Gear Guy

Is a soft-shell jacket the right choice for downhill skiing?

What's your take on the soft-shell craze if the activities are both ascent and descent in nature? In other words, I very interested in the breathability for aerobic activities, but concerned about warmth for activities like downhill skiing. Question is, can I have my cake and eat it too? Second, if I can have it both ways, what is your first choice and why? Brad Peacock Medina, Ohio


For exclusive access to all of our fitness, gear, adventure, and travel stories, plus discounts on trips, events, and gear, sign up for Outside+ today.

Soft shells are all the rage. But there’s a huge amount of confusion about what they are and what they are supposed to do, and I stand with pride among those who have sown said confusion.

Here’s the deal: Perfectly realized, a soft-shell garment is supposed to keep you pretty dry, pretty warm, and pretty sweat-free in as wide a range of conditions as possible. But the category is breaking down along two lines. On the one hand are garments using Schoeller’s Dryskin fabrics. Among them: Cloudveil, with its Icefloe Jacket ($295), and L.L. Bean, in its Schoeller Guide Pants ($125). These are best thought of as a lightweight shells, very breathable and windproof, highly water resistant, and comfortable across a wide temperature range.

Taking a slightly different tack is Polartec and its Powershield fabric, which is a light fleece layer bonded to a tough, water-resistant outer layer. It’s definitely warmer than the Schoeller stuff, but that means it’s not quite as comfortable when it warms up. I have a Cannondale jacket made with Powershield that I use for bicycling. Anywhere from 25 to 40 degrees, I put that on over a light synthetic T-shirt and I am good to go, uphill or downhill, even in light rain. But the stuff isn’t quite as water-resistant as Dryskin, and takes longer to dry once it wets out.

I could be persuaded that either approach would work well for skiing. The Dryskin would make a great light shell that may require some layering, while the Powershield would make a terrific stand-alone jacket worn over a very light wicking layer. Not too many companies are using it yet, but it’s starting to catch on — in addition to the Cannondale Thermal ($185), Arc’Teryx makes a piece called the Gamma SV ($240) that uses Powershield. I’d like to see some ski companies step up and do something with it, too.

promo logo