Softshells and Softshell Jackets
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 a 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.
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. Compared to hardshells, softshells are much more breathable, but also less water- and wind-resistant. Moreover, softshell jackets are well suited for any conditions except for the most extreme weather.
Softshell as part of a hiking clothing layering
The ideal shell is uninsulated, windproof, completely waterproof, 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 layer of wind gear and a light rain jacket. This allows the wind gear to be worn in cool, windy, and even lightly drizzling conditions, whereas the more expensive shell is worn in the heavy rain. This two-shell strategy can be cheaper, and 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 softshell 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 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.
Characteristics of softshells
Softshell jackets serve as 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.
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.
- 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 softshell jackets are actually windproof and can protect you from the wind very well.
- 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 - most softshells are either water resistant or water-repellent and will keep you dry in light rain.
- Not waterproof - 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 air flow 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 - softshell 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, articulated elbow and knee constructions. 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. It will help you stay warm and dry in light rain and/or 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 that 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 are great for active pursuits due to the stretchy fabric which is comfortable and does not restrict movement. Especially useful are elastic-bound sleeve cuffs as they won’t let cold air in.
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 pretty 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, they aren’t waterproof.
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 an 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.
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 clothing 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, it’s flexible, insulates well from the wind, protects from light rain, and “breathes” reasonably well. These characteristics make the softshell jacket an ideal outer layer for city walks as well as day hiking. However, its disadvantages make it unsuitable for multi-day trips. I 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