Make it to the summit warm and dry.
With the versatility of softshell jackets, climbers might forget why they need the protection of traditional, lightweight waterproof breathable hardshells. While softshells are an excellent choice for less extreme weather conditions, they can’t provide the same level of wind, snow and water protection found in waterproof breathable hardshells. And if these benefits are not enough to convince climbers that they should have a hardshell in their clothing quiver, then consider that many of these lightweight hardshells deliver significant weight and bulk savings over the less weatherpoof softshell alternatives.
With all these advantages, what’s not to like about these hardshells? Well, how about the fact that all this light weight and low bulk comes at the price of long-term durability. Although none of these jackets are disposable, they simply don’t offer the bombproof abrasion resistance found in heavier, thicker clothing. Where these lightweight hardshells really shine is in spring conditions when the weather might change unexpectedly. In these situations, having the full protection of a hardshell can mean difference between climbing in comfort or spending the day summitless, soaked and shivering. An easy choice for most climbers.
Mammut's Albaron is an exceptionally capable lightweight mountain hardshell. Built with Gore's Pro Shell fabric, it delivers total waterproofness with functional breathability at a very low weight. But what distinguishes the Albaron from similar Gore jackets is the attention to little details like the abrasion-resistant, laminated shoulder reinforcement patches and the skin-saving, fleece-lined cheek guards. Waterproof zippers provide weather protection and ventilation with minimal bulk and the carefully positioned chest pockets are accessible while wearing a pack or climbing harness.
This stripped-down jacket exemplifies the qualities most climbers want in a light hardshell - it's light, compressible and protects from rain, wind and snow. The jacket offers other climbing-specific features like a weather-shedding helmet compatible hood and no-lift arm gussets for draft-free reaches when climbing. Waterproof pit zippers prevent moisture entry without the added bulk of external zipper flaps and the narrow seam tape and glued hem and wrist cuffs further minimize unnecessary fabric and weight.
Well known in the UK, Rab is now also becoming a recognized brand in North America. Much of their success this side of the pond is due to well-designed products like the Demand Pull-On. Unlike the other jackets in the review, the Demand Pull-On uses a ¾ length waterproof front zipper that reduces weight and bulk while increasing weather protection. Elasticized cuffs, a rear-hem-only drawcord and a single stow pocket further minimize weight while the full-coverage, helmet compatible hood and custom bendable brim deliver exceptional weather protection. An externally routed, volume-adjustment hood cord works but tends to snag on gear when the jacket is stored in a pack.
The Mentor confirms that Outdoor Research is making some of the most innovative new clothing currently available for climbers. Features like a helmet-compatible hood and waterproof zips are standard, but what really sets the mentor above the competition are the hem-to-elbow zips that allow for unprecedented ventilation without exposing the body to cold winds. Active patterning ensures the Mentor moves easily when climbing and the combination of mid-weight fabric on high-wear areas like the shoulders and elbows with a lighter fabric on the body, guarantee durability with minimal weight. A great technical jacket.
Meru Jacket - $300
The North Face
Climbers wanting a jacket stripped of any unnecessary features will love the Meru. This featherweight Gore Paclite jacket compresses into a surprisingly small package and offers uncompromising weather protection. Three pockets provide some useful storage and are easily accessible even when wearing a harness. Some climbers may lament the exclusion of pit-zips but their absence reduces weight. A great go-light go-fast jacket.
Functionally minimalist is the best way to describe the Nano Jacket. This Gore-Tex Paclite jacket weighs in at just 227g and is the perfect choice for anyone climbing light-and-fast. Climbers wanting extra pockets should look elsewhere. This is a specialized, trimmed down jacket suited for serious climbing and moving fast in the mountains.
Optimo Jacket - $
The Optimo offers excellent breathability and weather protection thanks to Gore's lightweight and compressible Gore-Tex Pro Shell fabric. Low weight and low bulk are only two of the many necessary features required in a climbing jacket. Realizing this, Mountain Hardwear adds a voluminous helmet compatible hood, easily accessed waterproof zippers and mesh lined pocket for extra ventilation. The result is a versatile jacket that can be stored in the pack until needed.