What is the deal with soft shells?
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Vlad Putin
(Primaloft37)

Locale: Radio Free Pineland
What is the deal with soft shells? on 10/31/2006 23:27:46 MST Print View

I am a bit confused about this new softshell craze in outdoor clothing. As most of you are aware...most of you know more about this subject than I do...there are many softshell fabrics available now. The biggie Ive noticed is Gore's "Windstopper." Another is EPIC. There are a bunch more, many proprietary to the company.

All are very expensive and have no loft and no insulative value.

From my understanding, the objective of the softshell is to 1)block wind 2) provide some significant rain protection, but not enough to be considered real raingear. Softshells are more breathable than Gore Tex, eVENT and other truly waterproof breathable raingear, but not as breathable as wool or simple nylon shell coverings over a high loft winter parka.

My understanding is that softshells are something that are needed if you rely mainly on synthetic fleece for cold weather clothing, as wind cuts right thru synthetic fleece.

Am I correct about the above? Do I have the basics down correctly about the "softshell revolution?"

OK, here goes my opinion about softshells. I have gotten along just fine in the past on winter backpacking trips without ever having used a softshell. I dont use fleece clothing, I use mostly wool clothes, with a synthetic high loft parka. I have never felt a need for a softshell...to me the idea seems silly if you use wool and a good high loft parka for those slow down times in camp and at night.

For those really nasty times when its rainy, sleeting, snowy and windy I use Gore Tex. That stuff is truly waterproof and windproof, as all of you I am sure are well aware of.

OK here goes...dont get mad I am honestly curious.

Do you think softshells is just something invented by the outdoor clothing industry to make money off dumb, uneducated outdoor consumers? I mean, there have always been cheap nylon wind blocking garmets you can buy at the local Wal-Mart if you feel the need to use one.

Windstopper is ridiculously expensive. It seems like a gimmick to me. So is EPIC. I just cant see purchasing an expensive soft shell that isnt truly waterproof, that I can depend upon to cut the wind out and a little drizzle and moisture, but not a genuine rainstorm or sleet storm. That just seems...stupid.

All this being said, I just purchased Wild Thing's Inc. "Belay" Primaloft one parka and it is covered with an EPIC softshell. This will be my first experience with a softshell of any type. Although I am thinking why not just ditch the softshell and cover it with ripstop nylon like my old LL Bean All Conditions Primaloft parka and make it lighter. Primaloft is good stuff, why the need for a softshell? I did fine for nine years with a Primaloft parka that had nothing but a ripstop nylon shell on it.

Where did the KISS or "Keep It Simple Stupid" mentality go to in the outdoor equipment industry? Has the outdoor industry just gone beserk with flavors of the month type marketing? Inventing new crap gear that is expensive, but you could really do without if you know what you are doing, such as wear wool instead of synthetic fleece?

Needless to say, I am sure you can get the point I am skeptical about softshells. Like I said though, I rely on wool a lot.

Am I just too cynical or am I right or am I just ignorant regarding softshells?

Please do not reply if you have any financial interests in the manufacture or sale of softshell clothing technology. Im not interested in your opinion if you have a financial conflict of interest regarding softshell clothing.

Vlad

Richard Nisley
(richard295) - M

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: What is the deal with soft shells? on 11/01/2006 00:15:17 MST Print View

What is the significance of Primaloft37 after your name? Do you work with this type of insulation?

Soft shells work for 80% of the people 80% of the time. That is, when it isn't storming. They provide the equivalent of a wind shirt and light insulation (Polartec 100 class) in one garment that doesn't require multiple layers to be managed. For moderate metabolic rate activities (like walking 3.5 mph) in non sub-freezing environments they are generally adequate insulation.

The Outdoor Industry understands the demographic profile of their buyers. Soft shells are primarily sold to the Recreational segment as are sleeping bags. Recreational segment: This segment is for less rigorous activities, ranging from slumber parties to car camping, hostelling, and boating. Nationally, these bags account for more than 80 percent of all sales as is probably the case for soft shells.

Backpacker/three-season: for outdoorsmen who don't expect to contend with extreme temperatures account for (about 13 percent of sales. Representative clothing insulation in this segment are the ultralight down and synthetic jackets like the Cocoon, Thermawraps, and Micropuffs.

Expedition winter: for long periods of demanding use in extreme conditions (7 percent of sales). This appears to be the market segment that you are in. Representative clothing insulation in this segment are the belay parkas. You are the elite informed consumer who won't buy a softshell but 80% of the market will. I think you made an EXCELLENT choice on your new insulation layer! EPIC is a perfect adjunct to Primaloft One for wet snow conditions or light rain.

The primary benefit of an EPIC shell over your old LL Bean Parka's nylon is that you don't need to periodically renew the DWR for it to be effective shedding moisture. When I bushwhack through Alaska brush, I can wear the DWR off my eVENT rain gear in a couple of days. I suspect this is the reason the US Special Forces use EPIC in combination with Primaloft Sport insulation(not as good as the Primaloft One insulation in your parka)for their new insulation layer as opposed to eVENT or Gore-Tex for the hard shell component in combination with insulation.

Wool is OK but, it absorbs up to 30% of its weight in moisture. Your new Wild Things parka will reduce that moisture absorption by at least 1/2 as a result of the EPIC and Primaloft One. This will in turn provide more reliable warmth in harsh conditions.

I think you are closer to being right, regarding soft shells, than being cynical or ignorant. I use them for town activities but not on expeditions. Ryan Jordan has posted recently regarding soft shells. His analysis seems to be similar to yours.

Edited by richard295 on 11/01/2006 01:10:44 MST.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: What is the deal with soft shells? on 11/01/2006 02:41:12 MST Print View

> From my understanding, the objective of the softshell is to 1)block wind 2) provide some significant rain protection, but not enough to be considered real raingear. Softshells are more breathable than Gore Tex, eVENT and other truly waterproof breathable raingear, but not as breathable as wool or simple nylon shell coverings over a high loft winter parka.

You are right - but there are many situations where a softshell jacket is exactly what is needed. For instance, I wear a very light EPIC jacket (with hood) over a 200-weight fleece top in some pretty bad weather in the snow country, on extended (week-long) ski-touring trips. It does exactly what you said - but it weighs 190 grams. And it breathes quite well. My old GoreTex jacket weighed 880 grams, and didn't breathe very well.

But I wouldn't bother taking it on a non-snow trip. For that I prefer a poncho/parka (eg 'Packa') - or get wet and dry out in the evening.

Einstein X
(EinsteinX) - F

Locale: The Netherlands
Re: What is the deal with soft shells? on 11/01/2006 09:06:04 MST Print View

Well Vlad,

I think that in general you are right about softshells. The name is a marketing tool for companies to sell their gear. But i don't think it's fair of you to assume these companies only market these softshells to get filthyly ritch. There is a point in these garments.

If you look at hikers on my sind of the pond, these hikers go day or weekend hiking and ware GTX XCR from top to toe, because maybe, just maybe there may be some rain out there. A fully GTX XCR garment will set you back about $ 800!

If I look at my longest hike so far, solo Scotland 16 days october there were two days of poring rain when i whished i had XCR with me, but i chose to stay inside the mountain hut, which was much more fun than hiking anyway (free drams of whisky). On one day I hiked through 5 hours of a lot of rain and felt pretty misserable under my poncho tarp. But of the ~380 hours of my trip I only wished for fully waterproofs for 5 hours or 1,3% of the trip.

And that's where softshells come in. Most people don't need sth as waterproof as GTX. This softshell is more than enough for these people. And yes these softshells are designed by a commercial company and that company needs to make money in order to survive. That doesn't make the company evil, it makes the company profitable, giving them time to develope other nice materials that maybe YOU do like.

I like my softshell. I use it every day to go to work and back home. I like it's superiour breathability over any truely waterproof fabric. I don't like to use it while hiking though. It didn't work, it didn't shed as much water as i ecpected it to nor did it dry quick enough.

So I do agree with you that for an experienced hiker a softshell does not add much to their gearlists. And yes, it is a fashonable name so all the manufacturers use it, but thats just the way a consumer society works.

But most people who recreate outdoors don't go hiking for days on end. Let alone camping onder a tarp the size of a piece of TP. And for them softshell is fine. Also concider mountainbiking. I'd much more prefer wairing my softshell than my GTX when it rains cause of the superiour breathability.

So a softshell is good for some people, like a diving suit is good for some people as well, but a golf set a bit more appropriate for others.

Eins

Russell Swanson
(rswanson) - F

Locale: Midatlantic
Re: What is the deal with soft shells? on 11/01/2006 09:35:23 MST Print View

It's really not as complicated as most people make it seem. Soft shell clothing isn't really designed for backpacking or extended hiking even though you'll seem them marketed to the hiking community. They're really designed with more of an eye towards cold weather aerobic pursuits such as alpine-style climbing, skiing, and snowboarding, where the tendancy is towards snow rather than rain. They will handle some moisture but not extended periods of rain. For hiking, the value is limited unless the weather will be dry. When soft shells wet out, they don't dry fast and they absorb water weight.

Vlad Putin
(Primaloft37)

Locale: Radio Free Pineland
Re: Re: What is the deal with soft shells? on 11/01/2006 10:16:45 MST Print View

>What is the significance of Primaloft37 >after your name? Do you work with this >type of insulation?

Absolutely not. It is just an arbitrary screenname I chose as it was one of the things that popped into my head when I signed up for the free account. I am a big fan of Primaloft, having had extremely positive experience with it in the past nine years.

I in no way am involved in the manufacture or selling or marketing of Primaloft, nor any other outdoor gear or clothing. I am just an end user.

Vlad

Vlad Putin
(Primaloft37)

Locale: Radio Free Pineland
Re: Re: What is the deal with soft shells? on 11/01/2006 10:21:24 MST Print View

> From my understanding, the objective of the softshell is to 1)block wind 2) provide some significant rain protection, but not enough to be considered real raingear. Softshells are more breathable than Gore Tex, eVENT and other truly waterproof breathable raingear, but not as breathable as wool or simple nylon shell coverings over a high loft winter parka.

You are right - but there are many situations where a softshell jacket is exactly what is needed. For instance, I wear a very light EPIC jacket (with hood) over a 200-weight fleece top in some pretty bad weather in the snow country, on extended (week-long) ski-touring trips. It does exactly what you said - but it weighs 190 grams. And it breathes quite well. My old GoreTex jacket weighed 880 grams, and didn't breathe very well.

But I wouldn't bother taking it on a non-snow trip. For that I prefer a poncho/parka (eg 'Packa') - or get wet and dry out in the evening.
-------------------------------------------

Man, you are going to catch a cold out there in the snow with no shirt on.

Just pokin fun at ya...I realize it can actually get semi warm on some ski slopes. And I am well aware you can get VERY sunburned in snow terrain.

Vlad

mario hosay
(silkRoute) - F

Locale: Upstate NY
soft shells work for me.... on 11/01/2006 11:28:39 MST Print View

soft shell is not a monolithic concept. the opinion people have expressed above, address certain types of soft shells. but, not soft shells as a whole. I think the consept soft shell is very diverse and by no means new. The outdoors industry captured this idea recently lebeled them in a way to create a marketing hype (both market and consumers are involved in this).

here is what I think:

1. yes, soft shells are way more expensive than the "purpose" it serves. the recreation outdoorsmen and 80% of the market arguments hold true for this price markups.

2. soft shells are not good (at least not yet) for down pours or heavy rain.

3. yes, you can use soft shells for hiking/backpacking or high aerobic activities. depends on which soft sell you are talking about. I use my Cloudveil Prospector softshell for multiday backpacking in Fall and Spring (northeastern USA, and TN/GA area). I carry a very light rain shell to go over my Prospector when I encounter heavy rain. I have also used Moonstone Genderme (mind the spelling) soft shell for climbing, skiing etc. I use several soft shell pants for fall/spring hiking backpacking. I like them better than any hardshell pants.

3. Soft shells (in general) are great for snow sports. With windprotection and water resistance along with some insulation, they provide a great mix that is ideal for snow sport. to replicate that with any other option you would have to use multiple (and often heavier) layers, such as, a fleece/synthetic jacket and a hardshell, which would eventually lead to less breathability and heavier weight.

4. soft shells are better than hard shells in breathability and mobility.

5. soft shell provide much better abrasion resistance than hardshell. this is my experience from rock climbing.

6. the cut and fitting of a soft shell is unique and helpful for high mobility activities. hardshell can not compare in this area.

soft shell is a wide spectrum. you can picture the spectrum by placing Marmot Sharp Poing soft shell in one extreme and Couldveil's Prospecter jacket in the other. I use three soft shells with different types of features and fabrics:

a. one has windstopper membrane with a microfleece lining. I use it exclusively for winter sport and cool weather mountain biking. works great.

b. stretch woven fabric with a brushed interior, great for fall/spring hiking/biking/backpacking.

c. stretch woven fabric with DWR and without any insulation. great for hiking backpacking during mild weather days (not summer, during summer I wear t-shirts).

so, the way soft shells work for me is, I use just my soft shells 80% of the time , and for the remaining 20% of the time I use them with my waterproof hardshell. also, soft shells comes with nice venting system (pit zips, core venting etc).

works for me....but I agree, the price could be a little lower.

Edited by silkRoute on 11/01/2006 11:37:26 MST.

Eric Noble
(ericnoble) - MLife

Locale: Colorado Rockies
Re: What is the deal with soft shells? on 11/01/2006 11:30:51 MST Print View

Referring to EPIC as a soft shell makes me question my definition of soft shell. Is EPIC a soft shell? My definition would be a shell that stretches that is thick enough to provide some insulation or has a layer of insulation bonded to it. I always thought of EPIC as being like silnylon only the thread is encapsulated rather than the fabric being coated. I have no experience with EPIC but I am considering using it for an outing this coming January. We will be constructing and sleeping in snow shelters.

Mark Verber
(verber) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: What is the deal with soft shells? on 11/01/2006 11:39:30 MST Print View

Soft shells have actually been around longer than gore-tex and the "hardshell". If fact, a wind resistant material over wool is pretty much a soft shell. Of course, I think there have been some improvements over the 60/40 parka + wool shirt. Stretch woven materials (my current favorite is Schoeller Dryskin) have been used by skiers for decades in pants / bibs and are really great in cold/snow conditions. Breathable nylon or polyester shells bonded to a pile lining have likewise been used for several decades. You can think of the unlined windshirt people here often talk about as part of a soft shell system.

I have personal experience using soft shells in nearly every sort of condition except all out rain storms and stayed very comfortable. [There are a number of folks, especially British climbers who report that this sort of system works well even in the face of nasty storms.] The key with soft shells is that they are sufficiently breathable that you don't overwhelm them when engaged in aerobic activities and sufficiently weather resistant to keep most moisture out.

In recent years, the success of the original soft shells and dissatisfaction with the performance / breathability of hardshells got the attention of a number of manufacturers. They tried to improve their materials and catch the "soft shell" wave. These folks primarily target done in a day activities which is what most consumers are interested in. A number of these new materials make use of membranes such as windstopper and powershield. I personally think these materials aren't that great in the field. Do I think this is being done just to separate consumers from their money? Nope. It's an example of "If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail". Gore-Tex is all about membranes. If your classic membrane isn't working for so segment of your customer base, you try to come up with a new membrane that works better. It doesn't matter than membranes are expensive to manufacturer cause it's what you make.

I do think there are a number of materials which really are a significant improvement. Pertex Equilibrium bring moderate air permeability, directional wicking, improved water resistance, and a good drape to shells. EPIC brings good durability low water retention, decent breathability, and moderate air permeability. For there inner surface there are a number of materials which I think are an improvement over either wool or the classic pile. These are synthetic materials (typically bipolar construction) which wick directionally such as Driclim and PowerDry.

If you don't believe soft shells have relevance to the backpacking community, just look at the gear lists of people on the AT, PCT, etc and see how many Marmot Driclim Windshirts are taken and beloved each year.

A few of nice articles on softshells that I would recommend include:

http://www.rrv-bsa.com/Resources/Ultralight%20Clothing.htm
http://www.psychovertical.com/?thebestsoftshell
http://www.psychovertical.com/?cuthecrap

Edited by verber on 11/01/2006 12:14:09 MST.

mario hosay
(silkRoute) - F

Locale: Upstate NY
soft shells on 11/01/2006 11:56:48 MST Print View

Hi Mark,
thanks for sharing those articles.

Vlad Putin
(Primaloft37)

Locale: Radio Free Pineland
Re: Re: What is the deal with soft shells? on 11/01/2006 11:59:08 MST Print View

Yeah, EPIC is considered to be a high end soft shell material.

Vlad

Russell Swanson
(rswanson) - F

Locale: Midatlantic
Re: Re: What is the deal with soft shells? on 11/01/2006 12:42:35 MST Print View

Mark,

First off let me start by saying that I'm a big fan of your outdoors website and I refer to it often when researching gear purchases. It's concise, thorough, and up-to-date.

Question for you- can you foresee an instance when you would head out into the backcountry for a multi-day trip carrying just a softshell for weather protection? For you, is this decision entirely weather-dependant?

Given the current level of technology of these products I don't feel comfortable without some type of rain shell (I use Dropstoppers) unless I can be absolutely certain there is zero chance of rain. In those situations I would say that softshells are redundant as I am carrying a rain shell and insulation piece(s).

I guess what I'm saying is that, unless you're skiing or climbing, aren't soft shells always just unneccessary weight?

David Bonn
(david_bonn) - F

Locale: North Cascades
Re: Re: Re: What is the deal with soft shells? on 11/01/2006 13:37:23 MST Print View

> Question for you- can you foresee an instance when you would head out into the backcountry for a multi-day trip carrying just a softshell for weather protection? For you, is this decision entirely weather-dependant?

Disclaimer: I am wearing a patagucci stretch zephyr jacket right now.

A lot of outdoor industry marketing people describe windshells as "soft shells". I won't go to the post office without a wind shirt. So yes.

If you mean a softshell as a stretchy more breathable-than-waterproof shell over a little bit of insulation, then I won't take one on a hike. The lighter-weight versions are a reasonable thing to carry on a long trip in cold conditions, say an April trip in the Alaska Range. I say this because you won't overheat even dragging a sled up an icefall, but they are reasonably windproof and most have a full-zip front for ventilation. And the smooth outside makes it easier to throw an insulated jacket on at rest stops.

mario hosay
(silkRoute) - F

Locale: Upstate NY
sheds of gray...... on 11/01/2006 13:49:06 MST Print View

I think this discussion is reminding me these lines that I have heard while in grad school....

"life is not just black or white. there are sheds of gray"...... it may not be the same exact words but I think I captured the theme.....

the confusion/skepticism about soft shell is one that every evolving "new" technolgy encounter at their advent. What we are trying to do is pose some question and try to get a yes/no answer. Could there be that there may not be a yes/no answer. There may be an answer that is a little more analytical/critical.

I personally prefer hiking in (not extreme alpine regions or above 80ยบ F condition) soft shells. I dont hike in sustained day long rain. in my 15+ year hiking backpacking experience I have very rarely (less than 5%) experienced sustained down pours on trails. I think I survived those (remaining 95%) rains using a well known backpacking gear called "planning".

Recently I observed that I am using my soft shells more often than any other clothing. Soft shell with a back up light weight rain shell/anorack works great for me in the kind of weather or rain I experience. and yes, it is a lighter, more breathable, and protective choice with much better moisture management capability than an insulation layer and a hard shell. you can make theoritical arguments, but unless you have tried it in real hiking/backpacking condition it would be hard to realize.

so, yes I would carry a soft shell and a light rain shell for a multi day trip instead of an insulation layer and a hard shell and baselayer tops.

"For you, is this decision entirely weather-dependant?" I think it is a loaded question. no gear decision is "entirely" weather-dependant. there are multiple factors for selecting gear....comfort, usability, weight etc.....along with weather....

Edited by silkRoute on 11/01/2006 13:56:12 MST.

Woubeir (from Europe)
(Woubeir) - F - MLife
Re: Re: Re: What is the deal with soft shells? on 11/01/2006 14:01:15 MST Print View

I started to replace terms like soft shell and hard shell with more appropriate terms like e.g. comfort shell and storm shell a while ago (other suggestions are ofcourse always welcome). And those comfort shells could be anything from what we often describe as a soft shell to a windshell. The fact is that the idea of soft shell is something very personal. While a simple windshirt is often more than enough to bring me in the comfort zone under a certain set of conditions, my wife seems to need more windresistance and insulation to bring her up to that same level under those same conditions. In a way, we all have to define for ourselfs what a "soft shell" is.

Eric Noble
(ericnoble) - MLife

Locale: Colorado Rockies
Re: Re: Re: What is the deal with soft shells? on 11/01/2006 14:20:42 MST Print View

"Yeah, EPIC is considered to be a high end soft shell material."

Vlad, so the Black Diamond tents I've seen made of EPIC are soft shell tents, and they were able to restrain the marketing department from hyping it to the heavens? :)

Vlad Putin
(Primaloft37)

Locale: Radio Free Pineland
Re: sheds of gray in this case can lead to death on 11/01/2006 14:24:54 MST Print View

>I dont hike in sustained day long rain. >in my 15+ year hiking backpacking >experience I have very rarely (less than >5%) experienced sustained down pours on >trails. I think I survived those >(remaining 95%) rains using a well known >backpacking gear called "planning".

Ive done plenty of backpacking in heavy rains. Ive done plenty of backpacking where it rained all day. Or rained for several days straight. Ive also backpacked all day long in freezing rain and sleet...yes its true. Cant go as fast...easy to bust your butt, but I did it...and on BSA sponsored trips too.

The one thing I did do in the above situations is to wear a combination of wool clothing and waterproof raingear.

To call oneself a backpacker yet to on purpose avoid backpacking in sustained rain is not to be a true backpacker.

Just my opinion. And Id never, ever rely upon any softshell...not even high end softshells like EPIC or Windstopper to ward off sustained precipitation.

Vlad

Vlad Putin
(Primaloft37)

Locale: Radio Free Pineland
Re: Re: Re: Re: What is the deal with soft shells? on 11/01/2006 14:26:40 MST Print View

"Yeah, EPIC is considered to be a high end soft shell material."

Vlad, so the Black Diamond tents I've seen made of EPIC are soft shell tents, and they were able to restrain the marketing department from hyping it to the heavens? :
---------------------------------------------

I guess so. Actually Ive been reading about tents made out of eVENT, so go figure :)

Personally I think its just a way for them to make $$ off dumb people. But I'm opinionated, so...

Vlad

mario hosay
(silkRoute) - F

Locale: Upstate NY
interesting revelation: I am not a backpacker afterall. on 11/01/2006 14:46:07 MST Print View

So, if some one likes to go backpacking in milder weather (no rain, no snow), he or she may not call themselves as backpacker, at least not a true one. WOW. guess, my 2 weeks trip to Tibbet and Mongolian hills does not count as "true" backpacking then. there was no rain, no snow.....high wind though....does wind count...

Please read my post care fully i said "sustained down pours". I guess you backpack in all day long sustained down pours. You can delete my name as a backpacker, but I would not have fun hiking/backpacking in all day long heavy rain.

do you think that your Hardshell and insulation layer combo will keep you dry in that kind of rain, unless you are sitting still under a shelter, you will get wet from inside.

"Ive done plenty of backpacking where it rained all day." was it a heavy rain all day? how did your hard shell performed in this? were you dry? what was the location? this is all in the context of your soft shell discussion.

if you hike in "good pace" (i know its subjective) under heavy rain......with a hard shell and wool insulation combo......you will get wet from inside very quickly....and depending on what kind of wool you are wearing.....the wool will take forever to dry out. I find wool as good insulator but very poor in moisture management, specially heavy weight wool.

"Just my opinion. And Id never, ever rely upon any softshell...not even high end softshells like EPIC or Windstopper to ward off sustained precipitation."

- this is your opinion. I understand and respect that. but, is there any reason to be so biased to close your mind about soft shells? isn't it a bit extreme to say that you would "never, ever rely upon any softshell" - especially when the outdoors technology is improving/evolving so rapidly?

thanks....

from: not a true backpacker

Edited by silkRoute on 11/01/2006 14:51:47 MST.