BackPacker Magazine’s Gear Chick Kris Hostetter recently posted an answer to the Hardshell versus Softshell Jacket question.
It’s not technically the temperature that determines what type of shell is best (warmth is provided by what you wear underneath your shell), but several different factors: precipitation; your level of exertion and breathability requirements; and your weight and packability requirement.
She writes “Here’s the deal:
When do I pack a hardshell? On any day trip where rain is a possibility. On any multiday backpacking trip—period. When weight is a big concern, I’ll always opt for the rock solid weather protection of a hardshell—which is always lighter and more packable than a softshell. Hardshells are made using a tightly woven face fabric that’s either laminated to a waterproof/breathable membrane—such as Gore-Tex or eVent—or sprayed with a waterproof/breathable microporous coating. For way more details on the differences between these two types of hardshells, check out this article from our Oct. 2009 issue.
When do I wear a softshell? When you’re skiing, snowshoeing, or doing anything outside in the winter. All softshells have a DWR (durable waterproof coating) that repels light precipitation, like snow or drizzle, and for winter sports, when hardshells can get so crinkly and loud, it’s nice to wear a quiet softshell. I’ll also go for a softshell when I’m biking or running. Or on a daytrip when weight and pack space are not a big concern. Softshells are made using stretch woven face fabrics. Most softshells are not waterproof (see below)—they block the wind and provide way better breathability than hardshells. And because the fabric is soft and stretchy, they often fit really well and have a totally stylin’ look for around town.
You can read her full article here.
Backcountry.com‘s soft shell jacket buyer’s guide that provides information on the different options a buyer should consider before purchasing a soft shell. Soft shells are great for the edge seasons of winter camping. They can be considered heavy when compared to a down or synthetic jacket if you are just seeking warmth.
Softshell Jacket Buyer’s Guide
Why?: Softshells emerged when people wanted something to bridge the gap between waterproof hardshells and highly breathable fleeces. The softshell sought to be the best of both worlds. These jackets range from heavyweight and waterproof to ultralight and ultra-breathable, so chances are you can find the right one for to help you stay dry and comfortable in a wide range of weather conditions and outdoor activities. Softshells are more breathable than a hardshell; more wind- and water-resistant than a fleece and can make for a lighter system as you may not need additional insulation.
Is it waterproof?: While many stretch-woven softshells hold off a good amount of moisture, they can only be considered water resistant. Softshells with membranes offer waterproof protection that rivals top-shelf hardshells. However, the pores in these membranes are slightly larger than those in waterproof shells, so they breathe better. Basically, they’re waterproof in about any condition except for a full-on monsoon. Softshells with membranes are waterproof. Stretch-woven softshells are water resistant.
What kind should I get?: It’s hard to distinguish between stretch-woven and membrane softshells, but this may be the most-important factor for choosing. Membrane-equipped softshells offer greater weather protection at the expense of breath-ability; stretch-woven fabrics breathe better for aerobic activities, but don’t protect as well. So how do you tell them apart? The easiest way is by looking at the fabric.
Materials: Schoeller, Nylon or polyester, Polartec Power Shield, Apex Aerobic & Apex ClimateBlock (The North Face), M2, & M3 (Marmot), TufStretch (Mountain Hardwear)
The Lowdown: These jackets shed wind and water thanks to the tightness of the fabric’s weave. Most stretch-woven jackets keep you dry in pretty brutal snow or moderate rain, but eventually moisture will win out and you’ll start to get a bit wet. However, if you’re working hard, your body heat drives out the moisture, so you probably won’t get totally soaked as long as you’re moving.
* Highest breath-ability for aerobic activities.
* Generally very lightweight.
* Good weather resistance with excellent wicking.
* Can be used as a mid layer under your hardshell.
* Not completely waterproof.
* Sometimes not completely windproof.
* Not as lightweight as comparable fleece.
Get one of these jackets if…
* You do a lot of highly aerobic activities like trail running or back country touring.
* Get out on very cold days with lots of fluffy snow but minimal slush or rain.
* Want to use your softshell in place of a fleece to layer under a waterproof shell.
Materials: Gore-Tex Soft Shell, Gore-Tex WindStopper, Ventia (Outdoor Research), Conduit (Mountain Hardwear), Omni-Tech (Columbia), Polartec Windbloc or Marmot M1
The Lowdown: Just like hardshells, these jackets feature a waterproof breathable membrane for weather protection. The difference is that membrane softshells use a slightly looser weave for increased breathability. Keep in mind that “looser” is measured in this case on a microscopic level. These jackets will hold off hours of horrendous downpour. It has to be a full-on monsoon to soak through a softshell with a membrane.
* More waterproof than stretch-woven softshells.
* More breathable than hardshell jackets.
* Versatility to take on nearly any condition.
* Not as breathable as stretch-woven softshells.
* Generally heavier than stretch-woven softshells.
* Not quite as waterproof as a full-on hardshell.
Get one of these jackets if…
* You are more concerned with weather protection than breathability or aerobic comfort.
* You get out on relatively warm days where slushy snow and rain are likely.
* Tend to spend blocks of time sitting still (such as on a ski lift or belaying an ice climb).
I have had good success ordering from Backcountry.com and they have a wide range of soft shell jackets and are conveniently having a 20% off sale using code 4L0-1-M8Z8P.SHARE