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What is the difference between hardshell and softshell?

25 April 2023

Knowing how to dress in layers is essential to having a great time on your outdoor adventure, regardless of season, activity, or weather. When you have chosen the right base layer and added an insulating mid layer if needed, it’s time to look to the protective outer layer, also called shell layer. 

When looking for shell layers, you will most likely encounter two different kinds of shells, hardshells and softshells. They offer different advantages and choosing what is best for you and your needs can be tricky. Here we will break down the pros and cons of softshell vs. hardshell to make it easier for you to pick the right outer layer for you and your adventure.  

What is a hardshell? 

Hardshell consists of two to three layers of material laminated together. The outer fabric is often a thinner and more lightweight woven fabric in polyurethane. The second layer is the membrane which makes the material waterproof and breathable. To protect the membrane, a thin inner lining is adhered to the inside, thus making the material three layers. Sometimes you see 2- or 2.5-layer shell clothing, which means they don’t have the inner lining laminated to the inside. Instead, they can have a loose mesh inner lining or a printed or sprayed material on the inside of the clothing.  

The outer fabric of the hardshell clothing is treated with a DWR-coating to keep the rainwater from sinking into the outer fabric thus helping the membrane work optimally. Hardshell clothing should also have taped seems and water-resistant zippers to reduce the opportunity for water to get through.  

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Traditionally, hardshell is more resistant to rain than softshell but also less breathable, stiffer, noisier, and not as stretchy. A lot of this is because of the waterproof membrane, but the technical innovation of membranes has moved forward a lot during recent years, and now there are more stretchy membranes that are softer and less noisy. When choosing hardshell clothing, look for stretch to make the clothing more comfortable to wear. 

The waterproof rating of the membrane is measured in how much water pressure the membrane can withstand before water leaks through, the higher the rating the more water pressure the material can take. You can read more about waterproof ratings in our waterproof guide

What is softshell? 

Softshell clothing is, as the name suggests, softer than hardshell. The outer fabric is a thin and stretchy polyester that can be woven or knitted. The inner lining of the softshell material is often a bit thicker and made from fleece. It’s this inner lining that gives the softshell clothing its softness and thickness compared to clothing in hardshell. The thicker inner liner also makes softshell clothing warmer than hardshell, and you do not always need an insulating layer underneath to keep warm. 

Softshell clothing can come with or without a membrane, but they are always treated with a DWR-coating to make them more resistant to rain. The DWR-coating makes raindrops settle like pearls on top of the outer fabric, thus prolonging the time it takes for the water to penetrate the outer fabric.  

Because of the thicker and fluffier inner lining with fleece, a softshell cannot have taped seams and is thus less resistant to consistent or heavy rain. Without the taped seams, water-resistant zippers do not make a big difference, and that is why few softshells have them.  

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When should you choose hardshell vs. softshell? 

Both hardshell and softshell have a range of benefits and are designed for different types of conditions and activities. The main difference between them is weather protection and breathability. 

HardshellSoftshell
Always a waterproof membraneOften no membran
DWR-coatingDWR-coating
Taped seams and water-resistant zippers No taped seams and water-resistant zippers
Lightweight and packable Heavier, thicker, and warmer
Breathable More breathable
WindproofWind-resistant
Not insulatedCan be lined with fleece

Pros and cons of hardshells 

Hardshells offer the best weather protection thanks to being made with a more tightly woven outer fabric, a waterproof membrane, DWR-coating, taped seams, and water-resistant zippers. The membrane offers good breathability, but it’s still not as breathable as without the membrane.  

They are lightweight and easy to pack, but the thinness of them also mean they don’t offer any insulation. If the temperature drops you need to dress in layers to keep warm. Also, hardshells are less stretchy and can be nosier than softshells. You should choose hardshell clothing for activities with high intensity and when the weather is unstable.  

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Pros and cons of softshell 

Softshells are stretchy and offer great freedom of movement. Most often they do not have a waterproof membrane, which makes them more breathable than hardshells, but also less resistant to wind and rain.  

Many softshells are lined with fleece which provides some insulation and they are therefore more comparable to a fleece when it comes to warmth. A softshell can be used as an outer layer in less harsh weather conditions, or as a mid layer with a hardshell on top. You should choose softshell if you want versatile and stretchy clothing with great breathability and decent weather resistance. They will most likely be some of your most used outdoor clothing, suitable for everyday use, all year-round.   

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