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What is a Soft Shell?

Soft Shell is the term used to describe a new kind of outerwear that is more breathable, flexible, and comfortable than the stiff, crinkly Gore-Tex like pants and jackets (called Hard Shells) that have dominated the market for years now. Soft Shells combine many of the benefits of waterproof Hard Shells with more comfortable garments like fleece. Yet Soft Shells are neither.

The Problem with Hard Shells

Hard shells are made with laminates like Gore-Tex that are applied to the fabric used to make jackets and pants. Gore-Tex was such a hit—and still is—because of its unparalleled water resistant properties, and because it “breathes,” meaning it allows vapor from your sweat to escape from the shell while disallowing water from rain or snow to penetrate. But it doesn’t breathe enough!

The problem many outdoor enthusiasts have encountered is that when you’re outside, even in wet, cold, wintry conditions, and working up an aerobic sweat, this moisture remains trapped inside your Hard Shell jacket and pants rendering their waterproof factor useless. You’re left with an unpleasant clamminess that will chill you to the bone when you stop to rest. Besides the moisture problem, people just “got sick of the noise [from hard shell fabric], the zipping and unzipping, and wanted more comfortable apparel in the backcountry that you didn’t have to take on and off all day,” recounts Stephen Sullivan, Owner and Founder of Cloudveil, a Jackson based outerwear company.

Enter Soft Shells

Several pioneering companies, like Cloudveil, have independently sought to remedy the pitfalls of Hard Shells, and their collective work has resulted in Soft Shell technology. Soft Shells use sophisticated stretch woven fabrics with tight layered weaves and durable water repellent (DWR) treatments to guard against wind, rain, and snow in all but the most severe weather conditions. In other words, a Soft Shell keeps weather out like a Hard Shell, but breathes like fleece. That means you don’t get nearly as sweaty during aerobic activities like ascending a mountain or cross-country skiing, and you’re able to regulate your temperature much more effectively and remain comfortable during rigorous activity.

Besides unmatched breathability, Soft Shells are fantastically flexible relative to their Hard Shell counterparts, fitting to your body without constricting, and stretching naturally when you move. Climbers get a full range of motion and a nice fluid stab at the ice in a Soft Shell jacket without crinkly Hard Shell fabric impeding the swing of an axe. Skiers feel like they’re hiking up the mountain in quiet fitted slacks, not loud harsh Gore-Tex, and their legs can actually breathe in a Soft Shell pant reducing the need for side zips with bulky flaps.

The Soft Shell concept is still being refined. Many Soft Shell jackets lack obvious ski/snowboard features like a powder skirt and hood because they emerged mostly out of climbing pursuits and not resort skiing/riding. Jacob Uhland, our The North Face Sales Rep explains that about ten years ago after the Swiss developed Schoeller, the stretch fabric used to make The North Face’s and Cloudveil’s Soft Shells, “rock climbers were some of the first to embrace [it] due to its abrasion resistance and stretchy characteristics. Once people figured out how well it blocked wind and precipitation, it found its way into clothing for backcountry ski touring.” Voilà!

Salomon has introduced Soft Shell jackets and pants oriented specifically for the resort throwing in features like a pocket for your disc player, powder skirt, hood, and reinforcements on pant cuffs that see high abrasion. Of course, if you’re a resort rider, you shouldn’t feel limited to these options—Soft Shells without hoods and powder skirts usually have cinchcords at the hem and collar that keep snow out effectively.

The Take Home Message

Soft Shells are pants and jackets made from stretchy fabric that fit like a glove without constricting, stretch fluidly with the body without resisting, and allow moisture to escape from inside without letting it penetrate from outside. They are good for all types of climbing, cross-country and backcountry skiing, hiking, and for any outdoor activity with an aerobic element where protection from rain and snow is important. Think of Soft Shells as one big efficient moisture management system. Like Gore-Tex, it shall be heralded a wonder garment.

Soft Shells compared to a Gore-Tex Shell:

3 times more breathable
Way more stretch
Not as waterproof but will easily shed hours of light, dry snowfall
Not as windproof but blocks about 90% of the wind
BY FAR more comfortable in all but the nastiest conditions

Soft Shells compared to fleece:

Does not pill, i.e., will not start looking like a terry cloth rag
Resists water whereas a fleece acts like a sponge in rain and snow
Blocks wind that cuts right through fleece
Don’t attract animal hair (pet owners love this quality!)