In today's dynamic world of transportation and personal mobility, cycling has gained popularity for both commuting and leisure. Whether you're a co...
Hardshell VS. Softshell: Which is better
One thing in advance: My research has shown that the intersection of soft and hardshell is mixing more and more. The time when both material types could be separated from each other according to the black and white method is definitely over. To go into all possible and impossible variants is not possible in the rather limited space of a blog post. So we agree once more at this point: In the following, we will simplify and generalize for better understanding.
HARDSHELL - WHEN YOU NEED TO BE WEATHERPROOF
- Field of application: Outer layer of clothing for mountain and winter sports.
- Intended use: weather protection. Protection against rain, snow and strong wind.
- Properties: Waterproof, windproof, breathable.
- Materials: polyester, polyamide (nylon)
- Versions: 2-, 2.5- and 3-layer jackets, with membrane or coating
- Advantages: good weather protection, robust
- Disadvantages: little protection against cold, breathability can be limited
Hardshell means nothing more than "hard shell", loosely translated "stable outer skin" and that's really all there is to it. Hardshell jackets are always worn as the outermost layer of clothing and are the first bulwark against the elements. In addition, the material is often relatively strong and not stretchy, hence the name.
A hardshell jacket is actually what we know as a rain jacket, among other things. Some people also know jackets of this type as Gore-Tex jackets, but this is just the brand name of a material. Hardshell jackets, simply put, provide good weather protection. They are always used when it rains, for example, or when there is strong wind. But hardshell jackets also provide reliable protection from the elements when skiing or on high-altitude tours, when there is a threat of increased contact with snow and ice.
In addition, good hardshell jackets are always breathable. In simple terms, this means that precipitation is reliably kept out from the outside, while moisture generated inside the jacket, for example through heavy perspiration, can be released to the outside. How this works depends on the technology and the structure of the material in question. Let's take a look at exactly how hardshell jackets are constructed.
THE LAYER CONSTRUCTION
A hardshell jacket consists of several layers. On the very outside is the outer fabric, which protects the jacket from mechanical damage. In addition, the outer fabric is impregnated to help keep water and dirt out of the membrane. The second layer is usually a breathable membrane or coating. Simply put, this ensures that no moisture can penetrate the jacket from the outside, but at the same time it allows moisture to escape from the jacket to the outside. On the inside, the jackets are equipped with a lining, which in turn serves to protect the membrane from mechanical influence. Here there are different designs, which I would like to explain briefly.
- 2-layer jackets
2-layer jackets are usually rather simple and therefore inexpensive hardshell jackets. During production, only the outer fabric and the membrane are laminated, the inner lining is usually sewn in loosely. There are also jackets in this category that do not use a membrane. In this case, the outer fabric is provided with a PU (polyurethane) coating on the inside. 2-layer jackets with membrane or coating are mostly used when reliable and uncomplicated weather protection is needed. For example, for day hikes or for everyday use.
- 2.5-layer jackets
Jackets with a 2.5-layer construction are virtually the compromise between two and three layers. In this construction, too, an outer fabric is firmly bonded to a membrane. However, the sewn-in inner lining is omitted. Instead, a wafer-thin protective layer is applied directly to the laminate. This saves on both weight and pack size compared to two- and three-layer jackets. Jackets of this type are therefore often used for trekking tours or cycling.
- 3-layer jackets
Especially in extreme weather conditions and / or tours, convince 3-layer jackets. Here the structure is initially identical to that of a 2-layer jacket, but in addition a lining is laminated directly as the innermost layer. This makes jackets of this type very robust and they are mainly used for long tours. Typical areas of application here are, for example, skiing or alpine touring.
WATERPROOF AND BREATHABLE?
Somehow that sounds logical, where nothing goes in, nothing goes out. Simple, isn't it? Well, it's not. Because as already mentioned, good hardshell jackets are always weatherproof and breathable at the same time. How well this works, however, depends on various factors. Simplified, it can be said that jackets with a PU coating are less breathable than jackets with a membrane.
But even in the field of membranes, there are significant differences in terms of how they work and how efficient they are. For example, Gore-Tex membranes are membranes with a microporous structure. This structure is narrow enough to prevent water droplets from passing inside, but large enough to allow the much smaller water vapor to escape the jacket. Sypatex membranes, on the other hand, use a physical-chemical principle that works, among other things, with the pressure and temperature difference between the environment and the inside of the jacket.
No matter which technology is used, a membrane or hardshell jacket is nothing without a good impregnation. Therefore, this should be renewed or refreshed from time to time. There are also different technologies for impregnation, but ultimately they all have exactly the same effect, namely to reliably keep water and dirt away from the membrane.
This is important because otherwise the structure of the membrane could become saturated and clogged. In addition to heavy rain, mud or simply sunscreen and the body's own fat could also clog the membrane. This would then severely compromise the waterproofing and, above all, the breathability of the jacket.
SOFTSHELL - TO KEEP YOU NICE AND WARM
Okay, we've now clarified what hardshell is, so we don't need to explain softshell as well, because that's just the opposite. Right? Well, in a world where a cat is the exact opposite of a dog, or the deer is the wife of the stag, this statement is certainly true. But I would still suggest that we take a closer look at softshell as well.
- Application: Warming layer of clothing, e.g. for mountain and winter sports, in good weather also outer layer of clothing.
- Intended use: protection against cold, limited protection against rain, wind and snow.
- Properties: Warming, very breathable, water and wind repellent, sometimes waterproof.
- Materials: Polyester, polyamide (nylon)
- Advantages: good protection against cold, breathable
- Disadvantages: only conditionally weatherproof
HIGHLY BREATHABLE AND WARMING, NOT SO WEATHERPROOF?
The main task of softshell jackets is to protect against the cold. Cutting wind is also reliably kept out here, depending on the design. Contrary to the hardshell jacket, however, softshell jackets are often only conditionally weatherproof. Meaning: Light, short rain is no problem for most softshells. So if you only have to go to the bus stop or the bakery around the corner in bad weather, you certainly won't get soaking wet. But especially in heavy showers or even in the rain for a longer time, many softshells usually let down significantly. Classic softshell jackets are not waterproof, but only water-repellent.
The properties of a jacket or its fabric depend on numerous factors. For example, there are softshell jackets with and without membranes. Among other things, the membranes ensure that wind is reliably kept out and, depending on the material, rain as well. However, this does not mean that softshells without membranes are automatically wind-permeable.
Breathability is another matter. In general, however, it can be said that softshells are significantly more breathable than hardshells, which means they can wick sweat away more quickly. However, especially with extremely weatherproof jackets, which are on the borderline between hard and soft shell, the breathability unfortunately decreases significantly. So you see, the situation is a bit confusing. It's just as well that we've already covered this topic in detail here at Base Camp. So if you want to learn more, check out the post titled "Membranes: breathable, waterproof or windproof?".
One area where softshell jackets can definitely score over hardshell jackets is protection from the cold. Again, it depends on how the material is made. Quite often, however, softshells have a brushed and warming layer on the inside. Often, for example, fleece or velour fabrics are used here, which specifically ensure that the heat is kept on the body. In addition, these materials feel very comfortable on the skin.
So let's note the first main difference between soft and hardshell (generally speaking): hardshell weatherproof, only conditionally warming. Softshell warming, only conditionally weatherproof.
SOFT, HARD, COMFORT?
If hardshell is hard, then softshell is soft? True. Or at least pretty much. Softshell materials are actually softer and more flexible than hardshells.
If you take a closer look at hardshell jackets, one thing immediately stands out: the comparatively firm and inflexible material. Depending on the cut of the jacket, this can be at the expense of freedom of movement. In addition, some people find the typical crackling of a hardshell jacket annoying.
Fortunately, this is a little different with softshell jackets. Because of the softer and more flexible material, the crackling or rustling, for example, is completely eliminated. In addition, softshell jackets can stretch to a certain extent, which means that cuts close to the body are possible without noticeably restricting freedom of movement. This is particularly advantageous for fast sports such as cycling or running.
Due to the brushed inside, many softshells are also comfortable when worn directly against the skin. While hardshells usually feel cold, most softshells are as warm as a fleece jacket or sweater.
So we note a second main difference: softshells tend to be more comfortable to wear than hardshells.
AREAS OF APPLICATION AND SUITABILITY FOR EVERYDAY USE
If we look at the hardshell and softshell camps from the point of view of suitability for everyday use, the softshell jacket clearly comes out on top. This is because it covers a very broad spectrum in more moderate conditions. So if you're looking for an everyday jacket for the cold season, for example, you'll certainly be well served by a corresponding softshell jacket. Does a hardshell jacket have a raison d'être at all, or is it more of a dinosaur from the long-gone outdoor era? Probably not. Let's just take a look at a few typical areas of application.
- Everyday life, leisure, travel
As already mentioned, softshell jackets are clearly ahead in everyday life. They provide a pleasant level of additional warmth on colder days. In addition, depending on the material, they also keep off rain and are thus completely sufficient for all the adversities of the weather that await in the city and in the country. However, if you go out with the dog every day in wind and weather, you can certainly use a good hardshell jacket.
- Hiking, trekking and cycling tours
Here it depends strongly on the season and weather forecast of the respective tour. If it is, for example, a hike in stable good autumn weather, the softshell jacket is certainly at an advantage because of the wearing comfort and warming properties. But if, for example, a thundershower can occur during the course of the day on a summer tour, or if bad weather is generally forecast, hardshell jackets with their extensive weather protection will once again come out on top.
- Ski and alpine tours, winter sports
The higher you go in the mountains and the more wintry the conditions, the higher the requirements. That's why you often see a combination of hard and soft shell jackets for ski and alpine tours (and not only there). It's logical, after all: if you're just ascending on a ski tour, you'll have little contact with the elements (assuming good weather). In addition, the body reacts to the effort with the production of heat and sweat, but at the same time it is winter and therefore cold. Here, once again, the softshell jacket is ahead due to its good breathability and comfort. Once the tourer has arrived at the summit, it is not uncommon for him to have to deal with strong winds. In addition, the subsequent descent threatens increased contact with snow (whether through deep snow, a fall or both), which again speaks for the hardshell jacket. But since it is still winter, the tourer would freeze miserably dressed only in a hardshell jacket. The solution: onion principle, so wear both jackets over each other and thus take the best of both worlds.
So you see, an exact separation of hard and soft shell is not as simple as it seems at first glance. Both in the material properties, as well as in the areas of application, the boundaries between both types of jackets are fluid. In addition, under certain conditions, the combination of both jackets can also be useful.
But one question remains: What about the general features of the jackets, i.e. hood, pockets, ventilation zippers, and so on? Well, this question can be answered as simply as inaccurately: here there is almost nothing on both sides that does not exist. From extremely minimalist to all-encompassing, there are all possible and impossible variants here.