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 woven materials used to make technical outdoor clothing that’s more breathable (but less water and wind resistant), more flexible, and generally more durable than hardshell materials. 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. Their technical properties perform 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.
So what are the key differences between “softshell” and “hardshell”? Hardshell materials feature breathable waterproof membranes (think Gore-Tex) or micro-porous coatings (there are a few dozen in-house proprietary coatings, The North Face’s HyVent and Marmot’s PreCip technologies are some of the most popular). These membranes and coatings keep out precipitation, but still allow for perspiration and water vapor to “breathe” from the garment—or at least some perspiration. As advanced as hardshell technologies are, with any hardshell, a measure of water vapor will be trapped inside the garment. In high-heart-rate activities—say, through-hiking the Divide Trail—this means that even though your hardshell rain jacket is keeping out an afternoon thundershower, it’s also keeping you clammy and damp with perspiration and condensation. On the other hand, softshells exchange water and windproof-ness for water and wind resistance and breathability, an important quality for aerobic activities. But softshells are much less “packable” than hardshells—softshells tend to be somewhat bulkier and heavier as a function of their insulating properties.
A softshell may be made of hard-faced fleece—a fleece material with a woven “face” to increase wind and water resistance—but a softshell is not a fleece. Fleeces are soft, napped insulating fabrics made from synthetics or wool. Though fleeces are highly breathable, they are neither wind nor water resistant. Windstopper fleece presents an obvious exception to the rule: by laminating a wind-stopping membrane to the inside of fleece, the folks at W.L. Gore have created a fleece that is somewhat breathable, very wind resistant, but minimally water resistant. Softshells are typically wind and water resistant, and don’t pill or generate lint and pet-hair-attracting static, significant advantages over fleece.
“Softshell” covers a huge range of designs, technologies, and materials. Softshell windshirts and wind jackets are wind-resistant, water-repellent outer layers, but they’re breathable enough to keep a wearer dry during high-heart-rate activities like backpacking, cycling, and cross-country skiing. Cold-weather softshells with fleece interiors, hard-face weaves, and windproof laminates make highly insulating (but somewhat less breathable) layers. Factory-applied DWR coatings make fabrics hydrophobic and thus water repellent, and are common in softshells, as well as in hardshells and fleece. More and more often, softshell materials are used in conjunction with hardshell, fleece, or other materials to make hybrid clothing that offers breathability, durability, weather protection, insulation, and freedom of movement in key areas. The most water-resistant softshells often have features like taped seams and waterproof membranes, whereas the most breathable softshells are typically stretch-woven hard-faced fleeces.
Softshells are breathable, hard-wearing, water-resistant, wind-resistant pieces of clothing that offer wearers freedom of movement and insulation for aerobic activities in dynamic weather conditions. 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.