There’s often much confusion when it comes to defining a soft shell. Typically you may hear it's a cross between a hard shell and a fleece, but that still leaves several questions as to what exactly it is, and why it is so important for many outdoor activities.
Soft Shell vs. Hard Shell
The biggest difference between hard shell and soft shell jackets is the outer texture, which, in a hard shell, is usually smooth and shiny, compared to a soft shell jacket, which is much more akin to a sweatshirt with a very tight weave. This subtle difference, however, makes one jacket much more ideal for certain activities than the other, depending on the amount of precipitation expected, the level of exertion expected, and the need for breathability.
A soft shell is an article of cold-weather clothing that should be used any time a hard shell isn't necessary, but you need added protection from the elements that a highly breathable fleece can't give you. Soft shells are much more breathable than hard shells, and more wind and water resistant than fleece, making them ideal for high-activity outdoor sports like skiing, snowshoeing, biking, climbing, or running. Because they’re most often used for these activities, most soft shells come in a trim, athletic fit.
Keep in mind, however, that soft shells are water resistant, not waterproof. The fabric, which is made of tightly woven materials, provides the added breathability that hard shells lack, but in turn keeps soft shells from being 100% waterproof. Still, these jackets are great for staying dry in drizzle or even light rain. A huge draw to soft shell jackets is their price. Most of the time, these garments are less expensive than waterproof, breathable fabrics, which also may not be suitable for an athlete exerting large amounts of energy. Soft shells with membranes are more water resistant than other soft shells; however, like waterproof, breathable clothing, it comes at the expense of breathability.
Choosing the Right Soft Shell
Soft shells vary in their wind resistance, stretch, and insulation as well, so it’s important to determine which will be best for you. If you plan to use your soft shell in cold climates, it may be best to go with a jacket that features a thin layer of polyester fleece, but keep in mind that this added layer could affect mobility. Soft shells come in varying thicknesses, with those designed for spring, summer, and fall activities offering less insulation than their winter-weather counterparts.
When to Wear
You'll likely find dozens of different uses for your soft shell jacket, with its versatility and athletic fit making it perfect for everything from a light backpacking trip to intense mountaineering. The most common uses for soft shell jackets include hiking and backpacking, ice climbing and mountaineering, and winter trail running and snowshoeing. They also make great ski clothing for downhill or cross-country skiing. Soft shell jackets are the best choice for these activities, namely for their extreme weather resistance and mobility.
Can Soft Shells Ever Be Waterproof?
Some soft shells can be, essentially, waterproof jackets that offer all the benefits of stretch, breathability, and warmth. Take one of Mountain Hardwear's soft shells, for example. It’s made with the same tightly woven fabric as soft shells, but is coated in a laminate, and its seams are covered as well.
Before setting out to take advantage of winter weather, be sure to take the time to explore the differences in soft shell jackets and choose the right outdoor gear, which will help ensure that you have a fun and pleasant experience in the outdoors.
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