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Gear Guy

Should I buy a soft or hard shell for winter hiking and X-country?

I want to replace my old all-purpose Mountain Jacket from The North Face, since it has lost its outer water protection and is fairly heavy. Would you go with a soft or hard shell? I cross-country ski, snowshoe, and hike with my malute in the Colorado mountains. Anne Silverton, Colorado

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I’d go with both. Here’s why: We probably all have $350 waterproof-breathable jackets or parkas in our packs, and hardly ever use them to their full potential. Usually, they’re put to work as a windshell or to repel light rain or snow.

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Instead, why not buy something you’d use a lot—a good $200 soft shell—then get one of the new generation of less expensive hard shells? For your activity set it would be an ideal combination. The soft shell would be a great all-purpose piece for cool days and would block wind and resist light rain or snow. Then, if the weather gets nastier, just toss the hard shell on top.

In soft shells, a current hot buy is the REI One Jacket ($139 in select sizes, $179 regularly, and a pretty good deal even at that; It’s made of Polartec Power Shield, a material that I’ve found to be the best soft-shell fabric because it’s fairly warm, highly breathable, yet very wind- and water-repellent. It’s a great piece worn over thermal underwear, and is cut trimly enough to be a great layering piece, too.

Add most any decent-quality hard shell to the above setup and you’ve got a complete weather system. Marmot’s Oracle Jacket ($150; has the latest generation of its popular PreCip membrane, and comes complete with taped seams and a hood. Mountain Hardwear’s Women’s Hypnosis Parka ($195; offers a similar feature set with Mountain Hardwear’s slightly heavier Conduit laminate.

Either way, you’re into a great clothing combination for about what I expect you paid for your old Mountain Jacket. So that’s progress!

For more top jacket choices, check out Outside Online’s all-new Jackets Buying Guide.