A softshell concept that really works
08 November 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
The problem with people thinking that you’re a gear guru is that they are always asking what gear should they buy? The answer I give to most questions like this is usually a question itself; what have you got now and what more do you want out of it? The only exception is when people are asking about clothing.
Whether it be a rock-climber, mountain biker, trekker or mountaineer I always ask if they’ve used a shelled micropile jacket - something like a Marmot DriClime, Mountain Hardwear Tempest or Buffalo Techlite? When the answer is no, I unreservedly tell them to buy one. This is because of the thousands of products on the market this type of clothing has the greatest chance of not only living up to expectations but also far exceeding them. Perfect if you want to keep up your image as a gear guru.
This article aims to explain why this form of clothing is so good, what’s on offer and, also, goes over some of the issues surrounding the whole muddled area of soft shells.
‘Soft shell’ those two words have a lot to answer for. Originally thought up by Patagonia to cover their own version of the classic Buffalo top. As the concept was so at odds with traditional layering, it needed a new term to help users get their heads around it. Unlike Buffalo clothing, which is designed as a stand-alone system, Patagonia’s version was more pragmatic and aimed to replace the mid and shell layer (very much like Montane) and be worn over base layers.
In their system waterproofing was secondary to breathability, making it at odds with just about every other shell on the market and going against millions of dollars of marketing that put the term ‘waterproof’ as the single most important feature in staying comfortable. The words soft shell basically meant ‘this isn’t waterproof but you won’t get wet when it’s dry, but you may get damp in it when it’s wet, although probably no worse than with a shell on’.
This, of course, was obviously too advanced a concept to get over to a customer who was used to the ridiculous concept of staying dry and so was only going to be accepted by the minority of users who had really got to grips with what was really needed to stay comfortable doing what they did, not what they were told they needed.
In the UK the main people who were also doing a great deal in this ‘technically non “laboratory” waterproof shell clothing that was more waterproof than waterproofs’ area were Paramo, a system that is one of those outdoor classics that’s so extraordinarily good it needs no huge marketing budget as the users promote it better than any ad campaign could (like Buffalo in the ‘90s). Buffalo and Montane were already deeply involved in this area, with Montane taking a similar, less devout, path like Patagonia but because they were so small and niche they didn’t need to come up with a two-word marketing concept behind what they did, as only real activists used the stuff and in turn promoted it to others like themselves.
The ‘soft shell’ concept, although never really mainstream - after all it’s a hard one to sell to the dog walkers - did create a big stir, especially with one of the big companies taking it on. Almost overnight soft shell was the big thing and it could be said it was a worrying trend for those who’d invested billions in the idea that 100% waterproof was the only way.
This led to an explosion in softshell clothing and fabrics, most of which were old school windproof fabrics and tops that simply had the makeover of a more technical name and a water-resistant zipper. This proliferation of the term has made the word meaningless as it’s all too apparent that no one really knows what the term actually meant in the first place, as 90% of the soft shell gear out there isn’t.
The greatest thing about the soft shell concept is that it maximizes the all-around performance of a single piece of clothing to such an extent it replaces three or more layers. This should give you one-piece clothing that’s so effective it can be worn almost all of the time, with only other layers, say a T-shirt or a shell, coming into play at the extremes of temperature.
This simplicity reduces weight, cost and bulk and also resistance to movement (fewer layers to bind) and if this was all it did then that would be enough. Yet by far, the most important aspect of this theory is that simplicity greatly increases user comfort as they are more able to both control their temperature, as a single piece is much easier to adjust in order to stay warm or cool rather than three of four layers.
If you were to test two climbers, one wearing just a Buffalo top (the original soft-shell) and another wearing a base layer, Polartec 200 fleece and Gore XCR jacket and they both had to move quickly over variable ground and temperature I guarantee the Buffalo user would come out with a more stable comfort level. For a definitive look at this theory check out High January ‘03 and June ‘02 (both available on the web site).
A soft-shell product must pass three strict criteria in my mind in order for it to make it into what I consider a true mountain soft-shell.
Do you suppose soft-shell should have a hood?
If not, and you’re an outdoor activist, then it isn’t soft-shell. If it doesn’t have a hood, as soon as it starts to rain or snow you’ll be reaching for your shell, therefore, it isn’t doing what a soft-shell should. Just take a look at those fancy ‘soft shell’ jackets that feature water-resistant zippers and no hood? What’s the point? To stop the wind, I don’t think so, no it’s to give that top-end look without that top-end performance a hood would give. Why no hood? Well, hoods are a waste of space when you’re playing golf, sitting in your Mondeo on the M25, or wearing it under your Barber jacket. Sure a hood adds bulk and makes it harder to make a nice ‘smart’ collar design but this is soft-shell, not soft as shite, it’s designed to do the job as a fully working shell.
Other features are zip closures that keep out the wind and wetness, wide sleeves with Velcro fasteners that allow you to push the arms up in order to cool and give adequate venting. The cut should be for performance and I don’t mean playing pool. Arm lift must be good and the length should be long enough to protect the nether regions, fit in a harness and be a slim cut without being tight (in cold, non-wet conditions you may want to add some layers underneath). If the jacket hasn’t got these things then it’s not meant for the type of user who’d be reading this article.
What constitutes ideal soft-shell fabric? Well because the term is so broad this is open for argument - but if you want to know what I look for in true soft-shell fabrics…
If your insulation is robust enough to take the ingress of showers without you feeling wet then waterproofing can be sacrificed in order to hit your breathability target. By replacing the words ‘waterproof and dry’ with ‘weather-resistant and comfortable’ you get a much better idea of what you’re looking for. Windproofing is the most important aspect, as no matter how robust the insulation is, the slightest breeze will rob you of any of its warmth.
In order to create a stable microclimate, you need to enclose your insulation in a barrier and, most importantly, a barrier that does not reduce breathability to the point that you will suffer from more moisture getting stuck inside than could come from the outside. This outer layer must also be water-resistant enough to slow the ingress of water to a level that the insulation below can handle, the ‘speed bump’, allowing body heat to either push back the wetness by drying the fabric faster than it can get wet or warming the water to skin temperature so you remain comfortable - the wet suit philosophy.
This layer also creates a broad surface via which the moisture vapour can be picked up by the wind and transferred out into the environment, therefore helping to dry the fabric. These fabrics include Pertex, microfibre and coated or encapsulated nylon. Generally, in my experience, the higher the water-resistance of the fabric the lower the breathability, making the top less suitable as a stand-alone layer.
There are so many soft-shell fabrics out there these days that it’s no wonder that the market is confused, with both Gore and Polartec putting a major marketing drive in this area, but unfortunately neither seem willing to let go of their membranes meaning, for me at least, that none of their state-of-the-art fabrics match, or better, simpler fabric combinations. For someone like Gore, this is understandable as this conflicts with the core of what they preach and what they do will always be based around a layering principle.
In fact, I’m not criticizing Gore or Polartec, as with fabrics like Paclite and Powerstretch they are offering a system that can work as well as soft-shell, but in trying to play our game without changing their rules I just don’t think it will work (although there’s no money in what we do anyway so I doubt they lose sleep over it). So what I’m saying is, to my mind, none of the membraned fleeces are true soft shells and are designed to be worn as part of a trad
layering system or just for leisurewear - useful if you have to dash from your car to the supermarket for example.
The problem with soft-shell is that it isn’t really a tangible thing, after all a fleece is a fleece, membrane or not, and a Pertex-covered pile jacket is just a Pertex-covered pile jacket. Soft-shell is a theory that has become a marketing tool or to put it another way, I could easily make myself a nice nifty coat out of some foam-backed shag pile carpet and call that soft-shell. No, the biggest factor when deciding if something is or isn’t soft-shell is how the user employs it.
If they use it as a component in a traditional layering system then it becomes nothing more than windproof fleece, but if you’re confident enough to employ it as either a stand-alone piece or wear it as a mid and outer layer then this is the real deal. Doing this will allow the user to gain the full value of this type of clothing.
Of all the types of clothing on the market today, the one that truly represents what soft-shell should be about is the shelled micropile jacket. This type of top has been around now for over a decade, with Marmot being the first company to introduce such a piece with their Driclime pullover. The reason this type of top is so perfect is that the equation between weight and performance is so high with these pieces, although often now thicker than a base layer, actually replacing base, mid and shell, even inactive sub-zero conditions.
The heart of this clothing is its polyester micropile interior which is, considering its weight, high volume but low density and hydrophobic, meaning it’s warm for its low weight, but also retains very little moisture, meaning there isn’t a lot of sweat or moisture to cling to. The micropile surface is a perfect wicking surface as the actual surface contact is minimal. This means that when the fabric is damp it feels dry because the body is able to dry the micropile ‘spikes’ almost instantly and even if the moisture level gets too high that the body’s unable to dry these spikes, it will still be able to warm the wet tip to body temperature, giving the illusion that they are dry (remember that the actual body contact with these spikes is much lower than the actual surface area of the top).
The outer wind and water-resistant shell of the jacket helps to maintain the stable microclimate within and as moisture is wicked out from the interior surface it is picked up by the shell, which absorbs it like blotting paper, wicked out across the surface of the fabric so it can be transferred into the environment very quickly. When the top becomes uncomfortable, either due to the environment overloading its insulation or when totally saturated, then it’s time to put on a secondary full weight soft-shell, or traditional outer layers. And this is the beauty of the piece, it’s so effective that although it’s technically only soft-shell that combines a base layer with a windproof top, combined it’s able to stand up to some incredibly grim conditions.
Once your activity level drops and you throw on more layers this type of clothing goes on performing, because it not only keeps your skin comfortable but it also acts as a kind of citadel, your last defence layer, meaning even if wind and moisture do cut through your outer defences you still have this layer to stop it dead.
Ideally, this type of clothing should be used next to the skin, the reason being that way you can vent it most effectively, meaning you can maintain your comfort level most effectively. If climbing in hot conditions you may want to either carry or wear underneath your top, a very thin base layer, as this
gives you something to wear when it’s roasting.
This clothing is a perfect high-performance base layer to be worn under a thicker soft-shell as its warmth is equivalently double the weight in fleece due to its ability to create this stable core microclimate. It’s also a great component in a traditional base layering system as its slick shell reduces binding between the layers making movement much easier. The hood can be worn under a helmet, creating a vital windbreak in stormy weather giving great visibility without the need for a huge hood or balaclava.