'Soft shell' has become an umbrella term for all kinds of fabrics these days. There are a huge variety of soft shell jackets on the market to suit all kinds of outdoor activities. Stephen Horne gives us the lowdown on three from big names in technical clothing: the Alpine Project WS from The North Face, the Sella II from Berghaus and the Gamma SL Hybrid Hoody from Arc'teryx.
This isn't a direct comparison. The jackets on test fulfill slightly different roles, so a fair comparison isn't really possible. They all offer good wind resistance, two have hoods, one has decent water resistance - they all have some. I've tested them mountain biking, climbing and walking, in rain and shine.
Fabric: The Windstopper fabric has a solid feel to it, and offers a good deal more stretch than my old soft shell, which is 6 or 7 years old and pretty static. The black strips on the sleeves are a stretchier fabric, and it has a generous cut that fits over a fair few base layers if needed. This jacket is the heaviest of the three on test, but also the warmest. The pockets mean that it is effectively lined with lightweight, felty material over the front torso.
Pockets: The standard pattern for softshells really; two handwarmers and a left-breast pocket for your phone, wallet, lift pass etc.
Water resistance: When it's brand spanking new, the fabric exhibits the hydrophobic 'duck's back' effect, and this will keep you dry in light rain for some time. Once it starts to get a bit scuffed from thrutching your way up chimneys, this wears off, and you will end up wet. Water will always soak through where the straps of a rucksack press on the shoulders too, but this is to be expected. Products such as Nikwax or Grangers can restore water resistance.
Cut: All the jackets on test have a similar volume. I've been happy wearing them with just a t-shirt beneath, or several base layers and a fleece, or two jackets at once when I was caught a bit short, for a super-dork effect.
Hood: It's a fairly close-fitting hood - not designed to fit over a climbing helmet, but you could manage it at a pinch. It fits easily onto my Petzl Meteor III, but gets stuck halfway over, resulting in the chin guard being pulled up to my nose and making me look a bit like a turquoise mekon ninja. What is interesting about this hood is the drawcord system. It only has one, on the back, and this serves to control the volume and the opening size - sort of. I say sort of because it doesn't control the opening in the standard way. The opening stays the same at all times in fact, but the elastic inside the hood passes around your head much like a headband, so when you tighten it, it closes off your scalp and the tops of your ears to the wind, but you don't end up peering out of a two-inch hole.
Summary: There's no doubt about it, it's a very good jacket. The minor increase in weight, when compared to the following two test jackets, is offset by the warmth offered. It makes a great jacket for climbing in the colder months, and would be ideal for skiing when the snow is cold and dry. The drawcords that control the waist are hidden in the hem behind the front zip, and tightened by pulling the cords found in the pockets. This avoids that excruciating toggle-pressing-against-hip situation when wearing a harness - a very good thing, and it makes them very easy to use with one hand. It's worth noting the hood size if you're looking for a jacket to wear with a helmet.
Fabric: This jacket is made from Gore-tex Active Shell Windstopper, not to be confused with their new Active Shell fabric. It does have a membrane in it, but a windproof one. It's windproof, breathable and water resistant but not waterproof. It has a different feel to the others. It has a much lower stretch-factor, and feels more like a cagoule. That said, it is a soft shell, and has a lovely velvety surface to it - a bit like a powder coating of silicone.
Pockets: Like the other jackets, the Sella II sports a three-pocket design, in exactly the configuration I want: two side and one breast.
Water resistance: Normally when I'm on my bike I don't wear waterproof stuff. I'm too tight to fork out for expensive kit that I'm then going to hammer on a mountain bike. The result is that I end up gopping wet. So it was quite a revelation to wear something that kept me dry, and might even be worth the cash. It's important to note what I mean by 'dry', I don't mean 'bone dry', I mean 'quite dry'. Eventually, inevitably, some moisture soaked through to the inside, but only when it was really raining, and it wasn't a great deal of moisture - just enough to know it was there against bare skin.
Cut: It's a standard cut - neither super-baggy, nor muscle-man tight. Again, exactly what is needed from a jacket of this nature so you can comfortably wear it either as a shell or under another jacket.
Sleeves: The sleeves are a more of a standard length on this one, and finish with an elastic cuff.
Hood: Erm... no hood on this one, so I'll talk about the collar. It's lined with a soft, cotton-feel fabric and has a zip guard to protect your chin. There's no stiffness to it, and it has a drawcord that closes up the neck - to stop rain dribbling in I suppose - which adds enough mass to make it only stay vertical when zipped right up. So alas, I feel more Richie Cunningham than James Dean. Fashion aside, it does the job perfectly well.
Summary: A very good jacket, and a bit of a bargain for such quality and water resistance. I've gone on about it's prowess for mountain biking, which is my way of indicating to other climbers that it's a good multi-purpose option - I've also used it for cycling, running and climbing - and next year I'll use for skiing. The drawcords for the waist are in the hip-knobbling position when wearing a harness though, and the cut is not so long that the toggles stay down when you make a long reach. I've never really bothered with waist adjusts in the past however, I generally cut cut them out on climbing jackets and just use the old fashioned method of keeping my tummy warm.
Fabric: You can see from afar how lightweight this jacket is - it has a look of crepe paper, and is indeed paper-thin. It is in fact, made from two different materials. The dark grey areas on the two-tone test model are the crepe-paper like stuff, called Fortius 1.0 by Arc'teryx. This is what gives the windproof properties of the jacket, whereas the light grey areas use a less wind-resistant material, which is very stretchy - a nylon/Lycra mix dubbed TerraTex. The dark material is stretchy too, but less so, and only in one direction. The chest area, for example, would expand with you as you inhale, but doesn't stretch so much if you pull it along the axis of the front zipper. So the lateral stretch of the Fortius, and the positioning of the TerraTex on the shoulders and arms make it feel really great to wear.
Pockets: The same three-pocket design as the other jackets.
Water resistance: As with the Alpine Project jacket, the Gamma SL has a hydrophobic finish that makes water bead off it in a very satisfying manner. Again, as with the Alpine Project jacket, this will keep you dry in light rain and does wear off as it gets abraded.
Cut: I particularly like the cut of this jacket. It has a combination of long sleeves and a long back. This back length and the stretch across the top of the back mean that it marries well with climbing, taking quite a bit of effort to pull it above the waist of a harness. In fact, where the waist-line dips down at the back, some foam pipes have been sewn into the hem, just next to the drawcord toggles. The presence of this extra bulk helps keep the hem from passing under the harness, and is squidgy enough that it doesn't irritate if it does.
Sleeves: The sleeves are long and the most capacious of the jackets on test - I never struggle to get it on over a bulky fleece. They get narrower toward the cuff, and the size of the cuff opening is controlled with a Velcro strap. I can get a bit annoyed with this style of cuff if it's done with some bulky rubber thing, but here it's a very thin and lightweight faux-leather type strap, coupled with some elastic on the opposite side, so you don't have to undo them to take it off, which falls in line with the tie-shoelaces-only-once lifestyle.
Hood: This is a big un. Easily affording room for a helmet beneath, just don't look in any mirrors if you do. The volume is controlled with a draw-cord on the back of the hood, and the opening has toggle controls on either side of the chin. This combo works very well. With a bit of fettling of these draw-cords you end up with a very well-fitting hood that easily expands to fit a helmet. The front of the hood has some slightly stiffer material sewn in to give a vague downwards-pointing peak, similar to that of the Alpine Project, though not quite as steep.
Summary: Of the three jackets on test, this is my favourite. I love its lightweight feel, the long cut and the sharp looks. Whilst climbing, it never pulled out of the waist of my harness when I did a long move - a pet peeve of mine. It's not as warm as the others - the Alpine Project in particular, but it packs up very small. As a test, I reversed it into its own inside pocket - like those superlight jackets that you hang on your harness. It went in with room to spare. It would make a great layer for those wanting to move fast and light in the mountains.
The North Face Alpine Project WS
Berghaus Sella II
Arc'teryx Gamma SL
Best For: Warmth. Cold climbing or skiing.
Drawbacks: The heaviest of the three.
Best For: Budget. A good jacket at a good price.
Drawbacks: Not an ideal cut for climbing.
Best For: Climbing. The fit is fantastic.
Drawbacks: Perhaps less durable material.
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