Maybe not the most obvious choice, but here's what soft shell shorts make sense right now...
Shorts in autumn? Are we nuts? Surely shorts are for summer use only? Well, in the case of soft shell shorts, we're not so sure. In fact they work brilliantly in the fresh sometimes sunny, sometimes showery conditions that make up typical autumnal hills days.
The soft shell fabrics give a little more wind resistance than conventional shorts. Additional water repellency means that they shrug off light showers and, if you do get really wet, they not only dry out fast, you also miss out on that unpleasant soaked fabric over your knees feeling. Plus when it's bright and sunny, shorts are cool and unrestrictive. Something that's also helped by stretch fabrics.
That makes them great for scrambling and climbing too and they can even be pressed into service on a mountain bike if you're that way inclined.
And last but not least, they're great for temperature regulation. With exposed legs you can get away with moving faster when you're layered up on your upper body, but in a comfortable sort of way.
Two On Test
How do we know this? We've been using two pairs of soft shell shorts over the past year for everything from walking and running through to biking. We've worn them over leggings for winter running with a bit of added protection and alone in warmer summer conditions.
And to cover both ends of the market, we've been using shorts from Haglöfs in the shape of the £90 Haglöfs Lizard Short and Sprayway's considerably more affordable £35 Compass Short. Are the Lizards really worth three times as much?
Haglöfs Lizard Shorts - £90
The Lizard shorts are expensive, very expensive, but they're also super slick. Stretch non-membrane fabric gives an excellent close fit and the length, just over our knees is just right. You get two zipped hand pockets and a neat bonded thigh pocket, again with zip. Finally there are reinforced belt loops complete with snap-fastening webbing belt, twin press-stud waist fastener and a zip-fly.
In use the Lizards are outstanding and have had a proper thrashing. The cut is brilliant, just loose enough to be unrestrictive and sylishly neat, but not baggy and obtrusive. We also reckon the length is spot on. The Flexable, nylon-based, stretch soft shell fabric gives reasonable wind-resistance - great over lycra longs for winter running - and the DWR shrugs off showers and splashes, though you do have to top it up occasionally.
It dries fast too. Just as importantly at this price, it seems to be nigh on indestructible. The hours of use included a lot of bike miles along with walking and running and the seat area, though it's faded very obviously, is still very much intact.
Overall we love 'em. If there's one thing we'd change, it would be that belt. There's nothing wrong with it in use, but at washing machine time, it tends to come undone and escape from the belt loops and those long loops make it a pig to replace. Expensive yes, but also very, very good.
Sprayway Compass Shorts - £35
You might think at well under half the price, Sprayway's Compass Short would be a tragically poor alternative but you'd be very wrong. Spec is similar to the Haglöfs shorts in that they use a stretch, soft shell-esque fabric with twin zipped hand-pockets and a single thigh one, though not bonded in place. There are belt loops but no belt, a single button waist fastener and a zip-fly.
Side by side they're a similar length to the Lizards, but once on they're slightly shorter thanks to a lower hanging crotch - less rise, more rise? Anyway, the legs are slightly shorter and the fit slightly less svelte. That said they still look neat enough.
The obvious difference is the fabric. The basics are the same with comfortable stretch, a bit of wind and water resistance thanks to a polyamide/elastane mix, but the fabric is thinner and less tough feeling than the Haglöfs and we suspect that ultimately it would fail faster eventually.
In use we really like the Compass Shorts for walking and scrambling, though the less sporty, slightly looser cut meant that we weren't really tempted to use them for biking or running in the same way as the Lizards. As with the Haglöfs, we liked the stretch, weather resistance and quick drying. We also found a belt unnecessary, but the conventional loops mean the option is there.
In an ideal world we'd have liked just a very slightly closer fit and slightly longer legs, but mostly the performance of the Compass belied the relatively modest price and they do a great job.
Side By Side Verdict
Yes, the Haglöfs shorts are ultimately better - they have a nicer, neater cut with just a smidgeon more length and the slightly thicker fabric would, we suspect, ultimately be more durable. If money were no object, they'd be our choice - they are one of our favourite bits of kit, no question.
But are they worth more than twice as much as the Sprayway Compass Short?
That's a hard one to quantify - the Sprayway Shorts are also cracking outdoors all-rounders ideal for spring through to autumn walking and scrambling with most of the performance of the Lizard's at a much more modest price, though they're arguably less useful for running and biking if that's on your menu.
And while you can talk about value, the reality is that the Sprayway shorts are a cracking buy full stop. And a little bird tells us that next year's version might just be a little bit longer too. At which point the gap will be even closer.
So yes, money no object, we'd take the Lizards, but the Compass is by no means just a poor relation and an absolute snip at the price.
More about Haglöfs at www.haglofs.com and Sprayway at www.sprayway.com.