Hardshells: Waterproof Pants & Jackets

Why do we use full-zip hardshell pants for alpine climbing? What exactly are hardshells, anyway? What features are important in hardshell jackets or pants? Why is it important not to bring half or quarter-zip hardshell pants into the high mountains? Here we answer some common questions with a few anecdotes and a few unavoidable facts.

Hardshells…say what?

When we say “hardshell”, we mean waterproof: fully, completely waterproof and equally so in sideways rain or a light mist! On any climb in the mountains, protection from the elements is key. Even when the weather is predicted to be dry, we typically take our hardshells with us. They can provide protection from the winds we sometimes see even in dry conditions, and can add a little bit of extra warmth by trapping air close to the body. In a strange situation where your softshell pants (climbing pants) tear or break, hardshell pants can also serve as a good backup if absolutely necessary.

When don’t we use hardshells?

Though we almost always carry hardshells, we try to avoid using them as long as the weather allows. No matter how breathable the newest Gore-tex jacket claims to be, hardshells are inherently much less breathable than other layers. They will trap moisture coming off of your body, creating a swampy microclimate in between you and your shell. That moisture-trapping reality means that we need the weather to be pretty wet or foul for our hardshells to keep us drier – if we put on hardshells too soon, we can quickly get quite damp from our sweat and be just as wet as if we’d skipped the hardshells altogether.

In summary: we don’t use our hardshells unless we absolutely have to do so!

When do we use hardshells?

We use hardshells straight out of the trailhead or straight out of camp only when it’s really foul outside. This means wet snow, rain, or severe wind. If we’re experiencing a little bit of heavy marine layer including a light mist, we will often skip the hardshells in hopes of that mist clearing off. We also use our hardshells when weather shifts on us mid-climb. This is the most common way our hardshells are used – a storm blows in (expected or otherwise), conditions change, and suddenly we find ourselves in danger of getting very wet. That said, we also often use our hardshells on the upper portions of various climbing routes, when we’ve exposed ourselves to harsher winds or fouler weather by gaining elevation or traversing such that the prevailing weather hits us square-on.

In either case, we use our hardshells mid-climb! This means we can be roped up, harnesses on, and suddenly need to put our hardshells on within a brief 1-2 minute period. Not only do we need to know where our hardshells are located in our packs, but we need to be able to quickly get them on.

What features make this possible?

Several features are critical for your hardshells to be effective:

  1. Fit. Your pants need to fit well over your baselayer pants and softshell pants, since you’re likely wearing your softshell pants or both of these layers before you put on your hardshell pants. Your jacket needs to fit well over your baselayer top, midlayer top, and softshell jacket. If you’re on a bigger expedition like Aconcagua or Denali and are using a light puffy coat in addition to a bigger expedition layer, fit your hardshell to go over that layer as well. **Do not fit your hardshell to go over your expedition-weight or “big” puffy. We wear the big puffies on top of all other layers, as the conditions requiring the big puffy are typically cold enough to turn rain into dry snow that will easily brush off of your big puffy.
  2. Helmet-compatible hoods. If you’re heading for a technical climb requiring a climbing helmet (as opposed to a helmet-free climb like Kilimanjaro or a trek to Macchu Picchu), you’ll want to be able to pop your hardshell jacket on without having to remove your helmet. If it’s wet outside, you’ll need hardshell protection covering your entire head.
  3. Full-zip hardshell pants. Consider that you’re at 8,500′ on Mount Baker. You’ve left camp in some gusty wind and damp (but not yet raining) air. Suddenly, it starts to sprinkle. That gentle sprinkle builds to a rain. In your boots and crampons, fully roped together and wearing a harness, you need to immediately get your hardshell pants on. For obvious reasons, it’s not possible to sit down and take your boots and/or crampons off. Quarter-zip, half-zip, and even three-quarter-zip hardshell pants can’t be put on in this situation – only full-zip (or 7/8th zip if you have impeccable balance while wearing boots and crampons) pants are useful here.

Waterproof pants and jackets are critical to travel in the mountain environment. Unlike most milder situations where taking some time to put on your hardshells is no problem, it can be very serious business in the mountain environment. Unlike most day hikes where a thorough soaking from a surprise rain shower makes for a funny story, multi-day mountain trips require you to keep your gear dry and body comfortable each and every day. Where there’s less room for error, we use our gear – like the hardshell jacket and pants discussed here – to stay not only comfortable, but safe. Call or email us to talk about your hardshells if you have any questions!

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