One of the largest distinctions in outerwear technology is the Hardshell vs. Softshell debate. Both fabrics have their pros and cons, but both also have their specific uses and knowing and understanding them can vastly improve your experiences in the outdoors. The down and dirty difference comes down to waterproofing and breathability. Let’s dig a little into each fabric and then chat about what to wear and when.
Hardshell fabric is designed to be 100% waterproof and 100% windproof. It’s designed to be the exterior defense against Mother Nature’s worst elements. It’s often some form of a nylon weave with either a polyurethane coating or GORE-TEX membrane. They come in every shape and style including fully insulated ski jackets or simple ultra-lite running tops. The key benefits to hardshell fabric fall within the obvious protection that you get. The downside, however, is it tends to be limited in breathability and motion during highly aerobic activity.
Softshell jackets are designed for highly aerobic activities. They’re more specifically targeted at breathability than protection, however, they provide a damn-near-perfect outer layer for defense against the elements (Note: Some are actually fully waterproof or windproof but it’s rarer). Softshell is a fabric that is generally made from some form of woven polyester/nylon combination. It’s highly flexible, breathable, durable, and treated with a DWR coating for some water repellency. The theory here is unrestricted performance in varying conditions. Lastly, softshell is quiet. There are a surprising number of people who dislike the sound made when hardshell jackets get cold and start to “swish” when you’re wearing them. The softshell fabric is more malleable and softer so it prevents this.
What Do I Wear When?
Finding the perfect layer is pretty specific to the user, so take this advice and try it a few times to figure out what works best. That being said, I tend to wear my softshell jackets 90% of the time I’m in the outdoors. I really only rely on my hardshell pieces when I’m worried about total saturation. Here are some examples.
If I’m going snowshoeing for the day I know I’m going to be producing a TON of body heat and I’m worried about sweat and moisture management. Considering the level of activity and a single day duration I’d much rather wear a softshell than a hardshell.
I’m taking an early morning start to skin up to a peak and ski down. Again, I’m going to defer to a softshell because I’m spending the majority of my day climbing and skinning so I’ll be producing a ton of heat and I’m going to want breathability and layers.
While there’s no doubt that skiing is an aerobic activity, but when you’re skiing at the resort you’re more likely to deal with wind issues than temperature issues. When I’m skiing at a resort I actually prefer a hardshell because I want to ensure that I’m producing less body heat and generally only dealing with wind rush from cruising downhill.
Day hiking is a bit of a tricky one. Honestly, when I’m out day hiking I usually take a softshell with me. More often than not, I’m only going to be out with my dog for a couple hours and even in the hard wind, I can deal with minor dampness. That being said, if the weather is reporting some serious downpour or uncertain conditions, I might take a hardshell jacket with me because they’re often a little lighter weight and more packable.
The major concern with backpacking is saturation more than anything else. Because you’re in the field with very little access to shelter, you want to ensure that you’re going to stay as dry as possible. In this case, and effective layer system with a good rain shell is going to be much more effective. Plus the added factor that rain shells are more packable and light weight.