Home / Backpacking Skills / What is the difference between a hard shell jacket and a softshell jacket?

What is the difference between a hard shell jacket and a softshell jacket?

Hardshell Jacket
Hardshell Jacket

I had a reader contact me recently looking for a good winter soft shell jacket that is windproof and waterproof with pit zips, hood and ample pockets. I know the guy fairly well and it soon became clear that he was confused about the differences between hard shell and softshell jackets, and between water-resistant softshell jackets and waterproof ones.

Hard Shell Jackets

The simplest definition of a hard shell jackets is that it is waterproof and usually windproof, primarily designed to keep you dry in rain. This covers a lot of ground in terms of products and the types of fabrics used to manufacture them, ranging from silnylon and PVC raincoats to so-called breathable fabrics like Gore-tex and eVent. Hard shell jackets also tend to have hoods to keep the rain off your head.

While hard shell jackets are designed to keep you dry in rain, their ability to do so is closely tied to the layering system you wear underneath them, outside temperature, and relative humidity. If you are hiking in rain and wearing too many warm layers, you will probably get wet under the shell from your own sweat despite the shell manufacturer’s breathability claims, unless your jacket has pit zips or torso zips to vent more moisture. If you are hiking in cold wet rain and not wearing warm layers under the shell, the outer fabric is likely to conduct cold to your skin and chill you.

Despite these challenges, hard shells jackets are arguably the most versatile jacket for winter weather, if you include the early and late winter shoulder seasons when you are likely to encounter heavy rain mixed with snow. That fact that you can use the same hard shell year round also weighs heavily in their favor if cost is a factor.

Softshell Jackets
Softshell Jackets

Softshell Jackets

Most softshell jackets are not waterproof but water-resistant and highly breathable. They are also warmer and generally stretchy, good for skiing and climbing. Most softshells keep you dry by wicking sweat from your lower layers to the outside of your jacket where it spreads out and evaporates. If fact, softshells behave quite a lot like fleece, but with better water and wind resistance.

But not all softshells are the same and the fabrics used vary widely in their intended performance. Some shoftshell fabrics are waterproof like hardshell jackets but at the cost of less breathability and heavier weight than a hard shell. While suitable for downhill skiing and snowboarding, more waterproofing, wind resistance, and less breathability are acceptable. If you engage in a more aerobic activity like snowshoeing or XC skiing, then a more breathable, water resistant softshell jacket is probably desirable.

Winter Clothing as a System

When evaluating whether to buy a hardshell or a softshell jacket for winter hiking, it’s important to consider the other layers that you will be wearing with them and your experience using them together in an integrated clothing system.

For example, most winter hikers carry a hardshell jacket, a puffy outer insulation shell to wear over it when standing still, a mid layer fleece,  a baselayer, high gaiters, 2 pairs of socks, and a myriad of hats and gloves. If you get a softshell jacket, you should ask yourself whether it will eliminate one of these layers or whether you need to change your entire system. The same goes for a hardshell if you are switching to one from a softshell or from a waterproof softshell to a more breathable one.

Thinking about your entire clothing system and the variety of conditions you need it to perform in is a far more important decision making process than just picking one type of jacket over another. Both hard shells and soft shells have their place and both can be part of your “system.”

Additional Resources

Softshell Jacket Buyer’s Guide at Backcountry.com

Softshell vs Hard Shell Ski Jackets at Outdoor Research.com

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  1. Another champion article to make us better out of doors enthusiast! It goes to prove, being safe and comfortable while hiking is more than a pack and pair of boots!

  2. The differentiation between hardshells and softshells actually isn’t that clear. Hardshells are synonymous with “waterproof” jackets, and softshells are usually labeled as “water-resistant.”

    What’s the difference between “waterproof” and “water-resistant,” you ask? It’s based on the fabric’s hydrostatic head, or how much water pressure the fabric can withstand before leaking. But there’s actually no industry standard for “waterproofness.” REI requires 2,112 mm, or 3 psi, before a fabric can be labeled as “waterproof,” but other groups (including the military) have their own standards. If it’s less than that, greater than 0 mm I suppose, it is labeled as “water-resistant.”

    This simplification of the concept creates big problems, IMO: consumers can and are told that two garments are “water-resistant,” when in fact one might have 2,111 mm HH and the other might have 111 mm hydrostatic head. These two garments are going to perform very differently in a rain storm.

    Fabric breathability is another concept that has been oversimplified. I’ve written about that subject here: http://andrewskurka.com/2012/breathability-its-importance-mechanisms-and-limitations/

    • I don’t think we disagree Andrew – I wanted to convey the concepts – even if they are just marketing concepts – without diving into a standards or material sciences discussion about hydostatic head and breathability metrics. Most people’s eye glaze over at that point unless they like reading and paying for BPL articles. The takeaway here, if there is one, is that the jacket alone is not as important as the layers you combine it with, the conditions it has to perform in, your activity level, and how much you can afford to spend. Really, I was just trying to help a friend understand the landscape of options, not get a Ph.D. :-)

      • No, we are not in disagreement. Your wariness of getting into the hardcore science, and preference to focus instead on real-word application, is definitely understandable, on a number of levels — as you said, most eyes glaze over it; and it’s the less important angle on the subject, too.

        That said, I think there’s a way to introduce and use the science without it being inapproachable, especially in the clarification of some of these ambiguous terms that are so subject to adverbial twisting by gear and fabric manufacturers (e.g. “ultra,” “extremely”).

  3. Yeah, there is no standard for the term “water proof” or “water resistant”. If it rains for a couple days out in the field, I expect to get wet. Either from the inside or the outside.

    The goal of all the special membranes is to have small enough pores to stop liquid water from penetrating yet provide full ventilation for air/water vapour to flow through, ie ventilation. This is sort of self defeating. Anything with that fine of a weave will block ventilation. Water will film over causing a non-breathable suface skin (though suface tension) with any dirt and bodily excreations. Soft shell coatings fail, they do not breathe enough. Hard shell water reistance is generally so high they are soaked from the inside, leaving you soggy from your own sweat. Even insensible perspiration will do this.

    As Phil wrote in a previous article, though, the goal is not so much to stop water (a good hat will stop water runing down you back) but to keep you warm enough to keep you comfortable even if you do get wet.The difference in water resistance between the two types is rather moot for hiking. However, for day trips, snowshoeing, or other non-overnight activities, there is a large difference. Depending on your exertion level, conditions, etc, one will obviously perform beter than the other.

    I avoid any super shell products. The biggest difference, to me, is not so much the water proofness, but the overall length and coverage. I like a good hard shell to hang about mid-calf level with a full visored hood. A soft shell and jacket usually hangs to my crotch and may not have a hood. The difference is the amount of coverage they supply, not so much how they supply it. Water resistance (up to full water proof) is actually a seperate issue. But it makes shopping for a “hard shell” difficult. A shorter fully water proof coat with a hood is not a hard shell? Hmmmm….

    I agree that the terms are badly abused in the clthing industry. The terms “Hard Shell and “Soft Shell” actually form a continuois range across coats. I agree with Andrew that there should be a clear definition for water proof across the industry. For now, especially for most hikers, walking into a store and saying they want a good soft shell is a meaningless statement. They might end up with a hard shell by someone elses definition.

    Thanks, Phill! A good effort at trying to clear this up.

    • You really need to ask yourself if it’s worth trying to get the manufacturers to come clean when they make exaggerated claims about their products and change the language they use, or whether consumers even want to be educated.

      I think a better strategy is to sell them something else entirely – like the concept of layering and mechanical venting (ie. pit zips). If you give consumers a different reason to purchase products – like affordability and durability – coupled with athlete testimonials – like Andrew’s – you might get their attention. Tackling the issue head on with the manufacturers is a waste of energy. They’ll simply drown out your message.

    • Most consumers don’t care about the underlying science or technology. It should be available to the inquisitive, like as a footnote or a sidebar, since as I said before I think it’s valuable in cutting through industry hype.

      But I’d love to see a company that is realistic about the weather-resistance of their products, since that would be the most informative marketing. This honesty might buy a lot of goodwill, who knows. Perhaps they don’t because most marketing departments employees are not hardcore users and haven’t found a product’s limits themselves. Really, how does any footwear company label a pair of running shoes as “waterproof”? Did you not notice the huge hole in the top of the shoe that water will enter during a river ford or by dripping down the wearer’s legs? Similarly, how do clothing manufactures label a jacket as “waterproof-breathable.” If they’d ever used it, they’d know it’s not either; if they ever thought about it harder, they’d realize the entire label is an oxymoron — the first indication that the industry is taking consumers for a ride.

      As I’ve said many times, backpackers need to get over this idea that they can live in a climate-controlled environment when they are backpacking. When it’s hot, you’ll probably be hot and you’ll probably sweat. When it’s raining for a long time, you’re going to get wet. Etc. If you accept this reality, backpacking stops being so frustrating.

  4. Thank you Andrew and again, Philip. I was the inquiring mind Philip mentioned I believe and he was, as he always is, most helpful in steering the novice/beginner in a direction that saves us from making some mistakes others have already made or, from education they have on numerous issues. I am, as I know others are, most appreciative of all of that, and, it’s all free for the asking. As he does, Philip was gentle, not overwhelming with his information and guidance. The additional information was fascinating and having gotten on the right path thanks to Philip, it made it great fun to read. I enjoy the learning as much as the hiking and camping. In the end, I decided, having one of each would be worth their weight in gold and this extra clarifies additionally, why one is good for this while the other is good for that. I agree, after reading “specs” on numerous shells, that manufactures SHOULD be fully disclosing but in if they fail to, the hiking and camping family, will out the slackers in due time. Thanks once again for getting a whole lot more than I expected…..it has been great fun!!

  5. Sorry Marco, I did not intend to leave out the great additions you made to the subject as well…..how much more could I possible learn before I am eligible for that Phd!!?? Keith

  6. Good read. I did something similar recently – http://thebloke.co.nz/outdoor-skills-development/kit-concepts/hard-shell-soft-shell/ – I hit up a local manufacturer while researching it (MacPac) – and really got the feeling that the difference used to be more distinct, but each improvement/generation of materials brings the concepts of ‘waterproof’ and ‘breathable’ closer and closer together.

  7. Ha, ha….yeah, trying to edjumicate the sistim is a lost cause. I would rather educate the 20 million people, at a guess, who do outdoors stuff in the USA rather than educate a single maufacturor, ha ha, ha…. LOL, I got a kick out of the thought….still snickering….


  8. Thank you for the great explanation on hard shell and soft shell jackets. I’ve always lived in the southern US where the temp is mild and we are planning a vacation in Iceland this fall. So, we had heard that we needed a hard shell jacket but had no idea of what that meant. So, I really was glad to find your article. Thanks a million.

  9. Thanks for this! You know, I’ve spent the past few months looking at jackets (hint: I’m OLD) that were comparable to what I used a number of decades ago in SAR.

    While layering was “a thing”, it wasn’t as advanced, technology wise, as it is now. While shopping around, one thing I couldn’t wrap my brain around was the cost of the shell jacket.

    Thanks for a great explanation.

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