Hardshell vs Rain Jacket: What’s the Difference?

Hardshell vs Rain Jacket: What's the Difference?Pin

Weatherproof and weather-resistant jackets are a must-have for anyone looking to do hiking and backpacking throughout the spring and fall. A waterproof jacket, in particular, is essential.

In these seasons, the snow might be gone from winter and the heat might be gone from summer, but that doesn’t mean rain won’t just mess with your plans of going on certain hikes and trails due to the colder and more variable weather.

The easiest way to maintain your outdoor plans is by purchasing a good-quality jacket, such as an insulated jacket with a waterproof membrane and an adjustable hood.

There are two common directions that most hikers will go to protect themselves from the wet weather. The first is a traditional rain jacket, while the second is a more recent innovation of a hardshell jacket.

Both of these have their own strengths and benefits, but it’s important to know their differences so that you purchase the best jacket type for you.

We’ll be going through the main traits of each jacket on its own, and then we’ll give a full comparison to give you an idea of how rain jackets and hardshell jackets stand up to each other.


1. What is a Rain Jacket?

It’s important to start with the rain jacket since it’s much more common and well-known by both hikers and non-hikers.

A rain jacket is relatively thin, aiming to solely keep the rain off of you without it getting into any layer underneath. It can sometimes provide light warmth based on the lining, but for the most part, a rain jacket prioritizes keeping your head and torso dry in wet weather.

couple hiking wearing rain jacketsPin

The materials used to make rain jackets can vary quite a lot between products, but many of the best rain jackets will often be made of materials like Polyester and Nylon.

These are generally hydrophobic materials that repel water instead of absorbing it, making them much more protective than many other materials and natural fabrics like cotton and wool that you’ll find in most outdoor clothing.

Many older rain jackets might not be considered breathable jackets due to their thick material,
but there are some innovations that allow this kind of rainwear to be as thin and breathable as it is durable.

This especially includes rain jackets made with Gore-Tex blends, a newer fabric technology that provides an excellent amount of durability while being extremely light compared to the materials mentioned earlier. Gore-Tex can be a critical component of a lightweight rain jacket.

What is GORE-TEX Product Technology

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The main concern that comes with most rain jackets, especially lightweight jackets, is insulation, as they aren’t usually intended to keep you warm as much as they intend to keep you dry.

This means you’ll often have to layer other clothes underneath, but tighter rain jackets that are properly zipped and sealed will also help you trap heat from these other layers to stay quite comfortable in colder weather.

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2. What is a Hardshell Jacket?

On the surface, many of the best hardshell jackets look relatively similar to rain jackets.

This kind of shell jacket can be quite thin, and it can look very similar to the minimalist style of rain jackets, leaving many consumers unsure about the key differences between these two weather-oriented pieces of outdoor clothing.

They’re easier to understand when you compare hardshell jackets with softshell jackets. A softshell jacket is a much more flexible water-resistant jacket that gives great warmth and rain protection in dry and mild temperatures.

However, while they are often warmer and breathable than most rain jackets, that comes at a cost of weather protection since they aren’t suitable for extreme rain.

Jack Wolfskin Mens West Coast Hardshell JacketPin
Image: Jack Wolfskin Men’s West Coast Hardshell Jacket – from jack-wolfskin.com

A hardshell jacket is the inverse of this, sacrificing breathability and flexibility for stiff waterproof materials. This allows hardshell jackets to be better protectors against not just rain, but also wind and other threats that come with precipitous weather.

They won’t lose their shape or rely on interior layers to keep you safe, as they end up being deceptively rigid and sturdy compared to traditional rain jackets.

Due to their thicker and more sturdy material, they provide an exceptional amount of insulation, but certain jackets can also result in overheating in warmer rains.

This can be helped through ventilation zippers in some brands, but that also makes them much worse in rainy conditions amid warmer climates and temperatures.

Read also: Best Hiking Jacket Brands: These 9 Are Our Favorites

3. Hardshell vs. Rain Jacket: Comparison and Detailed Differences

waterproof nylon fabricPin

With these general summaries of each jacket out of the way, it’s time to put the two types of outerwear against each other.

These four categories are the main things to consider when purchasing any jacket, and they’re some of the largest areas where these two types of rainwear can differ most.

Style and Fit

Traditional rain jackets are going to be quite uniform in style, fitting tight on your body and looking more built around utility than comfort or style.

These are built to be protective layers above all else, and given the fact that they accomplish it so well without taking up too much bag space, it’s hard to argue with their appearance.

Hardshell jackets have substantially more options, with some being quite thin in similar ways to rain jackets, while others can be more stylish.

This often has to do with the lining, as some will have softer fabrics underneath to keep you warm while others are simple wind and water shields.

Regardless of this, they’ll often fit much looser since the materials involved don’t tend to bend around your body as much as rain jackets do.

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Weather and Water-resistance

Despite all the differences that could be made, both hardshell jackets and rain jackets can be equally waterproof.

They might be made with different materials, but they still are built with the intention of repelling water from their surfaces, making them equally effective despite using fully different materials to accomplish this goal.

In terms of general weather resistance, hardshell jackets are slightly more versatile. Their rigid materials can prevent them from being affected by wind much more, so looser hardshell jackets can be much more comfortable in more intense weather.

However, with a tight enough rain jacket and proper layering, it’s still possible for rain jackets to be sufficient in windier conditions.

Read next: 9 Norwegian Jacket and Clothing Brands You Should Know

hiker wearing rain jacket in a forestPin

Insulation and Warmth

Broadly speaking, hardshell jackets tend to have better insulation thanks to their heavier materials. They don’t require as much layering underneath since they’re surprisingly thick compared to standard rain jackets, and while their style and size can vary between products, you’re going to have a different approach to warmth with a hardshell jacket.

Rain jackets are significantly more uniform, having quite poor heating and insulation and requiring layers underneath to keep you comfortable.

Many hikers may see this as more of a plus, as it means you can customize your outfit underneath to reach the level of strength needed to achieve a hardshell jacket’s resistance. Either way, you’ll still need to be more cautious if you plan to take a rain jacket into exceptionally cold and windy weather.


Hardshell jackets are usually going to be fairly more expensive, primarily because of the more complex features involved. This includes zippers for ventilation, soft linings in warmer jackets, and a better emphasis on style and appearance that can be reflected in the price.

Waterproof jackets can certainly be found for under $100, but popular hardshell jackets can reach prices of up to $350 or $400.

Solid rain jackets can hit similar price points, but it’s much easier to find budget options since they are much simpler garments compared to hardshell jackets.

You can easily find used ones in most stores since the materials rarely degrade with use, but if you buy a fully new product, it’ll be an even safer investment than a hardshell jacket since the quality will hardly degrade over time.

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4. Do You Need a Hardshell Jacket? Is One Type Better Than the Other?

couple hiking on snowy mountainPin

In the battle between hardshell versus rain jackets, both jackets are essentially equal in effectiveness. They each satisfy different needs and will protect you against different types of weather.

So long as you choose the right one for your given hiking conditions, you’re sure to be satisfied with either a hardshell jacket or rain jacket.

So no, you don’t need a hardshell jacket. However, they could be the perfect piece of rainwear for you depending on your preferences.

5. Can You Use a Rain Jacket As a Shell?

Essentially yes, rain jackets are able to be used as shells if they have a tight enough fit. However, it’s important to always layer properly underneath, as they aren’t going to have enough insulation to also keep you warm.

It’ll require a fair amount more preparation, but you certainly don’t need to have a hardshell jacket to protect yourself from heavier weather.

Read also: 8 German Clothing and Jacket Brands for Outdoor Activities

6. Conclusion

Hopefully, this will give you a stronger idea of what type of jacket you should look for to bring on your rainier hikes.

Finding the right jacket can absolutely make the difference between a bearable hike and a wonderful journey, and these differences are extremely important when looking for any kind of jacket for difficult weather conditions.

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