Girls in hardshell jacket on mountain top

Hardshell versus Softshell jackets – what’s the difference?

Maybe you’ve heard these terms several times when you thought of preparing for your next hike: softshell and hardshell jackets. Do you know what properties they have and when it’s best to wear one or the other? If you’re not quite sure and you’re curious to find out more, read on.

*Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you use these links to buy something, I may earn a commission. If that’s the case, thank you!

Every time you are not sure what you should take with you while going hiking, camping, or backpacking, check out the weather predictions and the area you will be hiking.

Wearing adequate clothing is critical for you to enjoy your hike and also not to get a cold. If you’re not sure what to take with you, have at least one extra insulation layer with you in your backpack and some protection for rain. A poncho can do in case of emergency during the summer because it’s light and compact.  The major downside to it is that you’ll be very uncomfortable wearing it for too long. You’ll sweat inside it because it is not breathable at all.

When it comes to outlining the differences between the softshell and hardshell jackets, it’s essential to be aware that both have their advantages and that there is no strict delimitation between them. The truth is that if we had a scale and we place softshell jackets at one end and hardshell jackets at the other end, there will be several types of jackets between the two, trying to offer you the best of the 2 worlds.

The term “shell” refers to the outer layer of the jackets. Waterproof jackets consist of several layers of material, to offer you the best protection. Let’s see the main characteristics of softshells and hardshells, so that we know what we can expect from each type.

Man holding skis wearing a hardshell jacket

Softshell Jackets

As its name suggests, a softshell jacket is manufactured from a flexible and soft material, usually Polyester. Their main advantage is that they are breathable, allowing humidity to go through, so if you expect a strenuous climb, a softshell will be perfect for proper ventilation.

They will protect you from light rain or snow, but keep in mind that if water circulates from inside out (vapors), chances are it will also get in if you encounter heavy rain or snow.

You can use softshell jackets also as a middle layer, which can be very convenient for you not carrying an extra layer.

Most of the softshell jackets have a soft lining or fleece on the inside that will help you keep warm, making them very comfortable to wear.

Softshell jackets are very adaptable. You can easily use them daily, just as an everyday sport jacket in the city. I know I have one that I use just like that. It will be pretty easy to find a cool model that fits your taste, as there are so many beautiful designs in stores right now. 

Hardshell jackets

Hardshell jackets offer the maximum protection for you in heavy rain or snow. They are waterproof and sometimes windproof. Of course, if water and air can’t get in, they will hardly get out, so as you might already have suspected, their downside is that they’re not very breathable.

You can think of buying a hardshell jacket with zippers or ventilating areas. They will compensate for the lack of breathability of the material and you will not overheat.

Hardshells are usually made from more rigid materials than softshells, such as PU (Polyurethane) or PTFE (Polytetrafluoroethylene). You will definitely sense the difference when taking the jacket into your hands. The material is crinkly and more rigid. It makes a specific sound when you manipulate it. Because of this material, the jacket is more durable. However, it will not naturally adjust to your body as a softshell does. Therefore it will not be so flexible as a softshell.

Hardshell jackets are also a lot lighter than softshells. When you pack them they will take on less space, especially if they don’t have insulating layers.

Waterproof and breathability

The two most important specifications of an outdoor jacket are waterproofing and breathability. To make the best choice, you can check out the ratings for these two:

Waterproof ratings

Waterproof testing is usually made with a 1×1 inch tube placed over the fabric and filled with water. The number of mm that you see in the ratings represents the water height that will fill this tube before the water starts to leak. Other methods of testing include adding pressure in this process to simulate the effects of wind.

  • < 5000 mm – water-resistant (light rain or dry snow)
  • 5000 mm – 10.000 mm – waterproof (moderate rain or snow)
  • 10.000 mm – 20.000 mm – highly waterproof  (heavy rain or snow)

*source: https://www.evo.com/

You must know that not every manufacturer uses the same methods to test their clothes, so use these numbers as a reference, but look at other factors too, like fabric or membranes.

red hardshell jacket in winter

Breathability ratings

The ability of your jacket to let water vapors out will also contribute to your comfort while hiking. Staying dry is super important, and if your jacket protects you from the rain but it is not breathable, you will find yourself soaked. Zippers and mesh areas will help you ventilate also, but when you are looking at breathability ratings, know that they are related to the fabric’s specifications.

  • 5000 g – 10. 000 g – appropriate for low activity. Generally, if you use this jacket in the city or to have a light walk, it should be fine
  • 10.000 g – 15.000 g – appropriate for more energetic activities when you spend more time in your jacket.
  • > 15.000 g – appropriate for intense physical activity (trekking, backpacking, snowshoeing, ski touring)

*source: https://www.snowandrock.com/

Breathability is expressed in grams. The number represents how much water vapor can move from inside out in 24h, from 1 square meter of fabric. The higher the number, the more breathable the jacket is.

As far as I am concerned, I own a softshell with a removable fleece on the inner side, as well as a hardshell jacket. I personally find the hardshell not so comfortable, because it’s more rigid, but when it comes to bad weather, it is for sure my first choice.

*Photo source: Unsplash

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