Q:

What's the deal with soft shells?

Are soft shells for real, and can they adequately replace a 300-weight fleece as an insulating layer for mountaineering? Would they give me the benefits of a windproof, waterproof, and breathable layer before the hard shell is donned when the weather gets really nasty? Matt San Ron, California

A:You are not alone in wondering just what the heck the deal is with "soft shell" clothing. Just last week, for instance, I was in Salt Lake City attending the annual Outdoor Retailers trade show. An entire morning seminar, attended by clothing makers and gear sellers, focused on how to explain soft shells to a confused buying public. The apparent answer: no one quite knows.

Right now, a soft-shell product is generally considered as a piece of light to medium insulation, which breathes extremely well and has good water repellency. It's a piece that can be worn across a wide temperature range, in wind and still conditions, in sun and light rain. In heavier rain, you throw over it a light rain shell—not one of these $425 Gore-Tex suits of armor all the rage a few years ago—and you're to all intents and purposes waterproof.

Which is to say, soft shells such as Cloudveil's Veiled Peak Jacket ($165) could indeed start replacing a bulky pile or fleece jacket in many packs. Not quite the same insulation value, but a slight upgrade in underwear (from lightweight to midweight, for instance) would offset that. And yes, it does work. I have a winter cycling jacket made of Malden Mills' Polartec Windbloc—Cannondale's Thermal II ($175). It's comfortable up to 40 degrees. I haven't found the bottom end of the comfort range yet, but know it's good in freezing conditions with a windchill of 20 to 25 degrees. It's not as breathable as regular fleece because it's so windproof, but it's still very sweat-free across a wide temp range.

Price remains an issue, as good pile jackets are $75 less than the soft shells. However, that may be offset by the fact the soft shells have more versatility and generally are tougher than fleece or pile. In general, I think a soft shell piece has a place in most serious outdoor users' gear inventory.

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