Weather protection is one of the most important features of outdoor clothing. The clothing must be waterproof, windproof, and warm while ensuring that the wearer does not overheat. For comfort, it must be breathable so that sweat is transported to the outside and moisture does not build up. The outer layer of the clothing is either Hardshell or Softshell, which are two categories of outdoor wear with different functional properties.
Hardshell vs Softshell – Waterproof and Breathable Fabrics
This is where the difference between hardshell and softshell jackets is. While a good hardshell provides total protection from wind and rain for a long time in nearly any weather, a softshell protects against rain only during brief showers.
Types of hardshell jackets
- Hardshell jackets with a coating
- Hardshell jackets with membrane
Hardshell jackets with PU coating
PU coatings for hardshell jackets are applied onto the inside of the outer fabric, creating a vapor-permeable, microporous layer that stops outside water from entering but allows water vapor (sweating) from the inside to exit.
Coatings are cheaper to produce than membranes and are mostly used in “budget” hardshell jackets. They are more prone to mechanical stress, which will result in the abrasion of the coating. They are also not as breathable. Nevertheless, these models are justified and sufficient for most activities. Depending on the outdoor activity you plan you may pay to buy a hardshell jacket with a membrane. The longer life of the membrane and the better breathability may be worth it.
Hardshell jackets with Membrane
Membranes are an additional layer of fabric that manufacturers place between their inner and outer fabric of the jacket. A membrane is like a foil that is laminated to the exterior material from the inside. The Hardshell membrane is a lot more abrasion-resistant and more vapor-permeable, thus more breathable than polyurethane coatings.
In addition, the breathability of some membranes is variable. The more you sweat and the higher the body temperature, the more breathable the membrane becomes. At lower temperatures when you sweat less, less body heat is lost.
One differentiates between with 2-, 2.5- and 3- layers
- 2 layer means that on the inside of the outer fabric, a waterproof but breathable membrane is firmly applied, a loose lining protects the membrane
- 2.5 layer has the membrane plus an additional protective coating directly applied to the inside of the outer fabric
- 3 layer uses a tough outer fabric, a membrane, and a protective liner.
In the 2 layer version, the membrane and the outer fabric form one layer and a protective lining (usually a thin mesh fabric) forms the second layer and hangs loose in the jacket. This processing method is cheaper, but also designed for less heavy luggage and non-extreme use. The outside has an additional DWR Coating.
The 2.5-layer models lack the lining, instead, a thin protective layer is applied directly to the membrane. The advantage lies in the lightweight, very flexible design. The disadvantage is that they are less robust and as breathable as a 3layer jacket. However, they are comfortable to wear, affordable, and are suitable for most leisure activities without extremes.
The 3-layer products perform the best and are designed for tough use. This kind of hard shell combines a durable outside fabric, a waterproof/steam permeable membrane, and a protective inner lining. It is the most complex manufacturing process, which is reflected in the price. But it pays to choose 3-layer hardshell jackets for long tours in extreme environments with heavy luggage to carry, thus best for alpine climbing, expeditions, and other activities where durability and reliability are a priority.
The measurable value of waterproofness is given in millimeter water column. This is the pressure at which the water penetrates the fabric. The higher the value the more waterproof.
The waterproofness is expressed in water pressure, which in simple terms is the height of a water column that a fabric can withstand. A pipe is placed on top of the fabric and filled with water. The height at which water penetrates the fabric is the resulting waterproofness. The value is giving in Millimeter (mm) water column or pressure (psi).
Anything over 2000mm may be considered waterproof. Quality jackets usually start at a range of about 5000mm water column. The more you spend the higher the rating can be, some jackets or tents promoting a water column of 10,000 to 30,000 mm and are thus absolutely waterproof even in heavy rain in stormy conditions.
In addition to waterproofness, the breathability or the water vapor permeability of the membrane/coating is important. To be comfortable the material needs to allow as much as possible water vapor to be released to the outside.
The membranes or coating must have fine pores that allow water vapor (steam) to pass through, but are too small to allow water droplets to penetrate. Letting the water through in the form of steam is called diffusion, but for this to work, certain conditions must be met.
It must be warmer inside the clothing than outside, and humidity must be higher inside the clothing than outside. Only then can moisture (perspiration) be released to the outside. This is also the reason why sometimes these membranes seem not to work anymore. Especially in the tropics where heat and humidity are high, light cotton is still best.
Water-repelling DWR Coating
Very important for the functionality of membrane jackets is a DWR Finish. Durable Water Repellent is a coating that is applied to the surface of the fabric to make it water repellent and to prevent the outer fabric from becoming saturated with water. A water-saturated fabric is not breathable anymore.
The DWR wears off over time. It needs to be reapplied when necessary. You can see this when the water droplets don’t roll off anymore but soak into the fabric. Reapplying DWR to a garment is fairly easy, there are sprays and washes available.
The Hardshell alone does not keep you warm. For staying warm you need additional insulating layers that may either be incorporated in the hardshell jacket of by wearing additional layers underneath.
Softshells are great all-round jackets and can be worn in 90% of all weather conditions. They are jackets for most occasions and due to their high wearing comfort, they have become very popular. They are usually made of stretch material, are intended as an outer layer for moderate and low temperatures. They reliably protect their wearers from light rain and snow but reach their limits during continuous rain. They can also be combined with a hard shell or a rain jacket to be worn as a middle layer to provide insulation.
Softshell jackets combine several functional layers. These provide good insulation, a high level of comfort, and freedom of movement. Softshell hiking jackets are wind-resistant and breathable. The moisture is transported away from the body and evaporates.
Conclusion – Hardshell vs Softshell
Whether you wear a hardshell vs softshell depends on the conditions. None is better than the other, both are an important part of functional wear that complements each other.
You may take both on a hiking tour so you are well prepared. Depending on the weather conditions and temperature, you can combine them and benefit from their different properties.