December 28, 2016

Hardshell vs. Softshell Jackets: Which One is for Me?

Here are some of the top considerations for choosing the best gear for your adventure. Because a proper jacket can make or break a proper outing.

First order of business… what’s a shell? The term shell is often used interchangeably with jacket, but can also refer to pants, parkas, and ponchos. In this case, we’re talking jackets.

The process of choosing a new jacket can be a tad overwhelming. Do you want it long or short, thin or thick, hard or soft, waterproof and/or breathable? And then, what color do you want? That’s just the short list of things to compare and keep in mind. In this article, we’ll just stick to the basics of hardshell vs. softshell jackets. If you want more details on choosing jackets, check out our guide on outerwear fit.

woman in a hardshell jacket hiking

What is a hardshell jacket?

As you can probably decipher from the name, hardshell jackets tend to be stiffer than softshells. A hardshell jacket serves as your outermost layer and often provides the most weather protection.

What is a softshell jacket?

As with the hardshell jacket, the basics of a softshell jacket are described in its name. A softshell jacket is flexible and can help protect you from the elements, but not to the degree a hardshell jacket is intended to. It’s often made of a softer fabric, such as polyester and nylon, and can serve as a midlayer under a hardshell or alone in comfortable weather conditions.

Benefits of a hardshell and softshell jacket

Hardshell

  • Weather protection: Hardshell jackets are often engineered to protect against wind and rain, and can be used as a shelter.
  • Resist wear and tear: The tightly woven fabrics help maintain the quality of this outerwear option.
  • Breathable: Hardshell jackets made with three-layer GORE-TEX® Pro fabric help reduce the accumulation of sweat during your favorite outdoor activities.
  • Ready for adventure: These durable jackets are often designed for extreme sporting activities.

Softshell

  • Mobile: The fabrics used in softshell jackets are flexible, allowing for maximum movement.
  • Comfortable: The inner lining, often made of fleece, is comfortable and provides warmth.
  • Packable: The thinner, easy-to-work fabric makes a softshell jacket simple to stuff into a pack or even to be folded into a pillow for a quick snooze.
  • Water resistant: Though typically not entirely waterproof, a softshell can stand up to a run in a light rain or snow.

Which should you pick?

When deciding on whether to buy a hardshell or softshell jacket, you’ll want to consider what sport you’ll use it for and what weather conditions you may experience. If you participate in a lot of aerobic activities such as running, backpacking or cycling, you may only need a softshell jacket which offers a lighter fabric and ample stretch.

For activities where weather can greatly impact your experience, like mountaineering, climbing, skiing or snowboarding, you may want to consider a hardshell jacket. The Arc’teryx Alpha FL Jacket, for example, has fabric designed for durability, yet is highly breathable for the wearer.

Some activities may benefit from a softshell, while others a hardshell. Ultimately, consider combining the two for your benefit. If you plan on being outside in cold temperatures, layering is important and by pairing a hardshell and softshell jacket together, you’ll reap the rewards of both.

Ready to go buy a new jacket? Here’s a few of our current favorites:

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