Trouble is, there are all sorts of iterations of the species we call soft shell. Mountain Hardwear's Synchro ($220; www.mountainhardwear.com), for instance, performs as a lightly insulated shell, using Mountain Hardwear's proprietary, waterproof-breathable Conduit material as its outer shell, with some fleece on the underside. It's best suited for climates that are apt to be damp as well as cool. Arc'teryx's Gamma SV ($260; www.arcteryx.com), on the other hand, uses Polartec Power Shielda very water- and wind-repellent material that offers a little more breathability than the Synchro at the expense of a little less rain-resistance.
Personally, I prefer the latter approach. I usually have an idea what my odds of facing rain over the next several hours will be (for day trips, at least) and so can feel safe wearing something that gives me the greatest comfort rangeand that's usually a piece similar to the Gamma. You might also look at REI's One Jacket ($179; www.rei.com), which is similar to the Gamma but at a lower price.
Why no hoods? Good question. Part of it is that adding a hood costs money, and these pieces already tend to be pricey because of the high-tech materials. But they're also designed for fairly athletic use, when you might not want to use a hood (or might be using a climbing or biking helmet).
That said, it's not all hoodless soft shells, you know. A close cousinokay, closer, more like cloneof Arc'teryx's Gamma SV is the Gamma MX Hoody ($350) that has the head/neck cover and longer length favored by skiers and snowboarders. High-end ski-gear purveyor Spyder makes a nice-looking piece called the Jackson Soft Shell ($250; www.spyder.com), complete with hood and lots of those powder-busting seals around the wrists and waist. Salomon and Mountain Hardwear have also gone the hooded soft-shell route for some of their ski-specific stuff, including the Salomon Gore-Tex Softshell Jacket ($440; www.salomonoutdoor.com) and Mountain Hardwear Maneuver ($395; www.mountainhardwear.com). As you'll note, this is where the soft-shell derivation gets murky, as the above pieces all bleed heavily into the trad jacket realmnot to mention a whole new budget bracket!
Myself, I prefer hoodless designs and the use of a hat, which I can pick out depending on the weather, my mood, or my day's chosen activity. In terms of light outdoor pursuits such as day hiking, I regard hoods as sort of "emergency" features...
Get the scoop on more of the industry's best soft shells in Outside Online's all-new Soft-Shell Buying Guide.
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