The Polo Shirts Guide to Choosing the Right Jacket

Choosing the right jacket: Softshells and Hardshells

Your outer jacket is your barrier to the elements. However, it’s easy to get confused looking at the huge range of wholesale jackets available in our catalogue. With innovations and new fabrics being developed all the time it's easy to be mystified by the choices open to you. Here we try to make clearer a popular concern - soft shell or hardshell jacket?

What is a hardshell?

The term 'hardshell' has gradually evolved, given the popularity of soft shells, as the new name for a waterproof jacket. I will use the terms interchangeably.

Lets talk about the composition of a hardshell....

The fabric making up a hardshell comes in three layers. It is essentially a sandwich of different materials. The all important filling of this sandwich is a porous, waterproof and breathable membrane. This is the key factor that makes the jacket waterproof; keeping precipitation out and letting perspiration rise and get away from the body.

gore-text

The most famous of these membranes is GORETEX. The reason the membrane is waterproof but will allow water vapour in the form of sweat to escape is because it has around 9 billion pores per square inch, each of which is 20,000 times smaller than a water droplet. Therefore, in theory, larger liquid water droplets cannot get through, but the smaller sized water vapour from our exertion can easily escape. 

The membrane is thin and stretchy and therefore cannot be used as a jacket or pant on its own. It is mounted and bonded between a face fabric and a protective lining to make that fabric waterproof. The protective layer inside is used, to prevent the abrasion of the membrane from the inside. Once bonded, all of these layers look like a single piece of fabric.

Finally, a Durable Water Repellent coating (or DWR) is usually applied to the outside of the shell. DWR makes precipitation bead up and roll off the shell however don’t be fooled by its impressive visual effect that it can alone make the material waterproof. It is simply a first round of protection, it is the essential membrane layer that makes a jacket truly waterproof. 

Take all these layers and elements and you have ….... a hardshell jacket!

Soft Shell

What is a soft shell jacket? A prominent term in our catalogue and one of the gear industry's latest big layer invention. We try to explain the often confusing category to help you decide what to look for if you want one.

Before the soft shell...

Most hill walkers wear a waterproof 'hard shell' jacket over insulating layers consisting of a base layer and fleece jacket. As discussed, the theory is that this combination keeps you warm, while keeping the rain out. Goretex was intensely popular because of its unparalleled ability to repel water, and crucially because it 'breathes'. This means it allows vapour from your sweat to escape the layer but doesn’t let rain or snow in. 

However, the system is not perfect, hard shells simply do not breathe enough! The hardshell solution of a truly “waterproof-breathable” shell is not possible. 

The problem many outdoor enthusiasts have faced is that they do not control condensation perfectly. Even where conditions are particularly cold and wintry if you are working up an aerobic sweat, the moisture remains trapped in the jacket rendering the benefits of waterproofing obsolete. Wearers have commented that they are left with an unpleasant clamminess that as soon as they stop for a break, making them very cold. Their waterproof claims are bonifide. Breathable? Not so much. Besides the moisture problem, they can be less comfortable than softer layers. On days where there are mild showers it can be frustrating to keep taking on and off a stiff waterproof.

And Voila the soft shell was born....

Sensing the demand of people looking for a more breathable jacket, good for dry or drizzly days manufacturers developed the soft shell. What the multitude of designs of soft shells out since have in common is that they are pleasant to wear, more breathable than a waterproof and more water resistant that a fleece . Essentially a half way house between a fleece and a waterproof for those who find waterproof shells simply not breathable enough. 

Types of Soft Shell

Given the broad remit described above it shouldn't be a surprise that soft shells cover a large range of garments. Although they are all more resistant than fleeces and more breathable than waterproofs, between this they come along the spectrum of soft/tough and flexibility. They include lightweight wind shirts, wind proof fleeces with water – repellent (DWR) finish, soft feel waterproof jackets and insulated jackets with good durable repellancy. 

It may be helpful to look at the various guises of softshells on a continuum. At one end you have items like the light weight wind shirts often made from fabrics like Schoeller or Pertex Equilibrium and extremely breathable and water and wind resistant to moderate levels, suitable for times when you are exposed to light showers. At the other end you have items like the soft feel waterproof jackets which are totally windproof and very water resistant. Despite being very waterproof none fo them have this waterproof membrane. Instead they provide good weather protection by virtue of the fabric itself, usually with a DWR treatment. These items are almost as protective as a full waterproof jacket, but with much less breathability. 

Which one is for you?

When trying to decide on a soft shell and which fabric will suit your needs there are a number of issues to consider. How hot do you get when you run? How active will you be when wearing it? If the answer to the first question is very...I sweat a great deal, then you will be better off with one of the more breathable, less protective soft shell jackets. If when you run you remain dry, then a more protective jacket makes more sense - look for fabrics like Windstopper.

The Take Home Message

So how to choose between a hard shell jacket or a soft shell jacket or a particularly waterproof softshell?

Again, match the materials and design to the activity you want to do and the typical weather you will encounter.

Modern waterproof hard shells are far superior to rain slicers and macs. They are the go to option for many outdoor activities where rain is a strong possibility. They can quite literally save lives on difficult treks when the elements are treacherous and are generally king when its cold and the wind is strong. But when an active person takes on an aerobic task, its is the soft shell and its breathable ability that should chosen. 

For some final words of advice in this hopefully more sensical outwear environment we will turn to US ski legend Mike Hattrup.

“The easiest way to look at it is, a hard shell is for when you need the most protection from heavy precipitation, or when you won’t be moving as much. Any time the aerobic level increases, I look to the soft shell, even if it is precipitating, and especially if it’s somewhere cold. When it comes down to it, I want a shell that allows me to keep working at a comfortable temperature.'