Hardshell vs. Softshell Jackets: What’s the Difference? Which One To Choose?

Hardshell vs. Softshell Jackets: What's the Difference? Which One To Choose?

It’s time for another comparison between two different types of jackets, hard shell jackets and softshells.

So far we have looked at numerous softshells and also hard shell jackets in our comparisons, reviews and especially selections. These are two very different jackets, not only in design but also in performance because each of them serves a different purpose.

We thought it would be interesting to not simply look at each separately and then compare them to each other, but to also look at how to choose the right softshell or hard shell jacket that will fit your needs and requirements best.

Let’s get started with an in-depth view of each, so you will learn a bit more about their specifics and technical details.

Table Of Contents:

What Is a Softshell Jacket?

First things first, why and when would you use a softshell jacket?

Softshells are designed for mobility and comfort while moving around. Because they are often referred to as sports jackets, they provide protection at a light weight and are high-performance, meaning that they adapt to movement effortlessly. They do this by having a flexible shell, hence the name “soft” shells.

The North Face Apex Bionic Men's Softshell Jacket

Image: pinterest.com

A common feature among softshells is their breathability. Because they can be worn either on their own or as an insulating layer for skiing and snowboarding, breathability is of key importance because not only does it help regulate body temperature and prevents overheating, it also helps wick moisture away. This results in a dry and moisture-free jacket, which is ideal.

Weather-wise, softshells are best suited for dry and mild temperatures, because they are not designed for excessive warmth or raining. The majority of softshells are water-resistant by having a water-repellent shell that is DWR-treated. Some, on the other hand, can be fully waterproof.

Geographical Norway Vantaa Men's Softshell Outdoor Jacket

Image: pinterest.com

This can cause its own issues because more often than not a waterproof jacket in general lacks breathability, unless the shell is made of Gore-Tex or other breathable and waterproof membranes.

Related: Best Softshell Women’s Jackets for Sport Lovers

What Is a Hard Shell Jacket?

Hard shells, on the other hand, are jackets made of a waterproof shell that isn’t very flexible or stretchy, which is why they are called “hard” shells.

They come with a hood and their main feature is their waterproof and (sometimes) windproof outer shell that makes these jackets suitable for rainy weather.

When it comes to insulation, they differ from each other due to the fabrics being used.

Some provide adequate insulation, while others do not have an insulating lining on the inside, which is why these jackets are more suitable for layering and reserved only for when it rains.

While they are designed to keep you dry and comfortable, there are several other factors that affect this. When the weather is cold, layering underneath is essential in order to prevent the chill from getting through. And when it is warmer outside, layering excessively underneath, despite how breathable the hard shell is, can quickly cause you to get soaked in your sweat.

Jack Wolfskin Iceland 3-in-1 Women's Hardshell Jacket

Image: pinterest.com

If you will be quite active and the weather is unstable, then look for a hard shell that has ventilation zippers or areas, which will help prevent overheating.

A huge plus of hard shell jackets is their very light weight and the fact that they make great packable jackets, because they take very little space, especially those without insulation.

Hard Shell vs. Softshell – The Differences

Fabric and Durability

The main difference in this comparison is the fabric itself, not just the design. The fabric used determines a jacket’s overall performance when it comes to weather-resistance, breathability, adaptability and durability.

The way the fabric is also made of plays an important role in this matter.

Softshells are made of woven fabric, with two layers bonded together, which are typically made of Polyester. The inner layer can be fleece, which provides warmth and insulation, while not adding bulk to the jacket.

It is also very malleable, which works great with the outer layer when it comes to movement and flexibility.

Hard shells are made of stiff fabrics, usually PU or PTFE, which work great for rain and snow protection, but aren’t as breathable as a softshell’s fabric.

Because the fabric is stiff, it is not flexible and it crinkles rather than smoothly adapting to movement. But, in turn, they are much more durable long-term than a softshell jacket.

Weather Resistance and Insulation

As you may have concluded by now, the difference here is quite obvious. Softshells are at best highly water-resistant, in order to not compromise breathability.

Whereas hard shell jackets are fully waterproof and even windproof most of the time. They are also hooded, unlike hooded softshells which are not as common.

When it comes to insulation, soft shells do a much better job at providing warmth and maintaining it, which is why they are one of the preferred layering choices, along with fleeces.

You might also like: Softshell Jacket vs. Fleece: Which One Is Better?

Because of these two factors, softshells are best used in dry, cool weather, while hard shells can withstand harsher conditions without any issues.

Design, Fit and Travel

What we mean by design and fit is the way a jacket wears, not only how it performs in regards to weather and temperatures.

Softshells are more comfortable for strenuous activity, where you need a jacket that adapts to movement, is stretchy and comes with plenty of pockets where you can store essentials such as map, goggles, phone, ski pass, etc.

Hard shells are a lot lighter and they are not as comfortable during excessive movement, especially because they aren’t too breathable, either.

As for travel, we are talking about how travel-friendly either of these jackets are. Their ability to pack into a small size is what determines this matter and hard shells are a lot more packable than soft shells, especially if they don’t come with additional insulating layers.

And because they are also a lot lighter than softshells, they take very little space in your backpack or luggage.

Read also: 15+ Softshell Men Jackets for Sport Lovers

Which One To Choose?

We didn’t title this comparison “Which one is better” because it would be an irrelevant question to answer. These are two very different jackets that fit different purposes, so the matter at hand is which one you should choose because of these different qualities and features.

To determine this there are two things to consider:

  • when you will wear the jacket,
  • and what will you be doing.

When you will be wearing the jacket is the most important thing out of the two. Each area has its own type of weather and in relation to the season you will be wearing the jacket, it will affect the performance and result.

If there is no forecast of rain or snow, then a softshell is your best choice. This type of jacket is versatile as it works great for layering, like we said, and you can wear it in harsh and mild temperatures alike.

However, if you cannot be sure of the weather or it will rain and snow, then, all factors considered, you want to make sure that you will stay dry and safe so a hard shell jacket is the best option.

As for what you will be doing, we are referring to the outdoor activity you are participating in. Hiking, skiing, mountaineering, camping, running, what have you, they play an important role on what jacket is best.

For strenuous activities, softshells are a better choice due to their high breathability and high-performance design. But, if you need a light layer, that will work for protection rather than performance, a hard shell jacket will do just fine.

Keep in mind that you should factor in both weather and activity, as you cannot make a decision based solely on one of them.

Now you know exactly what to look for and how to make the best choice for your next outdoor adventure. See you next week!

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