I think of a hard-shell jacket as a literal shell that protects you against the elements. This type of outerwear is waterproof and windproof, with a hood that cinches down around your face and cuffs that can cinch down over your gloves. Ideally it should be breathable, too, so that condensation within the jacket can escape at the same time rain and snow are held at bay.
Hard-shell jackets don't have any built-in insulation, so you have to wear them over at least one insulating layer. This makes them quite versatile -- if you're going to be active, you can wear your shell for weatherproofing over your base layers; if you're going to be moving slowly or not at all, you can add extra insulation layers. On the downside, wearing a hard-shell jacket over a T-shirt during cool, damp weather can produce some pretty clammy arms. This is easily solved by just putting on a thin base layer, and the feel of a hard shell against your skin isn't too bad when the weather's nice.
The biggest differences between hard-shell and soft-shell jackets are:
- Weatherproofing (Soft-shell jackets are typically more permeable, and thus best suited for milder conditions.)
- Feel (Soft-shell jackets feel better against your skin than a hard shell.)
- Hoods (Hard-shell jackets always have one; sometimes soft-shell jackets don't.)
- Stretch (Soft-shell jackets usually have some stretch to them; hard shells don't.)
- Ventilation zips (More common on hard-shell jackets, although you can find them on some soft shells.)
Tip: I like to buy my hard-shell jackets large enough that I can wear at least one base layer and one bulky insulating layer without feeling like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Woman.
In years past hard-shell jackets were preferable to soft shells in extreme conditions; the hard shells were simply more proof against the conditions. Soft-shell technology is improving, but I'll still take a hard shell over a soft shell if I know I'm going to be facing wind or rain.
When you buy a hard shell, check the label to see just how waterproof and breathable it is. There's no single industry standard for measuring breathability, so take this number with a grain of salt. In general, however, the higher the number the better. When it comes to waterproofing, measurements are standardized. Again, the higher the better; I suggest looking for a waterproof rating of at least 10,000 mm.
Pros of hard-shell jackets:
- Always have a hood
- More packable than soft shells
- May have ventilation zippers
Cons of hard-shell jackets:
- Breathability varies
- Can feel clammy against skin
- No stretch
Also Known As: hardshell jacket, hard shell jacket, hard shell, hardshell
Examples: My hard-shell jacket keeps me safe in even the worst weather.