Hardshell jackets are designed to offer full weather protection. In other words, they are designed to be windproof, waterproof and breathable.
Softshell jackets are designed to be flexible and air permeable, so they offer good mobility and some protection from the elements, but are not necessarily windproof or waterproof. Softshell jackets can be broken down into two types: stretch-woven softshells (better breathability) and membrane-equipped softshells (better protection from wind and rain).
With so many manufacturers making so many different shell jackets, the definition of a hardshell or a softshell has become somewhat blurred.
"The interesting thing with softshell," says Macpac's Daan Dijkstra, "is it's kind of a fluid part of the range where some people feel that it only has to offer minor water resistance, and others say it needs to be fully water resistant and windproof.
"What is expected is that when you head out and you want maximum protection against weather and rain for a prolonged period of time, in harsh conditions or reasonably serious conditions, then you definitely need a hardshell," Daan continues. "If you go out for a day walk and it might be touch and go, and you might get a few showers, then a softshell is a really nice alternative because it's not as bulky and it's usually not as heavy - it's a bit more versatile and it will provide you with enough protection to deal with those conditions.
WATERPROOF JACKET MATERIALS
Stretch-woven softshell jackets are manufactured from materials such as nylon or polyester (or a range of similar 'branded' materials), and they repel a moderate amount of moisture from rain or snow thanks to their tightly woven fabric that is coated with a durable water repellent (DWR). They offer good breathability, which is ideal for aerobic activities as the heat generated by your body drives out sweat (moisture). On the flipside, if the precipitation is long lasting or heavy, moisture will eventually get through the material and you'll end up wet.
Membrane-equipped softshell jackets feature a waterproof yet breathable membrane for weather protection. A membrane-equipped softshell jacket will also have a DWR treatment and offer excellent weather protection while still offering good flexibility and breathability.
Like membrane-equipped softshells, hardshell jackets feature a waterproof yet breathable membrane and a DWR treatment, but they also have a tighter weave that offers even better weather protection. On the downside, a hardshell is not as flexible as a softshell and won't offer as much breathability.
WHAT IS A JACKET’S MEMBRANE?
Different manufacturers use a variety of membranes in their jackets. Some of the well-known membrane fabrics are Gore-Tex (which is the original breathable membrane), eVent, Hyvent, Dry.Q Elite and now Pertex AP. Regardless of the brand, the membrane's job is to keep wind and rain out while allowing the sweat generated by your body to escape. The membrane achieves this by being thin, durable, windproof and waterproof, but it has millions of microscopic pores that allow moisture to escape, making it breathable.
"Breathability means transporting moisture from the inside to the outside," says Daan, "and there are different ways of doing that... Gore-Tex and eVent both use what they call an ePTFE [expanded Teflon, or polytetrafluoroethylene] membrane. That membrane is actually quite susceptible to body oils and grime and dirt, and when it gets dirty it won't work as well any more, so what Gore-Tex has done is they've put a thin layer of PU [polyurethane] over it, a really thin one, monolithic, whereas eVent has a specific treatment which is their secret, which they call the secret sauce; it's a chemical way to treat that membrane to make it oil repellent."
Macpac was one of the first brands to use the eVent membrane but is soon moving to a new product called Pertex Shield AP. Daan explains that Pertex "is made out of PU, but they have actually created a membrane that is not hydrophilic, that is not water loving, but is hydrophobic just like the ePTFEs, so it repels water, so that's how it provides waterproofness, and it's got a really even structure of little pores, and in a sense that's kind of similar to eVent. "
HOW MANY LAYERS?
Some manufacturers offer a choice of constructions including two-layer, three-layer and combination laminate materials in their jacket designs, each offering varying levels of weight, insulation, comfort and breathability, but all hopefully waterproof and windproof.
"Three-layer is a fabric where the face fabric, the membrane and the protective screen on the inside are basically stuck together," explains Daan. "It's a layer made out of three different layers, so the garment is just one layer of fabric.
"The two-layer version is a face fabric and the membrane stuck together, but there's actually a separate lining, so you don't have that protective screen or mesh on the inside… because you have that liner, they're usually a bit heavier, but they're also a little bit more supple, the fabric is a bit more drapey, because you only have two layers stuck together rather than three...
"And there's an in between fabric which is often called the 2.5-layer, which basically is face fabric, membrane and then, rather than have a full mesh or screen on the inside, they have little printed dots on it… considered to be the half layer."
LONGEVITY OF A JACKET
No matter what style or brand of hardshell or softshell jacket you opt for, it needs to be waterproof and windproof, and it needs to stay that way for as long as possible despite the rigours of a tough outdoor life. The woven outer layer is treated with DWR (durable water repellent), which prevents the jacket from becoming saturated with water. This DWR can, however, wear off over time and the jacket will lose its waterproof capability.
Things that can degrade the effectiveness of the DWR include abrasion, washing detergents and even the effect of body oils. Different manufacturers will make varying claims about the longevity of DWR and not all manufacturers use a standard testing procedure, so it's difficult to gauge just how long a jacket will retain its waterproof effectiveness.
CONSTRUCTION OF A JACKET
Regardless of the materials used in a jacket's construction, there are certain aspects to the way it's put together that will have a big impact on just how waterproof and windproof it is, and just how long it will last.
Stitches are the weak point in a jacket's defence against the elements so a good quality shell will have tape-sealed seams on all of the stitching points. You also want to look for features such as waterproof external zippers, waterproof pockets, good sealing around the cuffs, waist and collar, and a descent hood that can be drawn tight over your head. Snowboarders and the like will want to also make sure that the hood can accommodate a helmet.
Features that will improve a jacket's chances of surviving intact in the field are reinforced hardwearing textiles on high-abrasion areas such as elbows, shoulders and under the arms, particularly important if you'll be carrying a pack.
Depending upon your outdoor activity of choice, the cut of the jacket is also extremely important. If you're hiking through driving snow or rain you'll want maximum weather protection, so a longer, thigh-length hardshell jacket will be ideal. Some of these will feature articulated elbows and shaping so as not to hamper a wearer's movement. Or if you're into traditional bushwalking you'll want a long jacket with plenty of pockets and a heavier material that will stand up to the rigours of brushing up against tree trunks and branches and clambering over rocks.
If you're after an everyday jacket that offers the best possible mobility, some weather resistance, and one that can be worn on the slopes or to a restaurant in town, you'll be better off with a hip-length, stretch-woven softshell jacket.
Of course, one jacket will rarely be enough to cover all eventualities so depending on the variety of outdoor activities you get up to you'll probably need to fork out for a hardshell and a softshell jacket.