Gear Guy

What’s up with all the soft-shell choices?

I'm wondering if you know the difference between all the soft-shell fabrics, specifically Power Shield and Schoeller Dryskin. Also, what's the deal with the ultralight rain shells like Patagonia's Microburst or Arc'Teryx's Sirrus SL? REI's Web site used to say that Sirrus SL is "truly an ultralight shell, thus should not be for everyday use." Are they suggesting the ultralight jackets are not that durable? Does it make sense to carry both a soft-shell and an ultralight rain shell on a long backpacking trip? Jenny San Diego, California

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Gear makers are in real danger of so thoroughly confusing consumers over this whole “soft-shell” issue that people are apt to just sit on their hands and not buy anything. It’s like wireless phones in the U.S., or computer operating systems back in the early 1980s; a welter of conflicting standards and ideas equaled marketplace chaos.

First, a review. The idea behind a soft-shell piece is that it will provide good protection from cold, wind, rain, or overheating across a pretty wide spectrum of conditions. In other words, you can put on a single garment and wear it most of the day, rather than freezing, sweating, or stopping every hour to add or remove layers. This concept is possible because of the tremendous advances in fabrics made in recent years.

The two leading makers of soft-shell fabrics are Schoeller and Malden Mills, the makers of Polartec. Schoeller’s take is to use a single, fairly light layer of fabric. Its Dryskin material doesn’t look all that different from the nylon twill fabrics common in many travel garments. But oh, does it perform differently. I have some L.L. Bean Dryskin Guide Pants ($125; that can be worn from near zero to around 50 or 60 degrees Fahrenheit, in snow or light rain, without the need for extra Gore-Tex layers or anything else. Truly amazing. Malden’s Power Shield is a little different. It combines a soft, fleece-like liner with a tightly woven outer layer, resulting in a piece that’s warmer than Dryskin but better suited for temps below 40. I wear a Cannondale jacket made with Power Shield for winter bicycling. From 20 degrees to 40, in gentle drizzle, it’s all I need over a light synthetic T-shirt. Between 40 and 50 it’s a bit warm, though.

As for rain shells, the thinking these days is that you may not need the traditional “water armor” afforded by the $400 rainjackets so common a few years ago. A soft-shell piece will keep you dry in light rain. If it comes down harder, toss over a light rainjacket and you’ll be dryer and more comfortable than with the old combo of a fleece under a Gore-Tex (or similar) jacket. (Gore has its own soft-shell material, called Windstopper Triton.) As for when or how much to use these “newer” rainjackets, it’s partly a comfort issue. But yes, they’re generally not as rugged as a two-pound rain shell.

Hope that clears things up a little!

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