Can a softshell replace your trusty hardshell in sustained rain or snowfall? Probably not. What softshells do best is keep you warm and dry while your heart rate is up in windy and/or damp weather.
“Softshell” is a class of knit or woven materials, made from polyester and nylon, used to make technical outdoor clothing that essentially bridges the gap between waterproof hardshell jackets and highly breathable fleece jackets. They’re more breathable (but less water and wind resistant), more flexible, and generally more durable than hardshell materials, and more protective than fleece. Softshells emerged in the early to mid-2000s in outdoor activities like climbing and mountaineering—aerobic activities with dynamic weather conditions, where a highly breathable, somewhat waterproof, somewhat windproof piece of technical clothing kept its wearer moving, dry, and warm.
Softshells are designed with aerobic activities in mind. They perform the best when the wearer’s heart rate is high and weather conditions are variable. Most softshell materials trade some measure of waterproof-ness or windproof-ness for breathability and stretch, important qualities for activities like climbing, mountaineering, ski-touring, backpacking, cycling, and running.
Types of Softshells
“Softshell” covers a huge range of designs, technologies, and materials. Lightweight stretch-woven softshells are wind-resistant, water-repellent outer layers, but they’re breathable enough to keep a wearer dry in lighter precipitation during high-heart-rate activities like backpacking, cycling, and cross-country skiing. They’re also lighter weight, and can serve as a mid-layer under a hard shell.
Other softshells are designed for colder weather and wetter conditions, with windproof or waterproof laminates that make them more wind- and water-resistant. The most water-resistant softshells often have features similar features to hardshells, like taped seams and waterproof membranes. On the downside, they will be heavier and less breathable than stretch-woven softshells. But if you’re more concerned about weather protection than breathability or comfort during aerobic activities, these could be the choice for you.
Many jackets now feature a mix of softshell fabrics to balance protection with breathability, with burlier laminated fabric at the core and shoulders and more breathable fabric everywhere else.
Benefits to softshell clothing
• Hoods – Some softshell jackets are designed with a removable hood or even a high lined collar to weather the storm and for extra insulation.
• Adjustable cuffs – Easy adjustment, lets you draw the cuffs in for a better fit.
• Chin Guard – Fabric covering the top of the zip to protect your chin and neck
• Pockets – The majority of softshell jackets include pockets externally and internally to keep your hands warm when active or to store your possessions.
• Showerproof – Treated with Waterproof Coating to make fabric water resistant. Perfect for light showers and everyday use
• Wind Resistant – Helps keep the wind out, so you stay warm with fewer layers
• Breathable – Softshell jackets have a highly breathable membrane that lets moisture out, making sure you stay dry on the inside