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Though often used interchangeably with the word “jacket,” “shell” can also refer to pants, parkas, and ponchos. It’s a word that focuses on fabric make up more than the garment style. Becoming familiar with the following types of shells will help as you consider your weather-protection choices.
Hard shell: This is an alternative term for waterproof/breathable gear. As you might imagine, fabrics in most hard shells are generally stiffer than those in softshell, though more supple hard-shell materials are developed. Hard tanks aren’t insulated, so your warmth will come from an underlying base layer and mid-layer.
Softshell: The classic version integrates an insulating layer with a water-resistant shell. The goal is to have a single piece serving as both mid-layer and outer layer. The tradeoff is more significant breathability for lesser protection from rain, wind and cold. Softshell are best for high-exertion activities, where sweat is the more substantial concern.
Evolving designs make the soft-shell category a little fuzzy. Many softshell also have excellent flexibility, a feature that’s somewhat rare in a hard shell.
Hybrid shell: This term gets applied to a variety of constructions. In a soft/hard-shell combo, more waterproof and windproof fabrics might be on the front and top, while the more breathable, flexible material is on the sides, back and underneath sleeves. Or you might find a traditional soft or hard shell with a more durable fabric on its outer face or in high-wear areas.
Insulated shell: Typically filled with down or synthetic fill for warmth, most puffy jackets are also water-resistant and breathable. If the jacket has a waterproof/breathable fabric, then you enjoy an elevated level of protection. It has to be seam-sealed, though, to be considered fully waterproof.