Hardshell vs Softshell – What is the difference?

What is the difference between a hardshell vs a softshell? Depending on your desired use and activity, one may better than another. Read on to find out more!

In the outdoor world, protecting yourself against moisture is important.

Hard shells  (traditional rain jackets and pants)  are very good at keeping out the rain. Waterproof and windproof, the rain or snow is held at bay. The clothes and your body stay dry underneath.

At first…. 🙂

Eventually perspiration from your body soaks the clothes underneath. During cold weather, this perspiration often turns into icy condensation inside the very shell you are wearing to keep out moisture.

Some laminates such as Gortex allegedly will let out the moisture and keep out the precipiation from your body, but during muggy conditions and/or high aerobic exertion even these innovations fail.

Wearing a Golite Tumalo in the Pecos Wilderness of New Mexico


Enter softshells as a solution.  Water resistant and wind proof as opposed to water and wind proof, these more pliable jackets and pants do a wonderful job at letting out moisture while still protecting the wearer from the elements. And, depending on the softshell vs hardshell, a softshell can be more abrasive resistant than some hardshells. Most softshells also double as light insulation layer.


On the summit of Grand Teton with a Double Black Diamond brand softshell

But a softshell does have drawbacks.

It is not meant to be used in persistent rain and it will soak through. It is also (generally) heavier and bulkier than a hardshell.

Like all pieces of gear, a  choice to use a softshell vs a hardshell is a series of trade-offs depending on what your needs may be, the weather, chosen activity and so on.

Generally speaking, here is when I use or pack a hardshell vs a softshell:


  • Always on multi-day trips
  • When rain is a strong possibility
  • More technical backcountry skiing vs the more aerobic Nordic backcountry. I tend to fall more when Tele skiing, too. 😉


  • Alpine climbs: More stop and go  then aerobic much of the time. More abrasion resistant than my hardshell as well
  • Cold and dry conditions esp with aerobic activity (Nordic skiing or snowshoeing for example)
  • For mild precipitation esp when moving

Note that is not always an either / or proposition.  Something like the classic Marmot DriClime windshirt is essentially a softshell. It provides enough warmth and wind resistance for the outdoors person on the go. Couple it with a hardshell and you have a combo that is esp popular with many thru-hikers for multiple conditions.

As with all gear choices, take what is best for you, the condtions you expect and the activity you are taking part in.


A mix of various types of layers while skiing in Hidden Valley at Rocky Mountain National Park


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