How to Choose a Softshell Jacket
What is a softshell?
Softshell jackets are made of a smooth-faced, stretchy, tightly-woven fabric that usually consists of nylon blended with elastane. They are renowned for their unrestrictive range of motion, body-hugging fit, superb breathability, wind and water resistance (to varying degrees) and often stylish appearance. After emerging a decade or so ago, softshells quickly became a popular alternative to traditional hardshell jackets (principally GORE-TEX jackets at the time), as well as fleece garments like Polartec Classic jackets.
Today, a wide variety of softshells are available to suit a broad range of conditions and purposes. In this article, we’ll take a look at various softshell jackets and discuss their potential applications.
The lightest weight softshell falls somewhere on the border between shirt and jacket; no matter what you call it, it works great as a cover-up against the blazing sun and persistent wind that characterizes high-altitude summer conditions. We could also imagine wearing it on the beach as the sun sets and a stiff onshore breeze blows in. It’s very hard to get a sense of what this piece feels like from photos, so we highly recommend coming in to our store and trying it on if you’re in the area.
When summer gives way to winter, these lightweight softshells are great for being active on a cool day. For a fast-moving winter day hike in the Green Mountains, you could wear a base layer or Power Stretch-type top for the forested portion of the hike, and then pull out a lightweight softshell when you hit the above-treeline winds. This system works well for temperatures in the 20s and 30s; for more extreme cold, you might want to add a down jacket to pull on during rest stops.
Lightweight softshells pack down small and are easily stowed in your pack for when temperatures call for that extra insulating layer on a mild winter day.
Midweight softshells are all-around performers, as you might guess from their name. They are a winter layer that you’ll wear all day, rather than take in and out of your pack. For hiking, cross-country skiing, or to just wear around town, midweight softshell jackets can deliver comfort and style. Common characteristics in this category feature a WINDSTOPPER® fabric and snow/sleet resistance.
Packing everything from high-loft fleece linings to powder skirts, the softshells in this category are big and burly. They are designed to deliver as much warmth as a softshell possibly can, with furry fleece inside and a heavyweight, wind-stopping fabric outside.
For higher-altitude mountaineering endeavors (i.e. Ecuador’s Cotopaxi) heavyweight softshell jackets can be the cornerstone of a great layering system. Start out with a merino wool base layer, add a mid-weight fleece pullover, then put on a heavyweight softshell jacket and you should be good to go for a full day (and quite possibly, night) of climbing and mountaineering. A down jacket in your backpack adds extra warmth insurance for rest stops, taking summit photos, or hunkering down at camp.
Wind and Water Resistance; Breathablility
You will hear a lot of companies touting the wind resistance, water resistance, and breathability of their softshell garments. It’s important to understand that all of these properties are correlated with one another. They sit together on a metaphorical seesaw, with wind and water resistance at one end, and breathability at the other. As one end goes up, the other generally goes down.
Fleece garments, as you are probably aware, are not very wind or water resistant. They provide low-profile insulation that makes you feel warm and dry (not clammy), but the wind whistles right through them and they readily soak up water from rain and snow. Rain jackets, on the other hand, are totally wind- and waterproof but can leave you feeling hot and sweaty because the jacket’s solid waterproof membrane can’t diffuse the heat and water vapor generated by your exertion fast enough (some do a better job of this than others, as discussed in our Guide to Rainwear). In between these two ends of the spectrum are a number of technologies and construction techniques found in softshell.
Breathable Softshell Technologies
Towards the breathable end of the spectrum are fabrics that rely on the tight weave of their fibers to provide resistance to wind, while still allowing some air to permeate the garment and facilitate moisture transfer. Polartec® Wind Pro® is a good example of this softshell technology. Polartec claims that it “blocks 4 times more wind than traditional fleece,” but note that they don’t say it’s "100% windproof”—and depending on the activity and weather conditions, you may not want it to be. In Polartec’s words, “because it is not a laminate, Wind Pro is also highly breathable, maintaining 85% of the breathability of traditional fleece to keep you from overheating.”
Another notable fabric of this type is Schoeller Dryskin. One of the earliest softshell fabrics, Dryskin hit the market around 2002 and was picked up by companies like Cloudveil. You’ll still hear old-timers occasionally refer to softshells in general as “Schoeller” jackets or pants. As the quintessential softshell, its wind resistance is on par with Wind Pro as described above: water-repellent, and supremely stretchy. It’s as good now as it was ten years ago, and Schoeller also tricks out some of their Dryskin jackets with additional technologies like Nano Sphere (a silicon-based “self-cleaning” technology that prevents grime from sticking to the garment) and Coldblack (a UV absorber that keeps dark-colored clothing from absorbing heat in the sun).
Windproof Softshell Technologies
This is probably a good time to note the definition of “windproof.” For outdoor clothing purposes, “windproof” garments admit less than 1 cubic foot of air per minute in a 30mph wind.
This is the definition adhered to by Gore’s WINDSTOPPER® product line, which is another major player in the softshell market. WINDSTOPPER , like GORE-TEX, is an ePTFE laminate. Ironically, though, WINDSTOPPER is actually more air-permeable than GORE-TEX, and this is what allows it to be more breathable while still meeting the above definition of “windproof.”
Gore claims that WINDSTOPPER-equipped jackets keep you up to 2.5 times warmer than comparable non-windproof jackets. The technology is a popular alternative to true waterproof fabrics for winter activities where less water resistance is needed due to low humidity and frozen precipitation (i.e. ice climbing, skiing, snowboarding, etc.).
Polartec’s answer to WINDSTOPPER is Power Shield®. Like WINDSTOPPER, Power Shield uses an elasticized membrane in conjunction with softshell textiles to achieve high wind and water resistance. Power Shield trades a little bit of windproofness for a little bit more breathability, with the Polartec site reporting air permeation rates of 2-12 cubic feet per minute (as opposed to <1cfm for WINDSTOPPER).
Polartec® WindBloc® is yet another technology that uses a laminate to increase wind resistance. In this case, it’s a fairly standard polyurethane laminate like the one you would find in a raincoat, but without seam tape and with different face fabrics. The upside of WindBloc is that it offers comparable windproofness to WINDSTOPPER at a lower cost, but the downside is that it isn’t as breathable. Polartec describes Windbloc as the ideal softshell choice when activity levels are low or intermittent.