Reference our Introduction to Layered Clothing Systems article to help you decide when you might wear this type of layer and when you might not, and what to put under and over it. First, decide if you should purchase a softshell or hardshell (or both!). If you are most concerned about weather protection, then you want a hardshell. If you value breathability over everything else, then you want a fleece. If you want a layer that gives you a little bit of both, breathability and weather protection, now you are in the realm of softshells.
Types of Shell Layers
There are so many different types of protective layers on the market, that sometimes it can be difficult to determine which type of layer will best suit your needs. Here we outline some of the most common shell layers and their ideal uses.
A hardshell is a waterproof layer that protects in stormy weather. This is the layer you want to have with you on overnight trips in the mountains or on mountaineering expeditions. This will be the most protective of all the shell layers, being windproof, waterproof, and fairly durable. Usually hardshells are more breathable than a rain jacket but less breathable than a softshell. They are also fairly expensive.
A rain jacket is also a waterproof layer, but it tends to use less sophisticated fabrics than a hardshell, making it less breathable and less durable. They are less expensive than hardshells and serve essentially the same purpose, so they are an excellent protection layer for the budget conscious outdoors woman or for someone who needs a waterproof layer only occasionally.
A softshell is wind and water resistant, but not waterproof. In some cases softshell jackets can also be windproof as well as water resistant. These layers are breathable and very flexible, making them more comfortable than a hardshell or a rain jacket. They work best for activities that involve an elevated heart rate and that takes place within one day.
A wind jacket is a lightweight layer that protects from wind. It will not be waterproof, and usually is not very water resistant either. Typically, wind jackets are very packable and are ideal for clipping to a harness on a multi-pitch climb or tossing into a backpack for a multi-day trip. The benefit to these layers is that they are much lighter than other types of shells, but they also offer less protection.
A running jacket is, simply put, a jacket to add a level of protection while running in the cold. It can be either a wind jacket or a softshell, but usually has features tailored towards runners in order to make it more functional and comfortable if you only plan to use it for that purpose.
A ski jacket is an insulated jacket with either a softshell or hardshell exterior. In most cases, it is better to have an insulation layer separate from a shell layer, but for skiing at a report, it is convenient and comfortable to have both in one layer. These jackets usually have features to allow for temperature regulation, such as pit-zips, and also have features targeted towards skiers.
When to Wear a Softshell Jacket
Hardshell vs. Softshell
The primary difference between these two layers is that a hardshell is waterproof while a softshell is classified as water resistant. In the outdoor industry, waterproof means that the material will not allow water through, even during a continuous downpour, and the seams and zippers are designed to withstand the same level of wetness. Water resistant means that the garment will repel a light drizzle of water for a short period of time, but will eventually "wet-out", or allow water in. The seams and zippers may or may not be designed to keep water out. So, a hardshell can function as a rain jacket and a softshell cannot. Hardshells are more expensive and more protective than softshells.
The trade-off for their lack of a waterproof designation is that softshells breathe far better than hardshells. High-end hardshells allow some moisture to transfer through the material, but softshells do this better and more comfortably. Rather than leaving the wearer feeling stuffy inside a rubbery jacket, they help regulate the wearer's temperature with thinner, more porous materials.
The next main difference between the two types of shells is a tactile one. Softshells tend to be much more comfortable than hardshells; they are more flexible, less stiff and noisy, and not as suffocating. Like the name states, softshells are often soft and silky to the touch. They feel incredible and make you want to wear them. Although these jackets only provide moderate weather protection, they are much more pleasing to wear.
Softshell vs. Fleece
Some may ask, if wetness protection isn't a priority, and breathability is the main reason for wanting a softshell, why not just wear a fleece jacket? A fleece will be less expensive and far more breathable than a softshell. In most cases it will also be more insulating, offering a thin layer of warmth. However, with the exception of a few windproof fleeces, they provide no weather protection at all. Softshells allow for breathability while repelling a moderate amount of wind and water at the same time. For an activity such as backcountry skiing, the wearer will work up a sweat and want a breathable outer layer, but she will also be coming into contact with wet snow which would soak right through a fleece. This is where a softshell heroically comes into play.
Best Uses for a Softshell Jacket
Ultimately, these specialized jackets work best for day trips when weather is easily predicted rather than on multi-day trips where a waterproof layer and an insulated layer will be required. They excel during winter aerobic activities such as nordic skiing where some protection from weather is needed, but letting your body breathe is also important. The activities that are most conducive to softshell wear are backcountry skiing, ice and alpine climbing, winter hiking and camping, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.
Types of Softshell Jackets
Now you have settled on a softshell, but now you need to narrow down your choice from the many different styles and types available on the market.
There are several very thin, lightweight, and highly breathable models on the market. Aimed at runners and hikers, these very thin jackets offer less weather protection than thicker, heavier models but are ideal for cardio activities and are more conducive to an overnight trip since they don't add much weight to your pack. These very thin jackets can be worn for sun protection in summer or as a very light wind layer on a cool weather jog.
Windproof models lie at the opposite end of the spectrum than lightweight models. These shells offer more weather protection than the average softshell, carrying the designation "windproof" - blocking all wind - rather than "wind resistant" - which means it only blocks some wind. Most windproof versions include some type of membrane incorporated into the main material, which in turn makes the jacket stiffer, heavier, and less breathable. This membrane also adds water resistance to the jacket. These models are the most protective versions on the market.
Hybrid shells are appearing on the market more frequently. These jackets combine two types of materials with different properties, resulting in a piece that has qualities usually found in completely different types of jackets. Examples of this are pieces that use both hardshell and softshell materials, or jackets that combine extremely lightweight material with windproof material. With combined and strategically-placed fabrics, the resulting jacket can function well in very specialized applications, but doesn't perform either function completely. For instance, a jacket that uses hardshell and softshell materials won't be as stormproof as a hardshell, but will also be less breathable than a typical softshell.
Though not as common as other types of shells, there are some models that feature a high-loft fleece interior combined with a weather resistant exterior. These shells will be warmer and more insulating than other softshells, but sacrifice a little bit of breathability and mobility. They make for an extra cozy and comfortable piece, especially for everyday wear, but are heavier and bulkier for days spent in the mountains.
Most all jackets on the market come with a standard set of features: hand pockets, an adjustable hem, and a hood. There are a few features that don't come standard issue that are worth considering whether or not you want them: helmet-compatible hoods and adjustable sleeve cuffs. We always prefer hoods on any jacket that provides weather protection, though many jackets are available in non-hooded versions. Among the models that come with hoods, about half are roomy enough to accommodate a helmet. If you are a runner or a nordic skier, having a smaller hood may be preferable, but for skiers and ice climbers having a hood that can fit over a helmet is mandatory.
We have found that most activities requiring a softshell also require wearing gloves. This is why we have developed an affinity for adjustable cuffs. Being able to pull the sleeves over the cuffs on the gloves and secure them with Velcro keeps snow, wind, and wetness away from the wrists, and therefore keeps the wearer warmer and dryer.
As a general rule of thumb, we feel that if a softshell has pit-zips it is not worth purchasing. A softshell by its nature is supposed to be breathable, and that breathability should come from the material. Some hardshells or insulated ski jackets need the ventilation provided by pit-zips in order to be comfortable, but a softshell shouldn't require this feature. Pit-zips add weight and bulk, and in our opinion, show that something is not working with the main material.
Lastly, finding the correct fit in your jacket is important for your overall experience while wearing it. It should be form-fitting, but not too snug. Make sure that you can wear a few layers underneath, at the very least a baselayer and a fleece, and possibly even a thin insulated jacket. You don't want it to be too loose, because extra space allows cold air to leak in. We always check to make sure that it does not ride up when the arms are lifted and that the jacket stays in place during movement.