What is Softshell?

The original ‘definition’ of softshell was a fabric (or combination of fabrics) that gave good wind and water resistance, whilst maintaining high levels of breathability.

This trade-off means that a ‘proper’ soft shell would benefit someone who finds that they easily overheat when out. This often goes hand in hand with overloading the breathability of the fabric, getting the inside of hardshell waterproofs damp.

Softshells are never 100% windproof, so the extra air-flow through the fabric keeps the user cooler. This can of course be a disadvantage when no longer moving. However the extra breathability of a softshell should mean that there is less moisture build up in the first place, so you won’t chill-off so quickly when the wind picks up.

Some softshell fabrics are stretch-woven, meaning they stretch without the need for elasticated fibres, and they can be advantageous for more active sports.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of any softshell is ‘comfort’, typically resulting from the softness of the fabric or the extra breathability.

What do manufacturers think softshell is?

Manufacturers of membrane fabrics, especially Gore-Tex and eVent, have concentrated on the ‘soft’ element of softshell and made hardshells which are more flexible. Buffalo and Rab use two-layer combinations of fabrics, with Pertex outers and ‘fleecy’ inners. Various brands produce some form of stretch woven clothing.

All of these are referred to as softshell, making the market difficult to decipher. There is a huge spectrum of softshell clothing, with varying degrees of water resistance, stretch, breathability and toughness available. Try to think about what you will be doing to help narrow down the possibilities.

Which fabrics work best?

‘Windstopper’ type fabrics (totally windproof membrane)

Windproof fleeces are ideal for everyday usage in most conditions except proper rain or heat. If they get really wet, then they dry quite slowly due to the membrane. They tend to be quite heavy however and are not the most breathable.

The newer, more technical styles, in contrast, tend to be thin and lightweight and actually offer good breathability, windproofing and reasonable durability. This makes them of more interest to active climbers and mountaineers. They provide little or no static warmth and therefore need extra clothing to be taken for lengthy endeavours.

Powershield fabrics  (stretch-woven fabric and a windproof membrane)

These feature a ‘discontinuous’ membrane which is laminated to the face fabric that gives very high levels of wind-resistance without being totally windproof. The amount of insulation can vary significantly according to the depth of fleece laminated to the inside of the fabric. Breathability levels, water resistance tend to be high and the face fabrics are tough. Due to the lightness, lack of static warmth and price, Powershield is likely to appeal to the serious user.

'VapourRise' type fabrics (Pertex outer with fleece inner)

The ‘Classic’ weight uses a thin fleece inner and a Pertex Equilibrium outer. Equilibrium has a differential weave so that there is better wicking of moisture from the inside to outside of the fabric than with the classic Pertex fabrics. The main strength is the ability to wick moisture away from your body, however the softness and feeling of instant warmth next to the skin make these garments a popular choice.

The newer light weight ‘Lite’ fabric has a lighter weight of Equilibrium on the outer and a tricot lining. This allows the VapourRise concept to spread across all seasons (and to people who overheat easily).

Stretch-woven fabrics (synthetic fabrics with mechanical stretch)

It is relatively easy to vary a stretch-woven fabrics characteristics by using different denier nylon and altering the thickness and density of the woven fabric itself. Obviously, the thicker and denser the weave, the more weather resistance you will have, but the fabric will be heavier and bulkier (also slower to dry if it gets really wet). As breathability, stretch and toughness are the main characteristics of these fabrics, climbers are their natural purchasers.

Stretch-woven fabrics have become the default material for softshell trousers due to their toughness, stretch and the fact that there is a lower requirement for insulation on the legs than on the upper body. 

Outside's softshell range:

Mens Softshell Jackets and Softshell Pants

Womens Softshell Jackets and Softshell Pants


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