When you’re choosing an outer layer for cold weather outdoor activities, you have to choose between a hardshell and a softshell jacket. Both types of jackets have their advantages and perform differently, so you need to know what type will suit you best and keep you safe and comfortable in different weather conditions.
What Is A Hardshell Jacket?
A hardshell jacket features heavy-duty construction designed to stand up to virtually any weather conditions. These jackets are usually lightweight and do not have a layer of added insulation; their primary purpose is to exclude the weather and keep you dry and away from the wind. However, their construction means that they can do a pretty good job of keeping you warm because the wind-proof outer layer does a decent job of trapping body heat. For example, this hardshell jacket we tested was able to keep us warm with just a base layer underneath.
Key Features of Hardshell Jackets
While there is no actual industry standard or definition of a hardshell jacket, all of these jackets typically have the following features in common:
- Three-layer construction
- Waterproof membrane, typically GORE-TEX
- Soft inner liner
- Stiff outer fabric
- Taped seams
- Water-repellent DWR finish
The waterproof membrane fabric varies depending on the company that makes the jacket. The North Face has its own proprietary membrane, Futurelight. Other membrane types include Polartec NeoShell, eVent, and AscentShell (used by Outdoor Research).
Additional features may include tall collars, long hems, elastic cuffs and waistbands, as well as zippered ventilation to help control body temperature. The hoods on these jackets are typically adjustable as well.
When To Use A Hardshell Jacket
Hardshell jackets can stand up to the toughest weather conditions, so you should wear one if you may encounter heavy snow, rain, or wind. They are also a good choice for rough terrain or dense brush, since they are very durable.
Common Hardshell Jacket Use Cases:
- Cold winter activities
- Any activity in the rain
- Any activity in heavy wind conditions
When Not To Use A Hardshell Jacket
There are some downsides to using a hardshell jacket during certain activities. The biggest issue with these types of jackets is that the water resistance goes both ways. They keep water out, but they also tend to keep sweat in. This means that during strenuous activities, like skinning uphill while ski touring, hardshell jackets can trap heat and sweat, building up a layer of perspiration on your base layers. That can be a huge problem; when perspiration is trapped next to your skin during cold weather, it can lead to hypothermia.
To avoid this, make sure that if you’re wearing a hardshell jacket, your base layers are moisture wicking and that you use the jacket’s ventilation system properly. If you take the proper precautions, you can avoid the risk of hypothermia and still wear your hardshell jacket. You may also find that fewer middle layers are needed with one of these jackets.
What Is A Softshell Jacket?
A softshell jacket is a stretchy outer jacket that is typically made from woven nylon or polyester. While many people think that a softshell jacket is meant to be a warm, insulating piece, they actually are not. They are also not fully waterproof, and you don’t want them to be.
Softshell jackets are a great piece of outerwear for high exertion activities. These jackets let enough air in and out to keep your body from overheating while still protecting you from the weather. They offer more protection than down jackets or fleeces, which are frequently paired with this type of jacket as a mid-layer.
Softshell jackets are versatile pieces that can be worn year-round. They offer good protection from the elements, but at the same time are designed for high exertion and movement.
Key Features of Softshell Jackets
Softshell jackets are designed to be more flexible than hardshell jackets, and so have different features that set them apart, including:
- Stretchy outer face fabric
- Interior lining, frequently fleece for warmth and comfort
- DWR coating for water resistance in light to moderate precipitation
When To Use A Softshell Jacket
Softshell jackets are great for all kinds of activities because they’re designed to stretch and move with you. These jackets feature four-way stretch, meaning they stretch vertically and horizontally, and so they offer a fantastic range of motion. Basically, no matter what you’re doing, a softshell jacket is an appropriate outer layer choice if the weather is cool.
Softshell jackets are also great for everyday use in cool weather; they’re the perfect lightweight option to toss on when you take a walk around the neighborhood or need a jacket for running errands.
When Not To Use A Softshell Jacket
If you know that you’ll be facing inclement weather or high winds, a softshell jacket likely is not what you need. This is especially relevant when it’s windy out. The air-permeable construction of these jackets means that you will be very susceptible to the wind when wearing one. They’re also not ideal for powder days on the ski slopes.
If you do want to use your softshell jacket and are worried about the rain, you can always carry a rain jacket with you. Rain jackets don’t weigh very much, so they won’t add a lot of bulk to your gear.
As a note, softshell jackets are usually heavier than hardshell jackets, so if you’re an ultralight hiker or backpacker, you’ll probably want a hardshell instead.
Hardshell Vs. Softshell Jackets: Head to Head Comparison
Now that you know the key features of each type of jacket, how do they compare to each other?
|Cost||More expensive; some high-end options are $700+||Generally less expensive than hardshells|
|Durability||Durable but stiff||Durable, holds up to abrasion, but less durable than a hardshell|
|Breathability||Not breathable; the point of these jackets is that they do not allow air to move in or out when the vents are closed. They generally have built in zipper vents||Breathable (which means they do not perform as well in high wind situations)|
|Weather Protection||Best– highly weather resistant and windproof||Decent for mild to moderate winds, rain, and snow|
|Comfort||These jackets are somewhat stiff, so use other layers for comfort||Fleece or other soft lining means that these are very comfortable|
|Weight||Weighs a little less||Weighs a little more on average if there extra insulation or material. There are however extremely lightweight softshell designs.|
|Packability||Highly packable; can often fit in their own breast pocket||Less compressible but not ungainly; will not take up too much space|
|Noise||Crinkly; some people find this annoying||Not as noticeable|
Are There Hybrid Jackets?
If you’re still torn between jacket types, a hybrid jacket might be for you. While hybrid jackets can suffer from the “jack of all trades, master of none” phenomenon, you may benefit from something more versatile than a hardshell jacket but more weatherproof than a traditional softshell jacket.
Some softshell jackets use additional materials to compete with hardshell jackets’ weatherproof features. For example, Marmot’s ROM Hoody softshell jacket has panels of Gore Windstopper to improve the jacket’s performance in high wind. Other jackets, like Black Diamond’s Dawn Patrol Hybrid use both types of jacket construction to create a jacket that features key performance elements from both jacket types.
Jacket Use By Activity Type
Ultimately, your jacket choice depends on what you need your jacket to do. If your recreation takes you to really wet or windy areas, a hardshell jacket might be the most appropriate option for you regardless of activity. If you run hot, you might always want to use a softshell jacket.
But if you don’t know what type of jacket to get, or which jacket to use when trying a new activity, here’s a quick guide to jacket use by activity type. Keep in mind that these are just suggestions! You know your activity style needs better than anyone else, after all.
|Backpacking||Either||Choose your jacket based on weather conditions and your comfort level|
|Backcountry Skiing||Either||Hardshell jackets offer protection from high winds and blowing powder, while softshell jackets offer better mobility; choose based on your needs, but always keep a waterproof layer in the bag.|
|Hiking (Fall/Spring)||Either||While a softshell offers better mobility, hardshell jackets protect you better from rain|
|Hiking (Winter)||Hardshell||Better protection from the wind, always bring a waterproof layer in the bag.|
|Mountain Biking||Softshell||Better mobility|
|Mountaineering||Hardshell||Better warmth and protection from the elements|
|Rock Climbing||Softshell||Better stretch and mobility; more durable to abrasion|
|Skiing (Resort)||Hardshell||Generally hardshell jackets are used for water and windproofing except on warm dry days.|
|Snowboarding (Resort)||Hardshell||Generally hardshell jackets are used for water and windproofing except on warm dry days.|
|Snowshoeing||Either||Make your decision based on weather conditions; high wind or blowing snow conditions are better with a hardshell|
|Trail Running (Fall/Winter)||Softshell||Less likely to overheat (don’t have to worry about changing/opening vents as your run)|
|Ultralight Backpacking||Either||You’ll probably mostly wear a softshell, but you need a waterproof layer in your bag.|
Hardshell and Softshell Jacket Layering
Both hardshell and softshell jackets are meant to be the outer layer in a layering system. Unlike casual, everyday jackets, neither a hardshell nor a softshell jacket is really designed to keep you all that warm on its own. Here are some important considerations for layering with these jacket types.
- For hardshell jackets, moisture-wicking inner layers are extremely important. You want to get any moisture generated by perspiration as far away from your skin as possible to avoid excessive perspiration which can lead to other issues.
- For softshell jackets, having base or mid-layers made with merino wool can help in case water does soak into your jacket. Wool retains its insulating properties if it gets wet.
- Because the fabric isn’t breathable, hardshell jackets are likely to keep you warmer based on body heat retention, so you might need fewer mid-layers than you think.
- Hardshell jackets are more protective, and can be worn over other layers to completely protect from the elements, that’s why we almost always have one in the bag even on days where we might be only using a softshell.
There’s a lot to consider when choosing a jacket, so be sure to keep all of these features and best uses in mind when shopping for your next jacket!
Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about