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Softshell and hardshell - different membranes in clothing

2023-10-04
Softshell and hardshell - different membranes in clothing

Many of you were curious, or maybe still are, about what softshells are, and what hardshells are. Perhaps you were also confused about which type of “shell” to wear in different weathers? Today, we will try to lend you a helping hand, and shed some light on those topics! We will shortly describe the differences between softshells and hardshells, describe what is it about those mysterious membranes, and also tell you what parameters you will need to look at when choosing your jacket. Of course, we would not be us, if we would not give some use examples at the end. Ready?

Softshell - what is it, and when it will serve us best

Softshells are lightweight jackets that were made to protect us from winds and light rainfall without sacrificing breathability. The word “soft” in their names comes from their, you guessed it, softness, or rather the fact, that they can be easily rolled, folded, and compressed, without negative impact on their further performance.

What is a softshell fabric?

Softshells are primarily made from polyester or nylon, keeping high elasticity and thus also not restricting user’s movements. It is a very important factor when searching for outer layers of clothing for mountain hiking, climbing, or other forms of physical activity where mobility and freedom of movement play a key role.

Thanks to high breathability, softshells will be a great choice when planning high physical activity, while also as an underlayer worn below hardshell, or as an outermost layer during, just a bit, colder days for that little bit of additional protection.

Hardshell - outer layer of protective clothing

As much as softshell allows us to wear it under other layers of clothing thanks to its “softness”, hardshell does not allow us to do so. It is because of its “hardness” and lack of elasticity, which makes it fit only as outermost layer of clothing. We should not be surprised by that, that was the sole purpose of making it, to be the most protective, outermost layer of clothing, providing protection against heavy rainfalls and winds, while also offering breathability of material.

What does hardshell mean?

Well, a hardshell is a piece of clothing, mostly jackets, made out of microporous membranes and laminates. The pores in hardshell fabric are even 20 thousand times smaller than particles of water, and even 700 times bigger than particles of steam. Thanks to those properties, water can not soak through the fabric, while steam evaporating from our bodies can still be removed from under our clothes.

This layer will be an awesome choice when we might be facing very harsh weather conditions, heavy or prolonged rainfalls, or strong winds, offering us great protection against the elements. It will also find its place as the outermost clothing layer during low physical activity periods, protecting us from exposure to cold winds and rain. While it offers great protection from elements, we should remember that it is not a “heating” layer, and it should not be used as a standalone solution in low temperatures.

Types of membranes in clothing - 2-layer laminate, 3-layer laminate… Or maybe something in between?

We know what differentiates softshells from hardshells, but what do those two-, three- and two-and-a-half-layers mean? Do not worry, we are coming with an answer!

2L- Two-layer laminate

Two-layer laminate comes from joining the membrane with the outer material layer while keeping an additional inner layer made out of mesh, thanks to which the membrane is protected from scratching by other layers of clothing that we wear under it, increasing its durability. Unfortunately, because of that additional layer of mesh, clothes made in 2L technology tend to be bulkier, and heavier than their other counterparts. This technology is often used in more economic models of city and touristic jackets.

2,5L - Two-and-a-half-layer laminate

How do you make half a layer? Add a layer so thin, that you can say that it is just half of a layer! That is how two-and-a-half-layer laminates are made. It is a great step up in comparison to two-layer laminates, and that is thanks to an additional super thin layer of protective coating, which in conjunction with membrane joined with outer material offers all the benefits of a three-layer membrane while keeping the jacket lightweight.

3L- Three-layer laminate

Three-layer laminates are used for the production of specialistic clothing to withstand harsh outdoor conditions. They offer the biggest protection from the elements such as heavy rains, snowstorms, or strong wind. Such parameters were obtainable by combining all layers three layers of the jacket into one, thus the name tri-laminate or three-layer laminate. Such jackets are an essential piece of gear for extreme climbers or mountain rescue teams. So big protection comes with a cost of reduced breathability, thus such jackets are not recommended for high-intensity physical activities.

What parameters should we check before buying a membrane jacket?

From many different parameters that describe membrane jackets, we suggest taking a closer look at these three: water resistance, breathability, and RET rating. What do those parameters describe?

Membrane - water resistance, waterproofness

Water resistance is nothing else than described in millimeters of water column (mm H2O) resistance of material to soaking. It is commonly assumed, that 10 000mm H2O means complete waterproofness of material during rain.

Membrane - breathability

Breathability is described by the number of grams of water per meter square (g H2O/m2). It tells us how many grams of steam our jacket can let through its membrane, for every meter square of its surface. It is assumed that a good outdoor jacket should have this parameter at least at 10 000g H2O/m2.

Membrane - RET rating

The last, but certainly not the least parameter we will write about, is RET rating. This rating describes how much resistance our membrane poses to steam trying to leave through it. In contrast to other parameters described above, this time, we should be aiming for the lowest values. It is assumed that for high-intensity physical activities, our jacket should have RET of 0 to 6, while for general use 6 to 13 should be enough.

Softshell or hardshell - what to choose and when?

Are you going for a bike ride, and you think it may rain a bit? Or maybe you are planning to camp for a few days over the lake during the summer break? Or do you just need some lightweight layer to give you that little bit more protection during autumn work in the garden? In those and similar situations, a softshell is a way better choice. It will offer us good protection from the elements, while not restricting our movements, or taking up much space in bike cargo pocket, backpack, or even squeezed into the cargo pocket in military pants.

But what if we expect worse weather conditions, long rains, or strong winds, or what if we are planning a stroll through the mountains, and we need that extra level of protection against unpredictable weather? Then it is better to take a hardshell with you. It is not only going to offer us way more protection from the elements as a standalone solution but can also be used in conjunction with other underlayers, to offer us protection from cold if the need arises.

A membrane chosen with our planned activity level in mind, will not only protect us from water coming at us from the environment but also sweat and steam gathering under our clothes. It is even more important to remember during cold seasons that it is not hard to lose body temperature because of even slight overlooks in our clothing.

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