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What is softshell?

We often talk about “softshell clothing”, but do you actually know what it is and when to use it? 

Softshell is, as the name clearly suggests, a soft shell. Strictly speaking, we define a softshell garment as a garment without a membrane. So, softshell is the opposite of shell clothing. Softshell garments are often made from lightweight materials that provide excellent protection against the wind, meaning that a good old-fashioned mountain anorak made from cotton can be classified as a softshell garment, although modern softshell products are often far more technical.

Because softshell garments do not have a membrane, they breathe far better than shell garments, but are not waterproof. Softshell garments are generally water-repellent, but water will completely penetrate the garment at some point in heavy or prolonged rain.

Softshell hybrid

In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on something known as softshell hybrid. The word “hybrid” means that the garment is made of two or more different types of softshell materials. This improves the technical properties of the garment. For example, it is common to use a more weather-resistant material on exposed areas such as the shoulders and upper parts of the back and arms, and a more breathable material on the rest of the garment.

Softshell weather?

This of course begs the question “when should I wear softshell clothing?” As a general rule, you might consider softshell better suited to dry weather.

That said, we are increasingly seeing experienced hikers opting for soft shell in damp weather too. Perhaps good breathability wins over waterproofness if light rain is forecast when walking quickly or where a lot of ascent is involved, such as when ski touring. There’s no definitive answer; it’s mostly down to experience and personal preference.

All that remains is to go out and try it for yourself. Have a great trip!

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