Hard shell, soft shell, or ultralight? Take your pick.
Meet the new lead dog in the race to be the most breathable waterproof shell ever. The Artemis ($250) pulled ahead of the pack thanks to NanoPro, Marmot's new proprietary membrane, which is purportedly 60 percent more breathable than the company's previous offerings. Our field testing isn't that precise, but while hoofing uphill in a 50-degree downpour, one of our testers was stunned that he didn't overheat (as he did in a few other jackets he tested). The Artemis weighs in at just 11 ounces, despite having our favorite bells and whistles—pit zips, hand pockets, and a helmet-friendly hood—and it stretches in all the right places. Said one particularly impressed tester: "It feels like a tailored suit." 11 oz
BEST FOR: Taking a beating.
THE TEST: Balancing durability with breathability can be tough, but REI nails it with the Kimtah ($239). Cut from eVent, one of the most breathable waterproof fabrics on the market, it's armored with a higher-denier fabric on the front, which easily fended off rope abrasions, bushwhacking, and scuffles with basalt walls on a first ascent of an alpine ice route in British Columbia last fall. Our tester also stayed dry on a three-day climb that included wild temperature fluctuations and everything from heavy snow to frozen rain to soupy fog. "Over three days of absolute dampness and abuse," he said, "I was totally comfortable."
THE VERDICT: A bomber jacket for the nastiest conditions. 15 oz
Salomon GTX Active Shell
BEST FOR: Charging hard in the rain.
THE TEST: Far and away the most streamlined hard shell here, the GTX Active ($350) has just one external chest pocket and no adjustment bungee cords or Velcro closures. Even so, it's surprisingly techy. Elastic side panels and a bit of stretchy fabric under the brim keep the trim-fitting hood snug to your head, while a stiffened flap helps keep rain out of your eyes. At your wrists, stretchy panels can be folded out to protect your hands from chilling wind and rain. And, of course, there's the all-important fabric—in this case, Gore's lightest and most breathable stuff, Active Shell.
THE VERDICT: It really is built for speed. Sheds heat and moisture during high-intensity moments as capably as any hard shell we've ever tried. 8.8 oz
Helly Hansen Loke
BEST FOR: Low-sweat activities.
THE TEST: This is a heck of a lot of jacket for a C-note. Sure, the cut is a bit boxy, and the fabric can't compete with top hard shells in breathability, but it kept our testers dry during a four-hour hike in the rain and cut the wind effectively on a blustery fall day ($100). Most impressive of all: after four months of testing, it showed no signs of wear. Mesh-backed front pockets and pit zips help shunt moisture but can't completely compensate for the fabric's mediocre breathability. "It gets a little clammy when you work up some heat, even with the pit zips open," reported one tester. "But it performs for the price."
THE VERDICT: A smoking deal for a rock-solid shell. 9.4 oz
Adidas Outdoor Terrex Swift Mountain Summer
BEST FOR: Scrambling, rock climbing, and mountain biking.
THE TEST: We know a jacket is a winner when a tester refuses to give it back. In this case, our tester was enthralled by the Swift's ($120) perfect combination of materials and fit. The mix of super-stretchy panels on the shoulders and under the arms with stiffer, more windproof fabric everywhere else kept the Swift snug while allowing a full range of movement. On a blustery scramble up a peak, he appreciated that the full zip ran high enough to cover his chin and the hood fit over or under a helmet while never restricting peripheral vision. "The best hood I've ever used," he said. "It works more like a beanie." The other thing he appreciated: "How often I heard 'Nice jacket' when I wore it."
THE VERDICT: Fits like a glove and performs like a champ. 13 oz
BEST FOR: Casual hikes; cool temperatures.
THE TEST: Founded in Sweden in 1960, Fjällräven first brought its classy waxed-canvas outerwear to North America in 2009. In the Abisko ($200), the company pairs its trademark fabric on the shoulders and front with a soft shell on the back and sides to create a unique, versatile jacket.
>>Read the full review
Columbia Canyon Heights
BEST FOR: Moderate exertion in variable weather.
THE TEST: Where this jacket covers your body's high-heat zones—armpits, center of your back—Columbia placed its Omni-Evap membrane, which employs a rugged microsurface to spread out moisture for faster transmission to the outside. Near as we could tell, the tech works pretty well. The jacket ($140) performed admirably for testers moving at a speaking pace, even in 100 percent humidity, but was overwhelmed by mountain biking or running. That's because there's simply more of it: the Canyon Heights' stretchy fabric is almost twice as thick as the Adidas's; it could easily double as a springtime ski jacket.
THE VERDICT: Your best friend on cold and breezy shoulder-season adventures. 1.1 lbs
Patagonia Alpine Houdini
BEST FOR: Quick missions, rainy forecasts.
THE TEST: Not sure if you should pack a lightweight hard shell or a soft shell? Split the difference with the minimally designed (elastic wrists, single hood adjustment, one pocket) but surprisingly capable Houdini ($199). With waterproof fabric, taped seams, and a DWR finish, it'll keep you dry in a downpour—which is impressive, considering it weighs half as much as a standard hard shell. So what's the catch? The fabric isn't that breathable, and it's not built to withstand days of rain. But for fast-and-light and possibly rainy outings, it's the perfect solution.
THE VERDICT: Small and light enough that you might as well take it everywhere. 6.4 oz
Outdoor Research Helium Hybrid
BEST FOR: Shoulder-season hikes.
THE TEST: As the name suggests, this jacket ($125) mixes things up. The shoulders and hood are made of Pertex Shield+, a high-quality laminated, waterproof-breathable fabric. Everywhere else there's water-resistant, ripstop, and stretchy nylon. That combination produces a highly versatile jacket that breathes better than the Patagonia but not quite as well as the Black Diamond. The upper jacket, which has taped seams, held off heavy rain for a couple of hours. The lower jacket soaked through in the same conditions, but it deflected lighter showers and 40-mile-per-hour gusts in an alpine meadow. And while the jacket has only a single pocket, it's a well-designed one. "I forgot to close the zip once, but because it's horizontal, nothing fell out," said one tester.
THE VERDICT: A dependable layer for variable conditions. 5.6 oz
Black Diamond Alpine Start
BEST FOR: Moving fast in the mountains.
THE TEST: In the Alpine Start ($150), Black Diamond impressively blurs the line between a windproof midlayer and a soft shell. The lightweight and stretchy Schoeller fabric is impregnated with a nano-level treatment that fends off light rain, dirt, and even, as one tester learned, mustard, but it doesn't detract from the jacket's excellent breathability. The Alpine Start also strikes a smart compromise between minimalism and convenience, with only one chest pocket, elastic wrists, and an adjustable, helmet-compatible hood. "All those things offer advantages without adding too much weight or bulk," noted one weight-obsessed tester.
THE VERDICT: Intelligent engineering makes for a well-rounded shield. 7 oz