Softshell vs. Hardshell?

It's getting cold out there--when do I need a hardshell and when do I need a softshell? I've never really understood the difference and when to use which jacket. Help!

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.


It’s getting cold out there–when do I need a hardshell and when do I need a softshell? I’ve never really understood the difference and when to use which jacket. Help!

Submitted by – Andy, Spokane, WA


Hey Andy,

It’s not technically the temperature that determines what type of shell is best (warmth is provided by what you wear underneath your shell), but several different factors:

1) Precipitation

2) Your level of exertion and breathability requirements.

3) Your weight and packability requirement.

Here’s the deal:

When do I pack a hardshell?

On any day trip where rain is a possibility. On any multiday backpacking trip—period. When weight is a big concern, I’ll always opt for the rock solid weather protection of a hardshell—which is always lighter and more packable than a softshell.

Hardshells are made using a tightly woven face fabric that’s either laminated to a waterproof/breathable membrane—such as Gore-Tex or eVent—or sprayed with a waterproof/breathable microporous coating. For way more details on the differences between these two types of hardshells, check out this article from our Oct. 2009 issue.

When do I wear a softshell?

When you’re skiing, snowshoeing, or doing anything outside in the winter. All softshells have a DWR (durable waterproof coating) that repels light precipitation, like snow or drizzle, and for winter sports, when hardshells can get so crinkly and loud, it’s nice to wear a quiet softshell.

I’ll also go for a softshell when I’m biking or running. (Who am I kidding? I hate running. But if I were a runner, I’d wear a softshell.) Or on a daytrip when weight and pack space are not a big concern.

Softshells are made using stretch woven face fabrics. Most softshells are not waterproof (see below)—they block the wind and provide way better breathability than hardshells. And because the fabric is soft and stretchy, they often fit really well and have a totally stylin’ look for around town.

But here’s where it gets tricky: Some softshells are actually waterproof—like Mountain Hardwear’s Synchro Jacket (left) , for example. That’s because they laminate their Conduit waterproof/breathable membrane to the stretchy face fabric, and they tape the seams. There are some weird marketing restrictions surrounding how companies can label their fabrics, so Mountain Hardwear is careful not to call this jacket “waterproof.” But it is.

You’ll have to do some sleuthing to determine if a softshell is the “waterproof” kind or not; but generally speaking, it’s waterproof if it is:

a) Laminated to a membrane, and

b) Has taped seams.


Trending on Backpacker