Have you been out playing in the snow in your fancy waterproof-breathable garment (known in the outdoor industry as a hardshell), and you seem to still get wet? Even though it isn’t raining or snowing out? Or even if it is raining or snowing out? The problem is that your fancy garment ISN’T breathing enough and you are being soaked with your own sweat. The solution to the problem may very well be a softshell garment. Ever since their inception we’ve been 1oo% sold on softshell outerwear for active outdoor winter activities. The idea behind them is that they are highly breathable, wind resistant, and water resistant. For our warm Sierra temperatures, they are ideal.
So what the heck is a softshell fabric versus a hardshell fabric? A softshell garment is made of a fabric that is highly breathable, water RESISTANT, and wind RESISTANT. The key word there is RESISTANT. All softshell garments have a DWR, or durable water repellent finish applied to the outside of the fabric. The DWR is what makes water bead up and run off of all technical clothing, even on those waterproof jacket and pants. Some aftermarket DWR producers include Nikwax and Grangers. In a light rain or snow the DWR will repel this moisture and not allow it to soak into the fabric. However when a steady rain or heavy wet snow is falling a softshell garment can only do so much. The fabric soon “wets out” and no longer will repel the elements, thus making the softshell water resistant. At this point it’s time for a waterproof hardshell.
In order for something to be as highly breathable as a softshell garment it can’t be waterproof. We’ll talk about waterproof breathable fabrics when we touch on hardshells later on in another post. Basically, you give up the waterproofness but gain the breathability. So for activities like backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, nordic skiing, or mountaineering, where you are expending energy and sweating, you want the sweat to evaporate and escape. You don’t want to wet-out from the inside of your clothing and overly cool you off. A softshell garment is highly breathable, so during activities like these the garment will allow that sweat to escape and allow your body to not overheat and your clothing become soaked in sweat. Becoming soaked can lead to a plunge in body temperature and potential hypothermia in adverse cases.
Many of these softshell garments are wind resistant. They allow a varying degree of wind to penetrate the fabric, thus keeping you cooler and also drying your clothing. However some models are made with Gore Windstopper and are 100% windproof. Constructing a softshell with a windproof layer adds a huge amount of warmth to the garment but greatly reduces the breathability. These products are great, but are specifically designed for people who run cold but still want a softshell. There are many different softshell fabrics out there and they all have varying degrees of breathability and wind resistance. Some also come with a thin fleece layer of insulation in them for warmth and comfort.
In most winter conditions softshell garments are the ideal piece of clothing for active outdoor activities. Most, if not all, technical clothing companies produce garments in this fashion. The difference lies in how they use different fabrics with different properties of breathability, wind resistance, and water resistance. Which one is right for you? It depends on how your body works and what you’re doing outside; walking the dog and nordic skiing are two very different activities with very different heat and energy outputs. If you run very warm while backcountry skiing, choose a company that uses a more breathable fabric with no insulation, such as Schoeller Dynamic. If you’re someone who runs colder or plans on riding at the resort, a Gore Windstopper version may be best for you. Polartec Power Shield may also be a good choice, offering a little less wind proofness and a nice fleecy lining for that morning dog walk. It’s all very personal. The best thing to do is reference your local specialty shop such as Alpenglow and ask a knowledgeable salesperson who has used the different fabrics which is best suited for you.