How to Choose the Best Hiking Jacket

Last Updated: April 2021

A hiking jacket is one essential piece of clothing that you need to invest in.

Choosing the right hiking jacket can be a very personal task, but still, there is a right and a wrong when it comes to outdoor gear.  

There are common questions and concerns to consider before a trip or even for a day hike. You want to prepare for anything. You don’t want to waste your money on a jacket that won’t serve you well in the wilderness.

We will break down the significant factors you need to consider. Then, we will get into the nitty-gritty details of jacket material and jacket features you won’t want to skip.

person looking at a lake and mountain in misty weather

Factors to Consider When Selecting a Jacket

Before you can start to shop for your perfect hiking jacket, there are a few things you should ask yourself. These questions will determine the intended purpose of your jacket.

Here are some of the questions to consider when deciding which hiking jacket to wear:

  • What climate do you hike in most often?
  • Is the purpose of the jacket to be warm, waterproof, comfortable, or multi-purpose?
  • Does it need to be lightweight?
  • Are you looking for a breathable jacket?
  • Should it pack down to save space when backpacking?
  • Do you need a jacket to have multiple functions?

You should consider all these questions when you are buying a new jacket. Once you can narrow down these details, it becomes much easier to choose the right hiking jacket for you.

guy squatting in a wooded area wearing a rain jacket

Types of Hiking Jackets

Now, you need to decide the type of jacket best suited for your needs. There are many types of outdoor jackets, so we are going to focus on a few of the most common categories.

From there, you can determine which is best for the weather conditions and type of hiking trip.

Here are the most common types of hiking jackets:

  • Hardshell
  • Softshell
  • Insulated
  • Fleece

These are broad jacket categories. In each one, you will be able to find jackets with other functions like being waterproof or windproof.

hiker tying her boots wearing a red hardshell jacket

Hardshell Jackets

Sometimes referred to only as a “shell,” a hardshell jacket does not use insulation. Its primary purpose is to protect the wearer from wind and water.

By foregoing any insulation, they are lightweight and versatile.

The Opt Outdoor team of gear testers' recommend the Arc’teryx Beta AR Jacket as the best hardshell jacket on the market. Learn more through our in-depth review.

They will be easy to pack down, durable, breathable, and they will be light to wear. Hardshell jackets often use waterproof Gore-Tex or water-resistant DWR coatings. Some jackets will also use windproof technology like Windstopper.

Many hardshell jackets are designed for specific activities in mind. If you are an avid hiker, you may not need the same hardshell jacket a backcountry skier uses, although they use similar materials and technologies.

the north face jacket apex canyonwall softshell

Softshell Jackets

A softshell jacket is one of the most versatile hiking jackets you’ll be able to find. It's worn as an outer layer or your only jacket in mild and moderate conditions, even with some wind or moisture. It can also be a mid-layer under a hardshell in severe weather.

Softshell jackets will usually use stretch layer polyester or nylon materials. They are to be flexible, soft, breathable, and to add some protection from wind and rain.

They will not be the warmest jacket type, but they will be useful for aerobic activities like hiking.

Softshells will become an integral part of any outdoor enthusiast layering system. This versatility and comfortable design make them a good jacket for year-round adventures.

Check out the Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded Jacket  (Women's) for a high-quality softshell jacket that won't break the bank.  Here's our review.

climber wearing an insulated jacket

Insulated Jackets

Insulated jackets may be more commonly known as a “puffy.” There are also other insulated jacket designs for outdoor snow sports or mountaineering. For hiking purposes, a lightweight puffy will do the job.

The primary purpose of a lightweight puffy/insulated jacket is to trap body heat. Still, you want the ability to pack it down small. They use synthetic materials like PrimaLoft or CoreLoft or natural down as a filler to keep you warm.

You can get puffy jackets that are not so lightweight, and that will be quite bulky. These types of jackets are for mountaineering and alpine environments.

A lightweight outdoor puffy jacket will do a great job keeping you warm. Plus, it's excellent for layering in cold conditions. It will not do a great job keeping you dry, though. So we recommend an extra waterproof layer like a hard shell.

If you are looking for an insulated puffy hiking jacket, we recommend checking out the Patagonia Nano-Air Hoody.  See our in-depth review for more information.

the north face gordon lyons

Fleece Jackets

Fleece jackets are sometimes considered sweaters. However, fleece jackets can usually do double duty. It can work for an outer layer jacket in cold climates, and all you have to do is throw a hardshell over to stay dry.

Fleece is a synthetic material that mimics pile wool. It has similar functions as wool but uses polyester material instead. Fleece is quite soft, lightweight, and warm. It aims for use in dry conditions. 

Check out the Kuhl Interceptr Fleece Jacket for a perfect camping and hiking companion, especially for crisp Autumn day hikes.

If you get caught in the rain, fleece does not get waterlogged and is a fast moisture-wicking material. Some outdoor companies also design and manufacture windproof fleece jackets.

Hiking Jacket Design Features

You can usually decide which type of jacket you are looking for quite easily. It becomes a bit more complicated when determining the specific design features.

Many outdoor jackets are specifically designed for a certain activity, such as snow sports, rock climbing, cycling, or running. These activity-specific jackets will have individual components benefiting the user during each activity.

For hiking, the main jacket components you should look at involve:

  • Waterproofing
  • Pocket placement
  • Hood attachment
  • Ventilation
  • Shoulder area reinforcement
  • Adjustability
  • Zippers
goretex waterproof technology


Remember, having some sort of waterproofing is important. The weather is somewhat unpredictable in most climates. So, having a jacket that utilizes Gore-Tex or even has a water-resistant coating can be helpful.


How many pockets and where are they located can determine the activity the jacket is for. So, if you are backpacking, think about the pocket locations. Determine if they are accessible when wearing a backpack.

Also, consider if the pockets are closable. The last thing you want is to lose your phone or wallet off of a cliff or into a stream.

woman looking up to a outdoor climbing wall


Some pockets will use zippers, and others will use velcro materials. Each zipper on the jacket needs to be strong enough to hold up to changing weather and frequent use.

Choose a zipper made of high-quality materials. Such as metal with a protective coating instead of plastic. Make sure the zipper is sewn in properly and will not detach or break.

You need a jacket with materials that will hold up to the elements. Another consideration for the zipper is if it is a full zip or a quarter zip on your fleece. Some hikers like the pullover style, while others prefer the breathability of a full zip.


For ventilation, a common hiking jacket addition is armpit vents or zips. They can include a mesh or simply be open.

This is great if you are using a less breathable rain jacket or hardshell. If you’re hiking in a wet, humid environment, you have airflow access through the jacket.

snow falling on a red jacket hood


Having a hood is a great option, especially in wind and rain. Some jackets have removable hoods to make the jacket more versatile.

It can protect your neck and back from rain or snow and keep you from getting too cold, or wind blasted in high-winds.


With hiking specifically, the jacket should be adjustable and reinforced on the shoulders. Adjustability will come from various jacket features. For example, having cuffs that tighten/loosen and a waistband that cinches down.

These features allow you to adjust to weather conditions as they arise. As an example, your calm, hot day suddenly turns cloudy and windy. The adjustable cuffs and waistband will close off your jacket and prevent the wind from entering.


Lastly, look for reinforced back and shoulders in your jacket. This means they use durable materials, like Condura or Aerogel, in those areas. Even on day hikes, most of us bring a small backpack.

Having more durable materials increases the lifespan of your jacket. These two areas are where your pack usually sits.

Arc’teryx Beta AR Jacket in colbalt blue

Key Takeaways

Choosing the perfect hiking jacket is a journey. You will likely end up owning a variety of jackets over time. Many of them will get to know one another in your layering systems.

Finding out the jacket that works best for you will be a very personal decision. Be sure to use some basic knowledge of functionality and durability as well.

We hope this information will help you to decide your next hiking jacket. 

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