Weather Dependent: Hardshell vs. Softshell Jackets

by Hailey Hudson
Updated May 05, 2020

softshell vs hardshell jacket
Photo: Jeremy McKnight

If you regularly spend time in the outdoors doing activities such as camping, hiking, or outdoor sports, you already know this frustrating truth: the weather doesn’t always cooperate with your plans.

And when it’s raining or snowing but you still want to get outside, it can be difficult to figure out what to wear.

Softshell and hardshell jackets both protect you from the elements, but the two are meant to be used for different activities in different types of weather. Unfamiliar with the differences? Here’s a breakdown of softshell and hardshell jackets and which is best for different outdoor scenarios.

What is a Softshell Jacket?

Softshell jackets are meant for outdoor use, but not by themselves — they’re intended to be layered with other clothing items. Think of a softshell as a fleece jacket, but one that has a little extra protection, keeping you safe no matter the elements.

Most softshell jackets are weatherproof and include a DWR (durable water repellent) element. However, they aren’t meant for extreme outdoor conditions — that’s where hardshell jackets come into play. You wouldn’t want to wear a softshell by itself unless weather conditions are relatively mild.

Softshell jackets first became common about ten years ago. Manufacturers began creating jackets from a stretchy material that wasn’t completely weather-resistant, but that did fend off wind and rain to some extent. The term “softshell” helped identify these jackets as a separate type of clothing than truly weather-resistant hardshell jackets.

softshell jacket example
Photo: Lionello DelPiccolo

Softshell jackets are versatile: they can be worn in a variety of situations. Their breathability makes them perfect for daily wear, and by pairing them with another warm layer, you can use them for aerobic activities such as running, rock climbing, or cycling.

Softshell jackets are made of a flexible material, so they’re great for exercising — they don’t restrict your range of motion. They help keep your body temperature stabilized, too, which is another reason they’re a good choice for workouts.

Often, softshell jackets can include hoods, pockets, and stretchy fabrics. Many softshells have elastic to aid with your movement. They might also feature reflective logos to keep you visible and safe while out at night. And for a little extra comfort, softshells generally have an inner lining made of fleece, fur, or wool.

What is a Hardshell Jacket?

Hardshell jackets are entirely waterproof, making them great for any weather forecast, no matter how grim. Because of this reinforcement, they’re more rigid than softshells, which means they’re not the best choice for exercising… you won’t be able to move around as easily. This trade-off also means that hardshells are not as breathable as softshells, and you’ll probably get sweaty.

Hardshells are durable, designed to protect you from the elements as you camp, hike, or exercise in the rain or snow. They have a DWR that’s a little hardier than the DWR on softshell jackets. This durable water repellent treatment makes precipitation roll right off of the jacket.

hardshell jacket example
Photo: Jake Ingle

In a nutshell, softshell jackets are lightweight while hardshells are rigid. Softshells are breathable and hardshells focus on durability. And whereas softshells are only a little weatherproof, hardshells can protect you from just about anything.

Many companies have started creating hybrid jackets that combine the best parts of hardshells and softshells, so if you’re not sure which one to choose, you don’t have to.

What activities should I use them for?

Softshell jackets are perfect for aerobic activity (meaning anything that’s cardio-based — think hiking, running, or going for a bike ride) in light weather conditions. Softshells work well for any kind of workout because they keep your body temperature stable and the stretchy material doesn’t restrict your range of motion. Plus, the excellent breathability means you won’t get too sweaty.

Softshells are also a good choice for camping if the weather forecast shows a light rain, or damp conditions. The warm inner lining and mostly-weatherproof outer layer will keep you dry.

softshell vs hardshell jackets
Photo: Sonja Guina

Hardshells are more stiff and unforgiving, so they may not be the best option for any activity where you’ll need to move, stretch, and bend. You’ll also get a lot more sweaty if you do any physical activity while wearing a hardshell. But because of the DWR treatment, hardshells are perfect for any day when you’re expecting heavy rain or snow.

Wear a hardshell jacket when you have to be out in the elements, but you don’t have to move around too much.

Recommended Softshells and Hardshells

There are hundreds of these jackets on the market, ranging from cheapo to super-expensive and everything in between. To help you sort through the mess, here’s a few simple recommendations (men’s and women’s included) for some rock-solid softshell and hardshell jackets.

Marmot Gravity Softshell Jacket (Men’s)

Marmot Gravity Softshell Jacket

Reported to work best for intermittent cardio-based activities in cold and wet weather, the Marmot Gravity comes in green, blue, and black. The water resistance outer mates with a warm polyester fleece lining that still allows sufficient breathability.

A draft flap keeps unwanted cold air out, and the collar and chin guard both include DriClime® fabric, which is moisture-wicking and comfortable. Like most softshells, the Gravity is great for layering, and the Angel-Wing Movement™ sleeves let you raise and move your arms without the jacket riding up. The jacket provides plenty of pockets to hold personal items or keep your hands warm.

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North Face Apex Byder Softshell Jacket (Women’s)

The North Face apex byder jacket

The Apex Byder is designed to keep you warm in the wind, cold, and rain. It’s hip-length with no hood and a slim fit; the jacket features secure-zip hand pockets plus a durable water repellent finish. Choose from purple, olive, or blue and slip on this softshell any time you want to exercise in the elements.

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Marmot Knife Edge Rain Jacket (Men’s)

marmot Knife Edge Rain Jacket

The Knife Edge is heavy duty, designed to protect you in any kind of weather. Best used for backpacking (the 11.5 ounce jacket can pack down smaller than a coffee mug) or just day hiking, the Knife Edge is tough and durable: it includes Gore-Tex PacLite® waterproof protection. The jacket also features an adjustable hood and comes in green, red, teal, or two shades of blue.

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The North Face Resolve Plus Rain Jacket (Women’s)

North Face Resolve Plus Rain Jacket

The Resolve Plus hardshell jacket by North Face has a DryVent™ 2-layer shell with mesh lining. This shell makes the jacket completely waterproof but still breathable. And although this hardshell is rigid and durable, don’t let that fool you: you’ll still get a comfortable and relaxed fit. Choose from red or yellow and gray; the Resolve Plus isn’t too expensive, and the range of nice features makes the price worth it.

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When it comes to jackets, we’ve got you covered. Pun intended. Check out our recommendations for the best men’s bomber jackets and the best waxed canvas jackets.

Seen in: Apparel, Gear

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