Softshell Jacket Review - No 219 - March 2003
New apparel technology put to the test
Do you imagine a world so advanced that you no longer need to take a waterproof/breathable shell jacket with you into the backcountry? “Maybe in a hundred lifetimes and with the help of alien technology,” you think. You’re in luck: That futuristic world is the here and now — it’s called softshell.
A softshell is loosely defined as a garment that offers a high degree of weather protection and durability while maintaining excellent breathability and luxurious comfort. A difficult mix, for sure. The combination of these key performance attributes gives softshells a broad utility range in terms of both activity and environment. Their stretch can handle the most contorted figure-four or hip-hop dance move, and they make layering easier thanks to their breathable nature. (Don’t expect your typical waterproof/breathable shell to perform half these functions.)
With only a few blown-out jackets in my closet, it seemed like a perfect time to test and review the market’s offering of unhooded softshell jackets. Once the boxes stopped arriving on our stoop, we realized what we were in for. Not only did we have to examine the fit, function, and intended purpose of each entry, we had to understand the particulars of the various fabrics from which each jacket was made. We soon learned that the most important thing to keep in mind when comparing fabrics is the relationship between breathability and wind protection. If a fabric is designed with an emphasis on breathability (great for mild temps and aerobic hikes), it will not stop a strong, penetrating wind. Conversely, a fabric designed to turn back even the most stubborn gale will transform into a sweat box when you’re working hard in mild temps.
Gore Windstopper Trango is the only 100-percent windproof fabric in the review thanks to an expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) membrane laminated between thefabric’s outer and inner layers. The result is warm, windproof, extremely weather resistant, and durable. It’s great for cold temps and can be worn with confidence in all but the worst weather. However, it has very little stretch and was the least breathable fabric tested.
Gore Windstopper N2S uses the same windproof membrane as Windstopper Trango, but the light nature of the outer and inner fabrics means that N2S is more breathable and stretchier, sacrificing warmth and durability. It’s well suited for high aerobic output in cool to cold temps.
Polartec Power Shield offers great warmth, stretch, and durability. It easily fights off the elements and is nearly windproof due to a discontinuous stretch-polyurethane membrane sandwiched inside the fabric. Power Shield does breathe a bit, but with its warm, inner fleece layer it is best suited for cold-weather use. Polartec Power Shield Lightweight is a scaled down version of Power Shield. It has the same weather protection, wind resistance, stretch, and durability of its beefier sibling, but is not as warm due to a more conservative inner fleece layer. It is great for cool- to cold-weather use and was the most versatile fabric tested.
Schoeller Dryskin Extreme 3Xdry is a single-layer, double-weave fabric with a membrane-free design that made it the most breathable fabric we tested. Dryskin Extreme 3Xdry is great for highly aerobic, cool-to cold-weather use. The fabric’s breathable nature means that in high winds some air will sneak through, reducing the heat in your layering system.
Schoeller WB-400 is warmer, more wind resistant, and slightly heavier than its Dryskin cousin. An acrylate coating inside the fabric increases wind resistance, and a thick fleece layer provides additional warmth. WB-400 shines in cold weather and its breathability is welcome when working hard while wearing a pack.
TNF Apex Fabric has a tightly woven surface for weather resistance and durability, four-way stretch for comfort and ease of movement, and a brushed inside layer for warmth. It is very similar to Dryskin Extreme 3Xdry in feel and function, with a bit more wind protection and less breathability. It works best in cool temps and can be worn under a shell.
Understanding fit is also an integral component in a softshell purchase. The combination of warmth, weather resistance, and stretch in softshell fabrics means that manufacturers can make garments with a more athletic, form-fitting cut than hardshells. A well-made softshell jacket will closely match the silhouette of your torso, shoulders, and arms, providing ample wrist coverage when you reach overhead, but not riding up from your waist.
Fit and durability were determined by grovelling up pitch after pitch of scraggy alpine rock. We compared fabric performance on long approaches into Rocky Mountain National Park climbs, where we frequently encountered high winds, snow, and light rain. A jacket’s versatility was determined by its ability to be used throughout the year and stand up to whatever the weather gods cooked up on a given day.
The Test Results
Arc’teryx Gamma MX, $280
Summary: What do you get when you combine Arc’teryx’s renowned technical fit with the versatile Power Shield Lightweight fabric? A light, virtually windproof jacket that provides just enough warmth for winter outings while still being comfortable in the mild temps of spring and fall. The Gamma MX has a trim torsothat stays put under a harness, long arms,
low-profile elasticized wrist closures, and two hand-warmer pockets positioned just high enough to be used with a harness or hip belt. Two chest pockets, a small sleeve pocket that works great for a topo or a few energy gels, and a drawcord in the waist complete the package. The only drawback to the Gamma MX is its steep price.
Pros: Great fit. Light. Versatile.
Overall grade: A
Beyond Fleece Cold Fusion, $189
Summary: If you have trouble finding jackets that fit or like the idea of having a jacket custom-made to your exact specifications, then the Cold Fusion is for you. Log onto www.beyondfleece.com, supply your body measurements, select your jacket options, and wait 10 to 15 days for delivery. The Schoeller WB-400 fabric was surprisingly breathable for its warmth, and provided ample wind and weather protection. The two hand-warmer pockets are well clear of all waist belts, a Napoleon chest pocket was a great place for a point-and-shoot camera, and simple elastic wrist closures easily kept out the elements. The waist closure was the best in the test thanks to its gasket-like design. The jacket’s only flaw was that the neck collar was a bit too high and bunched up under the chin.
Pros: Custom fit. Moderately priced.
Cons: Collar too high.
Overall grade: A
Cloudveil Serendipity, $220
Summary: The Serendipity was one of the first softshells to hit the market, and its simple and highly functional design is still one of the best. Made with Schoeller Dryskin Extreme 3Xdry, the Serendipity had no trouble keeping us dry while offering top-notch breathability (a definite plus for spring and fall temps, or anytime you’re working hard). A long, harness-friendly torso, generous arm length, and articulated elbows gave the jacket great freedom of movement, while huge Napoleon pockets and waist and neck drawcords rounded out the package. On the down side, the large Velcro wrist cuffs felt bulky under gloves, and the torso was more voluminous than we would have liked.
Pros: Great freedom of movement. Proven, simple design.
Cons: Velcro wrist closures slightly bulky. High torso volume.
Overall grade: B+
Eider Shield, $308
Summary: We were immediately impressed by the sleek torso and trim waist of the Shield, and one climbing day was enough to prove that the arms provide great wrist coverage during long reaches and that the waist stays tucked under a harness. Factor in the Polartec Power Shield fabric with the Shield’s high-performance fit and you’ve got a jacket well suited for any cold-weather adventure. Eider also uses waterproof zippers on the jacket’s front, large Napoleon pockets, and handy torso vents, and also has smooth, one-handed waist and neck drawcords. The collar is on the tall side, and all this performance does not come cheap — the Shield was the most expensive jacket we tested.
Pros: Outstanding overall fit. Full waterproof zippers.
Cons: Collar too high. Expensive.
Overall grade: B+
GoLite Dharma, $239
Summary: GoLite is known for making simple, user-friendly gear and their Dharma jacket is no exception. Built with Schoeller’s Dryskin Extreme 3Xdry, the Dharma offers up excellent breathability, weather protection, and stretch in a package completed by three well-placed, hassle-free chest pockets and a double drawcord waist-cinch system. The generous sleeves are great for climbing, the elbows have excellent articulation, and low profile Velcro wrist closures seal up nicely. The body of the jacket moved well with the exception of the waist, which had a tendency to ride up when the drawcord wasn’t tightened. The torso also had a higher-than-average volume.
Pros: Simple, comfortable design.
Cons: Waist rides up. High torso volume.
Overall grade: B
Mammut New Age, $225
Summary: Mammut has been using Schoeller fabric for years, so it’s no surprise that the New Age sports Dryskin Extreme 3Xdry. Jumbo-sized Napoleon pockets make a great place for skins or a pair of gloves, while the long waist stays tucked into a harness, and the generous arms come in handy for long reaches. The New Age’s torso has an average volume, so no extra material gets in your way when clipping gear to a shoulder sling, and the jacket’s simple Velcro wrist closures work well with gloves. The New Age also has room for inside layering. The only drawback to this simple yet highly functional jacket is the tight neck collar.
Pros: Good torso fit. Simple, effective design.
Cons: Tight neck collar.
Overall grade: A-
Marmot Super Hero, $225
Summary: Marmot uses a whopping six different fabrics in their Super Hero, including Gore N2S in the chest, Power Shield Light in the sides of the torso, and Wind Pro fleece on the back. The Gore N2S and Powershield Light give the jacket a high level of wind resistance and stretch, while the Wind Pro fleece back panel helps out considerably in the breathability department. Unfortunately, Wind Pro is not nearly as water resistant as the other components of the Super Hero (reducing its versatility in damp weather), and the wrists have no Velcro closure system or elastic. Additionally, there is only one small stash pocket on the chest. However, the jacket is cut with the climber in mind: The waist stays put when reaching overhead, the arms are long, and the torso is slim.
Pros: Great fit. Light.
Cons: Fleece back panel offers very little water resistance.
Overall grade: B
Mountain Hardwear Alchemy, $240
Summary: If you’re looking for an indestructible jacket that slaps the wind around, check out the Alchemy. It’s constructed mainly of Gore Windstopper Trango fabric so it’s 100-percent windproof and very warm. The Alchemy also has outstanding abrasion resistance. The drawback to all this protection is that the Alchemy had the lowest breathability level of the review and very little stretch, making it feel more like a hardshell. Also, the jacket’s short waist has trouble staying tucked under a harness, and the arms felt short when climbing. Two large torso pockets, a small chest pocket, fleece-lined wrist closures, and drawcords in the waist and neck round out the package.
Pros: Warm. Extremely durable. Great weather protection.
Cons: Waist rides up. Low breathability.
Overall grade: B-
Patagonia Core Skin, $249
Summary: For their Core Skin, Patagonia used a proprietary version of Polartec Power Shield. This special blend is insulated with a grid-style fleece that reduces weight and increases compressibility. Weather resistance, breathability, and stretch are the same as in standard Power Shield. An average torso volume means that there’s no extra material flapping around when you’re bustin’ moves. Excellent shoulder articulation and long arms help out when climbing, and eliminate waist ride-up. A waterproof front zip, two torso pockets that stay clear of your harness, Velcro wrist closures, and
a zippered internal stash pocket finish the list of features. Our only complaint is minor: The waist drawcord is too thin and lacks pull-tabs.
Pros: Good overall fit and versatility. Waterproof front zipper.
Cons: Waist drawcord finicky.
Overall grade: A-
REI One Jacket, $198
Summary: The One Jacket uses Polartec Power Shield, making it suitable for cold-weather activities. Unfortunately, its generic fit is more at home in a ski resort than in the backcountry. The One Jacket’s short torso and lack of shoulder articulation caused the waist to ride up when reaching overhead, and the loose wrist cuffs lack a closure system. Plus, the zippered torso pockets and two internal pockets get trapped under a harness or hipbelt. On the plus side, the One Jacket’s torso volume was low profile, and both the waist and neck have drawcords.
Pros: Nice torso volume. Inexpensive.
Cons: Waist rides up. Lacks arm articulation. Loose wrist cuffs.
Overall grade: C+
The North Face Apex 1, $149
Summary: The North Face manages the lowest price of the review by using their own Apex fabric, a stretchy, single-layer, double-weave material that does a great job of fending off wind and light precipitation while still providing enough breathability for high-energy activity. The arms have great articulation and the jacket’s long waist stayed put when making reaches. Unfortunately, the high-volume torso felt a bit baggy, and the two hand-warmer pockets got covered up by a harness or hipbelt. However, the Apex does have two large stash pockets that make a great place to put dry gloves or other essentials, as well as easy-to-use Velcro wrist closures.
Pros: Inexpensive. Internal stash pockets.
Cons: High torso volume. Pockets get covered by harness.
Overall grade: B
Beyond Fleece: 866-800-8855
Mammut/Climb High: 802-985-5056,
The North Face: 800-535-3331