Softshell Jackets 2011

By STEPHEN REGENOLD

In the world of jackets and outerwear for the outdoors, the term “softshell” is fuzzier than ever. What used to imply a stretchy, breathable — and not so weatherproof — hoodless top might now connote something like 66 North’s Vatnajökull Softshell Jacket or The North Face’s Kishtwar, the latter of which just won Outside magazine’s “Gear of the Year.” These jackets, both based on Polartec’s new Power Shield Pro softshell fabric, look and act like hardshells, including alpine-parka cuts, tech hoods, waterproof YKK zippers (Vatnajökull), and thin breathable fabric that holds its own against hardshells from GORE-TEX or eVent.

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Polartec Power Shield Pro-based: The North Face Kishtwar and 66 North Vatnajökull

In my tests last winter with prototypes, both the Kishtwar ($279) and the Vatnajökull ($330) lived up to their hype. They breathed noticeably better than any hardshell on the market. They blocked wind. Most notably, they kept moisture out — even during a couple cold, misty days when I was outdoors and active in bad weather for hours.

In a downpour of rain, GORE-TEX or eVent still rule. But for snow, sleet, and most other forms of precipitation, I now trust Polartec’s new Power Shield Pro more than any softshell on the market. My full review of the Kishtwar and the Vatnajökull is here: http://gearjunkie.com/the-north-face-kishtwar-jacket.

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Schoeller WB400-based: Mountain Equipment Co-op men’s and women’s Fusion Hoodie

To be sure, Polartec is not the only player in the game. Schoeller Textil AG, another maker of softshell fabric, touts its WB400 as a comparable fabric to Polartec Power Shield Pro. WB400 has a heavier hand than Power Shield Pro, and a Schoeller representative cites it as “more wind-proof” than the Polartec offering. WB400 comes on hardshell-like jackets similar to The North Face’s Kishtwar. One example is the Fusion Hoodie from Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), a $210 (Canadian dollar) coat touted to “stand up in most weather conditions except seriously hard precipitation.”

Unlike the two Polartec-based jackets noted above, the Fusion Hoodie has a light fleece face on the inside of the shell. This makes the jacket thicker and warmer when worn with minimal layers underneath. However, in my initial tests this fall with the Fusion, its WB400 fabric was not as breathable as the Power Shield Pro models. The WB400 material breathes well for fabric that offers this much weather protection — just not as well as the thinner Power Shield Pro. But the MEC jacket is a good value, and it is a valid option for most any alpine pursuit.

Though it’s not in the same hardshell-that-acts-like-a-softshell league, another pseudo-softshell of note is the Heat Elite jacket from Columbia Sportswear. It’s a lightweight fleece jacket that can be used freely as outerwear in winter weather because there is a hardshell-like, waterproof-breathable fabric that drapes on the shoulders and chest.

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Columbia Sportswear Heat Elite

Columbia adds the bonus of its Omni-Heat thermal reflective feature, which is an inner layer of metalized fabric to bolster the retention of body heat. I wore the $170 piece in tests last winter and was impressed with its warmth, versatility (it can be easily layered), and its good fit.

So what’s the shakeout from the new breed of softshells? The result is softshell jackets that are now wearable in realms where formerly hardshells could only tread. I for one plan to pull on softshells in bad weather more this winter than ever before. Watch for softshell fabrics from Schoeller, Polartec, and other manufacturers on jackets this winter on ski tours, alpine peaks, and dripping ice climbs near you.

—Stephen Regenold is founder and editor of www.gearjunkie.com.

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