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The GO Outdoors Guide To Softshell Jackets

Softshell Jackets are designed for use outdoors as part of the layering system, and can be used alone, ideal for aerobic activity in light weather conditions if they are water repellent and highly breathable, or as an insulating layer under a 'hard shell' outer jacket.

Softshell Jackets can be worn in place of a fleece when you need more protection, and can be used in a variety of conditions. Despite most softshell jackets being weatherproofed, and able to shield you from minimal amounts of rain and wind via a DWR (Durable Water Repellent), softshell jackets are not designed for use in severe weather conditions unless theya re worn in conjunction with a hardshell, such as a waterproof jacket.

For their ability to be used in a variety of situations and environments, soft shell jackets are a cost effective purchase.

What is a Softshell Jacket and where can I wear it?

Softshell Jackets can be used in good weather on the hill or for use when you need more breathability than a hardshell waterproof.

  • For daily wear in moderate to good weather with little chance of rain downpours
  • For climbing or cycling over a baselayer instead of a fleece
  • In severe weather conditions as a midlayer underneath a hard shell jacket

Softshell Jackets vs Hardshell Jackets

Hard shell jackets are more rigid and waterproof, which makes them favourable for predicatble bad weather in the outdoors.

Because softshell jackets are designed to have higher levels of breathability and flexibility, whilst still offering more water and wind repelling qualities than a midlayer such as a fleece they are popular with walkers and climbers who need a close to the skin fit, with good breathability, and less weatherproofing.

The arms and body of a softshell are designed to be flexible and easy to move. An example of this is The North Face's 'Angel Wing Movement' technology, or the Berghaus Choktoi Pro Jacket, in which you can move your arms above your body without your clothing rising up during high activity.

Softshell Jackets can be created with an athletic or an alpine cut, and can be adjusted with the use of hem or drawcords so you can pull them close and keep the wind or rain out making them ideal for climbers who don't want a long cut that hinders their harness.

Softshell Jackets are easy to layer over, making them ideal for changeable weather. They also do not have a fabric construction which would cause them to 'rustle'.

Typical features of softshell jackets

  • Arm Venting gussets or mesh breathable areas
    These are used to allow sweat to vent out of the soft shell during activity.
  • Hoods
    Hoods are sometimes used in soft shells as extra insulation. These can be zip-off, fixed, peaked/wired, or helmet compatible
  • Pockets
    Usually internal and external, soft shells come with a variety of pockets for all activities. For use during climbing, check they are able to be reached whilst using a harness. Pockets can also be insulated or lined to warm the hands, known as ‘hand warming/handwarmer’ pockets.
  • Reinforced fabrics
    Typically featured ion areas such as the shoulders and elbows for durability.
  • Inner Fabrics
    The inner of a soft shell is usually lined with a fleece, fur or wool, but can vary according to price.
  • Flatlock seams
    The inner of a soft shell is usually lined with a fleece, fur or wool, but can vary according to price.
  • Inner Fabrics
    Used in the stitching of some soft shells to avoid abrasion next to this skin. The seams can also be placed to avoid rubbing against rucksack straps.
  • Stretchy fabrics
    Typically used in softshell jackets to ensure they are fit for use during activity. This can be in the garment construction, such as 4-way elastication, or the actual fabrics used.
  • Reflective logos
    Reflective trims can be included in soft shells to provide high visibility in dark conditions.

Waterproofing a Softshell jacket

Membranes can be used in order to make your soft shell waterproof or to achieve water repellency.

GORE-Tex is a well known membrane used in clothing, and water repellency is achieved by the use of a coating in the final process of manufacturing, which is known as a DWR treatment (Durable Water Repellency.)

These membranes consist of an extremely thin film containing microscopic pores that are large enough for body moisture to pass through, but small enough to keep water droplets out, whereas DWR coatings are added to the fabric after a laminate or membrane has been applied to form a protective wall from water droplets on the outer layer.

Windproofing a Softshell Jacket

Windproof Coatings and Membranes (e.g GORE Windstopper) can also be applied to a garment to achieve windproofing.

To make a softshell windproof, they can be made with an expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) membrane, known as a PTFE. This is laminated between the face fabric and the inner liner, resulting in a thicker, wind resistant fabric.

Typically, for windy conditions, manufacturers of softshell jackets also include fleece layers to counteract wind chills.
The downside of using any kind of thicker PTFE is the subsequent loss of breathability.
Most soft shells are windproof, and they typically use a membrane coating to achieve this, combined with a construction that shields the user from wind, such as toggles and drawstrings that pull the soft shell in close to the body.

Cuffs are typically ribbed to reduce the amount of open entry points for wind.

Breathability and Softshell Jackets

For active wear you should choose a soft shell with excellent levels of breathability, but for perceived bad weather, you should choose a garment with ‘good’ levels of breathability, which are likely to have thicker coatings or PU or PFTE to be more resistant to weather, but less breathable overall.