Not long ago, there were three clearly defined categories for jackets: waterproof hard shells, stretchy and breathable soft shells, and wind shells. We still group outerwear that way today, but the lines between the categories are becoming increasingly blurry. Waterproof jackets can now weigh what wind shells did a few years ago. Some soft shells are now completely waterproof. But the basics haven’t changed. You still want a burly waterproof shell to deflect all-day rain. For most short and fast missions in variable weather, the right wind shell is often all you need to pack. For everything else, there are endless iterations of soft shells. And when you want it all in one package, choose the Gear of the Year–winning La Sportiva Hail.
La Sportiva Hail
Because they’re portable and waterproof enough to keep you comfortable in a downpour, ultralight hard shells like the six-plus-ounce Hail are the hot new jacket category. The reason we liked the Hail best? Read the full Gear of the Year review.
Eddie Bauer Alpine Front
Best For: Long days in the rain.
The Test: A good sign of a jacket’s worth is when you’ve got 15 to choose from and you keep picking the same one. The Alpine Front ($229) is the only full-featured hard shell here, built from a proprietary fabric that deflected an inch of rain during a day hike in Olympic National Park. And with stretchy elbows, shoulders, and back, it’s not nearly as crinkly as the Montane or Black Diamond. The fabric isn’t quite as breathable as Gore-Tex or eVent, but thanks to pit vents and mesh-backed front pockets, dumping heat is as quick and easy as a few zipper pulls.
The Verdict: Works as good as it looks. Could easily double as your ski shell. 14 oz; eddiebauer.com
Best For: Moving fast in wet weather.
The Test: The Featherlite ($399) weighs about an ounce more than the pared-down Black Diamond, but it’s a slightly different animal. Here you get two front pockets, smartly positioned high enough not to interfere with a harness or hipbelt, and a more functional hood—with three points of adjustability and a wire-stiffened brim. “I could really hunker down in it,” said one tester. “Nothing was able to sneak in.” All else being equal, the Featherlite’s eVent fabric is probably a bit more breathable than Gore-Tex’s Paclite. Note: the fit is especially trim, so size up if you’re brawny or looking to wear an insulating midlayer.
The Verdict: Light on weight, not on features. 10 oz; montane.co.uk
Black Diamond Mono Point
Best For: Ultralight protection.
The Test: The lightest jacket on this page (only the Gear of the Year–winning Hail weighs less), the Mono Point ($299) is about as minimalist as a waterproof shell can be. What you get: midweight Gore-Tex Paclite fabric that can take a licking without a whimper, plus a chest pocket and a single-point-adjustment hood. And that’s about it, though we did thank Black Diamond’s designers for the generous swaths of micro-fleece at the chin and back of the neck.
The Verdict: If you like lots of pockets and doodads, this isn’t for you. But if you want a highly packable shell that can stand up to an all-day drenching, as this one did on several occasions in British Columbia’s Coast Range, it could be your ticket. 8.9 oz; blackdiamondequipment.com
The North Face Exodus
Best For: Unrestricted mobility.
The Test: We’ve never worn a jacket like this. The proprietary fabric is crazy stretchy—we never exposed our wrists, even reaching high for a hold on a sport climb—but also remarkably soft next to the skin. And because the North Face’s designers figured out how to make the jacket ($199) out of a single piece of fabric, there are few seams, which cuts down on both weight and bulk. The catch to all that light mobility? Hoofing up to a rock climb, we found it didn’t breathe that well. But the poly-nylon lining quickly wicked our sweat away once we stopped.
The Verdict: The most comfortable jacket here, thanks to all that stretch. 15 oz; thenorthface.com
Best For: Adventure travel; shoulder-season hiking.
The Test: When a surprise summer squall scudded off the Atlantic, bringing wind and a crashing thermometer to an Irish hill hike, the Torque ($90) earned its keep. The smooth interior fabric slid over a fleece without bunching, the polyester outer layer cut the wind to a whisper, and we could hunker in the high collar. It’s not nearly as breathable as the Arc’teryx, but the interior liner does a fine job wicking moisture, and it’s substantially warmer and more windproof.
The Verdict: Not the most technical soft shell, but effective (and casual) at a reasonable price. 14.8 oz; columbia.com
Arc'teryx Psiphon SL
Best For: Moving fast in the mountains.
The Test: Cut from a tightly woven, stretchy nylon-elastane blend, the lightweight Psiphon ($149) is purpose-built for rock climbing. The hood can be adjusted with one hand, the stretchy cuffs are designed to stay put when you push them up on your forearms, and two small removable pieces of foam on each side of the waist hem keep the jacket from riding up under your harness. Our favorite feature is the hood stow-away system: a snap keeps it rolled tightly (and not flapping around) when you don’t need it.
The Verdict: You don’t have to rock-climb to dig it. We happily ran, biked, and hiked in the Psiphon for months. 10.2 oz; arcteryx.com
Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite
Best For: Speed freaks.
The Test: Simply making a three-ounce-and-change hooded wind shell is an impressive feat. Doing that while incorporating this many features is remarkable. Stuffed into its own chest pocket, the Ghost Lite ($100) disappeared in our hydration pack or pocket. (There’s also a fabric loop so you can clip it onto your harness.) When we unfurled it on a blustery ridge, the DWR-coated fabric fended off both high winds and light rain. The real kicker is the hood: elastic binding makes for a snug fit, and it rolls and stows with a Velcro tab.
The Verdict: There’s no reason to ever leave this shell behind. 3.1 oz; mountainhardwear.com
Outdoor Research Deviator
Best For: Shoulder-season layering.
The Test: It’s not really a wind shell. Nor is it a soft shell. But we wore it so often, in such a wide range of conditions, that we had to put in the mix. Essentially a stretchy fleece jacket with a windproof torso lightly insulated with fancy synthetic insulation (Polartec Alpha), the Deviator ($185) somehow manages to be both warm and breathable. Although we most often wore it as a midlayer in brisker temps, it does just fine over a T-shirt: the grid-backed fleece lining wicks away moisture and dries quickly during cool-weather runs, and thumb loops add extra protection.
The Verdict: One of the most versatile layering pieces we’ve tried. Not sure what to wear? Start with the Deviator. 10.8 oz; outdoorresearch.com
Aether First Light
Best For: Playing it cool.
The Test: What we like most about this aerobic-inspired shell is that it doesn’t look like one. “I could get a pre-run coffee without feeling like a running geek,” said a tester. But the reason the First Light ($250) made the cut here is that it doesn’t overheat when you pick up the pace or wilt when the weather gets nasty. The inside of the two-layer nylon never felt clammy when runs turned sweaty, thanks in part to discreet back vents.
The Verdict: A lot of performance hidden elegantly in a casual look. 9.6 oz; aetherapparel.com