A relative new comer to the realm of outdoor clothing, Soft Shell is a much used term these days and it describes a whole range of different garments and fabrics. High breathability and a degree of weather protection is what links them.
All Soft shells should have these elements in common – they should provide some level of protection from wind and rain, yet be far more breathable that a traditional waterproof or ‘hard-shell’. The idea is that a soft shell jacket or trousers are what you will wear all day long, rather than changing into your hard shell every time there’s a shower or the wind increases.
Soft shells aren’t usually waterproof, but are intended to provide some protection from showers, drizzle and snow whilst not being as sweaty and uncomfortable as a set of full waterproofs. They also give some insulation, but mainly rely on your activity level to maintain your body temperature.
Soft shells are intended to partially do away with the conventional 3 layer system, of base (wicking) layer, mid (thermal) layer and outer waterproof hard-shell layer, which has be advocated since the late 1970’s. Because of its inherent breathability it is much more comfortable to wear for long periods than a hard shell, even with modern advances in breathable waterproof fabrics. Soft shell fabrics are also, as their name suggests, soft – which again improves comfort and allows better freedom of movement. Many of the more technical soft shell fabrics have a built in stretch too, making them particularly suitable for climbing and mountaineering. Also because a soft shell effectively combines the best qualities of a mid layer and a outer hard-shell, it is lighter and more versatile than either and thus appeals particularly to alpinists and mountaineers.
For their weather resistance Soft shells rely either on a perforated membrane barrier, sandwiched between the outer and inner fabric, or a very densely woven, wind and water resistant outer shell fabric. Almost all soft shells will have a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) treated outer fabric.
Softshells with a perforated membrane, such as Gore Windstopper® and Polartec PowerShield® provide the best weather protection. However this can sometimes be at the expense of breathability.
Softshell fabric’s without a inner membrane, such as Schoeller 3xDry, Haglofs Flexable or the Rab Vapour Rise System offer improved comfort, but often lack the long term weather resistance of the membrane soft shells.
- Wind and water repellent (or waterproof in some cases)
- Keeps you comfortable whilst being active through a large climatic range
- Avoids the stop/start routine of putting on and taking off waterproofs as the weather changes
- Can look very ‘technical’ and ‘mountaineery’
- Athletic fit
- Often not weatherproof enough to deal with the wet UK climate
- Soft shells with membranes can feel clammy and are not very breathable.
Different Brands of Soft shell fabric
Comes out top for overall weather protection. However it can be warm and get clammy in warmer conditions. Windstopper performs best as winter gear due to exceptional water repellency and being totally windproof. It is a favourite with winter climbers.
A great all rounder and is very breathable. Ideal for spring and autumn conditions in the UK and for summer alpine climbing. Different weights of Powershield have varying amount insulation making them suitable for cooler conditions.
A very comfortable fabric with a 4 way stretch making it very suitable for mountaineers. A big favourite with alpinists.
Haglofs’ own brand of soft shell fabric. Essentially very similar in performance to Schoeller or Powershield
Rab Vapour Rise System
Often referred to as original soft shell and uses a densely woven Pertex outer combined with an insulating, wicking inner. Although this is ‘old school’ Soft shell technology and has been around for many years, don’t be put off. It is one of the most comfortable clothing systems around and is justifiably popular, particularly with walkers who don’t want that ultra technical, sprayed on look.