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Not Your Daddy’s Softshell: 2011/12 Jacket Review

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Snow is dusting peaks already in the West. Leaves are piling up on the trail I hike near my home. In my closet, among a quiver of coats, the current season is bringing forth the category of jacket known as the softshell. Stretchy fabrics, high breathability, and a comfortable, “soft” feel define the genre of the softshell, which is receiving loads of attention in the outdoors world as of late. New waterproof fabrics like Polartec’s NeoShell have broadened when and where softshells can be used, including during fall outings where a crinkly rain jacket would usually be called to task.

Softshell jacket from Triple Aught Design

This fall and winter softshells will be on my back more than any other type of coat. The Centrifuge jacket by Outdoor Research, for example, has been a go-to top for cool weather activity like trail running in temps down to about freezing. The $125 jacket is super breathable and it fits and feels more like a shirt — the front side has a wind-blocking fabric but on back (where you sweat most) there is only a thin, air-permeable fleece.

Thumb holes on each cuff allow you to pull the Centrifuge’s sleeves over your hands, eliminating the need for gloves in temps down to about 40 degrees. A tight hood stretches and fits like a skull cap, and if you zip the jacket up past your chin the Centrifuge offers a thin panel on its collar that you can breathe through.

Aerobic softshell: The Centrifuge jacket/shirt hybrid from OR

Like the Outdoor Research jacket above, the Millet Trilogy WDS Hoodie should fall in the “aerobic shell” category — it is thin and breathable and made for high-output winter sports. The jacket’s softshell fabric, among the thinnest seen in this review, is called Windstopper X-Fast, and it is a new amalgamation from W. L. Gore & Associates that includes a significant dose of Spandex fibers in its weave.

Looks like a hardshell, stretches like a soft

For the Millet jacket, which costs $299, the Windstopper X-Fast gives a “springy” feel to the fabric and a fit that is not encumbering when running or skiing. The jacket is windproof. The hood fits close. Weather repellency is good, though this softshell is no raincoat — the main zippers are big-toothed and not waterproof. The Millet jacket is light, at about 1 pound in a medium size, and the fabric is so thin that you can roll up its sleeves like a shirt.

For cooler outings, a softshell hybrid I like is the Cristallo from the German brand Ortovox. The jacket, which costs $349, looks like a traditional alpine shell but it employs a stretchy softshell face combined with a thin inner lining of merino wool.

Merino wool inside makes the Ortovox jacket unique

The wool inside this jacket offers warmth and temperature regulation if you’re damp. On the outside, for breathability’s sake, the Cristallo jacket is intentionally not 100 percent waterproof, though it will keep you dry in a light drizzle or in snow. You can wear this type of jacket most all times outdoors in the fall and winter — it can be used across a range of temps, from about 45 degrees F way down to 10 degrees or so if you layer right.

New this year, Polartec’s NeoShell fabric is being advertised as having the stretch and “thermal qualities of a softshell” with the weather protection of a hardshell. With this new fabric, which has a microscopically-porous material as a membrane to repel water and breathe, pieces like The North Face’s Jammu Jacket, $399, are cropping up. The Jammu might best be described as a “hardshell-like softshell,” as it is waterproof thanks to taped seams and a polyurethane membrane in the NeoShell fabric, but the jacket has stretch and a “soft,” non-crinkly feel.

A “hardshell-like softshell,” North Face’s Jammu

Unzip the Jammu and there’s a light fleece backing for warmth. There are no pit zips, as the NeoShell fabric offers surprising breathability. Its design, which is alpine-influenced, includes an adjustable hood, tall zip pockets for hand warming or gear stashing, and a stealth hem that you can cinch tight when the winds pick up.

Stealth LT from Triple Aught Design has subdued, “tactical” look

Another waterproof softshell, and one I feel comfortable wearing in the woods, comes from Triple Aught Design, a San Francisco company. The Stealth LT is made with a waterproof Schoeller fabric that has stretch and breathability but is also tough. Like the Ortovox and the TNF pieces, it is a pricey coat that retails for $325.

Waterproof outer face, reinforcement patch for durability on sleeves

Triple Aught Design leans on a tactical or military aesthetic, and this dark, no-labels jacket has a cool, subdued look. Abrasion-resistant nylon and heavy-duty elbow reinforcements that resist wear help make the Stealth LT the most durable softshell I have seen.

In the category of “insulated softshell,” the Eddie Bauer First Ascent Hyalite Jacket, $279, offers body-heat-trapping Primaloft One insulation under its softshell face. Cozy! Designed by ice-climbing guide Chad Peele, the jacket has a hood (also insulated) that cinches firmly on and functions as a warm, brim-equipped winter hat.

Hyalite was designed by an ice-climbing guide

Water beads on the main jacket body, but heavy precip can eventually soak into the venting panels on front — they are made to breathe, not repel. Overall, the operative word with the Hyalite is warmth. It is close-fitting and cozy all around. But unzip it and you find a meticulously “body-mapped” interior, including a diamond grid of polyester on the upper back and pixilated fleece under the arms — both design touches made to wick moisture and regulate a winter body on the move.

Traditional hood-less softshell with warming “metalized fabric dots” inside

Finally, a deal at $160, the Key Three jacket from Columbia Sportswear has a streamlined, no-fuss design — a square chest pocket, zippered side pockets for hands, and no hood. The fabric is wind-proof and thick — it has minimal stretch and mediocre breathability. But Columbia includes pit zips to vent, and the jacket’s fit is flattering and sharp.

As a low-profile top, the Key Three is toasty enough for sub-freezing winter days. Behind the jacket’s inconspicuous face, Columbia includes its Omni-Heat inner coating, a silver matrix of tiny metalized fabric dots that bounce body heat to boost warmth on the core. Omni-Heat is a nice touch, and it works to keep you warmer. That’s something I appreciate almost more than anything at this time of the year.

—Stephen Regenold is founder of GearJunkie.com. He tested more than two-dozen jackets in 2011 for GearJunkie as well as Outside magazine, for which Regenold coordinated the Outside Winter Buyers Guide “Backcountry Jackets” test.

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