When it comes to layered clothing, there are three types of layers involved. The first layer is called the base-layer, which is closest to the skin. The second one is known as mid-layer. And the last layer is called the outer layer or also known as the “outer shell.”
Jackets that serve as outer-shells are known as shell jackets. They protect you from snow, rain, and wind. Shell jackets range from expensive mountaineering ones to simple but highly wind-resistant jackets. Most of them possess enough breathability. Shell jackets are also treated with DWR or Durable Water Repellent finish, so water won’t penetrate the fabric.
Shell jackets are essential items in stormy weather conditions because if water and wind penetrate to your mid-layer clothing and through your base-layer, you can get very cold, and you might suffer hypothermia. Shell jackets can be categorized into two types: Hardshell Jackets and Softshell Jackets.
To understand which of these two versions of shell jackets is better for your needs, let’s analyze and compare their features, advantages, and disadvantages. Along the way, we will also show you three bestselling hardshell jackets and three softshell jackets so you can make an easier decision.
Hardshell jackets are heavier and stiffer compared to softshell jackets. They usually provide the best weather protection for many hikers and campers out there. But how do they actually provide superior protection to softshell jackets? The reason mainly lies in the materials used to craft them.
Materials Used for Hardshell Jackets
GORE-TEX and PVC are popular fabric materials used in these kinds of jackets since they have exceptional breathability. In particular, GORE-TEX is a synthetic membrane that comes with holes so water will not penetrate from the outside but, at the same time, allows sweat vapor to escape from the body.
Hardshell jackets’ most prominent traits are their strength and their ability to provide protection against the rain and snow. However, their weather protection will mostly depend on the clothes you’re wearing underneath, the humidity, and the temperature.
On a freezing day, coldness might come into contact with your skin. This is the reason why wearing a well-insulated base-layer, and mid-layer is very helpful. They help to prevent you from getting too cold in extreme conditions.
On the flip side, if there’s a lot of humidity in the air and the temperature is high, you could end up getting soaked from your own sweat. This is particularly true if you are wearing a lot of well-insulated clothes underneath your shell jacket.
But for the most part, hardshell jackets will provide enough protection through the cold seasons, particularly if you wear appropriate clothing underneath. Additionally, even in mild weather conditions, having a hardshell jacket at hand can be very helpful in case of sudden weather changes.
Features of Hardshell Jackets
When looking for a good hardshell jacket, there are some features that you must consider if you want to get the right item for your needs.
There are three main types of layers when it comes to hardshell jackets, which are: 2-layer, 2.5-layer, and 3-layer jackets. The higher the number of layers, the more water, and weather-resistant the jacket is. Consequently, the layers also pertain to the heaviness of the garment.
A 2-layer and 2.5-layer jacket comes with outer waterproof material and an inner membrane. A 3-layer jacket has a third layer membrane that protects the inner fabric of the jacket to provide additional protection.
Advantages of Getting A Hardshell Jacket
If you want a shell jacket that can provide the best weather protection, then you should go with hardshell jackets. They are particularly good against snowy conditions and heavy rains.
These types of shell jackets are durable since the fabrics are woven tightly. Because of their excellent durability, they can withstand wear and tear far better than softshell jackets. Hardshell jackets have tough construction because they are also made for extreme sports.
Aside from being durable, hardshell jackets also have exceptional breathability because of GORE-TEX material incorporated in them. For every cold-weather mountaineer, hiker, and camper out there, hardshell jackets are great protection against very cold weather conditions.
- These durable jackets are typically designed for extreme sports activities.
- Hardshell jackets crafted with 3-layer GORE-TEX Pro fabric significantly reduces the buildup of sweat, which makes them very breathable.
- They have excellent wear and tear resistance because their fabrics are tightly woven.
- They can be used as a shelter because of their excellent ability to protect against wind and rain.
- Hardshell jackets’ ability to keep you dry mainly relies on the humidity, the temperature, and the layering system you wear underneath.
- The fabric is quite stiff and not that flexible.
Our Favorite Hardshell Jackets
The Arc’teryx Alpha SV comes with a perfect combination of features. These include quick and easy zippers so you can make some adjustments while you’re on the go. It also comes with ergonomic patterning for an unrestricted and spacious fit. Lastly, the two cross-over chest pockets make convenient storage of your small items.
Its 100-denier Gore-Tex Pro fabric is durable enough to withstand harsh weather conditions. To sum it up, this hardshell jacket has been a keystone of the Arc’teryx technical clothing lineup for more than two decades. The Arc’teryx Alpha SV is an extraordinarily top-notch jacket that provides exceptional weather protection. If you’re looking for an extra tough hardshell jacket, this one’s for you.
This hardshell jacket from Marmot is made from Gore-Tex Paclite and 2.5 layers. It also comes with pit vents and two hand pockets. Its front zipper is incorporated with a storm flap to cover its non-waterproof main zipper. The Marmot Minimalist jacket is very durable since it is fully loaded with Gore-Tex Paclite fabric combined with 100% recycled polyester along with a DWR coating.
It is certainly a minimalist jacket as it doesn’t feature a lot of functionalities that you’ll get from its competitors. However, it offers a high-quality fabric that will keep you dry due to its good breathability. Lastly, it has excellent versatility as it features an adjustable hood and a great fit.
A mere 11.4 ounces for a size large, this jacket from Mountain Hardwear is exceptionally light for a hardshell. We like its rubber loops on the waist and hood drawcords, which make tightening the garment easy. Its breast pocket features a reliable taped zipper, and it’s large enough to store your smartphone.
With the expensive price range of many hardshell jackets out there, the Mountain Hardwear Exposure/2 Gore-Tex Paclite is a good inexpensive option. It makes a solid rain jacket but not really suitable to be called a technical hardshell. Overall, with its very affordable price and good functionalities, it is a great value for your hard-earned money.
Softshell jackets are designed to provide great comfort and mobility during outdoor activities. They are also classified as sports jackets because they are very lightweight, which allows them to adapt to movement easily.
Breathability is a common feature among softshell jackets. It helps wick moisture away, which regulates your body temperature. With good breathability, you’ll be able to keep yourself moisture-free and dry. Also, softshell jackets are very versatile because they can be worn on their own or as an insulating layer.
Softshell jackets are ideal for mild and dry weather conditions. Most softshells are treated with durable water repellent or DWR, which makes them water-resistant. There are also some softshell jackets that are completely waterproof. However, fully waterproof softshells typically lack breathability, unless they are incorporated with breathable and waterproof membranes such as Gore-Tex.
In terms of weight factor between softshell vs. hardshell jackets, the former is much lighter as they are made from fabric such as polyester or nylon. These two types of fabrics also provide good protection but not to the level of what hardshell jackets can provide. Fortunately, softshells can be worn under hardshell jackets. This is very helpful in sudden extreme harsh weather conditions.
Softshell jackets are windproof, which makes them ideal for mild to cold, windy weather. However, most softshells are not waterproof, thus making them not suitable for rainy or bad weather. These jackets are also perfect for rigorous outdoor activities because, aside from being light, they are also stretchy.
Types of Softshell Jackets
There are two types of softshell jackets: Membrane Jackets and Stretch-woven Jackets. The membrane version features Ventia, WindStopper, and Gore-Tex. They are waterproof and breathable because they have looser weaves.
On the other hand, the stretch-woven softshell jackets are made from materials like polyester or nylon. These types of softshells feature a tight weave that enables the jacket to keep you dry during rainy conditions.
Features of Softshell Jackets
When searching for an ideal softshell jacket, considering the following factors can be very helpful in your buying process:
A softshell jacket that has tight fit means better insulation that keeps heat close to your body. This is especially advantageous during the winter season. Also, you’ll be able to wear it underneath a hardshell jacket, which is very convenient in extremely cold weather.
Weather is another crucial factor you must consider when picking a softshell jacket. Of course, this also applies to hardshell jackets and other layering systems you’re planning to wear underneath. Some hikers and campers will wear an inner fleece and outer shell to keep themselves warm and improve insulation when they’re not active or moving.
Unlike hardshell jackets, softshell ones come with a lot of pockets, which are very convenient if you want to carry small items such as a map, compass, fire starter, or a pocket knife. There are softshell jackets that feature both external and internal pockets. Some also have pockets on the back.
Advantages of Getting A Softshell Jacket
Because the materials that are used in crafting softshell jackets are usually stretchable, they provide great mobility. Softshells are far more comfortable because of their inner fleece lining. They are also very portable because they are easy to fold and pack. Some can even be folded into a pillow.
Outdoor activities that are best suited for softshell jackets are mountaineering, hiking, running, rock climbing, and other activities that require a lot of movements. Even though they are not fully waterproof, softshell jackets can keep you dry during light to moderate rain.
- Great water-resistance that can withstand light snow or rain.
- Easy to fold and pack because of its thinner and lighter fabric.
- Very comfortable because of the inner lining, which is usually made of fleece.
- They provide excellent mobility because the fabrics used to make them are very flexible.
- Not suitable for heavy raining or high temperature.
- Not as lightweight and packable compared to hardshell jackets.
Our Favorite Softshell Jackets
Arc’teryx Gamma LT is an excellent medium weight softshell jacket that can withstand excessive use, all thanks to its durable fabric, Wee Burly. It excels in the harsh conditions that many hikers and climbers often find themselves.
The Arc’teryx Gamma LT focuses more on breathability than weather protection. Nonetheless, it is stylish, versatile, and functional. It is also very lightweight. The jacket is crafted to be worn with or without layers in both warm and cool weather conditions.
It is an unlined softshell, which effectively enables sweat vapor to pass through when you’re doing intense activities. This softshell has a great balance between ventilation and protection. It is slim enough and adapts well to your movements. You can easily wear it over insulating layers without feeling cramped. The Arc’teryx Gamma LT is the lightest in the Arc’teryx Gamma line. It has great value because of its excellent versatility and great fit.
The Rab Torque features a reliable and tough design that is perfect for many hikers, mountaineers, and climbers out there. It’s a trim-fitting softshell jacket that gets rid of unnecessary features to focus on better functionality. Because of this softshell’s durable fabric in high wear areas like the elbows, it is ideal to use in rough terrains. It has great breathability but doesn’t really repel water effectively.
This softshell jacket from Rab utilizes a lighter weight Matrix DWS material. The fabric is made of 12% spandex and 88% nylon with no inner fleece. This jacket also features a number of seams for a better fit. However, these seams are unsealed, which makes the fabric more open to moisture. Another great feature of this softshell jacket is its effortless ability to adapt to the user’s movement and range of motions, all thanks to its ultra-stretchy fabric.
If you’re searching for a durable and highly wind-resistant softshell jacket, then the Rab Torque is perfect for you. With its unlined and stretchy shell fabric, you’ll be able to concentrate more on your activities.
Apex Bionic 2 is a heavy-duty softshell jacket from North Face. It is robust and durable but not really suitable for athletic or technical applications. Many hikers and campers like the North Face Apex Bionic 2 because it has impressive casual styling, durability, and weather-resistance. This softshell is a good pick for people who don’t really want the extra protection of a hood but want a jacket that can withstand cold and stormy adventures.
It uses proprietary Apex WindWall fabric, which is a stretch-woven fabric that is bonded to a fleecy interior. This feature is very helpful against harsh cold weather conditions. Furthermore, it also comes with hem adjustments, two handwarmer pockets, and one chest pocket for added versatility.
With North Face Apex Bionic 2, you’ll have plenty of choices because it comes in many colors that range from soft to vibrant tones. All in all, this jacket has been a best-selling softshell for many years now because of its durable, comfortable, and thick design.
Hard Shell vs. Softshell – The Differences
Softshell jackets are far more comfortable for tough outdoor activities compared to hard shells because they can effortlessly adapt to the movement of the wearer, especially because they are stretchy. Softshells also features a number of pockets where you can put your small necessities such as ski pass, phone, googles, map, and so on.
Hardshells are more travel-friendly than softshell jackets because they are easier to fold and pack into small sizes. Also, most of them don’t feature extra insulating layers, which further enhances their portability factor. And since hardshell jackets are much lighter compared to softshells, they generally take very little space in your luggage or backpack.
Softshell jackets are highly water-resistant but not fully waterproof, so they don’t compromise breathability. On the other hand, all hardshell jackets are completely waterproof and windproof. Consequently, they don’t provide excellent breathability.
Softshell jackets generally provide better insulation. This is the reason why they are commonly used as layering choices along with fleeces. Due to their better insulation, softshells are best used in dry, cool weather conditions. Meanwhile, even though hardshell jackets don’t provide exceptional insulation, they can protect you from extreme cold conditions.
Fabric and Durability
The fabric used in these two types of shell jackets is the main difference in this comparison. In fact, the type of fabric determines the overall performance of shell jackets when it comes to durability, adaptability, breathability, and weather-resistance. Furthermore, the method of how the fabric is made plays a significant role.
Softshell jackets are crafted out of woven fabric, with two layers bonded together. This fabric is usually made of polyester. Most of the time, the inner layer is fleece because this material provides excellent insulation while minimizing the bulk of the jacket. The fabric used to create softshells are also flexible to provide better mobility to the user.
On the other hand, hardshell jackets are crafted using stiff fabrics with a membrane from PTFE or PU. These types of fabric work great for snow and rain protection. However, since they come with a membrane, the breathability is a little bit compromised. Additionally, stiff fabrics are not that flexible, which is why they don’t easily adapt to the movement of the wearer. But in turn, hardshell jackets are far more durable compared to softshell jackets.
Hikers and campers must get a good shell jacket that doesn’t only fit well but one that can also provide good protection against different weather conditions. There are a number of differences between hardshell and softshell jackets. So, your pick will largely depend on the weather condition as well as your planned outdoor activities.
If you are planning to do some hiking and there’s a probability of rain, then we highly recommend both Marmot Minimalist Jacket and Mountain Hardwear Exposure/2 Gore-Tex Paclite. They are reliable hardshell jackets that can give you excellent weather protection. They are also perfect for backpacking trips because they are lighter and more packable than softshell jackets.
However, if you’re planning a longer and more intense outdoor activity in the mountains, the Arc’teryx Alpha SV is a perfect companion because even though it’s a little bit hefty, it offers the best durability and weather protection among the other hardshell jackets featured in this guide.
On the other hand, if you’re just going for some light running, biking, rock climbing, or hiking in cool, dry weather, then softshell jackets like Arc’teryx Gamma LT and Rab Torque are nice choices. The only difference is that Arc’teryx Gamma LT comes with more functionalities than Rab Torque, which we already discussed above. If your budget allows, the Arc’teryx Gamma LT has better value over Rab Torque. On the flip side, if you’re tight on budget, then you don’t need to worry because Rab Torque is a capable softshell jacket.
Meanwhile, if you don’t really prefer hooded jackets but want to have a durable and robust softshell, the North Face Apex Bionic 2 is an excellent option. Another thing why you would want to choose this softshell jacket is because it has a myriad of different colors. All in all, these three softshell jackets come with improved flexibility, breathability, and insulation. Just remember that they don’t offer the same water-resistance.
Overall, for a much freer movement and protection against light to moderate rain, you should get a softshell jacket. But having a hardshell jacket at hand is a smart idea in case the night gets very cold, and there’s a sharp drop in temperature when you’re out in the backcountry.
Now you should know exactly what to look for. Make sure to stay warm and protected!