Hiking - Gear/Equipment

Softshell Vs Hardshell Jacket: Which One Should You Choose?

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As a hiker, the struggle of choosing the right kind of jacket is real and is honestly an overwhelming task. Whether you want the jacket to be short or long, thick or thin, breathable or waterproof, softshell or hard shell, the color of your choice, and so on, the list seems to be endless. However, the most confusing terms when it comes to choosing jackets are softshell and hardshell. Just from the name, people assume a lot of different things.

Just from hearing term hardshell, people think that the jacket might be hard to touch, must be waterproof and might work brilliantly in keeping the wearer dry. While when it comes to a softshell jacket, most people have in mind flexible and cozy jackets that wouldn’t necessarily work well if it begun to pour. To some extent, this might be right but on a broader prospect, there are a lot of other aspects too.

Deciding between a softshell vs hardshell jacket is tough as both of them offer protection, comfort as well as several other benefits.

Which one should you pick then?

To be able to make a proper decision you must first understand what exactly these are, the situations they work best in and the major difference between them.

Hardshell Jackets

Hardshell jackets are ones that are entirely waterproof and thereby making it the perfect choice for people on hiking trips to regions where it rains a lot.

The simplest definition would be that these are jackets that are generally windproof and waterproof.

The hardshell jacket is basically a layer of plastic consisting of a membrane which gives your body the chance to breathe easily. When you sweat, it dries up as vapor and allows your body to remain dry and prevents any water getting in.

Most of them would also have hoods so as to keep your head dry.

Hard shell jackets
Hard shell jackets

However, they can’t be worn on hikes when the weather is absolutely clear. The hard shell jackets are undoubtedly designed to have a bit of breathability but if you wear it on clear days and are on a difficult hike, it can get hot.

When hiking at a considerable height, you can also get sweaty.

Despite all the challenges, when it comes to the softshell vs hardshell jacket, the hardshell jackets are unquestionably the most versatile options for winters when you are most likely to experience snow and heavy rain. Also, while these jackets might have been designed to keep you dry, their ability to perform accordingly is tied closely to the layers you wear underneath.

For instance, if you are hiking when it’s pouring heavily and are wearing way too many layers, you would get wet beneath the shell most likely from your own sweat.

Unless and until your jacket has torso zips or pit zips to vent out excess moisture, even the manufacturer’s claims of good breathability of the jacket wouldn’t work.

In short, hardshell jackets:

  • Are windproof
  • Are waterproof
  • Offer complete protection from stormy weather
  • Are breathable
  • Are generally hooded
  • May or may not be insulated
  • Have sealed seams
  • Are extremely durable and hence quite a popular options among hikers, snowboarders, people who love skiing, snowshoeing and other activities related to the snow

Also, the hard shells that do not have insulation are comparatively lighter and thereby are easier to pack. When space and weight is an issue, these would prove to be an ideal choice.

Check out the Camping Essentials List - Checklist for your Next Hike

Softshell Jackets

When it comes to a softshell jacket, they are stretchy, water-resistant as well as breathable offering protection in situations when it’s raining or snowing outside.

Most of these jackets are usually water repellent but a few of them also feature breathable waterproof technology. These have been designed specifically to move with your body and hence maintain a temperature that is comfortable for your body to bear when you are indulging in activities that require high-energy.

Soft shelled jackets
Soft shell jackets

Most of the soft shell jacket also features a fleece or a very soft lining which can provide some added and much-needed warmth.

During active outdoor activities, the softshells are used mainly for breathability, warmth and the stretchiness.

In fact, when you are dressing up for a snowy and cold weather hike or are layering to go skiing, these can be worn as a mid layer for insulation. Also, they are a complete value for money as they can be worn on an everyday basis during cold weather.

The best waterproof softshell jacket is versatile and fashionable but as compared to the hardshells, they aren’t as waterproof or packable.

Soft shelled jackets lining
Soft-shelled jackets lining

The softshells are water-resistant and work well in situations that involve climbing or skiing. Most of them help in keeping the wearer dry by wicking away the sweat from the lower layers to the jacket’s outside. From there it spreads out and eventually evaporates. They work quite similar to fleece but with much better wind and water resistance.

However, one must remember that not all the softshell jackets are the same. The fabric used for the construction of such jackets varies depending on the intended performance.

A few softshells can at times also be as waterproof as the hardshell jackets but only by compromising at the weight and the breathability factor. When you are involved in activities like snowboarding or downhill skiing, more wind resistance, waterproofing and less breathability might work.

But, when it comes to activities like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, a water-resistant and comparatively more breathable jacket would be more desirable.

In short, softshell jackets:

  • Are air permeable
  • Are water repellent
  • Are breathable
  • Are comparatively comfortable
  • Can act well as an outer layer or as a protective mid-layer
  • Have a lot of stretch

As can be comprehended, the soft shell jacket would be an ideal option when the weather is much better. They would be able to maintain a very comfortable temperature at times of high exertion. They are extraordinarily mobile and can move easily and freely.

Fun Fact:
When it comes to comparing a softshell vs hardshell jacket, you can easily feel the difference by touching the fabric. Listen for a crinkling and a swooshing sound and if you do hear it, remember that a hard shell jacket is ought to make comparatively more noise than a softshell one.

Softshell vs Hardshell Jacket: Which One Should You Choose?

Now, that you have understood the benefits and drawbacks of both softshell vs hardshell jackets, which one should you really pick?

Should you pick a softshell or perhaps a hardshell or maybe a combination of both?

To be able to choose the ideal jacket, you must consider the design and the material and match it with the activity that you are hoping to indulge in.

You must also keep in mind the typical weather of the place you are planning to visit.

Which jacket to choose
Which jacket to choose?

Perhaps the easiest way to look at this is by understanding the fact that the best hardshell jackets are for situations when you are going to need complete protection from precipitation or at times when you won’t really be required to move as much. When you know that you are going to be involved in a lot of aerobic activities, softshells should be your most preferable option. This is especially true if you are in a region that’s cold and it’s precipitating.

So in simple words, if you are into aerobic activities like backpacking, running, or cycling, you are going to require a softshell jacket that offers ample amount of stretch and has a light fabric.

On the other hand, for activities where the weather can have a huge impact like climbing, mountaineering, snowboarding or skiing, a hardshell jacket would work better.

So, for the passionate hikers, hard shell jackets will be a better choice and for the one's backpacking, soft shell jacket is the answer!


HIking jackets
Get the right hiking jacket

Judge the situations that you are going to be in most of the time and then make an informed decision. The other layers that you would be wearing under the jacket are just as important to consider as that would be affecting your integrated clothing system.

Livingit Tip:
Just remember that hardshells would perform efficiently when it comes to wet weather while conditions when the weather is comparatively better, you could make use of a softshell.

When you are out on an adventure to explore stunning places, it can be more enjoyable when you are wearing the right clothing so as to stay dry and warm regardless of what the weather is. This way you would be able to experience the beauty of the place without having to worry about drying yourself or keeping yourself warm.

Both hardshells and softshells have their share of benefits and both of them can be a part of your clothing system if you use them wisely.

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