Gear Guy

What soft shell has the most urban style?

I've been looking at soft shells for an early fall trip up to Voyageurs National Park, and certainly like what I see from REI, The North Face, Marmot, and the like. Thing is, there's A) way too many choices, and B) I'd like to get something that I could also wear casually around the city. Any ideas? Henry Chicago, Illinois

A: I'll say this: As good as most of today's soft shells are, it's easily the most confusing piece of apparel on the shelves. Is it insulation? Is it rainwear? But it doesn't look heavy enough to be insulation, and nobody claims it's waterproof! What's a well-meaning gearhead to do? I've been chewing on this, and the way I now define soft shell goes like this: "A lightly insulating, windproof, and highly water-resistant shell that will keep you warmer and drier across a wider range of temperature and rainfall conditions than any fleece or waterproof-breathable jacket, or combination of the two." How's that?

Dimension Jacket

Anyway, I digress. I like REI's soft-shell pieces a lot—their One Jacket ($199;, made with Polartec Power Shield, maybe the best single soft-shell material, is terrific. But it does have a sort of Talking Heads techno-modern look, and too easily marks you as an outdoor geek. It's hard to beat for function, though. Another very functional choice is Marmot's new Super Hero ($225;, which uses six different soft-shell fabrics from Gore and Malden Mills, placing them strategically where they'll best resist weather or abrasion. Like REI's One, it's pretty sleek for a good technical fit, but it has colored panels on the shoulders that give a little more urban snap.

Another good choice might be Cloudveil's Prospector ($135;, which also has an edge on price. The Prospector is more of a light rain shell—it's not real warm, compared with something such as the One—but over a light top it offers a good mix of breathability and weather-shedding abilities. And, it's pretty good-looking—particularly the brick/charcoal color combo (in my humble sartorial opinion). In the same vein is Patagonia's Dimension Jacket ($240;, a light, breathable rain shell that stops just short of keeping you dry in hard rain. But it also is the best-looking jacket in the group, so worth a look.

Good luck!

More jackets reviewed in Outside's 2004 Buyer's Guide.

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Filed To: Soft Shell
Lead Photo: courtesy, Patagonia
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