Softshell vs hardshell jackets: what’s the difference?

Everything you need to know about softshell and hardshell jackets

Softshell vs hardshell jacket

If you’re planning to ride in cold or wet weather, you’ll want to get your kit right in order to stay warm and dry. However, there’s a bewildering array of jackets to choose from to protect you from the elements.

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Bike clothing brands sell a range of jackets for adverse conditions, many with a hefty price tag attached.

Water-resistant cycling jackets come in one of two basic flavours: hardshell or softshell. But what does each mean and what is each good for? We’ve talked to the experts to find out.

Hardshell jackets vs softshell jackets

Construction

Rapha Explore Hooded Gore-Tex Pullover 01
The Rapha Explore jacket uses Gore-Tex’s Active three-layer hardshell material.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

A hardshell jacket is typically made with a woven outer fabric. That makes it less stretchy than a softshell, which is usually made from a knitted fabric.

“The extra stretch in a softshell can be utilised to ensure comfort and performance in close-fit garments, so is particularly good for road products,” says Ian Young, product manager at Endura. “This soft outer also means the products tend to be quieter when riding.”

Young points out that there’s not a strict definition of what constitutes a hardshell or a softshell jacket, though. “With the evolution of various waterproof and windproof fabrics over the past few years, the line between soft and hard shell is not as clear as it once may have been,” he says.

Both soft and hardshells will have a membrane layer sandwiched within the jacket’s structure that provides wind and rain resistance, while letting water vapour out so you don’t get too clammy when you work up a sweat.

That used to sit between outer and inner fabric layers – a three-layer fabric. More recently, 2.5-layer and 2-layer laminates have become an option. Here, the inner layer, inside the membrane, is reduced or absent. That leads to a lighter-weight structure that can be made more breathable.

And Gore has turned that around with its Shakedry fabrics, where the membrane is on the outside of the jacket. This gives excellent breathability in a lightweight jacket, a permanently water-repellent outer surface and, as its name says, the ability to shake off surface water. Originally rigid, the latest Shakedry fabrics include stretch too.

Castelli Gabba RoS jersey
The Castelli Gabba RoS jersey is the archetypal softshell jacket.
Castelli

The blurring of hardshell and softshell categories is evident too in the latest generation of the Castelli Gabba, the archetypal softshell jacket used by pro cyclists for racing in poor weather.

Whereas in 2010 the original Gabba wasn’t too water-resistant, to ensure enough breathability, in the fourth generation launched in 2019, Castelli has used a new Gore-Tex Infinium fabric that ups water resistance.

Because of the brushed inner surface of softshell fabrics, taping the seams inside isn’t possible, but Castelli has taped the outside of the seams on the shoulders of the latest Gabba RoS, adding a little more water resistance.

Resistance to rain

Best Gore-Tex Shakedry cycling rain jackets
Gore-Tex’s Shakedry shell has a membrane on the outside.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

Hardshell jackets will typically provide more resistance to prolonged rain though, so they’re a good bet if you’re expecting to be out in a downpour. That’s usually helped by manufacturers taping the seams on the inside of the jacket, as the stitching in an untaped seam can let in rain over time.

“They’re perfect for when it’s going to be raining all day and you need to keep the core warm and dry. Rapha’s most advanced hardshell fabric is Gore-Tex Shakedry. It’s super-lightweight, fully waterproof and the most breathable waterproof fabric on the market,” says Harry Osborn, product designer at Rapha.

With less weight, a hardshell is generally better for a lightweight shell, says Endura’s Young. “But they require more careful layering underneath for maximum comfort,” he cautions.

A hardshell is likely to be more packable too. “The 2-layer Exoshell20ST fabric used in Endura’s best-selling Adrenaline Race Cape sits somewhere in between soft and hardshell – a lightweight mesh is bonded to protect the membrane, creating a waterproof, breathable shell with enough stretch to be worn in a close fit, and it packs small enough to be stashed in a jersey back pocket or keep you dry in heavy rain,” he says.

“The only downside of this fabric is that it can be relatively fragile, so would not last long in a trail rider’s wardrobe!”

Breathability and warmth

Berghaus Taboche Windproof Softshell
This Berghaus softshell uses Gore-Tex Infinium, which has a fleecy inner surface.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

Anne Weir, fabric specialist at Gore, stresses the importance of breathability for comfort when riding. It allows heat to escape, due to evaporation from the outer surface of the jacket, and also helps keep the layers you’re wearing inside drier. Gore has a whole range of fabrics designed for activities such as cycling, where you’re working hard and likely to be generating significant heat and sweat.

The company uses a machine to measure how resistant its laminates are to water-vapour loss and its Gore-Tex Shakedry, Active and Infinium fabrics all rate as extremely breathable. The former two would classify as hardshell fabrics, while Infinium is a non-waterproof (but water-resistant) softshell fabric.

But whereas Shakedry and Active fabrics are very thin, the Infinium softshell fabric adds a fleecy inner surface. This increases its warmth, so you’ll feel comfortable with fewer layers underneath.

So there’s a balance between feeling comfortably warm when cycling and breathability. In warmer, wet conditions a thin hardshell jacket is likely to be a better option, whereas in cooler, damp conditions you’re likely to feel more comfortable in a softshell jacket.

Softshells offer increased breathability

Madison Flux lightweight softshell jacket
Softshell jackets are breathable and will provide decent protection against wind and rain.
Simon Bromley / Immediate Media

Brands tend to mix the fabrics they use in their softshell garments. This provides maximum breathability for comfort when riding at tempo, says Osborn, as in the Rapha Pro Team Winter jacket.

Gore’s Weir confirms that emphasis on comfort and breathability in softshell garments. “Many of the Gore-Tex Infinium and Windstopper styles are also made to fit closer to the body in a ‘form fit’ design,” she says.

“Many have air-permeable fabrics in places where an airflow allows for heat to escape, many styles have partial taping, just to give some light rain protection where it’s needed for that end use, and although these styles will provide a high level of protection against wind chill and light rain, they are not built for prolonged rain.

“You may still be wet but comfortable. But reaching for your Gore-Tex waterproof in those heavier and prolonged rain conditions would give more protection and a prolonged feeling of comfort.”

Both Weir and Osborn point out that there’s no reason not to wear a more water-resistant hardshell and a warm softshell together if you’re riding in weather that’s both wet and cold.

Choose what’s best for the conditions

How to dress for summer cycling, Rapha Shakedry jacket
It’s best to dress for the conditions, rather than opting for either a hardshell or softshell.
Felix Smith / Immediate Media

All three of our experts concur that it’s not about choosing between a hardshell and a softshell, it’s about selecting the right clothing for the conditions in which you’ll be riding.

Weir points out that many cyclists will wear a hardshell jacket even in dry conditions, as they’re breathable, light and easy to pack, while other riders will choose an Infinium softshell in the rain for its form fit, freedom of movement and thermal regulation.

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“Prioritise the various product and fabric attributes: waterproofing, windproofing, breathability, fit, features, weight, pack size, price, etc and look for the product which ticks the most important boxes for the conditions and type of riding you plan to use it for,” says Young.