Softshell jackets are the ultimate must-haves for high-output activities. They are made from stretchy and breathable fabrics that provide amazing performance combined with a comfortable fit that seamlessly follows your movement.
Provided that you don’t take out these jackets during a rainstorm, you can expect their durable shells to withstand light precipitation and wind. You will surely have a hard time finding a more versatile shell for different forms of outdoor activities.
What are Softshell Jackets?
Based on its name, a softshell is a type of flexible outer layer that is a great alternative to traditional hardshell jackets.
While many products belong to this particular jacket type, all softshells are constructed with woven polyester or nylon which is responsible for their signature stretchy feel.
You will notice that the face fabric is quite durable but smooth while the interior is often some kind of fleece grid or brushed polyester that offers different levels of warmth.
A softshell jacket is not meant to endure the elements. Instead, their purpose is to balance wind and water resistance with some performance characteristics such as mobility and breathability.
These jackets are a great option when you are working hard and during cool weather.
Softshell vs. Hardshell Jackets
It wasn’t too long ago when softshells were introduced in the market, with their early versions being just fleece jackets with tougher face fabric with higher weather resistance. These jackets quickly rose to popularity with improved technology. Today, softshells have become real competitors to hard shells for various alpine sports.
Softshells excel in comfort, breathability, and range of motion. Hardshells, on the other hand, win out during harsh conditions with their lighter weights and windproof and waterproof exteriors. There are also a few crossovers between these categories, with their fully waterproof design featuring a mechanical stretch. This is why these jackets don’t have the same level of a stretch as softshells and the fully waterproof design results in a slight compromise in terms of breathability.
Both hard shells and softshells are great options for different activities such as hiking, climbing, skiing, and mountaineering, just to name a few. Your specific priorities may push you to either one of them and people who spend most of their time outdoors should own at least one of these two types of jackets.
It seems that once you have become more familiar with your gear and the specific conditions you will head out into, you might feel more inclined to reach for your softshell. While it might not offer that additional security blanket that a hardshell’s proofing can offer, its very comfortable and breathable nature makes it more fun to wear all day long.
Performance vs. Casual Softshells
Just like other types of jackets, the market for softshell jackets is a large and growing one. It can also be broken into two main categories, namely performance and casual.
Casual softshells boast a generous fit combined with a basic feature set that can be used as an outer layer as fall transitions to spring. These softshells work great as an everyday piece since their stretchy fabrics breathe better and are far more comfortable compared to rain jackets. Even during winter, you might still want to reach for your softshell jacket provided that the forecast doesn’t state any heavy precipitation.
On the other hand, performance softshells are designed for activities including ski touring, mountaineering, and climbing, and leverage a softshell’s two key benefits: mobility and breathability. In addition, these jackets also come with outdoor-specific features such as helmet-compatible hoods, a tailored fit, and pockets set high to give room for a harness or hip belt.
To other performance outerwear, there is no substantial increase in cost between the performance and casual options, partly due to the similar technology used across the board.
Water and Wind Resistance
One of the main reasons why people are hesitant to buy softshells is because they don’t offer the security you can expect from hard shells or rain jackets when it comes to waterproofing. However, with the tough outer fabric and durable water repellent or DWR coating that beads up and sheds water, most softshells can endure light wind gusts or rain showers just fine.
But expect that sustained moisture can make its way through the majority of jackets due to the absence of a waterproof membrane and seam taping. So far, softshells are not recommended for prolonged precipitation exposure. Hardshells continue to be the best choice for this kind of weather. When at lower elevations and you need an emergency jacket with a waterproof feature, a packable and light rain shell can serve as a great backup.
In addition to the stretchiness, softshell jackets also have breathability which is one of the primary reasons to buy one. They can offer better performance than waterproof hard shells during high-exertion activities such as backcountry skiing and climbing.
Just remember that the level of breathability of a softshell will vary and is often linked with several common features. Softshells with the highest level of breathability feature thinner designs without a super tough and tightly woven outer layer with lesser air permeability.
When it comes to maximum breathability level, air permeability will be your ultimate best friend because it moves more air out and into the shell. Too much airflow, on the other hand, can compromise warmth and weather resistance.
It is always a balance yet many softshells provide an excellent level of breathability for just an outer layer.
Warmth and Thickness
Softshells can also vary a lot in terms of warmth and thickness, from fleece-lined thick jackets to thin shells that don’t offer any insulation. Thick softshells are ideal to use during activities such as ice climbing, the dead of winter, chilly autumn walks, and even if you just want to go for a walk around town.
It is important to remember that uninsulated softshell jackets won’t be warm enough by themselves during subfreezing temperatures. You still need a good system of mid-layers and base to stay cosy even if you are working hard.