Everyone has their own definition of “softshell” which makes the marketplace quite confusing. My definition of soft shell is any single layer garment which is designed be worn in a wide range of conditions putting an emphasis on breathability over absolute protection from external conditions. I consider unlined windshirts a part of a softshell system. Contrary to what some manufacturers would like you to believe, soft shells have been around a long time, predating hard shells by several millennium since full waterproof didn’t exist until the 1800s. These days there are a number of man made wonder materials that are attempting to beat what has been found in nature (e.g. animal skins). I would suggestion that people who are just working out their clothing systems skip softshells until they are fully comfortable with a more traditional layering system.
Andy Kirkpatrick (aka psychovertical’s) identified four types of soft shells in In the post real soft-shell story:
- Stretch Woven
- Laminated Stretch
My experience suggests stretch woven and pile/pertex style soft shells are significantly more performant than laminated stretch materials such as PowerShield and Encapsulated (EPIC). That said, I would recommend EPIC in the face of multi day rain in high abrasion conditions due to it’s durability and low water absorption / fast drying nature.
The primary advantage of soft shells is that they offer adequate protection while doing away with the typical layer on/off dance when people are varying their activity levels. Additionally, many softshells offer better mobility than a classic hard shell and will be less noisy because the shell isn’t encumbered by a stiff membrane. Classic hard shells are very effective at keeping wind and water outside the shell. Unfortunately, no hard shell is sufficiently breathable avoid significant internal condensation during aerobic activities. Since many outing don’t face serious deluges, the classic hardshell has the wrong balance of breathability and protection. If you are facing wind and a light drizzle or snow, why not take a garment that will keep you comfortable while avoiding the pain or taking off and putting back on your shell.
Soft shells work by using a durable water resistant fabric that shed precipitation and wind while still being highly breathable. Light rain, slush and snow rolls right off the shell. In an extended shower or when in constant contact with snow, moisture will soak through the outer surface, but the combination of your body heat and the wicking action of the soft shell will provide a comfortable micro climate next to your skin.
This approach has been popularized by British climbers who regularly face notoriously wet conditions in cooler temperatures. For this system to work well you need to be engaged in sufficiently aerobic activity to be generating heat, and the conditions need to be cool enough that the soft shell doesn’t cause you to overheat. I think the best soft shell materials has some air permeability which helps keep the wearer from overheating, and allows the modest air flow to move water vapor away from your body.
Slightly related. Patagonia used an interesting percent naked system for rating clothing.
In cooler weather I use either a BD Alpine Start Jacket (often combined with a Macpac Nitro Hoody made from Polartec Alpha Direct or an unlined windshirt combined with Patagonia Capilene Thermal Weight base which functions much like a classic pile/pertex soft-shell but is a bit lighter / less insulating. I use stretch-woven pants made by Outlier. In the past I have used a number of other soft shell garments.
For almost 15 years I found a heavy base (Thermal Weight / R.5) or a light fleece (R1, MB Chameece) + a Patagonia Essenshell Pullover (unlined EPIC) was my go-to system when I needed durability and I expected to face snow/rain on extended trips. I wasn’t necessarily “dry” but always was warm enough when I was active and found it dry and ready to go each morning. I retired the Essenshell when weight lose made it too baggy and am still trying to figure out the best replacement. The BD Alpine Start is amazing, but the current generation DWR (Schoeller NanoSpheres) wears out when facing abrasive conditions.
Pile/Pertex soft shell first appeared in the 1980s, and are still one of the best options because they provide good performance at a reasonable price. The Buffalo Systems Mountain Shirt was the first modern soft shell, and it reminds largely unchanged from it’s original form. For more information I would suggest taking a look at Andy Kirkpatrick the best soft shell in the world. I was first introduced the the idea of using a soft shell by Michael’s Ultralight Clothing page which is thankfully still available due to the Internet Archive.
My favorite pile/pertex type soft shell is the Rab Vapour-Rise line which upgraded the shell from Pertex 6 to Pertex Equilibrium. I have found the “light” version of the Vapour-Rise breaths well, has just right amount of warmth for when I am active, has kept me comfortable (a bit damp, but warm enough) in all day drizzle, short lived rain storms, and in wet snowfall. For done in a day activities in cooler conditions I haven’t found anything better for high energy activities, whether it’s dry or wet. On multi-day trips with continuous rain I am not so happy, prefering a shell made from EPIC which can dry completely over night.
When it’s a bit warmer, the classic Marmot DriClime Windshirt is very effective having switched from pile to a lighter bipolar wicking fabric and using a shell which is more breathable but less protective than Pertex 6.
Finally, there is Paramo. I find Paramo garments too warm unless the the temperature is hovering around freezing, and I think they are also rather heavy in terms of weight, but there are many from the UK swear by these garments. There is also Cioch Direct which custom makes jackets using Nikwax Analogy.
Stretch Woven soft shells are great when you need an a garment that can stand up to a lot of abuse without binding. They are more air permiable than pile/pertex making them idea when you want protection with minimal insulation. Softshell materials work best in cool or cold conditions when highly active. They work well in moderate to warm conditions provided the wearer isn’t too active. Schoeller fabrics such as Dryskin, especially with the Nanosphere treatment, is one of the nicest materials for this sort of application. The downside of most stretch-woven materials is that they can absorb moisture in an extended rain, and can be a bit heavier than a traditional three-layer system which doesn’t need to stand up against serious abrasion.
Nylon “Hiking” Clothing
While many people might not think of the classic nylon hiking pants and shirts as a soft shell I think it’s making similar trade-offs, it’s just not quite as performant as the hi-tech stretch woven materials. In particular they aren’t as as air permeable, don’t really wick, and aren’t as water resistant as top fabrics from Schoeller. They are more air permeable then a hard shell and more resistant to water than a classic base layer while protection the skin from abrasions, biting bugs, sun burn, and scratches from vegetation.
Here is an abbreviated list of “soft shell” materials I have encountered. Temp range is my comfort range when engaged in aerobic activities going from lightest to heaviest. Often these materials will be paired with some sort of liner
- Light weight Schoeller fabrics used the Black Diamond Alpine Start and the Outdoor Research Ferrosi. Especially nice with the Nanosphere treatment. There are several materials no longer made such as Inertia used by Cloudveil, Extra Light Pertex Equilibrium used in the BPL Thorofare clothing.
- Supplex Nylon/Taslan (and other light, nylon materials) using in “hiking” pants and shirts. Best with a bit of elastic added improve mobility. Even with DWR they tend to get soaked pretty quickly, but when lightly calendared on the inside are acceptably comfortable when wet in moderate conditions provided activity level is high enough to stay warm. They dry quite quickly.
- Schoeller Dynamic is decent in cool weather when facing abrasive conditions but for general use, I find that the optimal comfort range is smaller than other soft shells. It is a bit more wind resistant that Dryskin, but doesn’t wick as well and is less insulating. Dynamic started leaking in less than 10 minutes during a hard rain storm. I overheat in conditions that would be OK in an unlined wind shirt, and find myself feeling chilled at approx the same time as a wind shirt. On the other hand, Dynamic is significant more durable in abrasive conditions that many materials. Useful for Spring skiing over light insulation or heavy base, and moderate weather climbing. The ArcTeryx’s Alpha Comp was a brilliant combination of Dynamic in the body with a Gore-Tex yoke.
- Pertex Equilibrium is fairly wind resistant (CFM 10), decent water resistance, a bit of stretch. Not a durable as Dynamic but better at shedding rain. The surface will pill when in area of high wear. Appropriate for spring and fall conditions, high output aerobic activity in the winter. Used in the light version of Vapour Rise, The Westcomb Crest, and a short lived shell from REI.
- Nextec EPIC is a good wind shell in cold to cool weather. Layered over a wicking base layer (with light insulation in colder situations) is where EPIC shines. EPIC doesn’t absorb much water, even if it gets soaked, so it dries more quickly than most soft shells. You can restore the DWR by washing it and running it through the dryer. I found that it resists light sprinkle for several hours, leaks after around an hour in a moderate rain storm, and really lets the water in after 15 minutes in a real storm. Seems that there are several weights of EPIC which variety is wind and water resistance. Good as wind shirt over a light base layer when the temp is <45 F. Patagonia Essenshell, Dimension Shell, part of the US military clothing system.
- Schoeller Dryskin is ideal for pants when it was between 0-30F over a medium base layer so long as I wasn’t facing really serious winds, or 20-45F as a stand-alone garment, and usable up to around 60F. I also used a Dryskin jacket for several years. I remember it being useful over a large range of temperatures when I was active. I think Dryskin garments might have had the widest comfort range of any soft shell I have used. I have been dry after being out for multiple hours in a light rain storm. Wicks and breaths really well. ~30CFM? One down side is that it will absorb water over time. Great for for spring and fall, high output winter activities.
- Sporthill SP3 and Swix seemed like it would be similar to heavier weights of Dryskin at a lower price.
- Paramo makes a number of materials which have a range of warmth and protectiveness. I have little experience with them, but they have a cult like following in Europe which touts it’s great breathability. Noted outdoorsman Chris Townsend indicated that he uses Paramo for continuous rainy cool conditions which is what I have heard is Paramo’s sweet spot.