One note: the rate of technological advancement seen in outerwear is astounding. Many companies are blurring the line between hard and soft shell jackets – you may encounter garments that do not neatly fall into one of these categories.
Hard shell: Think of the Columbia jacket everyone on the block had when you were growing up. This type of garment is fairly simple: apply a laminate like Gore-Tex to a synthetic fabric and you have a hard shell jacket. Think of a sandwich: the synthetic fabric is the meat and cheese while the interior laminate and exterior DWR (Durable Water Repellent) make up the bread. They come in varying degrees of insulation – rainwear is considered a hard shell jacket (contrast that with the insulated winter Columbia parka mentioned above).
They excel at keeping wind and water out but have one major drawback: breathability. Yes, many of the laminates used today do breathe but they typically do not breathe enough for the active user. Exerting oneself in a hard shell often leads to condensation and sweat. They also tend to have a loose fit, generate a lot of noise when the fabric rubs together, and can be bulky.
Soft shell: The new kid on the block, cutting edge technology, and astronomical price points – these are the things many consumers think of when they see the words “soft shell jacket”. Prices have come down but these jackets are still at the technological forefront of the outerwear industry.
Soft shell jackets typically derive their warmth, wind resistance, and water resistance from the fabric itself instead of a laminate. These sophisticated fabrics are stretch woven, which gives them their unique properties. The fabric also receives a DWR treatment.
The soft shell jacket excels in two major areas: breathability and flexibility. Due to the special manufacturing process, the fabric is able to keep weather out like a hard shell but breathe like a fleece. The fabric also is quite stretchy, which allows for a tighter fit and greater range of motion.
One thing to keep in mind: soft shell jackets are made from porous fabric. This means they provide most of the wind and water protection that a hard shell jacket might bestow. It’s a trade off – the extra breathability and flexability comes at the expense of the bombproof wind and water protection offered by a hard shell. A typical soft shell might offer 85-90% of the protection provided by a hard shell. These jackets will keep water off the wearer but an extended downpour may saturate the garment. They excel in cold, dry climates – climbers and skiers were some of the first groups to embrace the soft shell. When worn they produce much less noise then the hard shell counterpart.
Down: The puffy jacket. Down has been used for years as an insulator and it’s still unparalleled when it comes to warmth, portability and weight. They are very compactible and many jackets come with stuff sacks. They are typically quite light while still providing an astounding amount of warmth. Nothing matches its warmth-to-weight ratio. They are simple garments – today’s down jacket typically consists of a synthetic, ribbed shell filled with down.
Down is measured in fill power, which is the number of cubic inches displaced by a given ounce of down (in3/oz). A higher fill power down will insulate better then a lower fill power down. Be careful though – the thickness of the garment is also important. A thin 900 fill down jacket probably won’t be as warm as a thicker 650 fill down jacket. Loft refers to the thickness of the insulating material.
Down has one major weakness: moisture. Down completely loses its insulating properties when wet and is extremely slow to dry. Moisture can cause clumping, which reduces warmth and insulation. Constant exposure to water can even ruin a down jacket. Do your best to keep down away from rain.
There are also synthetic fibers that mimic down – Primaloft is one of the most popular and well regarded. Synthetic fill provides some insulation while wet and is overall more resistant to moisture. It is also heavier and less compact then natural down.
Fleece: We’ve all had a fleece jacket at one point or another. Fleece is used in just about everything – jackets, hats, sweaters, hoodies, pants, and blankets are all made from it.
Fleece is an insulating synthetic fabric and is hydrophobic – it holds less then 1% of its weight in water. It’s a great insulator and retains most of its insulating powers when wet. It’s also highly breathable. This allows perspiration to easily pass through the fabric. Regular fleece is not windproof but it is often paired with an inner membrane that provides some wind resistance.
Fleece is a jack-of-all-trades but master of none. It doesn’t excel at any one thing but it is an extremely versatile layering tool – simply throw a windproof hard shell or a down jacket over the fleece layer.
Lifestyle: This is the “comfort and warmth” category – think of something from this group as a daily driver. This type of jacket typically lacks the bells and whistles that have been outlined above. For most of us, daily use may not require the breathability of a soft shell, the wind resistance of a hard shell or the compactness of a down jacket. We want something warm and comfortable – something jackets in this category feature in spades. Lifestyle items may not be expedition-ready but they provide enough utility to warrant a space in the closet.
Items labeled as “Lifestyle” are typically made from simple fabrics like cotton or canvas. These jackets emphasize durability, comfort, warmth and broad use instead of the more specialized types of outerwear mentioned above.
Charles Nordstrom is the owner and operator of ExpeditionApparel, a company focused on outfitting the apparel needs of the overland traveler. ExpeditionApparel sells leading brands such as ExOfficio, Mountain Khakis, Icebreaker, and Outdoor Research. He has a passion for all types of travel (visiting 51 countries so far) and as completed the 2010 Mongol Rally, along with several international overland routes. For more technical articles on apparel and how it pertains to overlanding, or to check out the one-stop-shop for “ExpeditionApparel” check them out on the web. [link]