Emerging in the early noughties, softshells bridged the gap between waterproof hardshell jackets and highly breathable fleece mid-layers.
Outdoor activities involving sustained, aerobic output and often in challenging and changeable environments bore out a very real need for a protective yet breathable outer layer. As the early softshell garments began to hit the market users such as mountaineers, skiers and climbers adopted them as a means to stay warm, dry and on the move.
Since those early days, the evolution of Softshells has been rapid with countless variations on the theme hitting the market. Indeed it’s the breadth and diversity of softshell products that makes them so hard to define and often overlooked in favour of less versatile waterproof or down pieces.
By splitting this guide into three easy to understand sections we hope to give you the information and confidence you need to explore one of the most versatile and exciting areas of modern, technical outerwear.
We look at one and two layer construction and how they can be used to tailor performance and application.
Wind Resistance, Water Resistance and Breathability
Understanding the interplay between these three factors will be key in identifying your perfect softshell.
Stretch & Freedom of Movement
The ability to move dynamically, in comfort and with little restriction is one of Softshell's key advantages
If you’re not fussed about the science, you can skip straight to our advice on picking a softshell, by clicking here
Single Layer Softshells
Single layer softshells are constructed with one fabric. Each side is woven with a different size yarn. The back of the fabric or the side that comes into contact with the body will typically use a larger yarn which, through “capillary action” or “wicking” transports the moisture to the outer face of the fabric.
Although single layer softshells are often lighter and more breathable than two layer softshells their primary advantage is as a layering piece which, through combining with different sub-layers, can perform in a wide range of conditions.
Two Layer Softshells
As the name suggests, two layer softshells use a construct of two fabrics that are bonded together. Generally speaking, the outer layer is there to keep the elements out whilst the inner layer is used to move moisture away from the body and provide varying amounts of insulation. By specifying the bonding process, our designers can further control the garment’s performance, namely its resistance to wind and water.
Within our range, the Alpha Direct Jacket is a good example of a two layer softshell. Designed primarily for Ski-Mountaineering, the Upslope features a smooth inner layer that wicks moisture away from the body, provides some extra warmth and allows friction-free layering and movement. The Salvo jacket is designed for more general mountain use and has an engineered fleece lining to provide more warmth, while still wicking away moisture.
You may have noticed whilst reading this guide that we haven't been talking about waterproof membranes much.
Well that’s because, apart from one edge case, the Kinetic Plus jacket, we do not use membranes in our softshell jackets. Whilst they are fantastic at keeping you dry, waterproof membranes actually inhibit breathability and wicking. The primary purpose of a softshell is to provide protection from the wind whilst allowing excess moisture vapour to escape while taking part in aerobic exercise, not to be used as a waterproof outer layer. The absence of membranes is the reason why we coat our softshells with a Durable Water Repellent finish (DWR), in order to give the user a moderate level of water-resistance from the very occasional shower.
2. Weather Resistance and Breathability
A good softshell should provide a comfortable microclimate in which to operate. The balance between the garment’s wind-resistance, water-resistance and breathability is key and can vary greatly between products. In general, the more breathable a product is, the less weather resistant it tends to be.
We tune the wind and water resistance of our softshells by varying how tightly the outer fabric of the garment is woven. In 2 layer garments we can also adjust the bonding process.
Wind resistance is an important factor in maintaining the user’s core temperature. Managing the effects of wind-chill will be a higher priority for some users than others, so it is worth taking it into account.
In the technical specifications of our softshell garments, you will notice a value expressed as CC or CFM this relates to how wind resistant the garment is, with a higher number denoting less resistance to wind. It is typical for such a measurement to indicate that the garment is more breathable, but the nature of softshells means that there will always be exceptions to the rule – so if you are not sure, ask.
Softshells will offer some protection against rain, but we do not refer to softshells as being waterproof, rather water-resistant.
The nature of softshell fabrics means that ingress will eventually occur but it’s level of ingress relative to the overall comfort of the jacket that makes them so good for general or everyday wear as well as many outdoor activities where very wet weather is not likely.
As an extra measure, we treat all of our softshells with DWR (Durable Water Repellency). Often confused for waterproofing, DWR is a chemical treatment that is applied to the outer face of the garment, causing water to bead so that instead of soaking into the garment’s outer, the rain simply rolls off.
After prolonged use you may find that the DWR’s performance begins to diminish. This can be refreshed by applying a DWR treatment after washing. For full instructions see our care section.
When we talk about Softshells being ‘breathable’, we are referring to the extent to which the garment allows moisture vapour to escape.
Breathability is synonymous with softshells but is a difficult thing to quantify. The many blends of fabrics, adhesives and in some cases membranes that are used in the construction of softshells means that using a standard unit of measurement such as MVTR (Moisture vapour transmission rate) is difficult to achieve and often misleading.
When considering the breathability of a softshell, you need to employ a holistic view, accounting for the interplay between each of the softshell’s elements. You can assume that in most cases more resistance to weather, either through a more tightly woven outer fabric, use of a membrane or even the adhesive used to bond two layer fabrics will ultimately affect the garment’s breathability.
DWR & Breathability
By reducing the amount of standing water on the face of the fabric, DWR will help maintain the breathability of the garment.
Wicking & Breathability
Many of our softshells will feature a high-wicking inner layer. Sitting against the skin or baselayer, it will typically consist of a polyester fleece or high gauge knit that, through capillary action transmits liquid moisture to the garment’s outer. Although not the same as breathability, wicking can significantly improve the process by removing moisture and promoting the flow of air.
3. Stretch & Freedom of Movement
Maintaining temperature and managing moisture are vital in creating a good softshell but so too is how the garment fits and moves with your body.
A key advantage of softshells is their stretch. Through using technologies such as our exclusive Matrix fabrics, our softshells provide a level of stretch and comfort more akin to a mid-layer fleece than that of a hardshell waterproof or down insulated jacket.
This freedom of movement is especially important to users that are prone to lots of dynamic movement and cannot afford to be restricted or inhibited by their clothing. It just so happens that it also produces a garment that is comfortable and practical to wear on a day-to-day basis.
Features to look out for
When you're choosing a softshell jacket there are a number of features that need consideration.
Softshells are generally designed to fit more closely to the body than hardshell waterproof jackets. The most fitted of our range of softshells are the Alpha Direct, Alpha Flux, Borealis Pull-on and Windveil jackets. The Vapour-Rise range, minus the Vapour-Rise Guide jacket, also feature a slimmer fit.
A number of our softshells feature high wicking fleece inner fabrics, insulating the user and wicking moisture away from the body. Fleece comes in different varieties to compliment the intended use of the softshell. Grid-back fleece, as used on the Salvo jacket, provides ample insulation, whilst a jersey-back fleece, like that used on the Upslope jacket, affords less insulation but is lighter and manages moisture more efficiently.
Internal & external pockets
External pockets feature on all Rab softshell garments. ‘A-line’ pockets are the traditional type located just above the hip, whilst chest pockets are used in instances where active use is a key focus. Some of our range also feature fleece lined pockets, such as the women’s Vapour-Rise One jacket, where insulation is a primary concern.
As has been mentioned above, the flexibility afforded by softshells is one of their key attributes. Depending on the amount of active use you intend to use your softshell for, you may wish to prioritise a softshell with higher levels of in-built flexibility.
Getting a hood that fits is important, it affects how much body heat you’ll lose through your head as well as how good your field of vision is in poor conditions. It’s worth considering the level of adjustment available on a jacket’s hood. All Rab softshells feature helmet compatible hoods, either designed to be used over or under a helmet.
The fabrics we use
At Rab, we use a number of different fabrics in our softshells to cover the broad range of activities and conditions our users have to deal with.
Developed by Rab, Matrix fabrics are used in a vast array of our softshell garments. They have high degrees of stretch for freedom of movement and are all designed for durability, comfort and weather protection. They provide wind resistance, air permeability for breathability and they move moisture when active, whilst also being fast drying. Depending on the intended end use, we specify a range of different weights of fabric. Matrix fabrics are used for both single layer and double layer softshells, the latter being bonded to knit or fleece liners for enhanced performance in cooler conditions.
Used as the outer fabric for all our Vapour-Rise range, Pertex Equilibrium is a tough, highly breathable and wind resistant outer fabric. It possesses excellent moisture management abilities, allowing a desired amount of wind through the fabric to aid evaporation. What moisture collects on the inner face of the fabric is transported via capillary action along its yarns to the outer face of the fabric where it can evaporate. It is also comparably light, meaning it has great packability.
Used extensively in our down jacket range, Pertex Microlight fabric is used in our Alpha Direct jackets as an outer layer. Its possesses an excellent durability to weight ratio, first-rate windproofing and is also highly breathable. Pertex Microlight is also used in our premier wind shell, the Windveil jacket.
Whilst we have tried our hardest to split this guide up in to easy to understand product sections, there is one garment that refuses to be categorised, the Kinetic Plus Jacket.
Utilising Proflex fabric, the Kinetic Plus Jacket is a super lightweight stretch softshell, featuring high levels of breathability and a 10,000mm hydrostatic head rating (please visit our guide to waterproof jackets for ratings explanations here). In this respect, it truely is a new breed of outdoor clothing.
Lightweight, highly packable and excellent at wicking away moisture. Single-layer softshells are ideal for warmer conditions where the weather can be changeable.
Durable, insulated and offer excellent wind protection. Two layer softshells are ideal for active use in colder, inclement conditions for activities such as ski touring or ice climbing.
The heaviest weight single-layer softshell Rab produces is the Exodus jacket, a durable Matrix fabric softshell combining high breathability with moderate weather protection for use in cold mountain conditions.
The Torque jacket is one of our best-selling softshells. It is a versatile, lightweight and durable Matrix fabric softshell designed for technical mountain use in variable conditions.
Our mid-weight single layer softshell is the Sawtooth Hoodie, a versatile Matrix jacket combining wind resistance with high breathability. Its features include a helmet compatible hood with a wired peak, two handwarmer pockets and a chin guard.
Our three lightest weight single layer softshells are the Ventus jacket, Boreas Pull-on and Windveil jacket. All come in sub 255g, the lightest being the Windveil jacket at 150g featuring Pertex Microlight fabric. These jackets offer excellent packability and flexibility and are an excellent choice for when the wind picks up on an otherwise fine day. The women’s version of the Ventus jacket is the Lunar jacket, weighing in at only 220g.
What to Look For:
A review of the Borealis Jacket
This might be one of the best jackets I own! Super stretchy, very windproof, and durable. I can't think of a trip I wouldn't want this jacket.
A review of the Vital Windshell Hoody
A great piece of kit for a windy belay on top of Stanage or a cycle on a windy day. Very light and packable, doesn't get in the way when on the harness or in the backpack.
A review of the Women's Vapour-rise® Jacket
This is easily the most comfortable jacket I have ever owned. LIghtweight and with very soft fleece lining - if you hate scratchy fabric on bare skin like I do, then give this one a try. The fit is fantastic, too.
Intended for ski mountaineering but usable for any active alpine pursuit, the Upslope jacket is our heaviest two layer softshell jacket, weighing in at 760g. A high gauge knit back aids moisture management whilst the Matrix fabric nylon face is highly durable and protects the user from inclement mountain conditions. It features a helmet compatible hood, hand warmer pockets, chest pockets and a zipped arm pocket, ideal for your ski pass.
Alternatively, the Salvo jacket, weighing in at a slightly lighter 655g, is designed for changeable conditions in cold weather mountain environments, featuring a grid fleece back, a stretchy Matrix nylon face and an adjustable hood with a wired peak. To aid versatility, the Salvo also features both A-line and chest pockets.
What to Look For:
- Intended use
- Waterproof zips
A review of the Vapour-rise® Guide Jacket
This jacket is insanely good, I've bored everybody to death about how great it is. I'm sure I've not tested it to anywhere near its limits but it's perfect for most of the year in Scotland. In autumn/ spring and start-stop days it's perfect with just a t-shirt, and even on winter days a base layer usually does fine under this jacket. On days where you're soaked inside and out by torrential rain, the water keeps away from your skin to keep you warm even when damp.
A review of the Women's Alpha Direct Jacket
I am absolutely in love with this piece! From backcountry skiing to climbing to hanging out in bar. Highly breathable, wind proof, and water resistant. The fit is amazing as well!