The Soft-Shell Game

Your prescription for matching next-generation outerwear with your favorite winter pursuit is ready

Mountain Hardwear Synchro     Photo: Nigel Cox

Outdoor Gear Reviewed: Soft-Shell Jackets

Mountain Hardwear Synchro

The Skinny

CLICK HERE for the breakdown of the latest in performance jackets.

THE MOST FUNCTIONAL CLASS of garment to come along since the waterproof-breathable jacket, soft shells have arrived en masse this winter. These technical woven numbers put the priority on letting out moisture (i.e., sweat) but still hold up well in the wet. Though once a cool, rare find in your local shop, soft shells now fill racks in a variety of flavors, from storm gear to fast-and-light coverings engineered for highly aerobic activities like trail running and ski touring. The move toward specialization is a boon in terms of performance, but the expanding range of choices can be intimidating.

Which piece is right for you? The following chart gauges the activities and temperatures for which various softies work best. We've also provided a peek at some technical details that are important to consider. And don't forget these jackets' admirable common denominator: supreme breathability. Enhanced airflow makes soft shells perfect for all your high-motion sports: climbing, mountain biking, barhopping in Telluride, and so on. True, they won't always keep your back dry in sideways rain, but isn't that what the lodge is for?

OUR CHART makes it easy to pick the right soft shell for your lifestyle. We've placed each jacket in the temperature range and level of aerobic activity for which it's ideal, and you can use the handy features key (below) to locate the bells and whistles you want. Wondering what makes these babies run? Cozy on the inside, the majority of these jackets have a soft lining, like brushed fabric or fleecy material, which holds a layer of warm air against your body. ABRASION RESISTANCE is essential for pursuits involving hairy surroundings. Many of these pieces have exteriors coarse enough to resist snagging on rocks and branches. Since breathability isn't a problem with these jackets, you can seal yourself in with a NECK CINCH and FITTED CUFFS to beat any cold that tries to fight its way inside. With so much competition, soft-shell makers are using desirable, functional add-ons like water-resistant REVERSE-COIL ZIPPERS, which some companies treat to make them 100 percent waterproof. A soft-shell fabric's breathability is particularly important for stop-start activities like ski touring and snowshoeing. And—bonus!—these stretchy, water-resistant skins allow trimmer cuts and sleeker styling, unlike the glorified raincoats of the past. There's a slew of these new materials, and their varying breathability levels let you regulate your temperature: To name just a few, SCHOELLER DRYSKIN is a combo of tough nylon and DuPont CoolMax; POLARTEC POWER SHIELD, usually sandwiched between layers of other performance fabric or nylon, cuts wind by 98 percent; and gust-proof GORE WINDSTOPPER is ultralight and plenty durable. Other companies have developed proprietary soft-shell materials in-house. What's left? Why, you, of course.

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