Soft Shells Explained

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One of the most confusing outerwear materials is a relative new-comer, the ever-confounding "soft shell" category. This term applies to outerwear fabric that provides both stretch and breathability, as well as a moderate level of wind and/or moisture protection. For storm skiing, hiking the Oregon coast, or sailing during a Nor 'Easter, nothing beats a three-layer waterproof-breathable fabric (read: hard shell). But for higher-aerobic activities in relatively dry conditions, soft shells offer several advantages that you might otherwise sacrifice to the hard shell.

As its name implies, soft shells are lighter to the touch, provide more stretch and suppleness within the fabric, and don't create the distinctive crinkling sound. Most are "water resistant," meaning that they can handle exposure to moderate rain and snow, but will soak through if subjected to considerable moisture. Some soft shells are more water-resistant than others, while others boast a DWR (durable water resistance) application or coating, which adds to the water repellency through a waterproof/breathable laminate or membrane, but that also decreases breathability. Some are rather flimsy—a light second layer for brisk spring or fall morning rides, while others are fairly bombproof and abrasion-resistant... In other words, a universal description for soft shell is like a singular definition of marina sauce. It's all about the ingredients. Some have hoods, some don't. Some fit tight, while others are loose enough to accommodate layers underneath. Some offer a smidge of protection that's perfect for mild, urban-centric outings, while others up the ante with wool, poly, or fleece lining; multiple pockets; and windproofing.

What to Look For
First, think about the bulk of activities that you'll engage in while wearing the item. In most instances, we're talking jackets. But soft shell pants are awesome for activities such as hiking, skiing/riding, biking, and climbing—namely activities where stretch can make a difference. Soft shell pants are typically burlier than their lighter-weight counterparts, and provide a good mix of water repellency and breathability. A sane alternative, in other words, to the soft shell's clammy cousin, the hard shell.

With jackets, thing get a bit more complicated. For biking and skiing on cold and windy days, we suggest products that boast a pretty rugged finish and some sort of windproof treatment like Gore-Tex Windstopper fabric. Day hikers in milder conditions can go with a lower-profile soft shell jacket. For activities where you might see some rain and snow and lots of start-and-stop activities (backpacking, skiing and riding), a DWR-treated jacket and wind repellency is essential—it'll keep you covered in about 80 percent of conditions you'd encounter. For higher-aerobic activities like snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, consider hybrid pieces that mix soft shell with other fabrics, like breathable fabric integrated into the hot spots like the arm pits. If staying dry becomes more of a concern, consider products that employ a soft shell core for about 70 percent of the fabric, and add hard shell fabrics at the shoulders, hood, and upper arms—namely, places that get wetter during a storm. But we aren't implying you should have a different jacket for every nuance in weather or activity. The soft shell's real strength is its multiple applications—find the right jacket based on the above criteria and it'll perform in most of your outdoor passions. Better still, many now boast a urban, travel-friendly, fashion-forward aesthetic (including blazers) that keep you wrapped in the tech fabric you love without making it look as if you just came off a three-week Annapurna trek.

And of course if you must stay dry no matter what , return to the world of the hard shell or pay a premium for the Gore Tex Soft Shell treatment, which is fully waterproof, but best serves colder-weather conditions.
Published: 3 Jan 2011 | Last Updated: 9 Jun 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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