 am // Reply


  8. cool story bro

  9. 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.

  10. coolman360 // April 12, 2012 at 8:09 pm // Reply

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

    • 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

  11. runnerdude11 // May 1, 2011 at 6:54 pm // Reply

    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.

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

  13. Used Frogtogs for Philmont // July 26, 2010 at 4:29 pm // Reply

    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

  14. War Monger // May 27, 2010 at 8:17 am // Reply

    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)

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

  16. 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.

  17. I have a Cherokee light weight 100% waterproof jacket

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

  19. i like the green

  20. dutalbrichis // October 27, 2009 at 7:15 pm // Reply

    the blue jackit is cool

  21. How good is Goretex?

    • 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.

  22. mens leather jackets // July 4, 2009 at 7:01 pm // Reply

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

  23. I like the red one

  24. sydermaster // April 8, 2009 at 5:53 pm // Reply

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

  25. hawaii101scout // April 6, 2009 at 12:06 am // Reply

    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!!!

  26. powerchimp // March 30, 2009 at 5:32 pm // Reply

    what brand would you recomend? for hardshell.

  27. that is the best jacket i have ever seen

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

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

  30. What company makes that blue jacket?

  31. works the best

  32. I love these jackets

  33. Best jacket

  34. too bad i dont have one

  35. These Jakets are awsome for camping.

  36. Cool jacket

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

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

  39. bast jacket ever!!!

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