Imagine a jacket you could wear all day on a mountain trip, that would keep off most of the wind and rain you’ll face, deal with moisture from inside to keep you dry and still be supple and comfortable enough to wear throughout high-movement activity. Magic? Nope, softshell!
Wicking base layer, thermal mid layer, waterproof outer layer; the traditional layering system, when carefully assembled, adapts to offer comfort and moisture management in almost any conditions. But it does require adding, removing or adjusting at least one layer every time the British climate changes its mind on you or the terrain changes under your feet. And can a hardshell be breathable enough to wear comfortably when wind is the only issue?
Softshell jackets are generally more suited to the vagaries of our unpredictable weather than a combo of base, fleece and shell. Select the right one and unless it persists it down all day you can literally keep the same breathable jacket on throughout, just pulling on a waterproof for the really wet moments and tailoring the ventilation to suit your speed on the fly. Essentially combining the two outer layers of a system and designed to be worn usually over a base layer, the range of conditions and activities for which you can wear a softshell is much greater than for either a mid-layer or hardshell and a softshell is much more comfortable as well – a win-win situation.
There is of course a wealth of options to choose from; different fabrics, membranes, cuts and features each impart their own characteristics, giving you excellent flexibility but requiring good judgement to select the most appropriate combination. Some of the considerations are:
Weather-resistance vs breathability – probably the biggest consideration since there’s a trade-off between the two. In general, in order to be more breathable a fabric needs to let more air through, so it’s clearly going to be less windproof and probably less waterproof too, though that relationship isn’t linear. You’ll pretty much always get a DWR coating, but to make it less likely that persistent rain will eventually soak through you need a…
Membrane – Windstopper and other windproof membranes add a great deal in terms of weather-resistance, removing the windchill factor completely. But they take away with the other hand when it comes to breathability; though a softshell jacket with a membrane will still release more vapour than a hardshell, if you tend to run hot you’ll probably find a membrane softshell too much when active.
Weight – Light and stretchy for unrestrictive comfort or thick and strong to stand up to occasional abuse? In general, the faster you’re moving, the lighter the softshell you’ll need, though for use with a pack a durable face fabric will aid longevity. A light- to medium weight softshell can also be teamed with different layers to handle a range of situations so may be more versatile for multi-activity use.
Insulation – Cold conditions demand extra heat retention, but adding layers increases bulk and starts to restrict movement. Choosing a softshell with a fleece or piled lining could be the answer if you’re going to be using it mostly in the cold.
There are plenty of men’s softshells on the market, but deciding what’s important to you will help narrow down the options. Then once you have your ideal jacket, you’re ready to step into a new level of comfort on the move… and we can virtually guarantee you’ll never look back.