What is a Softshell and How to Choose the Best Softshell Jacket?
This comprehensive guide is aimed at explaining the main designs, materials, features, and characteristics of softshells to help you choose the best softshell jacket for your needs.
The classic layered clothing system is very useful most of the time, especially for cold protection. Hiking clothing must be well-designed, flexible, and functional - it should not restrict the body movements necessary for high intensive pursuits. Generally, it consists of a moisture-wicking base layer, warm mid-layer, and wind- and waterproof outer layer. The mid-layer provides most of the insulation. It comprises one or several garments of thicker material (often fleece), though the choice of textiles is more or less arbitrary as long as good insulation is provided.
For many years waterproof breathable garments were promoted as being the only shells needed, able to protect from both wind and rain. Although true, even the best waterproof fabrics are far less breathable than those that are windproof but not waterproof. Additionally, waterproof breathable fabrics aren’t very durable because the membranes are very thin and getting even thinner.
Nowadays, it’s recognized that waterproof breathable garments aren’t suitable for all conditions and actually clothing that’s water-repellent, windproof, and highly breathable is more versatile and more comfortable. This new clothing was called softshell and rain gear was called hardshell.
What is a softshell jacket? Basic features, characteristics, materials, and uses
The softshell bridges the gap between mid and outer layers - we called it the “fourth layer” in our post about hiking clothing layering. Softshell jackets are designed to maximize both water resistance and breathability. Composed of two- or four-way stretch-woven fabrics, these garments are flexible, so they tend to fit and to drape better than hardshells.
Softshell as part of hiking clothing layering
The ideal shell is fully waterproof, windproof, and completely breathable. As usual, what’s ideal doesn’t exist in life. However, there are various strategies that come close to the aforementioned ideal. One strategy is to have a single, multifunctional, waterproof breathable shell. Given that this shell is breathable enough, it may be the best way to go. Another strategy used by many backpackers relies on two shell layers: a light, windproof, and breathable wind top and a light rain jacket. This allows the wind top to be worn in cool, windy, and even light rain, whereas the more expensive jacket is worn in the heavy rain. This garment combination can be cheaper. What's more, the wind gear allows much better ventilation. But a nonbreathing layer (if used) will be more uncomfortable than a waterproof breathable rain jacket, and bringing two shell layers means additional weight.
Each layer has its own specific function in the classic layered clothing system. Base layers worn next to the skin are designed to wick away humidity to the outer layers, to stay dry and to offer thermal protection in cold weather. Mid-layers focus on thermal insulation and to draw moisture away from the skin to the outer layer. Outer layers protect from the rain, snow, and wind. Combined, these three layers are designed to work together to offer overall comfort and protection. The classic layered clothing system is well adapted to outdoor activities such as hiking or backpacking where breathability have become the main performance feature. Nowadays, the focus shifts to the mid-layer which is replacing the outer layer as the most important clothing layer.
Softshells situate between mid and outer layers. They are more breathable than an outer layer (classic rain jacket), provide better wind protection and are water-repellent (to a degree), unlike fleeces. Softshell jackets usually provide warmth, flexibility, and wind resistance.
Softshells are designed for intense activities like backcountry skiing and combine ease of movement, wind protection, and water repellency. They’re also lighter than classic insulation jackets, are easily stored into a backpack and pull on when conditions get rough. Softshell jackets generally resist water penetration for 20-30 minutes - time enough to find shelter or to put on a rain jacket. A shell jacket designed for lightweight and compact protection is easy to store in a backpack and pull on when conditions get rough.
Following the trends in the last several years, it’s quite easy to identify that the outdoor market is moving to a four-layer system in very cold and extreme conditions. Then, the wearer will combine four garments: base layer, fleece, softshell and an insulation jacket for maximum warmth and protection.
On the table below, you see the evolution stages of hiking clothing layering from the classic three-part system to the new clothing system, which includes softshell.
Source: Textiles in Sport*
The shift of emphasis from waterproofness to breathability first became an issue in waterproof breathable membranes when membrane manufacturers shifted the focus of their research and development on improving the breathability of their products. The arrival of solid hydrophilic, as opposed to microporous hydrophobic, membranes and coatings, made it possible to bypass the complex matter of trying to balance the porous nature of a microporous membrane with its necessary waterproofness.
Softshells jackets are made of synthetic materials (such as nylon and polyester) with an open weave that allows body heat and built-up moisture from inner layers to escape but is still tightly woven enough to repel light wind and rain. Many of these fabrics are made from microfibers - soft, supple, strong, and very comfortable. Microfibers are also windproof and water-resistant since air spaces are fewer and smaller than in other fabrics. Once you apply a coating to a fabric, however, you reduce the breathability even if it still isn’t fully waterproof.
Softshell jackets serve as a mid-layer and outer layer together and are more breathable with moderate wind resistance. Moreover, they could also protect from light showers and most snowfall. Manufacturers have developed durable composite stretch textiles to offer a new series of functions: breathability, thermal insulation, ease of movement, and, depending on the face fabric, abrasion and/or water resistance.
Wearing a softshell jacket is popular for skiing, snowboarding, and other winter activities...
The high air permeability makes fleeces highly breathable, however, it also makes them prone to strong winds. Thus, fleece manufacturers have sought to reduce the air permeability of their products to make them better suited to outdoor activities by bonding the fleece to a woven face or to a wind-blocking membrane.
Here are some of their main pros and cons:
- Breathable - a softshell outperforms a hardshell, especially in high-exertion activities like climbing or backcountry skiing.
- Warm - thanks to the fleece lining, a softshell jacket traps enough air and provides insulation to make you feel warm and cozy.
- Wind resistant - in comparison to fleeces, most softshells can handle wind gusts fine. Some of them are actually windproof and can protect you from the wind very well. Wind-resistant and windproof shells can drastically increase your overall warmth offering just enough breathability to stay comfortable in cold weather.
- Flexible - the shift from protection to ease of movement has introduced a new leaner and cleaner silhouette made to enhance thermal insulation and to reduce bulk to improve ease of movement and comfort. This new approach has influenced hardshell jacket design too - the new generation of hardshells promotes the leaner, fitted look typical for softshell jackets.
- Water-resistant - they are either water-resistant or water-repellent and will keep you dry in light rain. There are also waterproof softshell jackets and in certain conditions, they can be quite useful though the whole idea behind the softshell is to be a breathable garment. Keep in mind that waterproof softshell jackets are usually heavier and less breathable than non-waterproof models.
- Not waterproof - most softshell jackets are not waterproof as they are not made with waterproof breathable membrane and do not have taped seams to stop water entering in at the stitched areas. Anyway, waterproofness is rarely necessary, though it can be crucial on long hikes and/or when hiking in wet areas/regions.
- Have less airflow than a fleece - both the woven face and the wind-blocking membrane reduce the airflow passing through the fleece fabric making the softshell less breathable than an ordinary/regular fleece.
- Dry more slowly than a fleece - the additional coating slows down the drying time of a softshell.
- Heavier - they are relatively heavy and not as packable as thin fleeces. As a result, they dry fairly slow which makes softshell jackets unsuitable for long trips where you might need to dry your clothes overnight.
- Expensive - this is one of the most typical characteristics of softshell jackets and probably the number one disadvantage most backpackers point out when asked about softshells’ pros and cons.
Softshell jacket design
The technology associated with the design, cutting and manufacture of performance clothing such as a softshell is highly complex. Typical functional details include arm lift and articulated elbow construction. Additionally, sophisticated hoods concealed in collars, intricate closures and many other features relevant to movement and body protection are developed through experience and experimentation. Specialist studies are carried out by the military and by commercial concerns, but this data is not readily accessible in the public domain so the development of garment blocks for performance sportswear has been through trial and error or from adaptations of existing garments.
The usual requirement for an outer shell is to be lightweight and packable for easy storage, especially for summer hiking. Additional features include but are not limited to adequate map-sized chest pockets, zip guards, slim fit, drawstring waistband with cord lock, Velcro adjustable cuffs, adjustable hood, high stand-up collar and temperature regulating zip vent under arms for ventilation.
Left to the right: Softshell Jacket - front view, Softshell Jacket - from the inside (lining details)
The hood, in particular, is important as it can be pulled up to provide warmth and ward off the wind or light showers without needing to break stride. However, not all softshell jackets come with a hood. If the sole purpose of your softshell will be to act as a mid-layer underneath a waterproof breathable jacket, a softshell without a hood may be a better option. However, if you intend to wear your softshell jacket as an outer layer, an adjustable hood is a useful feature intended to add flexibility as conditions change throughout the day. A hooded softshell will help you stay warm and dry in light rain as well as in windy conditions.
Internal and external pockets
Most softshell jackets have plenty of pockets and the majority of them come with a zippered closure to securely store your personal belongings. For example, pockets are useful for fitting small items such as maps, gloves, money, etc. Some softshell jackets will have pockets on the back of the jacket. These are particularly handy for storing small items such as your lighting in case you decide to give night hiking a shot.
Zip vent under arm provides enough airflow for better ventilation as it lets perspiration out as well as lets air in to help dry the skin. This way, you can easily adjust the airflow to carry away some of the moisture.
Many softshell jackets have fleece linings for better thermal insulation and warmth. For more info about fleece and its features, you can read our blog post dedicated to fleece and fleece jackets.
Softshells can be great for active pursuits due to the comfortable and stretchy fabric which does not restrict movement and improves breathability, mobility, and fit. Especially useful are elastic-bound sleeve cuffs as they won’t let cold air in.
Softshell categories: casual/day hiking vs multi-day hiking
Softshell jackets are meant to protect you from wind, rain, and cold "most of the time". It means that this concept is good for city wear and also for day hikes. But when going on multi-day hikes, you need something that will give you full protection from the cold, heavy rain and wind. Unfortunately, softshells offer this just for the first half an hour. A second strike against softshell jackets for long trips is their weight, which makes them suitable for both city walks and for day hiking but not for layering and long hikes. As they are close-fitting to trap warm air efficiently, the cut doesn't suit for a warm coat underneath. Moreover, most softshell jackets are just water-resistant or lightly waterproof so a softshell jacket is no substitute for a rain jacket. Keep in mind that there’s a tradeoff between waterproofness and breathability so a waterproof softshell jacket is usually heavier than a water-resistant shell (sometimes it’s even heavier than a combination of fleece and rain jacket).
And no less popular for walks around town
The human body must be kept within a narrow temperature range, outside of which well-being suffers. Exclusion of rain or water is especially important because water can conduct away body heat much faster than air can. On multi-day hikes, you need to stay as dry as possible because often you don’t have easy access to shelter. In this case, an effective layered clothing system with a good rain jacket is going to be much more effective because using separate layers has several advantages over softshells. Firstly, they provide fuller protection and more flexibility. Secondly, they’re more compact than a softshell. And finally, they can be lighter.
Tactical softshell jacket
Tactical softshell jackets are usually multifunctional, comfortable, and practical tactical jackets designed to perform in the field. Here are some of the most common features of tactical softshell jackets:
- Strong two-way full front zipper with pull tab makes unzipping much less of a hassle without the need to take off your gloves in cold weather.
- Adjustable hood with elastic drawcord and cord locks for better weather protection.
- Fleece-lined zip-secure neckline to guard you against wind, rain, and snow.
- Velcro-adjustable sleeve cuffs to seal in warmth and enhance the overall utility.
- A multi-pocket design with a variety of secure zippered storage pockets offering plenty of room for small tools and items.
- Comfortable, and breathable fleece lining for thermal protection.
- Stretchy fabric with Teflon coating repels stains, oil, and water promotes.
- Armpit vents with zippers for increased breathability and better air circulation.
- Loop panels on forearm(s) and/or chest for attaching patches.
Some tactical softshells are 2-, 2.5-, and 3-layer constructions with a DWR-treated face fabric offering a sufficient level of weather resistance. They can also have and waterproof zippers for added protection from precipitation. The rating of most waterproof softshell jackets is usually in the range of 5000mm to 10 000mm, which makes them suitable for light showers or average snow. High-end models can be fully waterproof (with waterproof ratings of 20 000mm or more) for exceptional protection from the elements to help you perform in less than ideal weather conditions. Keep in mind that such jackets are fantastic for wind and rain and perform best in cool-to-cold conditions so they can be too heavy in summer rains.
Tactical softshell jackets can be used as general outdoor wear all year round as well as for a variety of activities such as hunting, fishing, hiking, airsoft, paintball, work or outdoor adventures.
Want a camouflage jacket for your airsoft, hunting or fishing adventures? Get a tactical softshell jacket.
Shark Skin NG Softshell Jacket is a warm and durable tactical jacket engineered to provide excellent protection against wind and precipitation. A perfect combination of functionality and comfort, this tactical softshell jacket is windproof, waterproof, and breathable. It has a multi-pocket design with a variety of pockets along the chest, biceps, lower back, wrists for all your essentials. Two-way full front zipper is strong and reliable, waterproof zippers with ergonomic pull tabs are glove-friendly, zip vents under arms provide airflow to help better regulate temperature. The multifunctional design makes it suitable for a variety of pursuits from trail hiking, hunting, fishing, and airsoft to everyday wear in the city.View on Camotrek
Need a tactical softshell jacket for colder weather? Check this out.
Softshell vs hardshell jacket
It can be very difficult to orient yourself in the overwhelming variety of softshells and hardshells available on the market. In this section we will compare these two types of shells to help you differentiate between a softshell and a hardshell jacket.
A hardshell is what you need when backpacking in the rain. It is an outermost layer expected to provide excellent weather protection. Since hardshells are designed to keep you dry in bad weather (for this reason they are also known as rain jackets), they are waterproof, windproof, and most of them have decent to very good breathability. Keep in mind that they are usually engineered to meet specific performance needs so there can be huge differences between the features and characteristics of two different hardshell jackets. As a rule, cheaper models are less breathable while the more expensive hardshell jackets are better ventilated (though it may not be enough to keep you dry during intensive outdoor activities like skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, and backpacking). You can learn more about this topic in our comprehensive guide to waterproof breathable clothes.
Rain jackets are usually used in changing weather as well as in cool-to-cold conditions. Safety is a primary concern in the backcountry so keep your hardshell handy just in case.
Popular waterproof breathable jackets available on Camotrek:
Compared to hardshells, softshells are much more breathable, but also less water- and wind-resistant. Moreover, softshell jackets are flexible and well suited for any conditions except for the most extreme weather. They are warmer, stretchy, and are more comfortable next to skin thanks to the fleece lining.
Softshell jackets are usually worn in better weather and can be used either as a mid-layer covered by a more water-resistant hardshell in bad weather or as an outer layer.
Popular softshell jackets available on Camotrek:
Softshell clothing and especially jackets are becoming more popular in recent years because they offer functionality, flexibility, and comfort. At the same time, softshell jackets are built to fit, work well with layers, and can keep you warm, dry, and active. The stylish look of many softshells, as well as the comfort-enhancing features, makes them also pretty good for city wear.
The major players in the softshell jacket industry are big manufacturers such as VF Corporation (Dickies, The North Face), the Columbia Sportswear Company (Columbia, Mountain Hardwear), Russell Brands, LLC (Russell), Sports Direct International plc (Karrimor), Jarden (Marmot), Amer Sports Oyj (Arc’teryx). It’s interesting that no matter the brand, most garments are made predominantly in Asia and especially in China (often by Chinese manufacturers under contract for producing a certain model(s), collection(s), etc.), where there’s a boom in the technical clothing manufacture.
Comfort in all its forms is important especially on the trail where, in certain cases, it can be vital for survival. Hiking clothing should be as lightweight as possible in addition to not restricting body movements. Hiking outfit should exclude wind and especially rain as well. It should be hard wearing, easily maintained, and quick drying. Fabric construction, aesthetics, design, functionality, and fitting are all extremely important for a quality, comfortable and high-performance garment. Nevertheless, keep in mind that fabric performance can be lost by frequent washing.
Nowadays, we can add a fourth layer to the classic layered clothing system - the so-called softshell designed for multifunctionality and high-intensity activity. Made from synthetics such as polyester and nylon, softshell jackets are flexible, breathe reasonably well, and are usually hooded to insulate well from the wind and to protect from light rain. These characteristics make the softshell jacket an ideal outer layer for city walks as well as day hiking and high-intensity winter pursuits. However, no single garment is ideal for all backpackers or all conditions. The disadvantages of the softshell jacket make it unsuitable for multi-day trips. In such cases, you need constant and better protection from the elements - a waterproof breathable outer layer, which will help you stay dry even in a heavy rain.
* In R. Shishoo (Ed.), Textiles in Sport, 2005, Woodhead Publishing Limited, p.34
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