Hardshell vs. Softshell Jackets: Which Is Best for You?
Hunter R. breaks down the differences between hardshell and softshell jackets to help you find the perfect outer layer for your days outside.
There are so many options when it comes to shopping for a new ski jacket. Different features, styles, fabrics, colors, brands, etc. It can be a bit overwhelming!
One of the first questions you’ll come to in your hunt for the perfect jacket is if you want a hardshell jacket or a softshell jacket. This can be a complicated question to answer since both have pros and cons, so let’s break it down so you can get more clarity about which one is the ideal choice for you.
Hard Shell Jackets
As the name would suggest, hardshells are made from that crinkly, stiffer material that comes to mind when you think of a rain jacket. They are waterproof, have a hood, are pretty lightweight (though there are a lot of hardshells now that are designed with skiing in mind and come with insulation), and are not too stretchy. Their main job is to keep you dry in rain and snow, and they are generally not as breathable as soft shells.
Why Would I Want One?
If you often go skiing or snowboarding at resorts on days when it’s snowing, hardshells are the right choice. Resort skiing all day on a day when it’s heavily, or even lightly, snowing will make you wish you had some waterproofing. Even if the snow isn’t coming down too hard, if you are out there for 5-7 hours, that snow is going to soak through unless you have a waterproof jacket.
Hardshells are also a good option if you are going to backcountry ski. There’s more risk involved in backcountry skiing, so even if the weather looks nice when you leave your house, it’s a good idea to be ready for some snow or precipitation. Whether you wear it or toss it in your pack, don’t leave the hardshell at home.
Another reason I like hardshells for skiing is that they are very lightweight and almost always have two-way zippers and ventilation zips under the arms (underarm vents also known as pit zips). I find wearing a hardshell with just a base layer underneath and opening the pit zips on my hike up keeps me at a good temperature, prevents me from overheating, and makes for an easy transition when I am ready to go down (just zip the pits up). They keep me warm since they are wind resistant and because I already created a lot of body heat on the hike up, and then I am ready in case there is any bad weather.
If you do a lot of other outdoor activities where you have a chance of being caught in a storm, hardshells offer you a lot of versatility! I use my hardshell as my rain shell for other activities too. Think about what other outdoor activities you like doing and if you often find yourself in extreme conditions. If so, a hardshell might be the way to go for you. Backpackers, hikers, snowshoers, and cyclists should all have one of these on hand just in case!
A Few Favorite Hardshells
From left to right:
- Mammut Haldigrat Jacket
- Arc’Teryx Alpha SV Jacket
- Rab Latok Jacket
- Norrona Lofoten Gore-Tex Pro Jacket
- Mountain Hardwear Boundary Ridge Gore-Tex Jacket
- Arc'Teryx Beta AR Jacket
Soft Shell Jackets
Softshells are, as you guessed it, a more soft, stretchy, and comfortable material (usually nylon). They normally have some level of water resistance or water repellency (usually listed as weather-resistant on the labeling), so they are okay in light rain or snow but keeping you dry is not their main job. They have great wind resistance and the inside usually has a soft fleece lining. They are comfier than a hardshell and offer a bit more breathability without the crinkly noise. These will sometimes come without a hood, though, more and more often, they will also include a hood.
Why Would I Want One?
If you resort ski primarily on days where there’s nice weather or it only snows for a short period of time, a softshell would be a comfortable option. Maybe it’s a bit cold outside, but mostly sunny? A softshell ski jacket provides just enough warmth.
If you are backcountry skiing in primarily dry areas and don't tend to go on days with inclement weather or you tend to run cold, the softshell will provide you with enough coverage. It is a bit easier to overheat wearing a softshell on the way up, as they don’t have pit zips so you can’t dump heat as easily as you can in a hardshell. The nature of softshells is to be a bit warmer, but if you really only like to go out on sunnier days and tend to run cold, I would still suggest tossing a hardshell in your pack to be prepared in case weather conditions change or you are out longer than you expected. They are more breathable than hardshells, so they will wick away moisture in activities where you tend to sweat.
Softshells are also a great option if you want something versatile to toss on all day that is going to keep you warm while doing other outdoor activities where the threat of heavy rain is minimal. Versatility, again! These are popular among climbers since climbing isn’t something you normally can/should do in rainy conditions anyways so waterproofing isn't really a concern. There is also a bit more standing around in climbing as you are belaying, so the added warmth is nice for times when you aren’t moving and usually wind protection is the all protection you'll need from the elements. Lastly, softshell face fabric is generally more abrasion-resistant. Softshells are also nicer to toss on all day even when you aren’t in the mountains as they don’t feel like you are wearing a rain jacket but still keep you warm.
Another note: hardshells can get pricey fast whereas softshells tend to be a bit more budget-friendly.
A Few Favorite Softshells
From left to right:
- Arc'teryx Gamma MX Jacket
- Marmot ROM Hoody
- Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody
- Mountain Hardwear Principia Jacket
- Arc’teryx Gamma lt Hoody
- Outdoor Research Ferrosi Jacket
- Patagonia Upstride Jacket
Other Factors to Consider
As you review your options and consider what is best for you, keep the below information in mind.
There are a few hybrids on the market now as well that have hoods (for ski and snowboard jackets this is often a helmet-compatible hood so you can both stay warm and wear your noggin protection) and waterproofing in some areas (shoulders, sleeves, hood) like hardshells, but are otherwise primarily softshells. These are nice because they have all the positives of softshell jackets, but provide some extra guard against precipitation.
Waterproof vs. Water-Resistant
What kind of weather protection do you actually need? Hardshells consist of a waterproof membrane and taped seams to ensure no leakage in times of high precipitation. Softshells usually have a durable water repellent (DWR) coating which keeps you dry in light showers but will eventually soak through.
Though there are some hardshell materials, such as Gore-Tex that have a waterproof, yet breathable membrane, softshells are always going to be made from a more breathable fabric compared to hardshells.
If comfort is big for you and you are looking for a jacket that is stretchy and moves with your body, a softshell is the way to go. Though hardshells don’t bother me most of the time, many of them have a plasticky feeling and make a crinkly noise when they move around which that can be a no-go for many people who are looking for a softer feel. Softshells on the other hand, usually have some sort of fleece or polyester liner inside the jacket and are more comfortable to move around in.
Are you looking for something you can toss in your bag when you get too hot or something you can keep in your bag as a backup layer? Worried about weight? Hardshells are thinner, lighter, and much more packable than softshells.
Though there are a lot of insulated hardshells, a non-insulated hardshell will be a bit chillier than a softshell.
Across all jackets, hardshells and softshells alike, there are a lot of different features available from jacket to jacket. Most cold-weather jackets have adjustable cuffs, adjustable hoods, large hand pockets, and a chest pocket. But when you start shopping around you'll notice a lot more niched-down categories for cold weather jackets and in every category, there are specific features to make that jacket all that much better for whatever activity you are looking to use it for. If you are looking for a ski-specific jacket, it's a good idea to make sure whichever jacket you go with has large zipper pulls that are easily maneuvered with gloves, a powder skirt to keep the snow out when you fall, and thumb loops to keep your wrists warm. If you are looking for something to double as a climbing jacket, or you tend to do some more intense backcountry ski days that require you to wear a climbing harness - it's a good idea to make sure whichever jacket you end up getting has pockets that are still accessible while wearing a harness around your waist, and has stretchy fabric which offers a lot of mobility so it's easy to climb. If you are a snowboarder, you will want to look for a jacket with a longer hem to offer some protection to your butt when sitting down in the snow to adjust your bindings.
What other outdoor adventures do you find yourself on that you could also use this jacket for? Backpacking? Cycling? Snowshoeing? Ultralight activities where you're counting ounces on your gear? Go with a hardshell. Climbing? Cross-country skiing? Walking the dog? Softshell is the one for you!
What Do You Already Have?
Take into account what layers and gear you already have. Do you already have a jacket that you like and you just need an outer layer? For example, I have a puffy jacket that I love and can easily wear under a hardshell. But since softshells are lined, if I put my puffy under my softshell, I feel like the Michelin Man!
I hope this helped you narrow down your options in your jacket hunt! If you have any further questions or want any other suggestions on which jacket best suits your needs, check in with a Winter Sport Expert here on Curated and we can provide a more customized list of suggestions perfect for you!