A soft-shell jacket is usually water- and wind-resistant, but not as weatherproof as a hard shell. Unlike hard-shell jackets, the texture of a soft shell generally feels good against your skin, even in cool or damp weather. (Hard shells can feel pretty clammy under the same conditions.) This makes soft-shell jackets ideal for use in mild conditions, or if you expect to wear the jacket in the city where you might just throw it on over a T-shirt.
Soft-shell technology is improving, but they're still not as weatherproof as the best hard-shell jackets -- so if you only have the money for one high-quality jacket, I'd recommend getting a quality hard shell for its versatility. It'll keep you warm and dry in more extreme conditions than a soft shell can, and as long as you're wearing at least a thin base layer over your arms, it'll be perfectly comfortable. (I wear my hard shell over a T-shirt in nice weather; it only gets miserable in the wet and cold.)
Key differences to be aware of between soft-shell and hard-shell jackets:
- Every hard-shell jacket has a hood; not all soft-shell jackets do.
- Soft shells are typically more breathable than hard shells.
- Soft shells have more stretch than hard shells.
- Soft shells feel better against your skin.
- Ventilation zips aren't as common on soft-shell jackets as on hard shells.
As with hard-shell jackets, your soft shell's waterproofing and breathability are usually listed on the tags. Waterproofing is standardized across the industry; the higher the number, the better. Breathability measurements aren't standardized, but in general a higher number is more desirable (just take those figures with a grain of salt).
Pros of soft-shell jackets:
- Comfortable against skin
- More breathable than hard shells
Cons of soft-shell jackets:
- Not weatherproof
- Less packable than hard-shell jackets
- Not all come with a hood