How to Pick the Best Shells For Hiking - Backpacker

How to Layer For Hiking: Shells

Weather is always a trip’s biggest unknown. Wind and rain sap body heat in an instant, and a blizzard will challenge even well-equipped hikers. The solution? The right shell for the conditions.
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Shell Layers

Always pack rain gear.

The Rule: “Be mindful of your body and actively manage your system," says polar explorer Eric Larsen. 

Shells protect against weather, but they don’t always handle internal moisture well. That’s where you come in. When the shell is on, the stakes are higher. Open vents, de-layer, or remove hats and gloves to stay comfortable.

Pick Your Shell

From ultralight running jackets to hardcore expedition armor, no product category has more niches than hardshells. But picking the right one is still as simple as figuring out what you want most—and then living with the trade-offs.

Budget

Trade-offs: breathability, compressibility

Durability

Trade-offs: breathability, compressibility

Breathability

Trade-offs: budget, durability

Compressibility

Trade-offs: budget, durability

How to Wear Your Shell

1. Put it on before precip soaks your baselayer. It’s easier to manage sweat than dry out rain.

2. De-layer to accommodate the extra heat a shell is going to hold in.

3. Make sure no fabric is exposed at the cuffs or hem. Otherwise, your baselayer’s wicking properties will transport water toward your arms and core.

4. Shorten your trekking poles. If they’re too tall, water flows into your sleeves.

5. Vent wisely. Preemptively open pit zips to prevent overheating.

6. Arrive dry at camp. Moderate your pace 30 to 45 minutes before you get to camp so any internal moisture has a chance to dry.

How to Use Softshells

When the forecast calls for intermittent rain and wind, hardshells can be overkill. Softshells let more air through, keeping you cooler during high-output activities and preventing the quick buildup of sweat. Most rely on a DWR to repel light precip.

Softshells work best in dry conditions and climates. Wear one as a standalone outer layer when working hard or under a hardshell as an insulation layer on long days with variable weather.

How Hardshells Work

BICOMPONENT

Such as Some Gore-Tex

How they work The inward-facing PU-like film is hydrophilic (water-loving), so it draws sweat to its surface. Moisture diffuses through the film, evaporates, and passes through pores in the membrane.

Liability The process requires pressure (a humidity differential), so you have to break a sweat before it starts working.

AIR-PERMEABLE MEMBRANES

Such as eVent, NeoShell, Pertex Shield AP

How they work The membranes contain billions of microscopic pores that are large enough to let vapor out directly, but small enough to block rain droplets.

Liability They feel colder when you’re inactive, because wind can find still its way through.

HYDROPHILIC MEMBRANES

Such as Pertex Shield Plus, Rab’s Proflex, Mountain Hardwear’s VaporDry

How they work Same basic concept as a bicomponent, but the PU film is a standalone piece.

Liability They aren’t as breathable as the others.

MEMBRANE-ON-THE-OUTSIDE

Such as OutDry Extreme, Gore-Tex Active Shell with SHAKEDRY

How they work This new construction places the membrane on the outside of the shell, without the usual protective outer fabric layer. Result: great breathability that never wets out.

Liability They feel rubbery (OutDry) or lack durability (Gore-Tex SHAKEDRY).

In Defense of Rain Pants

It happens every single time I pull together a pile of gear for a backpacking trip: The obvious goes in (sleeping bag, chocolate). The frivolous goes in (novel—hardcover, usually). I don’t think twice about the essentials, or the boring stuff.

And then I’m left staring at my rainpants. I sigh. Their very existence is a coin with luck on one side and misery on the other.

I’ve lost track of the places I’ve carried and then never used them, smashing them in the bottommost trench of my pack. Muley Twist Canyon in Capitol Reef. The Larapinta Trail, which cuts across the red desert of Australia’s Outback. Rainier’s Wonderland Trail in late summer. As a native Seattleite, I’m conditioned to always think it’s about to rain and I never want to be unprepared. But I always feel chagrined whenever I return home, turn my backpack upside-down, and find out that there are layers I carried and didn’t even remember packing.

Except those unappreciated rainpants have come in handy—I mean, saved my butt—just often enough to stay on my permanent packing list. I’ve forgotten DEET and remembered rainpants, which stymied hardline mosquitoes from ravaging my legs. I’ve shown up to campsites at sundown, shivering in sweat, and pulled rainpants over long underwear. And of course, I’ve used them for their intended purpose, too.

But even when they’re just along for the ride, they’re still comforting in their way—like the least-cozy security blanket you can imagine. For there’s no better layer than the one that makes you feel savvy, smart, and ready for anything.

-Evelyn Spence

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