We tested some of this year's light, year-round shells. Here are the best
Credit: Mountain Hardwear
Mountain Hardwear Quasar Pullover ($400)This is the kind of jacket that you're either going to love or hate, depending on how well it fits. The cuffs don't adjust and some may find the pullover style hard to get on and off. None of our testers complained about getting the jacket on; the half-zip opened the jacket up pretty wide. As for the unique cuff design, testers were skeptical at first but ended up loving it. Under the hard shell cuff is a soft thumb loop of material that slips onto your hand as you slide this jacket on. On its own it feels nice. With a pair of gloves it keeps the non-adjusting cuff in place.
Mountain Hardwear's air permeable Dry.Q Elite proved to be super breathable, the most breathable hard shell membrane we've tried. Despite weighing in at a wafer-thin 9 ounces (about 300 grams), testers found the hard shell stood up to pounding rain, racing winds and four seasons of temperatures. If you're a minimalist—there is only one small internal pocket—this could be your year-round shell.
Credit: The North Face
The North Face Alpine Project Hard Shell ($380)Built for TNF's athlete team, the Alpine Project will please the climbers among us. It's cut short in the front and the two pockets sit high to coordinate with a climbing harness, a design that also jives with backpacks.
Like the Mountain Hardwear's Dry.Q Elite, Gore Tex's new Active Shell impressed testers with its breathability and weatherproof performance. Layered right, on uphill hikes we didn't notice any condensation on the inside—generous pit zips helped. So far the lightweight membrane has stood up to heavy, abusive use, and we love the shelter offered by the stiff brim on big, easy-to-use hood. Some may find the cut a little short, so try it on first, but other than that testers loved everything about this shell.
Credit: Helly Hansen
Helly Hansen Odin Fastpack Jacket ($325)Don't let the flimsy feel of Helly Hansen's lightweight and waterproof membrane fool you. This jacket stood up well to rugged terrain and use, and breathed exceptionally well. The weather performance was not as good as some other membranes, but is sufficient for most users. Designed with input from the guiding team at Mountain Madness, a major U.S. mountain guiding company, the Fastpack is built for just that—moving fast and light. It weighs just 242 grams. Although it hangs long, never exposing midriff or wrists, we never had an issue with the jacket “ponching” at the front. A good choice for warm weather backpacking.
Patagonia Super Cell Jacket ($250)While you don't ever want to run into a super cell (major thunder storm), this would be a good jacket to find shelter in. Made of Gore Tex's Paclite, it's light (13 ounces) and packable enough that you won't think about leaving it behind. When you do need it, the membrane has a proven track record of staying dry and breathing reasonably well. "I stayed 100% dry and didn’t notice much condensation on the inside of the coat after slogging uphill with a heavy pack in the rain," said one tester. Two hand pockets are nicely placed at about elbow height. Patagonia's helmet-compatible Optimal Visibility Hood is easy to adjust and maintains good lines of visibility with a stiff brim, even when snugged tight.
Credit: Sherpa Adventure Gear