One of the garments that actually belong in every outdoor sports wardrobe is a softshell. I reviewed 8 softshells for three seasons for him and her.
What is a soft-shell?
For everyone who likes to go outside regardless of the weather, two outer layers are really important: the hardshell and the softshell. The terms hard and soft have nothing to do with the ‘hardness’ or ‘softness’ of the materials. A hardshell is waterproof, windproof and breathable. A softshell is water-repellent, between 70 and 100% windproof and super breathable. Especially due to this last characteristic, it is excellent for activities where you are very active and where you sweat a lot. Although the definition of a hardshell or softshell may not have anything to do with the ‘hardness’ or ‘softness’ of the materials, most hardshells feel less comfortable on the skin than most softshells while softshells are mostly quite cuddly. But the world of the softshell is changing a lot, more about this later.
Not all brands were able to deliver a softshell for this revew, for various reasons. Brands who are not included are for example are Patagonia, Mammut, Fjällräven and Jack-Wolfskin. I didn’t forget them! The softshells submitted for this test are:
- Arc’Teryx Gamma LT Hoody
- Haglöfs Skarn Hybrid Jacket
- icebreaker HyperiaLite Jacket
- Norrøna Falketind PrimaLoft60 Jacket
- Ortovox Pala Jacket
- Rab Kinetic Plus Jacket
- Gore Wear Gore C5 Windstopper Thermo Trail Jacket
- Vaude Skarvan S Jacket
Not all softshells are the same
As I wrote above, the world of softshells is changing. By no means all softshells in this test meet the traditional definition as mentioned earlier. Not all softshells are the same! A few remarks are appropriate here.
- One of the biggest ‘violators’ of the definition softshell is Rab with the Kinetic Plus Jacket. It meets all the requirements of a softshell, but this jacket is 100% waterproof thanks to a PU membrane and is therefore also a hardshell.
- The Gore Wear Gore C5 Windstopper Thermo Trail Jacket is a fairly thick softshell that is specially made for cyclists and mountain bikers, not for walking but off course you can walk with it. This jacket also has a membrane, but then made of PTFE. The membrane ensures that the jacket is 100% windproof, hence the name Windstopper.
- Vaude does something special in the Skarvan S Jacket. The shoulders, hood and upper of the arms are made of a waterproof and breathable material with a PU membrane while the rest of the jacket is not. So a hybrid softshell/hardshell.
- In addition, the interpretation of three seasons also appears to be quite different. The icebreaker HyperiaLite Jacket and the Norrøna Falketind PrimaLoft60 Jacket are rather lightly padded softshells for colder days. They would also fit perfectly in a test of puffs.
- The real traditional softshells are the Arc’Teryx Gamma LT Hoody, the Haglöfs Skarn Hybrid Jacket and the Ortovox Pala Jacket.
How I tested
A softshell is not waterproof, but it must withstand a small shower. That is why all jackets have a water-repellent layer on the outside. In professional language this is called the DWR layer or coating. DWR stands for Durable Water Repellent (DWR) and this coating ensures that rain quickly rolls off the softshell fabric. This makes the jacket less wet, ensures that it stays lighter and dries faster. You also get cold less quickly. That water drops roll off nicely from the fabric. The ‘rolloff capacity’ of a softshell is always the first test that I do when a softshell arrives.
I test the water repellency in my home lab with a test device: the spray test. In a test set-up, 250 ml of water from a showerhead ‘rains’ onto the fabric in 30 seconds. With help of calibration photos, it is assessed how good the DWR-capacity is. Now the DWR-capacity of a new jacket with a new DWR-coating is not that interesting.
The DWR layer is subject to wear. Wear by wearing but especially by washing. That is why the softshells are washed three times after the first test according to the washing instructions on the label. With a number of jackets, the DWR layer can be reactivated by ironing the jacket or putting it in the tumble dryer. I also did this in accordance with the directive in the washing instructions. Finally, I perform the spray test again. In addition to the test to determine the quality of the water-repellent DWR coating. Spots where the DWR-coating is gone or damaged are visible as darker spots; the water creeps into the fabric in stead of staying on top. By the way… I also took a shower with the Vaude and Rab to check the waterproofness.
Softshells in practice
After completing the static home lab testing, I started testing the softshells in practice. I look at the fit, flexibility of the fabric and therefore freedom of movement, closing of the collar, cuffs and around the hips, whether zippers run smoothly, or pockets can be used with a backpack, length front and back for bending over and – if present – the quality and usability of the hood.
I also looked at the sustainability of the product at every softshell and what the manufacturer has to say about it. It is also important that the information is easily accessible. Three comments on this:
- When we talk about sustainability, you can roughly go two ways: making products that last or products that are produced with less environmental impact. There is something to be said for both and the combination of the two is of course ideal. This test includes a number of brands that stick to the first and a number that are well advanced with the second.
- All brands realize that a water-repellent DWR layer containing PFC’s is extremely harmful to the environment. Vaude, Norrøna, icebreaker and Haglöfs have a PFC-free DWR coating. Rab and Arc’Teryx use a less harmful C6 PFC-coating. Gore Wear and Ortovox are still using DWR-coating with the extremely harmful PFC’s.
- When we talk about sustainable in combination with wool, animal welfare also comes into play. Ortovox and icebreaker use merino wool. This wool is mulesing-free and that is positive.
I also looked at what brands are affiliated with; think of independent control bodies and organizations that ensure a positive environmental contribution. Examples are EOCA, Fair Wear Foundation, Bleusign, Grüner Knopf and the Rankabrand score. The website www.rankabrand.nl examines how responsible brands deal with the environment, climate and working conditions. With each brand you can find how a brand is doing at ‘Rank-a-brand’. Score A is the best, E the worst. Not all brands have a Rank-a-brand score.
The results: not so easy to compare
As indicated a few times: one softshell is not equal to the other. Because the differences between them are too large, I simply cannot proclaime a Test Winner. But don’t worry: most softshells are simply good and I recommend that you look at each softshell and decide for yourself whether this is what you are looking for. A few tips.
- Are you looking for a warmer softshell, then look at the icebreaker Hyperia Lite Jacket and the Norrøna Falketind PrimaLoft60 Jacket. Both are well made, but the freedom of movement of the Norrøna is slightly better.
- If you want to be sure that you will not get wet, the Rab Kinetic Plus Jacket is the perfect ‘hardsoftshell’, but less suitable for colder weather. Unless the activity is a high intensity one like mountaineering.
- Less resistant to rain, but still more than most sofshells is the hybrid Vaude Skarvan S Jacket. Just a pity that the seams on the shoulders are not taped. A major plus is the attention to the environment that Vaude has as standard. It’s a environmental statement you make.
- If you are looking for a real traditional softshell, you will end up with the Arc’Teryx Gamma LT Hoody, the Haglöfs Skarn Hybrid Jacket, the Gore Wear Gore C5 Windstopper Thermo Trail Jacket and the Ortovox Pala Jacket. The Haglöfs Skarn Hybrid Jacket is certainly not the most expensive, but on the level of detail it is very beautiful and also more sustainable.
Always stick to the instructions on the washing label for washing your softshell. I have noticed that the washing label sometimes differs from the information on the manufacturer’s website. It may then be a newer model. My advice: use the washing instruction stated on the label. If things go wrong, you always have your garment to fall back on. Most softshells can be washed at 30 or 40 degrees Celsius and sometimes you have to wash it with a special anti-wrinkle program.
You can wash the majority with a normal detergent. Some jackets require a special technical detergent such as Nikwax Techwash. Sometimes the jacket needs to be treated afterwards with an agent that makes it water-repellent again. This can be a wash-in agent – such as Nikwax TX.Direct – (so you use it in the washing machine) or a spray on. Keep in mind that with a wash-in you make the entire garment water-repellent. Not useful if the inside needs to absorb a little sweat. Then you better use a spray. Be aware that these technical detergents are a lot more expensive than regular detergents. You also need a relatively large amount of it, something to take into account when choosing a jacket.