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Gear Guy
Q:

What soft shell will economize on budget and weight?

Lieber Ausrüstungmensch: Looking at the change of seasons and your report on the latest and greatest in the gear world, I'm trying to come up with a clothing strategy that maximizes economy of budget and weight. I'm a keen hiker currently living in Germany (near the Alps), but who will be moving back to the East Coast of the U.S. (Smoky Mountains!) soon. I want a system that will cover me when it's warm, cool, and wet. Should I go with a fleece-plus-shell combo, lugging around the deadweight when I'm not using it, or should I buy one of the do-it-all soft shells? Patrick Frankfurt Main, Germany

A: Guten Tag! Wie geht es Ihnen?

OK, enough of my bilingual dexterity. You need some outdoor clothing. Here's how I see it: For years, people tended to pack two key pieces, a moderately heavy fleece jacket or sweater, and a substantial Gore-Tex (or similar) jacket or parka. That was, and still is, a combination that pretty much covers the gamut of weather conditions: wet, cold, mild, windy, in any combination.

But I'm not convinced all that stuff remains necessary. The great appeal of the new "soft-shell" jackets is that they handle the cool, windy stuff nicely by themselves, plus they shed drizzle or light rain that would otherwise have soaked a fleece jacket. Then, if it gets really wet, you can just fling on a light rain shell. For less weight, bulk, and money, the soft shell route gives you a very functional weather package.

So for the soft-shell part, you want something that offers pretty good insulation and isn't just a light shell (which some are). Examples: the REI One Jacket ($198; www.rei.com), made with Polartec Power Shield, a material I rate having used it in a cycling jacket. In cold weather, the One is remarkably warm when worn over a light, long-sleeve T-shirt or turtleneck. It's almost entirely windproof, breathes well, and can take a lot of rain before it soaks through. Arc'Teryx's Gamma SV ($250; www.arcteryx.com) uses the same material in a garment that's a little more trimly cut. Cloudveil's Serendipity ($220; www.cloudveil.com) works a bit more like a light shell, but also serves as a useful insulating mid-layer (over a light T-shirt, under a rain shell if it rains hard).

These days, the classic add-on to a soft shell is the Marmot PreCip Jacket ($99; www.marmot.com), a remarkable buy in a functional, light, compressible rainjacket. Lowe Alpine's Rush Tech Jacket ($109; www.lowe-alpine.com) is another good choice. Depending on the activity, I also like Pearl Izumi's Channel Jacket ($200; www.pearlizumi.com), which uses the new eVent waterproof-breathable fabric favored by some makers. The Channel is a slim, clean (i.e., no pockets and no hood) design that is great unless you really need to stuff things into pockets. I prefer a rainhat, anyway, so the lack of a hood is no hardship.

Hope that helps. Auf Wiedersehn!
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