To begin; I like the term hardshell far more than rain jacket, as it more fully encompasses the utility and meaning in question. Outdoor clothing is, or should be, part of a system, one that provides just enough protection from ambient conditions to keep you as warm as you want to be. Some clothing items do this by primarily trapping air, and others do it by primarily stopping air, and/or water. Doing any of these things is not complex. Blending a few together is bit moreso. Where outdoor garments fail is in failing to get their blend well suited to how humans actually move out in the world, either in the materials used and their attributes, their features and cut, or often, all of the above.
So what, in my experience, makes for a quality hardshell?
This particular train of thought started about a year ago. My trusty Haglofs Ozo anorak was (and is) far from dead, but was beginning to fall towards the grave. The membrane was getting visibly thin inside the shoulders, and the DWR just did not have the zip it once did (retreatment notwithstanding). As we all know this last is the functional death knell of a modern WPB fabric, who when the face fabric becomes saturated are not quite disabled, but certainly crippled. So with an eye towards something new and something that might be well suited to some future trips in very wet places, I bought a Helio Alpine shell from Black Diamond. The Ozo was an 8 ounce anorak with a single chest pocket and no pit zips, made from Goretex Paclite. The Helio is a 13 ounce (in medium) full zip coat with pitzips, dual chest pockets, and is made from Goretex C-Knit. At $499 retail is right around double what the Ozo listed for 6 years ago.
While it is not the be-all of hardshells, fabric is crucial. I don’t wear my hardshell much unless I have to, and I only have to either when it is raining hard, or it is very cold and windy. A stiffer fabric works better in both of these applications than a softer one. The surface tension of a hardshell is eventually overwhelmed and then saturated by the weight of water, either falling from the sky or dripping off brush. A stiff fabric delays this, especially in the face of a good wind, as well as resisting the pumping action of high winds, which pushes warm air out of your layers. The C-Knit laminate used in the Helio is advertised as more pliable than the flagship formulations like Goretex Pro, but is quite stiff compared to lighter, PU-laminates common in sub-10 oz WPB jackets. I’d say it’s close to ideal, burly but not too heavy for a hard use shell.
As far as the laminate itself, Goretex has never let me down when it comes to keeping water out. I remain content to allow the more fashionable, air permeable laminates to come, and it would often seem, go.
A good hood is vital in a hardshell. When conditions are bad, nothing else will do. I’ve owned and passed along a number of otherwise good hardshells (such as the SD Cagoule in the title photo) for no other reason than the hood being less than ideal. I rarely wear a helmet in the woods anymore, but nonetheless favor helmet compatible hoods because, with the exception of the Haglofs, I’ve yet to meet a non-helmet compatible hood which was not too small for all the layers I at least occasionally want to fit under it. Full coverage of a few hats and insulated hoods is mandatory, as is a snug fit on a bare head.
The Helio provides good coverage and enough room. It comes up a little short with the volume adjuster, which is a single pull in the back of the hood. This is the same system used in the more recent version of the Alpine Start hoody, where it is entirely appropriate. I like it less in a hardshell, as while it does allow the hood to be cinched properly when zipped up, it works less well when the neck is a bit open. With this system one cannot tighten the face opening without also cinching up the volume, which is practice isn’t terrible, but is also not optimal for comfort. For a 500 dollar serious hardshell I would like to see better.
Aside from good fabric and a good hood, a good fit is last of my must haves. The Helio is roomy without being baggy, with room for all the insulation I could imagine wanting under it. The sleeves and torso are just a bit on the long side, and behave themselves well when making long reaches, and stay tucked under a hipbelt or harness.
Everything else is optional, which is why I’m willing to put up with the insanely tight waterproof zips used on the main zip, pockets, and pitzips. One handed operation is not possible, even after 10 months of breaking in. The two big chest pockets are very nice, big enough for maps, with bottom seams that angle contents away from the openings. The zipper garages are there, but are a bit too small for ideal field use. Pitzips I would still rather do without, as I don’t think they do much aside from disrupt the humidity required to make Goretex work, but those on the Helio at least don’t add much stiffness to the overall and are generally unobtrusive (until you try to close them).
Overall the Helio is a very good hardshell. It does the important things well or better, and some of the less essential stuff pretty good, too. It costs a lot, and I’m hesitant to recommend something so imperfect which costs so much, but it does provide a good blueprint for what works and why.