A Hard Shell (unless you’re the eternal optimist) is an essential piece of mountain kit for climbers. Hopefully it stays in the pack but there are occasions when you will need to wear one – if it’s windy, if the clag is down at the top of your route, when the clag is down when you’re on the route or when you’re winter climbing.
You could use a softshell jacket (and I own and have reviewed several,) but they do have their drawbacks. Firstly they are not entirely windproof, unless you have a membrane softshell (which is really a hardshell) the wind will get through and chill you down; secondly they are not entirely waterproof. Even a membrane softshell will leak, as many don’t have taped seams.
A versatile alternative to a softshell is a fleece and hardshell combination, this means that you get maximum breathability walking to the route and maximum wind and water protection on the route and when walking down (it’s happened to us all, that optimistic walk up in the dry just to get rained on later!).
So what should you look for when choosing the ideal hardshell for climbing?
Number one is fit and arm movement, if it restricts your ability to reach for holds or axe placements then it’s not fit for purpose. When you try the jacket on, swing your arms around and see it the jacket hem rises when you reach up, you’re looking for minimal movement. Even better wear a harness and check for movement, there should be none. Some jackets, such as the Arc’teryx Alpha SV and LT, have an integrated hem-lock feature which helps to keep the hem neatly seated under a harness.
You are looking for some abrasion resistance because if you decide you are climbing in it you will need it to last and not get ripped to pieces. There is a trade off between durability and lightness. Your shell may spend most of its life in your pack so you want it compressible and light. Gore Tex Active Shield is a great fabric, Polartec Neo Shell is also proving popular as is Event. Gore Tex Windstopper is also making a comeback. The new breed of ‘hybrid hardshells’ are a great way of providing durability and lightness. High wear areas are made with abrasion resistant fabric and the rest from lighter fabrics.
Cuffs are an area worth looking at, the tabs need to easy to use with gloves on, they also need to provide a tight seal if your are wearing gloves over the top. If you are tucking your gloves in then the sleeve hems should be wide enough to do this. Personally for winter climbing I’m changing gloves at every belay so look for a nice tight seal.
The hood is another area that needs careful attention. It must be absolutely helmet compatible so wear one when you are trying a jacket on! When the hood is done up it should move with your head in all directions. All adjustment pulls should be easy to use with gloves on and these are often an issue we’ve had when reviewing clothing items. Wired peaks are best but are becoming hard to find! I find myself wearing the hood all the time when winter climbing and if you want it to stay on your head instead of flopping down and filling up with powder snow then pay attention to it.
Pockets – I often find hand warmer pockets unnecessary. I would prefer a dedicated climbing jacket to have one large Napoleon style pocket to access topos, gloves, etc. I often stuff gloves down the front of the jacket for easy access. Pit zips are also a personal choice, mine is that they are again unnecessary. If I’m walking uphill to the crag and it’s raining I’m often turning round and heading for the pub!
Finally the zips – these are very much a tricky area that can all too easily let a great jacket down. They should be easy to use with gloves on or cold, wet hands. Too often the pull tabs are not large enough and hard to locate. I just prefer a plain Vislon zip with a water blocker and a good solid draft guard. I’m a realist and understand that the water will leak in via the zip, but I’m not expecting to stay totally dry, just warm and damp. I’ve had a lot of trouble with zips on very expensive jackets, it’s annoying and shouldn’t be a problem.
So there we have it that’s our guide to what you should look for in a climbing hardshell. We have scoured the market and come up with a selection of hardshells we think fit the bill:
The North Face Anti Matter
One of the lightest climbing shells on the market (319g). Created from a hybrid fabric construction of 2L and seam-taped 3L Gore Windstopper® Active Shell, the Anti-Matter Jacket cuts weight and bulk, while providing durable, abrasion-resistant protection and maximum freedom of movement. 100% windproof, highly water-resistant and extremely breathable. Features climbing-specific fit, helmet-compatible hood with laminated and wired peak, hybrid alpine pockets/pit zips and nonabrasive, moulded cuff tabs.
FusionDri is a brand new waterproof/breathable membrane technology that Marmot has been helping to develop over the past three years. Marmot is the first brand to market with this new technology and I have no doubt we will see other brands using this technology format as an alternative to Gore’s wide range of performance products.
The confirmed statistics for this new technology are Breathability: 50,000gm/24hrs and waterproof level of 20,000mm. The FusionDri technology also incorporates a wicking backer to the inside of the jacket. This wicking backer helps pull moisture away from your body leaving you more comfortable when enduring high aerobic activity.
Haglofs Spire Jacket
A reinforced Gore-Tex® Active Shell Jacket that is extremely breathable and durable, with details such as mountain helmet compatible hood and two chest pockets. Inner membrane protection is incorporated into the fabric, so no mesh lining is needed thus saving weight. Elegant pattern construction and the low bulk fabric combine to reduce weight and bulk. DWR treated surfaces. 3 way adjustable mountain helmet compatible hood. 2 way main zip with chin guard and weather guard behind. Two mid mounted chest pockets with venting internal construction. Articulated sleeves with Velcro cuff adjustment. Single handed waist hem cord adjustment. Rear hanging loop (handy for the drying room – Ed).
Patagonia Torrent Shell Plus
The Great Western Loop takes you from high mountain passes to enchanted deserts and Pacific rainforests, and calls for serious stamina in your legs as well as your gear. Made for devoted backpackers and trekkers, our new Torrentshell Plus Jacket delivers durability with H2No Performance Standard 2.5-layer waterproof/breathable nylon ripstop fabric that’s reinforced through the shoulders and side. The rain jacket also has a 2-way-adjustable hood, with laminated visor, that rolls down and stows. The center-front zipper is watertight-coated, with an internal storm flap, and the Deluge® DWR-treated pit zips have welted exterior storm flaps. Pockets: two welted, zippered handwarmers with DWR-treated zips, and an internal drop-in mesh pocket. Other details include self-fabric hook-and-loop cuff closures, an adjustable drawcord hem and a self-stuff handwarmer pocket with carabiner clip-in loop. Deluge DWR (durable water repellent) finish.
Lowe Alpine Taiga Jacket
Lowe Alpine are having a major revamp of their whole clothing collection so it’s great to see them back in action with a dedicated Alpine jacket.
Details: Triplepoint® AP 3L fabric. Waterproof, windproof, breathable with taped seams. Helmet-compatible hood, wired peak, roll-down hook and loop tab. 2-way YKK Aquaguard® front zip, internal storm flap, rain drain. Tricot-lined collar. 2 YKK Aquaguard® zipped Napoleon chest pockets. 2 YKK® zipped internal mesh pockets. Adjustable hook and loop cuffs. Hem drawcord. Alpine fit.
Triplepoint® AP utilises the latest technology from GE to provide one of the best breathable / waterproof fabrics in the world. At its heart is a microporous ePTFE membrane protected by a patented surface treatment. Combine this layer with unique construction methods, plus durable face fabrics chosen specifically by Lowe Alpine and you have a system that offers 100% protection from driving rain, yet gives unrivalled breathability performance.
So remember, a hardshell is an essential piece of mountain kit. Hopefully it will stay in your pack but if you do need to use it make sure it performs well and it won’t let you down. What do you look for in a climbing hardshell? Let us know in the comments below.