First, let’s start with the Hardshell. This fabric is found on both Jackets and Pants. Hardshells are designed to protect the user from strong wind, hard rain or snow and is typically non-insulated, which makes it very packable. Ideal for wet weather, long trips in the wild and mountain excursions where space and weight are a concern.
The outer face fabric is a tightly woven nylon (in most cases) and has a laminated waterproof inner film to defend against water infiltration and micro-perforated to allow vapor moisture to escape during output. Sometimes a laminate can stiffen the outer fabric making it crackle and feel stiff. If it is not a laminated fabric, then the nylon is treated with a porous bonded particulate spray which configures the molecules so it is dense by design to repel water, but porous enough to allow vapor to escape.
It seems like breathability is key to all performance outerwear whether you are hiking, climbing or skiing and I would be the first to tell you that clamminess is a bad thing. So much so, the makers of the hardshell jackets added features like pit zips and strategically placed vents to help dump heat before it can condensate. These features along with the newest in technical fabrics like stretch panels, pocket placement help keep innovation, design and yes, prices at a premium. Industry leaders like Gore-Tex have tiered performance levels directed at activity and expected output and waterproofness. The Gore-Tex PRO Shell and eVent’s Direct Venting Technology are sitting on top of the heap with a few other proprietary fabrics. So in summary, Hardshells are ideal for wet/windy conditions, pack-ability, and depending on your choice of layers, can be used in mild to cold climates.
The Softshell is a combination of stretchy fabric placement that allows superior breathability, movement and quiet performance. While Softshells are mostly a winter tool, they are very breathable and lightly insulated. Ideal for snow sports and mountain travel, these jackets and pants are designed for mobility, use DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coating on the outside of the face fabric helping to shed light rain, snow flurries and fog and almost all are wind-proof. The Softshell is in high demand due to its versatility, design and function, while the Hardshell is the quick pick for the nastiest conditions. And the Softshell doesn’t require 2 or 3 layers to maintain warmth depending on the model you choose and the activity you participate in. If it’s cycling, you may have noticed a shift from the Hardshell jackets to Softshell technologies. Same approach to protection, but lighter insulation and more breathable fabrics in key areas like the underarms and back panel.
Skiers, mountaineers and backpackers still lean toward the Hardshell, while most other winter enthusiasts line up for the Softshell.
There’s a price for everything
What are you going to pay for these shelters? A Hardshell can run you in the upper $300 to $600 while the Softshells are down to earth at around $200 to $400 range. Prices are slightly less in the cycling arena.