What's so great about soft shell, mine leaks in the wet?
Question: What's so great about soft shell? I just bought some soft shell pants I plan to use for skiing. But I tried them on a bike ride in the rain and they started letting in water after just a few minutes. What's the big deal about a fabric that isn't waterproof and doesn't insulate, particularly in a country like ours?
Answer: Hi there,
The name is Gear, Richard 'Appropriate' Gear. The whole soft shell, erm
concept can get very confusing. The term covers a whole range of
fabrics and garments made from them, ranging from pretty much
waterproof material at one end, through to water and wind resistant
stuff at the other.
Generally the pay-off for more
water resistance is reduced breathability whereas the fabrics which
give you better breathability, tend to be less weather resistant. There
are also variations in insulation values, some softshell incorporates a
pile or fleece liner, other materials don't, so it's hard to generalise.
The trick is to match the material to your requirements, sport and
conditions. So, for example, a pair of pants you plan to use for skiing
doesn't need to be waterproof, just water resistant, enough
to shrug off snow and wind resistant enough to reduce windchill. In
cold conditions, some sort of insulation would make sense too,
But a soft shell that works well in those conditions, won't be much use
in pouring rain where either a full waterproof fabric or near
waterproof one makes sense. If you had to generalise though, I'd say
that cold, dry, alpine-type conditions, maybe with snow, suit most soft
shell fabrics best.
The UK tends to have a damp climate which is a problem because at the
same time it means water resistance is desirable, but the dampness
tends to reduce breathability, so often anything waterproof enough to
protect you, won't be breathable enough and vice versa.
In British conditions a sort of two-tier system makes sense. Wear a
very breathable water resistant soft shell like woven nylon,
Schoeller-type fabric or a shelled micropile like a Rab Vapour Rise and
carry a lightweight waterproof for when things do get really wet and
the soft shell can't cope on its own.
What's so great about them? In the right conditions, with the right
fabric choice, soft shell can give an optimum combination of weather
protection and breathability. Chance are that your soft shell pants may
work just fine for skiing if you wear them over a warm baselayer to add
It's not the only solution out there and there's a lot of hype around
it, but in the right conditions, it can work very well.