Softshell vs hardshell jackets: what’s the difference?


If you plan to ride in cold or wet weather, you will need the right gear to keep you warm and dry. However, there is a bewildering array of jackets to choose from to protect you from the elements.

Cycling clothing brands sell a range of jackets for adverse conditions, many of which come with a premium price tag.

Water resistant cycling jackets are available in one of two basic flavors: hardshell or softshell. But what does each mean and what is each used for? We spoke with experts to find out.

Hardshell jackets vs softshell jackets


The Rapha Explore Jacket uses Gore-Tex Active 3-Layer Hardshell material.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

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

“The extra stretch of a softshell can be used to ensure the comfort and performance of tight-fitting garments, which is especially good for road products,” says Ian Young, Product Manager at Endura. “This soft exterior also means the products tend to be quieter when driving.”

Young points out that there is, however, no strict definition of what constitutes a hardshell jacket or a softshell jacket. “With the evolution of various waterproof and windproof fabrics over the past few years, the line between soft and hard shells is no longer as clear as it once could have been,” he says.

Softshells and hardshells will have a membrane layer sandwiched into the structure of the jacket that provides resistance to wind and rain, while letting water vapor out so you don’t get too sweaty when you sweat. .

Previously it was between the outer and inner layers of fabric – a three-layered 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. This leads to a lighter structure which can be made more breathable.

And Gore turned the tide with his 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 the name suggests, the ability to shake off surface water. Originally stiff, the latest Shakedry fabrics also include stretch.

Castelli Gabba RoS Jersey

The Castelli Gabba RoS jersey is the softshell jacket par excellence.

The vagueness of the hardshell and softshell categories is also evident in the latest generation of Castelli Gabba, the archetypal softshell jacket used by professional cyclists for racing in bad weather.

While in 2010 the original Gabba was not too water resistant, to ensure sufficient breathability, in the fourth generation launched in 2019, Castelli used a new Gore-Tex Infinium fabric which increases durability. at the water.

Due to the brushed inner surface of the softshell fabrics, it is not possible to glue the seams on the inside, but Castelli glued the outside of the seams to the shoulders of the last Gabba RoS, adding a bit more strength to the seams. the water.

Rain resistance

Best Gore-Tex Shakedry Cycling Rain Jackets

The Gore-Tex Shakedry shell has a membrane on the outside.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

Hardshell jackets generally offer more resistance to prolonged rain, so they are a good choice if you expect to be outside in a downpour. This is usually aided by manufacturers who glue the seams on the inside of the jacket, as the seams of an unglued seam can let in rain over time.

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

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

A hard shell is also likely to be more compressible. The 2-layer Exoshell20ST fabric used in Endura’s best-selling Adrenaline Race Cape sits somewhere between softshell and hardshell – a lightweight mesh is bonded to protect the membrane, creating a waterproof and breathable shell with enough elasticity. to be worn close to the body, and it’s small enough to stow in a back jersey pocket or to keep you dry in the pouring rain, ”he says.

“The only downside to this fabric is that it can be relatively fragile, so it won’t last long in a trail runner’s wardrobe!

Breathability and warmth

Berghaus Taboche windproof softshell

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

Anne Weir, fabric specialist at Gore, emphasizes the importance of breathability for riding comfort. It allows heat to escape, due to evaporation from the outer surface of the jacket, and also helps keep the layers you wear inside drier. Gore offers a variety of fabrics designed for activities such as cycling, where you work hard and are likely to generate significant heat and sweat.

The company uses a machine to measure the resistance of its laminates to water vapor loss, and its Gore-Tex Shakedry, Active and Infinium fabrics are all considered extremely breathable. The first two would be classified as hardshell fabrics, while Infinium is a non-waterproof (but water resistant) softshell fabric.

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

So there is a balance between the comfortable warm feeling when cycling and breathability. In warmer and humid conditions a thin hardshell jacket will probably be a better option, while in cooler and humid conditions you will probably feel more comfortable in a softshell jacket.

Softshells offer increased breathability

Madison Flux lightweight softshell jacket

Softshell jackets are breathable and offer decent protection against wind and rain.
Simon Bromley / Immediate Media

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

Gore’s Weir confirms this emphasis on comfort and breathability in softshell clothing. “Many Gore-Tex Infinium and Windstopper styles are also designed to fit closer to the body in a ‘forming’ design,” she says.

“Many have breathable fabrics in places where an airflow allows heat to escape, many styles have partial tape, just to provide a slight rain protection where it is. necessary for that end use, and while these styles provide a high level of protection against wind chill and light rain, they are not designed for prolonged rain.

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

Weir and Osborn point out that there is no reason not to wear a more water resistant hard shell and a warm soft shell together if you are riding in both wet and cold weather.

Choose what works best for the conditions

How to dress for summer cycling, Rapha Shakedry jacket

It is better to dress for the conditions rather than going for a hardshell or softshell.
Felix Smith / Immediate Media

Our three experts agree that it is not about choosing between a hardshell and a softshell, it is about selecting the right clothes for the conditions in which you will be riding.

Weir points out that many riders will wear a hardshell jacket even in dry conditions, as they are breathable, lightweight, and easy to pack, while other riders will choose an Infinium softshell in the rain for its shape, freedom of movement and comfort. thermal regulation. .

“Prioritize the different attributes of the product and the fabric: waterproofing, windproof, breathability, fit, features, weight, package size, price, etc.” and look for the product that ticks the most important boxes for the conditions and type of ride you plan to use. for, ”Young says.


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