Hard Shell vs. Soft Shell Jackets: What's the Difference?

Whether you're shopping for a new jacket or getting ready to head outside, deciding between a soft shell jacket and a hard shell jacket can be pretty tough. They both offer comfort, protection and a variety of other benefits. So, which one should you choose? Making the right decision is easy when you better understand the difference between the two. Continue reading to learn what hard shell and soft shell jackets actually are, and what they do best.

What's the difference between a hard shell jacket and a soft shell jacket?


What's a hard shell jacket? A hard shell jacket is a waterproof jacket with a hood. Sometimes they are insulated. They are designed to provide lightweight, durable and waterproof breathable protection in rain or snow. It's called a "hard shell" because the fabric isn't very stretchy, has a slightly "crinkly" feel (and sound) to it and is very durable. When you compare a hard shell to a soft shell, you can tell the difference by feeling the fabric and listening for a swooshing and crinkling sound -- a hard shell jacket makes more noise than a soft shell jacket.

What are hard shell jackets used for? Hard shell jackets are used for protection from rain or snow. They are must-haves for hikes, camping, backpacking, powder days, or any other activity that might take place in rain or heavy snow. Hard shell jackets (without insulation) are lighter and more packable than soft shell jackets, and are the better choice when weight and space are an issue.

What's a soft shell jacket? A soft shell jacket is a water-resistant, stretchy-and-breathable shell that offers breathable protection from light snow and rain. Some soft shells feature waterproof breathable technology, but most are just water repellent. They are designed to move with you and maintain a comfortable body temperature during high-energy activities. Most soft shell jackets feature a soft lining or fleece lining that offers added warmth.

soft shell jackets

What are soft shell jackets used for? Soft shell jackets are used for stretch, warmth and breathability during active outdoor adventures. They can be used as an insulating midlayer when you're layering for skiing or dressing for cold, snowy weather, and they're a great choice for everyday wear in cool weather. Soft shell jackets are fashionable and versatile, but aren't as lightweight, packable or waterproof as hard shell jackets.

Should I wear a soft shell or hard shell?


If you're going for a day hike and there's a chance of rain, wear or pack a hard shell. If you're going for a multi-day backpacking or camping trip, always pack a hard shell. A hard shell provides the waterproof protection and durability you need for backpacking trips and rainy weather. Hard shells are also lighter and more packable than soft shells, so are a must-have for backpackers.

Wear a soft shell if you're going hiking, rock climbing, biking, running, or just hanging out in cool, dry weather. They're also great for skiing on a dry day. The enhanced breathability and flexibility of a soft shell is ideal for all of these activities. A soft shell jacket can also be used as an insulating midlayer underneath a waterproof hard shell. Keep in mind that most soft shells offer reliable water resistance, so if it rains or snows a bit while you're out, you should stay mostly dry.

hard shell vs. soft shell jackets
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