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.
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.”