Gear Guy

Arc’teryx Easyrider Jacket     Photo: courtesy, Arc’teryx

Q:

Can I lighten my pack by trading a fleece and shell for a soft shell?

I going climbing this summer in Switzerland and looking to shed a few pounds off my gear. My idea is to dump all my fleeces (except maybe a vest) and heavy-duty shells in exchange for a soft shell. I’d like to find one with a hood that actually moves well with the head and allows for a helmet, too. What would be a suitable soft shell for Alpine mountaineering and rock climbing that is warm enough to not need fleeces, and waterproof enough to handle a Southeast Asian monsoon? Matthew Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

A:Well, Matthew, you can dump some gear by getting a soft shell. But not all. Not for a multi-day trip. The best soft shells replace two pieces (a fleece jacket, and a shell) under 80 percent of the conditions you’re apt to run into. Meaning they might cover you 100 percent of the time. Or, only 20, depending on conditions. That’s because “warm" soft shells aren’t typically quite as warm as a mid-weight fleece jacket layered under a shell, while the “weatherproof" soft shells aren’t typically as weatherproof as a full-on Gore-Tex jacket (or something similar).

Still, the versatility of a good soft shell gives you some options. Let’s say you normally pack a set of lightweight long underwear (bottoms and long-sleeve top), a mid-weight fleece jacket, and a Gore-Tex jacket. You could instead pack along an Arc’teryx Easyrider Jacket ($289; www.arcteryx.com), made with Polartec Power Shield. Power Shield is used in the “warm" style of soft shell; it insulates nicely, blocks out wind, and sheds snow and light rain. It also breathes so it stays comfortable in warmer conditions. Worn over a piece of light long underwear, you can wear the Easy Rider over a wider range of conditions than the mid-weight fleece. And because you don’t have as much need for a full-bore rainjacket, you can get by with a lighter rain piece such as a Marmot PreCip ($99; www.marmot.com). You save some weight and some space in your pack, and are more comfortable overall.

I’d be reluctant to leave even a light rainjacket home—if it got really wet, or if you were forced to bivouac, you’d want it. But if the weather forecast warrants, it might be worth a try doing without. You’ll still need a hat—none of the Power Shield soft shells that I’m aware of (including the REI One, $179; www.rei.com) have a hood. If you decide that a hood is the most important factor, you might try Mountain Hardware’s Hooded Synchro Jacket ($260, www.mountainhardwear.com). Its Conduit membrane and weather-protective exterior taping should hold up against the elements.

Pick up a copy of the 2006 Outside Buyer’s Guide, on newsstands now, for a look at the best jackets and 396 other torture-tested products.

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