Choosing a Soft Shell Jacket

Possibly the main reason that soft shell jackets aren’t worn more widely is because most people don’t really know what they’re for. And the brands don’t really help to clarify the matter with all of their technical jargon… Thankfully, help is at hand in the form of this guide to helping you understand what they do, and which type is best for you.

Why choose a Soft Shell Jacket?

Softshell jackets represent a halfway house between fully waterproof hard shells (i.e. waterproofs), and breathable, highly air-permeable fleeces. As such, they are more breathable than hard shells, but far more resistant to wind and water than any fleece. Because they provide the  wearer with insulation as well as weatherproofing, they are a versatile and lightweight mode of protection from the elements, which cut down on the need for bulky excess layers.

Technical Properties of Soft Shell Jackets

Soft shells can be split into two fundamental types: membrane-based and stretch-woven. All soft shell jackets are designed to act as a barrier to the elements, but quite how impenetrable that barrier is depends upon which type you go for.

Membrane-based soft shells are completely windproof, and virtually waterproof in real-world conditions, taking serious and prolonged exposure to rain to penetrate them. A few are even classed as completely waterproof, such as those made from the Polartec NeoShell fabric – but these are still in the minority. Membrane-based soft shells have membranes with a more open molecular structure than the fully waterproof ones you’ll find in waterproof jackets, hence their greater breathability. However, their membranes still restrict air permeability and moisture transfer to an extent, so they are not as breathable as stretch-woven soft shells.

Stretch-woven soft shells rely on their tight weave and a durable water resistant coating (DWR) to provide water repellency, and high levels of wind resistance. They will keep you dry in a shower or prolonged drizzle, but if you’re exposed to rain for a long time you’ll find yourself getting wet. Stretch-woven soft shells offer the best breathability of any shell garments.

Which Sort of Soft Shell Should you go for?

This depends very much on where your priorities lie. If you value staying dry and warm more than staying cool and comfortable during energetic activities, then you should opt for a membrane-based soft shell. If on the other hand you want more breathability for highly active wear, you should strongly consider a stretch-woven soft shell. Often retailers and brands don’t specify which type of softshell a jacket is, so here’s a list of some of the commonly available membrane-based and stretch-woven soft shell fabrics available today:

Membrane-Based Soft Shell Fabrics:

Gore Windstopper

Polartec NeoShell

Marmot M1

Mountain Hardwear Conduit

Stretch-Woven Soft Shell Fabrics:

Pertex Equilibrium

Polartec Power Shield & Power Shield Pro

Marmot M2 & M3

The North Face Apex Aerobic and Apex ClimateBlock

Schoeller Soft Shell fabrics

Nylon or Polyester woven fabrics

What can Soft Shell Jackets be used for?

The beauty of soft shells is that they can be used for almost anything! There are soft shell jackets designed for walking, backpacking, mountaineering, snowsports and trail running – many of those transferable between activities thanks to their blend of breathability and weather resistance. Fabrics aside, you need to look out for the features you require in a shell garment for your intended pursuit. Because soft shells are so diverse, at one end of the spectrum you’ll have hoodless, minimal designs for lightweight pursuits (e.g. running, cycle touring), whilst at the other end of the spectrum some will have all the features you’d expect from a heavy-duty mountaineering waterproof – e.g. helmet compatible wire-peaked hood, harness-compatible pockets, internal storm flaps etc. Check out the full list of the features you’ll find on soft shell jackets in the Webtogs range to give you an idea of how diverse the category is, and some fuel for thought!