Hard Shell versus Soft Shell Jackets
Heading out for a quick afternoon hike in cloudy and cool conditions, with just the lightest of drizzles in the forecast? Your soft-shell jacket could be the perfect choice. On the other hand, for that weeklong backpacking trip next month, you might do better to bring your favorite hard shell jacket. Why the difference? Well, let’s examine a few of the differences between the old hard-shells and the newer much lauded soft-shells. This review isn’t meant to discuss all your options, but is simply an overview to get you started. As you’ll see, there is simply such an overwhelming array of models, styles and designs of both soft-shells and hard-shells that you’ll need to narrow it down further for your specific needs; hopefully this review will help get you started.
Soft-shell (also written as soft shell and softshell) is more of an idea than a category of clothing; it’s essentially a concept. Typically, the clothes labeled soft-shells are not waterproof, as they contain no waterproof barrier; instead they offer varying degrees of water and wind resistance, and a high level of breathability. They tend to be more abrasion resistant than comparable hard-shells, but also heavier and more expensive. Most people seem to prefer the feel and style of a soft-shell jacket; they’re more comfortable and quieter than a crinkly waterproof hardshell jacket. The soft-shell materials are generally stretchy, and this makes them a great choice for active outdoor recreation; climbing, skiing, etc.
Note, some of the newer soft-shells are waterproof, such as the Mountain Hardwear Synchro jacket (I don’t really see the point of this technology at this point – particularly one with no hood. For a waterproof jacket, I can get a lighter and cheaper hard-shell jacket). Most soft-shells keep you dry via your own body heat – the wicking shell material shunts moisture to the outside where it spreads out and evaporates. The lack of a waterproof membrane allows for faster wicking and is an efficient mechanism for keeping you dry when you’re working up a sweat, and is great for light and brief drizzle, or for snow. It doesn’t, however, work so well in a downpour.
The choice between hard-shell and soft-shell materials is perhaps only a general starting point for your decisions. For example, not all soft-shells are the same; the different fabrics vary widely in their intended performance. Schoeller Dryskin, for example, is a durable material, while Montbell’s Stretch Ballistic is a lightweight choice. Other materials include Marmot’s Dryclime, Pertex, Powershield (and Powershield Lightweight), and there are many more; each designed for its own set of circumstances. One could easily write an entire article just on the latest materials for soft-shells, how they perform, and what their optimum uses might be.
I see soft-shells as a wide range of jackets intended for very different purposes and conditions. Arcteryx Gamma MX Hoody is a great jacket, expensive and heavy, offering great weather resistance. On the other hand, Patagonia’s Ascensionist is a lighter, less windproof but very breathable jacket; I’d rather the Ascensionist for something like a XC ski outing in milder temperatures (10-40deg F). The Arcteryx jacket is a little heavier, warmer, more windproof and less breathable. I’d prefer this jacket for situations where I needed more weatherproofing and less breathability – snowshoeing in the cold, downhill skiing or snowboarding, etc.
Hard-shells are more effective at keeping wind and particularly water outside; they’re waterproof and windproof gear intended to keep you dry. They’re not a great choice for a wide variety of conditions; they’re designed as weatherproof shells during precipitation. If it’s not raining, a variety of better options (mostly soft-shell) exist for both jackets and pants.
I tend to see all hard-shells as serving, more or less, the same purpose; a waterproof outer layer. They tend to all be windproof outer shells, and the variability comes primarily in the form of weight; for money you get a lighter weight jacket. Pay even more money and it might be more durable, or more breathable (newer fabrics like Event get rave reviews), but the intended purpose remains the same – i.e., to keep you dry.
Soft-shells seem to be designed more broadly; they’ll keep you dry-ish, they’ll protect you from some wind, they’ll breathe well, and they’ll resist a beating, some are even waterproof. One particular model might be intended for a completely different use than another.
I typically don’t carry a soft-shell jacket as a part of my 3-season backpacking setup. On a backpacking trip, I want a waterproof jacket for those days of downpour; dry is the key to warmth, and there are no soft-shells that keep rainfall outside as well as a good hard-shell jacket. The lighter weight of the hard-shells is also critical, for me.
My preference is for soft-shells in winter where I’m not likely to see rain and drizzle, but plenty of snow and cold. For mountaineering, skiing, day hikes, biking, snowshoeing and winter backpacking I think soft-shells are the best choice. For around town, where comfort and/or style might be your primary concerns, soft-shells are great. The better durability and abrasion resistance of the soft-shells are another reason they’re a great choice for sports like climbing and skiing.
The last thing I’ll add is the value of soft-shell pants. I find them great for backpacking trips, because they replace another piece of gear, rather than being one more thing to carry. I prefer the slightly heavier soft-shell pants to nylon pants for their comfort and durability, a good balance of wind and water resistance. The trade-offs are weight and price, and possibly a slight decrease in breathability. I rarely wear my nylon pants now, as the soft-shells have replaced them for virtually every scenario. I still carry hard -shell pants for the rain. And in the winter, as with the jackets, soft-shell pants are a great choice.
As you delve into gear, you find a system is a better perspective than simply ‘this over that’. What other pieces of gear do you have, etc, will affect your decisions and is critical to consider. Both hard-shells and soft-shells have their place, and both designs can be a part of your system. And when you dive into the world of soft-shell jackets, you’ll see a real myriad of choices and decisions to make. The materials are constantly evolving, and the best choice today might well not be the best choice next year. Do your research carefully and scope widely; then start to narrow it down as you get a better handle on what you need. Then, do your shopping and head outside.