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Your hiking apparel is just as important as your boots, backpack, and cooking supplies.
Proper outerwear will enhance your experience on the trail by keeping you warm, dry, and protected from the elements.
Rain shells are completely waterproof hardshell jackets that are intended to be worn over other layers, serving as your first line of defense when conditions turn rainy.
Some are designed for hiking and daily use, others are more specific lightweight products, and some are performance-oriented.
Rain shells need to resist moisture yet also let out hot air through venting mechanisms. They are comprised of multiple fabric layers for breathability purposes.
Most rain shells have a hood and pit or side zips for venting.
Softshells are flexible outer layers that are worn in place of high-performance hardshell jackets.
Most are made with woven nylon or polyester.
They’re not meant to withstand the elements as much as they’re intended for mobility and breathability when you’re working hard.
Performance softshells are designed for specific activities such as climbing, skiing, or mountaineering.
Some softshells are DWR treated, providing for a certain level of water resistance, but they are no substitute for a high-end hardshell or rain jacket.
They do provide a decent level of wind protection and are designed to be comfortable.
Some versions provide no insulation while others offer thick, fleece-lined warmth.
A softshell’s greatest advantage is its stretchiness and some softshells are available with hoods.
Hardshell jackets provide for high levels of windproofing and waterproofing, designed for nature’s harshest conditions.
Most boast a 3-layer construction that includes an interior liner for breathability and an exterior face fabric for protection from the wind and rain.
Hardshell jackets are commonly used in mountaineering, skiing, alpine, and ice climbing — but can also come in handy on a harsh winter hike.
They typically include a hood, side, or pit vents, and can be placed into different categories: alpine, all-around, or minimalist.
Ultralight hikers might prefer minimalist versions while those embarking on winter hikes that include scrambling over rocks might opt for an alpine version.
Interchangeable jackets are multipurpose — typically a softshell and a hardshell built into one product, protecting from the elements in addition to insulation.
You can wear both at the same time or just one or the other — depending on the conditions.
These types of interchangeable jackets offer the greatest amount of versatility and are preferred by many hikers for this reason.
In warm conditions, you can hike in the baseliner alone, and then if it starts raining, pull out the hard shell and layer it over the liner to serve as a rain jacket.
In cold conditions, you might want to wear both for a combination of insulation and weather resistance.
The internal jacket is typically zipped into the outer layer, but it doesn’t have to be.
If you prefer an ultralight shell, you might have to be willing to sacrifice features such as pockets.
Hiking Jacket Features
When you’re picking out a hiking jacket, after you decide the type that will suit your needs, you need to determine which features are important to you.
Do you like a jacket with plenty of pockets for storing essentials?
Do you prefer a hood or would you rather go without?
For those who tend to run hot, ventilation is a huge consideration.
Does your jacket come with side or pit zips?
If you like versatility, an interchangeable jacket might be the way to go, offering the ability to transition between different types of jackets depending on weather conditions.
Consider the type of weather you’ll be hiking in.
In rainy climates, a rain shell with a hood is an absolute essential, and you might prefer your softshell have a hood as well, for hiking during a drizzle.
Evaluate the features you need and what you’re willing to go without.
We’ve researched for you to help you pick out the best jackets to meet your specific needs.