Softshell vs Hardshell… Or both?

When we enter the part of the year where the weather changes frequently it can be hard to select the right outerwear. Is it best to go with a fully waterproof jacket, only a wind breaker or something between the two?

The choice in technical clothing offered by outdoor companies is vast and often complicated if you don't understand why products are created. For hiking, cycling, going out climbing, running trails or simply for walking in the city there are many different shell options. This guide seeks to explain the ins and outs of the world of shells so you can make the best choice for your needs.

In the rain, a garment can be:

Water Repellent:

Water beads on the exterior of the fabric. Ideal for light rain or mist for short periods where breathability is most important. DWR coating is applied (durable water repellency)

Water Resistant:

Water beads on the exterior due to DWR coating, but has additional technology added to make the fabric waterproof or close-to. The distinction is that the stitches are not taped, so whether or not the fabric itself is waterproof, the garment is not, as water will leak through the seams.

Waterproof:

100% waterproof, no matter the conditions. DWR coating plus added waterproof technology plus fully taped seams.

The Hardshell: 100% Waterproof.

  • Hardshells are designed to protect the wearer from rain completely, while also staying breathable enough for comfort in moderate activity.

  • The minimum norm for waterproofness in terms of pressure is 25 PSI. Most waterproof membranes and coatings on the market offer a protection between 25 and 65 PSI. In other words, there is no such thing as “more waterproof than waterproof!” Once you’re over 25 PSI, you are protected.

  • All seams are fully taped.

  • Breathability is achieved due to micropores in the waterproof tissue (+/- 1 million per square inch); paired with pit zips under the arms or core venting in the front.

  • The micropores are big enough to allow vapour from perspiration to pass through, but small enough to stop water molecules from the outside.

  • A DWR coating is applied on the exterior to help shed excess water.  This helps the work of the micropores as they let vapour pass through. The feathers of ducks work in a similar way.

  • It’s important to realize the limits of fully waterproof hardshells, as breathability is limited. For high intensity sports it is better to use a garment with higher breathability such as a water resistant softshell or breathable windbreaker.

  • In the spring, summer, and fall, an ultralight hard shell will serve you well packed away in case of rain, or worn during full-on storms.

  • In the winter, a good quality hard shell’s waterproofness will also protect from the wind and retain your body heat. Great for downhill skiing or high mountain expeditions.

Membranes vs Coatings

  • The Membrane

gore tex
    • A stand-alone “tissu” that is laminated to the back of the exterior fabric.

    • Developed and tested either by the brand (The North Face Hyvent Alpha, The North Face Hydroseal) or by an independent fabricator (Gore Tex.)

    • The Coating

    dryvent
      • Less expensive, it is applied while hot like a “paint.”

      • It is developed by the brand that sells it (The North Face Dryvent, Patagonia H2NO) which offers a better price to quality ratio.

      2 Ply vs 2.5 Ply vs 3 Ply

      We find waterproof-breathable garments in these three constructions:

      2 Ply

      • Commonly found in basic rain jackets or “Triclimate” style jackets. Good price point.
      • Technologies: DWR coating on exterior. Dryvent coating or membrane like Hyvent Alpha or Gore Tex if it is a higher end model.
      • Inside there is a hanging mesh or lining to protect the exposed coating or membrane.
      gore tex 2 ply
      Gore Tex 2 ply
      resolve jacket
      2 ply construction with mesh liner

         

        2.5 Ply

        • Great for light use, summer weather, travel, hiking, or minimalist use.
        • Technologies: DWR coating on exterior. Dryvent coating or laminate like Gore Tex Paclite.
        • Interior protection consists of a micro grid of raised ridges in the case of Dryvent, or an oleophobic coating for Gore Tex Paclite.

          3 Ply

          • Technical shell usually designed for skiing or mountaineering.
          • Technologies: DWR coating on exterior. Could be Hyvent Alpha or one of the varieties of Gore Tex.
          • There is an interior fabric laminated to the membrane to protect from abrasion, often made of ultralight nylon or polyester. In the case of the new Gore Tex Active Shell, the protective fabric is integrated directly with the Gore Tex for a lighter and more comfortable garment.
          gore tex 3 ply
          Gore Tex Pro Shell 3 ply technology
          dihedral
          Women's Dihedral Gore Tex Pro 3 ply

          Regardless of the confection, the purpose of a waterproof garment is to keep you dry, and all of these constructions do just that! The differences between constructions determines the amount of breathability, weight, durability, and compressibility. Depending on your particular usage you should choose a garment to fit your needs.

          Making a Decision

          • Companies are constantly improving upon waterproof-breathable technologies and competing to create the best product possible.

          • When you pay for the Gore Tex brand you invest in a high quality garment with years of testing that is covered not only by the brand’s warranty, but also the Gore Tex, “Guaranteed to keep you dry,” warranty. It is also the most breathable and arguably durable membrane available today. Gore Tex’s Active Shell boasts 30% more breathability than even regular Gore Tex membranes.

          the north face dryzzle
          The North Face Dryzzle - Gore Tex Paclite $270
          dihedral
          The North Face Dihedral Gore Tex Pro $800 
        • The brand’s proprietary coating is an effective way to offer waterproof garments at an affordable price point while still being 100% waterproof and reliable.

        • Usage is the most important factor in deciding what waterproof garment is for you.

        • mens resolve
          Resolve Jacket. Dryvent 2 ply $110
          Mens venture
          Venture Jacket. Dryvent DT 2.5 ply $140
          fuseform anorak
          Fuseform Anorak Dryvent 2.5 ply $260

          The Softshell: Water Resistant and Highly Breathable

          Softshells were created to maximize breathability. Most of the time a fully waterproof jacket is not necessary for the weather and breathability is more important. The concept for softshells originated out of the classic wax coated rain jackets that shepherds used in England.
          In essence, softshells:
          • maximize breathability while sacrificing waterproofness. They use a DWR coating or membrane/coating without taped seams instead.
          • base their performance on an athletic fit closer to the body and made of stretch woven material
          • are made of abrasion resistant material. Great for sports like rock climbing and protects against equipment in all sports.

          Due to the versatility, functionality, affordable price, and great fit, the softshell has increased in popularity. The style has evolved over time and there are many different fits and specific functions for the modern softshell.

          One of the ways to compare softshells is by wind resistance.  We measure this in cubic feet per minute, or CFM>.  The North Face has divided their softshells into three categories based on function and performance:

          Apex Aerobic

          • For warmer weather. Very stretchy material for maximum mobility. Great for high intensity activity.

          • Wind protection: 10+ CFM. Running, cycling, active hiking, or other active sports practiced mostly in the summer.

          nimble hoodie
          Men's Nimble Hoodie $130

            Apex Universal

            • The most versatile of The North Face’s softshells. A good balance between breathability, wind resistance, and mobility.

            • Wind protection: 5-15 CFM. 3 season use. Activities like rock climbing, active walking, or hiking in the mountains.

            apex shellrock
            Apex Shellrock Jacket $160

              Apex Climateblock / Gore Windstopper / Polartec Powershild Pro

              Although the concept seems to contrast with the idea of a softshell in the first place, adding membrane and laminate technologies to softshells can increase their usability even further.
              • Softshells in this category conserve the softness, mobility, stretchiness, and durability while improving the water resistance by implementing a microporous membrane into the design. The seams are not taped, meaning that there is 100% protection from the wind while keeping good breathability, but not being waterproof.

              • This style of softshell becomes more useful in colder temperatures and challenging weather.

              • Wind protection: 0 CFM. 100% windproof.

              apex bionic
              Men's The North Face Apex Bionic Jacket $170
              calentito 2 jacket
              Women's Calentito 2 Jacket with Windstopper membrane. $130

                The Windbreaker

                • For the minimalist, windbreakers are appealing. They consist of one single barrier against the wind for the maximum breathability possible. Designed for intense activity: cycling, running, fast hiking, or walking in pleasant weather.

                mens better than naked jacket
                Men's Better Than Naked jacket $150
                women's rapido moda
                Women's Rapido Moda jacket $135
                • Windbreakers are designed simply: a super tightly woven tissue combined with a DWR coating on the outside, and that’s all that is necessary.

                • They can be found in nylon (most durable,) polyester (softer, lighter, and more breathable,) or branded fabrics like Pertex.

                • They do not contain membranes or any special technology besides an intelligent design. The microfibrous weave achieves the wind blocking properties on its own, allowing for an affordable price-point and a fantastic solution for intense training.

                • By The North Face, windbreakers can be found in the Flight Series (running,) or Mountain Athletics collection.

                better than naked
                The North Face Better Than Naked Collection

                Based on all of the information above, the ideal shell for you should be “easy” to choose! First and foremost, choose based on your primary use. Is breathability more important or is weather protection more important? Or both? Choose wisely...