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Ask an Expert: What’s the Difference Between a Soft Shell and a Hard Shell?

From REI:

One of the best things about the co-op is the thriving community of gearheads, dirtbags, bird nerds, thru-hikers, peak-baggers, storytellers and more who work in our stores and headquarters, guide our trips and teach our classes. In this monthly series, we’ll tap into that expert knowledge to answer some of your burning questions about terrain, gear, safety, etiquette—anything! The co-op has your back.

This week’s question “What’s the Difference Between a Soft Shell and a Hard Shell?” was submitted by Tim Robnett, REI member since 2011.

If only we were turtles. Sea turtles, pond turtles, musk turtles—all have shells to protect them from the elements; none face hard decisions about which type to wear. Fortunately for us, though, there are people who know what’s up when it comes to shells, like Christa Lindsey, the Outdoor Programs and Outreach Program Coordinator at REI’s Seattle headquarters.

Christa says choosing between hard and soft shells comes down to waterproofness and breathability. “Those are the two key defining factors,” she says.

Hard Shells

A hard shell is completely waterproof, so that makes it the clear choice for your backpacking trip to Southeast Asia during monsoon season—or the Pacific Northwest in January. “It’s going to be an impermeable layer,” Christa says. “It’s essentially a layer of plastic with a membrane that allows your body to breathe. Vapor water from sweat can get out, but liquid water can’t get in.”

Christa says a hard shell is a critical piece of gear for all backpackers everywhere, like your tent or sleeping bag. “You don’t want to leave home without it, even if you have a soft shell.”

But that doesn’t mean you’ll want to wear it on the trail when the weather’s clear. Hard shells are designed to have some breathability, but they can get quite clammy if you’re working hard. “It can get …

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