February 19, 2004

Move over Gore-Tex

Soft shells offer remarkable breathability, making them great for outdoor activity. Photo: Courtesy of Broudy/Donohue Photography

AMC Outdoors, January/February 2004

By Michael Lanza

I remember my thoughts upon getting my first waterproof-breathable jacket: This shell was going to show me new horizons. Hope does spring eternal. Sure, it worked great in downpours, snowstorms, and cold wind. But it tended to get so steamy when I was going uphill in moderate temperatures that it often wound up back in my pack. So I augmented my technical wardrobe with a lightweight wind shell that was far more breathable, good for hard exertion, wind, even a passing rain. Ahhh, that was the ticket.

Then came soft-shell fabrics. Used in jackets, pullovers, and vests; pants and shorts; and hats and gloves, these materials are water-resistant, windproof, tough, and much more breathable and stretchy than a waterproof-breathable layer like Gore-Tex. In short, they protect against all but the wettest weather, making them ideal in strong wind, light rain, or snow — or while moving quickly through cold air — in circumstances where a waterproof-breathable garment is often just too hot. In moderate precipitation and temps, they’ll keep you from overheating or getting soaked, and I’ve been amazed at how quickly these tops and bottoms dry on my body. And many of them shine in falling snow — drying fast, they rarely freeze stiff like Gore-Tex clothing will.

In the Northeast, a soft shell works great for a variety of outdoor activities in fall, winter, and spring — running, hiking, climbing rock and ice, backcountry skiing and groomed cross-country skiing — and in the cool wind above treeline in summer. The more breathable and lightweight shells are better for aerobic activities like running, while warmer, heavier garments are best for moderate or intermittent exertion in cold temps, like hiking and climbing. Some are treated to better repel rain — a good thing to ask about when buying, keeping in mind that whenever you increase weather resistance, you reduce breathability.

There are numerous soft-shell fabrics out there. Several are described below, with specific garments mentioned as examples (many come in men’s and women’s sizes; weights are for men’s medium tops and small bottoms unless specified otherwise). Choose a fabric based on your activities, seasons, and typical weather, then check out the garments in that fabric to decide which one has the fit, features, and price for you.

The Hard Facts on Soft Shells
Gore’s Windstopper — which first emerged as a fleece product — is a membrane that’s completely windproof, very durable, and has high water resistance and good stretch. It’s widely used in soft shells designed for cold temps and a moderate activity level, such as Mountain Hardwear’s Vertex Jacket ($195, 19 oz.) and Pant ($179, 19 oz.), and the Marmot Quantum Jacket ($269, 22 oz.). There are several versions of it that differ only in warmth and feel, among them N2S, the lightest and coolest, which Gore does not consider a soft shell (see sidebar). Windstopper Taifun — in the Mammut Ultimate ($199, 16 oz. men’s small) — is next lightest, while Windstopper Trango — in the Marmot Sharp Point Jacket ($249, 21 oz.), with pit zips — is warmer and has less stretch and breathability.

Polartec Power Shield boasts superior abrasion resistance and stretch, and a soft fleece liner in various weights from lightweight and cool to thick and warm. It is very breathable and yet blocks most wind, and it’ll beat back a light drizzle and falling snow. Midweight Power Shield is used in the Patagonia MixMaster Jacket ($295, 25 oz.), Sierra Designs Utopia Jacket ($199, 21 oz. men’s large), and REI One ($198, 21 oz.), warm jackets for moderately aerobic cold-weather activities.

The Lightweight and Lightweight Ultra versions of Power Shield are even more breathable, yet equally weatherproof. The former is in the Arc’teryx Gamma MX Jacket ($285, 18 oz.) and Pant ($250, 18 oz.), both of which shine in cool to cold temps. The latter is used exclusively by GoLite in its excellent Kinetic Jacket ($199, 14 oz.), which has zip-off sleeves, and Propel Pant ($149, 9 oz. men’s large), both ideal for Nordic skiing, trail running, and hiking in cool to cold temps.

Schoeller Dryskin Extreme is very stretchy, breathable, and durable, and has a treatment called 3XDry that improves internal wicking as well as water resistance — it really sheds rain pretty well. Not quite as warm as Power Shield, it’s best for sustained activities in moderate to cold temps, like hiking, climbing, and backcountry skiing. It’s found in garments like the Cloudveil Serendipity Jacket ($200, 17 oz.), Mammut Champ Pant ($199, 18 oz.), Marmot ATV Pant ($160, 18 oz.), and the three-season Beyond Fleece Cold Play Short ($74, optional pockets extra, about 10 oz.).

Schoeller WB400, found in garments like the hooded Mammut Laser Jacket ($265, 26 oz.), is one of the warmest soft-shell fabrics. With a fleece liner and good stretch, it’s best for intermittently aerobic cold activities like climbing and skiing.

Schoeller doesn’t call its Dynamic fabric a soft-shell material, but some clothing manufacturers do. It is lightweight, very stretchy, durable, breathes like Power Shield Lightweight, and has decent wind and water resistance. You’ll find it in many garments made for moderate temps, like the basic Black Diamond Verticals (BDVs) Pant ($128, 12 oz.) and REI Mistral Pant ($100, 18 oz.).

Some manufacturers use their own soft-shell fabrics. Arc’teryx has Tweave in its Gamma LT Jacket ($199, 11 oz.) and Pant ($199, 14 oz.), two excellent year-round, moderate-temp pieces that are supremely breathable and have top wind and water resistance. Tweave Durastretch LT, a lighter version that’s as thin as a paper towel and great for trail running or cross-country skiing, appears in the Arc’teryx Switchback Shirt ($150, 8 oz.). Cloudveil’s Inertia, used in its Prospector Jacket ($135, 11 oz.) and Pant ($90, 10 oz.), is one of the most affordable, lightweight, and breathable of these fabrics. It’s designed for three-season temps, but is not as stretchy, water-resistant, or durable as others.

Marmot constructs its Photon Jacket ($200, 25 oz.) from Amp NP-940; it’s a fairly breathable and warm cold-weather, moderate-exertion piece. Patagonia uses its own fabric treated to enhance water resistance in its seasonally versatile Dimension Jacket ($240, 23 oz.) and Super Guide Pant ($200, 26 oz.). The North Face’s proprietary Apex fabric, used in the Apex 1 Jacket ($149, 16 oz.) and Apex Pant ($99, 19 oz.), has great stretch and durability, good water-resistance when treated with a Durable Water Repellent (DWR), decent breathability, and is a great three-season bargain.

Manufacturers are also creating hybrid garments using a combination of soft-shell fabrics, based on the idea that some parts of the body need high breathability, while other parts require more protection from weather. The Arc’teryx Sigma SL Jacket ($235, 11 oz.) marries Windstopper and Schoeller Dynamic for activities like cross-country skiing or fall hiking. Marmot’s Super Hero Jacket ($225, 19 oz.) combines five fabrics, from Gore’s highly water-resistant Triton in the shoulders to breathable Power Shield under the arms. Mountain Hardwear’s Alchemy Jacket ($239, 22 oz.) and Pant ($225, 11 oz.) use Trango Windstopper and Power Shield.

Will soft shells replace the likes of traditional Gore-Tex outerwear? Maybe, though maybe not for severe rain or cold. Mountain Hardwear’s waterproof Synchro Jacket ($210, 21 oz. men’s large), fuses Hardwear’s proprietary waterproof-breathable laminate, Conduit SL, to a stretch-woven fabric with taped seams; it doubles as shell or insulation, making it very versatile, though it’s not as breathable as other soft shells. Beyond that, industry skeptics say that making a garment waterproof compromises too much on breathability — and the whole point of a soft shell is superior breathability when you don’t need protection from extreme weather, which is most of the time. Others say we’re on the verge of waterproof soft shells that are highly breathable and have great stretch. I suspect we’ll see soft shells that continue to push the envelope in both directions — toward greater breathability in some, and improved weather protection in others.

Michael Lanza is author of The Ultimate Guide to Backcountry Travel, from AMC Books.

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