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Hard shell, soft core? – hardshell vs. softshell

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There are things we think we know. But if we think about it more carefully, we quickly realise that we actually have no idea about it. This is how I felt the other day when I was asked what the difference was between a softshell jacket and a hardshell jacket

Two different types of material

My research has shown that there is an increasing intersection of soft and hardshell. So, you can no longer separate the two material types so easily. It is not possible to go into all possible and impossible variants in this rather limited blog post, however. So, let’s just agree to simplify and generalise.

Hardshell – when it has to be weatherproof

Hardshell profile

  • Use: outer wear for mountain and winter sports.
  • Purpose: Weather protection. Protects against rain, snow and strong wind.
  • Properties: Waterproof, windproof, breathable
  • Materials: Polyester, polyamide (nylon)
  • Well-known names / brands: Gore-Tex, Sympatex, Dermizax
  • Variants: 2-, 2.5- and 3-layer jackets, with membrane or coating
  • Advantages: good weather protection, robust
  • Disadvantages: little protection against cold, breathability may be limited
Hardshell means stable outer shell.

Good weather protection

A hardshell jacket is in fact what we think of as a waterproof jacket. Some people know this type of jacket as a Gore-Tex jacket but this is just the brand name of a material. In simple terms, hardshell jackets offer good weather protection. They are always used when it is raining or windy, for example. Hardshell jackets also provide reliable protection from the elements when skiing or mountaineering, when there is a threat of increased contact with snow and ice.

Good hardshell jackets are also always breathable. Put simply, this means that precipitation is reliably kept out from the outside, but moisture produced inside the jacket, for example through heavy sweating, can be released to the outside. The way this works depends on the technology and the structure of the respective material. Let’s take a look at exactly how hardshell jackets are constructed.

The layer construction

Among other things, the first layer protects against damage and also against cacti

2-layer jackets

2-layer jackets are usually relatively simple and therefore inexpensive hardshell jackets. In manufacturing, only the outer fabric and the membrane are laminated, while the inner lining is usually sewn in loosely. There are also jackets in this category that do not have a membrane. The outer fabric is coated on the inside with PU (polyurethane). 2-layer jackets with a membrane or coating are mostly used when you need reliable and easy weather protection. For example, for day hikes or for everyday use.

2.5 layer jackets

Jackets with a 2.5-layer construction are the compromise between two and three layers. With this construction, the outer fabric is firmly bonded to a membrane. However, there is no sewn-in lining. A very thin protective layer is applied directly to the laminate instead. This saves both weight and pack size compared to 2- and 3-layer jackets. This type of jacket is therefore often used for trekking tours or cycling.

3-layer jackets

3-layer jackets are effective even in extreme weather conditions. The basic construction is identical to that of a 2-layer jacket. An additional lining is laminated directly inside as the innermost layer. This makes this type of jacket very robust and suitable for use on longer tours. Typical uses are skiing or mountaineering.

Waterproof and breathable?

It sounds logical that where nothing goes in, nothing goes out. Easy, right? Well, not quite. After all, as already mentioned, good hardshell jackets are both weatherproof and breathable. How well this works, depends on a number of factors. Put simply, jackets with a PU coating are less breathable than jackets with a membrane.

A good dry treatment is the base of functional hardshell jackets.

However, there are also significant differences in terms of mechanism and efficiency when it comes to membranes. Gore-Tex membranes, for example, are membranes with a microporous structure. This structure is dense enough to prevent water droplets from penetrating inside, but large enough to allow the much smaller water vapour to escape from the jacket. Sympatex membranes, on the other hand, use a physicochemical principle that uses, among other things, the difference in pressure and temperature between the environment and the inside of the jacket.

Whichever technology is used, however, a membrane or hardshell jacket is nothing without a good dry treatment. This should therefore be renewed or refreshed from time to time. There are also different technologies for dry treatment, but ultimately they all have exactly the same effect, which is to keep water and dirt reliably away from the membrane.

This is important because otherwise the structure of the membrane could become saturated and clogged. As well as heavy rain, mud or simply sun cream and your own body fat can also block the membrane. This would then severely compromise the waterproofing and above all the breathability of the jacket.

A good dry treatment is therefore essential for the functioning of a hardshell jacket. If you would like to learn more about this topic, then read .

Brief introduction to typical membranes

Gore-Tex

Gore-Tex is the name of an entire family of materials and has been almost synonymous with weatherproof and breathable clothing for a long time. Whatever the finished material may look like or be called, Gore-Tex membranes are all based on the same mechanism: a special structure. ePTFE (expanded polytetrafluoroethylene) is used for this purpose. ePTFE membranes form a special, microporous structure. This is so tight that the comparatively large water molecules cannot pass through the structure. Water vapour molecules however, are much smaller and can pass through the structure without any problems.

To allow water vapour to escape through the microporous membrane, there also needs to be a temperature difference between the inside of the jacket and the ambient air. The lower the outside temperature is compared to the inside temperature, the better water vapour is wicked away.

Dermizax

Dermizax is another material family that is available in different versions. However, the same mechanism is used for all membranes: polyurethane is used for Dermizax membranes. This material is hydrophilic, which means it is “water-loving”. It has small molecules that can literally soak up water.

Sympatex

The family of Sympatex materials also includes different versions, which are all based on the same principle. They use a physicochemical principle. This sounds more complicated than it actually is. The membrane consists of two different components: hydrophobic polyester, which doesn’t let any water through and hydrophilic polyether which allows targeted transport of water vapour.

A pressure gradient from the inside to the outside is also needed here. If this is caused by a significant temperature difference, the water vapour molecules produced by sweating are released to the outside along the hydrophilic molecule chains. You can find more information on Sympatex from Wiebke in her article ”Sympatex: the environmentally friendly wind and water protection!”

Softshell – to stay comfortably warm

Softshell profile

  • Use: warming layer of clothing for mountaineering and winter sport, can also be used as an outer layer in good weather
  • Purpose: cold protection, limited protection from rain, wind and snow
  • Properties: warming, very breathable, water and wind-repellent, sometimes also waterproof
  • Materials: Polyester, polyamide (nylon)
  • Well-known names / brands: Windstopper, Schoeller, Polartec
  • Advantages: Good protection against cold, breathable
  • Disadvantages: only limited weatherproof properties

Highly breathable and warming, but not so weatherproof?

Softshell jackets are usually only somewhat waterproof.

The main purpose of softshell jackets is to protect against cold. They also reliably keep out piercing winds, depending on the design. Unlike hardshell jackets, softshell jackets are often only weatherproof to a limited extent. A light rain shower 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. However, many soft shells usually lose a lot of their waterproof qualities in heavy showers or when they are exposed to rain for a longer period of time. Classic softshell jackets are not waterproof, but only water-repellent. 

The properties of a jacket and its fabric depend on numerous factors. You can get softshell jackets with and without a membrane. The membranes ensure, among other things, that wind and potentially also rain are kept out. However, this does not mean that softshells without membranes are always wind-permeable. 

Breathability is another factor. Generally speaking, softshells are much more breathable than hardshells, i.e. they can release sweat more quickly to the outside. With extremely weatherproof jackets, however, which are somewhere between hard and softshell, the breathability unfortunately also decreases significantly. As you can see, it’s all a bit confusing. Fortunately, we have already covered this topic in detail here in Base camp.

One area where softshell jackets definitely score points over hardshell jackets, however, is protection from the cold. Once again, it’s down to the material. It is not uncommon for softshells to have a brushed and warming layer on the inside. Fleece or velour fabrics are often used here which ensure that the warmth is kept close to the body. These materials also feel very comfortable against the skin. 

The first main difference between soft and hardshells (generally speaking) is therefore: Hardshells are weatherproof, but only offer limited warmth. Softshells are warming, but only offer limited weatherproofing.

Soft, hard, comfort with softshell?

If you take a closer look at hardshell jackets, you’ll immediately notice one thing: the relatively firm and inflexible material. Depending on the cut of the jacket, this may come at the expense of freedom of movement. Some people also find the typical cracking noise of a hardshell jacket annoying. 

As the name suggests, softshell jackets are usually softer and more comfortable to wear.

The soft inner surface means that softshells are comfortable when worn next to the skin. Whilst hardshells can feel cold, most softshells feel as warm as a fleece jacket or jumper.

Applications and compatibility of softshell

If we look at hardshell and softshell jackets in terms of their suitability for everyday use, softshell jackets clearly comes out on top. It covers a very wide range of uses in moderate conditions. So if you’re looking for an everyday jacket for cold weather, for example, you’ll certainly be happy with a softshell jacket. So is there any reason to choose a hardshell jacket or is it more of a dinosaur from a bygone outdoor era? I don’t think so. Let’s take at look at some typical use cases.

Everyday, leisure, travel

As mentioned, softshell jackets are superior for everyday life. They provide a pleasant amount of extra warmth on colder days. They also keep out rain, depending on the material, so they are perfectly adequate for all the weather you can expect in the city and in the country. However, if you go out with your dog every day in wind and rain, you definitely need a good hardshell jacket.

Hiking, trekking and bike touring

It depends on the season and the weather forecast for the tour. For example, if you’re going on a hike in stable autumn weather, a softshell jacket has an advantage because it is comfortable to wear and has warming properties. But if, for example, if summer thunderstorms are expected during the course of the day or if bad weather is forecast in general, hardshell jackets and their extensive weather protection come out on top.

Ski touring and mountaineering, winter sports

The higher you go in the mountains and the more wintry the conditions, the higher the demands. Therefore, you often see a combination of hard and softshell jackets when skiing and mountaineering (and not only there). It makes sense: if you are ascending while ski touring, you won’t have much contact with the elements (assuming the weather is good). The body reacts to exertion by producing heat and sweat, but at the same time it is winter and therefore cold. So, softshell jackets once again win out here because of their good breathability and comfort.

Hard or softshell?

As you can see, it’s not as easy to make an exact distinction between hard and softshell as it might seem at first glance. The lines between the two types of jacket are fluid, both in terms of material properties and areas of application. In some conditions, it can also be useful to use a combination of both jackets.

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Alpinetrek-Expert Jörn

Alpinetrek-Expert Jörn

I feel at my best whilst my pulse is racing and a beautiful scenery is passing by me. Whether on foot or on my bike – and sometimes even in the water – endurance sports are the best form of leisure activity for me.

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