Each jacket has its own role and place in any person’s wardrobe. There are jackets you use for formal events, jackets you use for casual days, and there are jackets you wear for outdoor activities. Concerning the latter, there are hardshell jacket and softshell jackets. Given the popularity of hardshell jackets and the amount of information about it, let’s put our focus on softshell jackets. Exactly what is a softshell jacket and where do they fit into your jacket wardrobe? What properties and features do they have and do you really need one? In this guide, we’ll answer all of those questions and outline everything you need to know about softshell jackets.
What’s a Softshell Jacket?
Softshell jackets were originally designed as a hybrid between a waterproof jacket and a breathable fleece jacket. They’re supposed to provide a good amount of protection against wind and water and at the same time allow for excellent breathability and airflow. This kind of ‘in-between’ concept is what makes outdoor enthusiasts want them, and the increasing demand has prompted most outdoor wear brands to manufacture them.
Although softshell jackets can be worn as a stand-alone piece, they are most commonly used as part of a layering outfit for hikers, backpackers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. Thus, if you enjoy spending time outdoors doing outdoorsy activities, then you need to have at least one softshell jacket in your wardrobe.
To better understand what makes a softshell jacket a ‘softshell’ jacket, let’s compare it with its more popular outdoor jacket cousin, the hardshell jacket.
Hardshell vs. Softshell Jackets
Both hardshell and softshell jackets offer comfort, protection, and a variety of other benefits, albeit in different degrees. However, they are very different from each other and their names alone should make the distinction clear. Nonetheless, the hard shell and soft shell jacket definition would be much clearer if we take a look at two factors that distinguish one from the other.
Technically, a hardshell jacket should be waterproof. They are made up of woven face fabric with a waterproof membrane or coating which keeps water from penetrating the jacket. Thus, hardshell jackets are primarily used by those who go hiking or camping in locations known for extremely cold and wet conditions.
Softshell jackets on the other hand are not completely waterproof but are instead found under water-repellant or water-resistant categories. They do have water-repelling coatings, which work best for outdoor activities done under light rains. Because of this, they are mostly worn as a middle layer and underneath a waterproof hardshell jacket.
Another key difference between a hardshell and a softshell jacket is breathability. Hardshell jackets are great at keeping water out, but not so much when it comes to letting them out. No matter how breathable a hardshell jacket claims to be, there will always be a small amount of moisture (or in this case sweat) that will remain trapped inside the jacket. This is what makes you feel damp and clammy while hiking or doing other physically demanding activities.
As for softshell jackets, breathability is where they excel. The fabric that they’re made from as well as garment features (e.g. arm venting gussets) all allow for sweat and moisture to pass freely through the jacket, which then keeps the wearer dry.
Materials and Construction
Typically, softshell jackets are made from a combination of materials like polyester and nylon. These are then woven together, which then results in a fabric that exudes both durability and comfort. However, note that other softshell jackets can be made from or with other materials depending on the manufacturer’s design and the type of softshell jacket (more on that later).
Besides, the woven nylon or polyester fabric gives it a stretchy and comfortable finish. They’re not completely waterproof but they are highly breathable and wear well against the skin. They can also have moisture-wicking abilities, taking away sweat and projecting them outside the jacket to evaporate and thus keep the wearer warm and dry.
Types of Softshell Jackets
Like other types of clothing, softshell jackets are also available in several types. In general, softshell jackets are categorized under two main types: (1) stretch-woven softshell jackets and (2) membrane softshell jackets. Membrane softshell jackets are further classified into two: (a) laminated softshell jackets and hybrid softshell jackets. Although all of these types offer comfort and protection, certain types of softshell jackets are more suitable for specific conditions and activities.
Lightweight Stretch-Woven Softshell Jackets
Lightweight stretch-woven softshell jackets are the most common type of softshell jackets being worn by outdoor enthusiasts. They are ideal as a middle layer and worn under a hardshell jacket, or as a stand-alone jacket during warmer temperatures. They can also be worn when doing outdoor activities during light precipitation.
Of the different types of softshell jackets available, lightweight stretch-woven softshell jackets are considered to be the most breathable (mainly because of the fabric used and the way they are made). They also have wind-resistant and water-repellent properties, but they’re not as efficient as other types of softshell jackets in this respect. All in all, people buy lightweight stretch-woven softshell jackets more because of their breathability and less because of their windproof and water-resistant properties.
Laminated Softshell Jackets
Compared to lightweight stretch-woven softshell jackets, laminated softshell jackets have much better windproof and water-resistant properties. This is because laminated softshell jackets are primarily designed for use in colder and wetter regions. They have wind- and water-proof laminates as well as taped seams which allow them to hold up against harsher temperatures and environments, thus keeping the wearer dry and comfortable.
Some say that laminated softshell jackets can be likened to hardshell jackets, although the latter would of course be able to provide better protection against the cold and wet weather than the former. But then if you are looking for something more breathable than a hardshell jacket, laminated softshell jackets are your best option.
Hybrid Softshell Jackets
As the name suggests, a hybrid softshell jacket is a cross between a lightweight stretch-woven softshell jacket and a laminated softshell jacket. It combines the different features from the two types of softshell jackets, which means that they are somewhere in between when it comes to breathability and robustness.
Hybrid softshell jackets utilize a mix of different fabrics to achieve decent breathability and weather protection. They have laminated fabric along with high abrasion areas of the jacket such as the core and the shoulder, and more breathable fabrics along the ‘hot zones’ like the arms and back. So if you’re looking for a softshell jacket that offers better wind and water protection than a lightweight stretch-woven softshell jacket but is more breathable than a laminated softshell jacket, then a hybrid softshell jacket is definitely for you.
Features of Softshell Jackets
Softshell jackets come with a variety of features, all of which are designed to enhance their breathability, provide a decent amount of protection against wind and rain, and enhance your comfort while performing different outdoor activities. Some of these features include:
- Arm Venting gussets or mesh breathable areas. Commonly located in ‘hot zones’ to allow body heat and sweat to escape through the jacket.
- Not all softshell jackets have hoods, but they are often included for additional warmth and insulation for the head.
- Softshell jackets have both internal and external pockets. These pockets are also often lined, thus providing warmth for the hands (which is why they’re also known as ‘handwarmer’ pockets.)
- Reinforced fabrics. Reinforced fabrics are featured in the shoulders and elbows to provide durability for these high-abrasion areas.
- Inner Fabrics. The interior of softshell jackets is usually lined with fleece or wool to provide keep the wearer warm.
- Flatlock seams. Flatlock seams are used employed in softshell jackets primarily to protect skin abrasion.
- Stretchy fabrics. Softshell jackets are typically made with stretchy fabrics to ensure fit and provide breathability.
- Reflective logos. Reflective trims are often included in softshell jackets to provide visibility in the dark, a feature that can be very useful when it comes to after-hours search and rescue operations.
Keep in mind that not all softshell jackets will have all of the above-mentioned features. The availability of the said features will largely depend on the type of softshell jacket and the manufacturer’s design.
Globo Surf Overview
So what is a softshell jacket you ask? In sum, a softshell jacket is an essential part of an outdoor enthusiast’s wardrobe. They are your best option when looking for a jacket that provides a decent amount of protection against cold and wet weather while offering excellent breathability for high-exertion activities. However, it must be remembered that at the end of the day, a regular softshell jacket should not be used as a replacement for a robust hardshell jacket. While it is true that softshell jackets have wind- and water-repellent properties, they won’t be able to protect you against falling rain and freezing temperatures, as well as a hardshell jacket, can.
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