Ski expert Scott House skis powder at Solitude Resort.

Hardshells and Softshells: What’s the Difference?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

As manufacturers continue to innovate and expand their ski outerwear offerings, we’ve seen a major uptick in the amount of hardshells, softshells, and even hybrid shells in recent years. If you’re having a hard time deciphering what all these different labels mean and which one will work best for you—don’t worry, you’re not alone. To help make sense of these different categories, we took a deep dive to explore each category’s strengths and weaknesses, so you have a good idea of what to look for and which one will perform best for you.

Hardshells

Helly Sogn Shell 2.0 Jacket in Antique Moss
Helly Hansen’s Sogn 2.0 Hardshell Jacket.

Strengths

  • Waterproof
  • Windproof
  • Durable
  • Breathable

Weaknesses

  • Stiff fabric
  • Not air-permeable
  • Less mobility
  • Noisy

Hardshells are easily the most common type of outerwear. The typical hardshell construction consists of either a two- or three-layer material with a polyurethane (PU) or ePTFE membrane laminated to a nylon face. This construction has become the gold standard within the industry, as it prioritizes waterproof protection while providing a respectable amount of breathability. Given a hardshell’s ability to shed heavy, wet snow, and even rain, hardshell outerwear is a great choice if you ski in wet, heavy snow or do a lot of storm day skiing.

Hardshells are also an excellent choice if you ski in high-elevation terrain with frequent wind. This is due to the fact that many hardshells provide a high level of windproof protection, making them excellent at sealing out cold, biting winds. When shopping for a hardshell, you’ll notice many manufacturers rate each garment with a waterproof, breathability rating. These ratings serve as a good benchmark when comparing different shells. As you’re comparing hardshells, you’ll want to go with a shell with at least a 10k/10k rating, as this is the minimum rating a garment must have to be considered waterproof. To learn more about these ratings and how they’re determined, you can read up on the subject in this explanation of technical clothing ratings.

Softshells

The Marmot ROM Jacket in Moroccan Blue and Citronelle.
The Marmot ROM Softshell Jacket.

Strengths

  • Air-permeable
  • Weather-resistant
  • Stretchy
  • Soft, warm

Weaknesses

  • Not waterproof
  • Less wind protection
  • Less durability

The softshell category has become something of a catch-all within the outdoor industry, with some manufacturers going as far as labeling cotton blend jackets and hoodies as softshells. While this may technically be accurate, it’s also misleading since a cotton blend jacket will not provide the same level of weather protection you’d expect from a shell. Here at Jans, in order for us to label a jacket as a softshell, it must provide a level of weather and wind protection that you can rely on in a mountain environment. So, you’re probably asking what exactly is a softshell then?

A technical softshell is made from a stretch woven material (typically a combination of polyester and elastane) and brushed backer (or lining) for warmth. This construction puts an emphasis on breathability and mobility, while providing a degree of weather and wind protection. This makes softshell outerwear ideal for more aerobic activities like Nordic skiing, backcountry skiing, and snowshoeing, where mobility and breathability are essential to prevent overheating. Softshells are also more than adequate for alpine skiing in clear conditions, where more serious water- and wind-proof protection would be overkill. In terms of weather protection, a softshell will shed light snowfall in addition to cold, dry snowfall. Anything more than that and a softshell will not provide enough weather protection to keep you warm and dry.

How Do I Tell The Difference?

If you’re in a shop looking at jackets or pants on a rack, it’s usually pretty easy to identify a hardshell since the fabric will have a stiff, almost crunchy, feel. This is the tell-tale “crinkle” of a hardshell. But if you’re shopping online, it may not be as easy to distinguish between the two. The easiest way to tell whether a piece of outerwear is a hard or softshell is going through the material specs. Hardshells will have, as stated earlier, either a 2- or 3-layer waterproof, breathable barrier laminated to a durable nylon face. Hardshell outerwear will also have sealed seams as an extra line of defense against precipitation.

Softshells, on the other hand, will almost always have a high degree of stretch within the fabric in the form of elastane and a fleece-like lining. This combination keeps the fabric soft, quiet, stretchy, and very breathable. Softshells are also frequently described as air permeable. Air permeability essentially means the fabric always allows body heat to escape the fabric, ensuring a high level of breathability that’s ideal for high-output aerobic activities. This is also a major difference from hardshells, since the majority of laminates used in hardshells require a certain level of pressure from body heat to build up before escaping the waterproof barrier.

What Type Of Shell Is Right For Me?

Deciding what type of shell is right for you will come down to what type of skiing you do, where you ski the most, and how much you ski each year. If you ski upwards of 100 days a season, there is no single jacket or pant combo that will excel in the wide range of conditions you’ll encounter throughout the year. This is why many die-hard skiers own insulated outerwear for cold midwinter conditions, hardshells for heavy storm days, and a softshell kit for ski touring and clear, warm weather.

Owning one of everything isn’t always an option for everyone, nor does it make a whole lot of sense, if you’re just getting into skiing or you only ski a handful of times each season. If you’re limited to one or the other, then you can begin by asking yourself what type of outerwear you will need for the types of conditions you’ll encounter the most. So, if you typically ski in clear bluebird conditions and avoid stormy conditions, then a stretchy, comfortable softshell will be your best bet. If you’re a dedicated powderhound that’s out on the mountain regardless of the conditions, then you’ll want to go with a hardshell to combat the heavy snowfall and high winds you’ll encounter during storm days.

Additional Links:

Shop Men’s Ski Clothing

Shop Women’s Ski Clothing

Fabric Tech: 2-Layer vs. 3-Layer

Nordic Clothing Design

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