I’ve been late to jump on the soft shell bandwagon. Not due to any hesitation or skepticism I have about the technology, but because I haven’t had a need for the benefits soft shells offer. Most of my hiking and outdoor recreation has been 3 season, and in these conditions I was getting by just fine in a baselayer and an ultra light rain jacket.
Sure, soft shells are more comfortable – they stretch and flex with your body. They breath far better than their hard shell counterparts, and they can easily handle the weather I encounter most often. Yet, for the most part, they were a solution for problems I just didn’t have, or care about…
Until I moved to the mountains.
Over the last several months I’ve been steadily increasing my winter outdoor activities. Mainly day hiking and snowshoeing – but with an eye on other activities I enjoy such as skiing and ice climbing – and each time out has been an opportunity to re-evaluate the gear I am using. Along with some immediate observations, like that I need warmer boots and gloves, it also became apparent to me that my layering system was getting unwieldy in the colder temps.
I needed to consolidate a couple of layers, and ideally eliminate the need to carry my hard shell, which in these conditions acted as nothing more than a wind breaker. A soft shell jacket was the answer.
Functionally, what it does is combine one of the layers I was wearing for warmth with the wind and moisture protection of my hard shell, allowing me to leave both of those items home. This has significantly simplified my winter setup. Since buying a soft shell I have hiked in temperatures ranging from just below zero (F) to right around freezing, and I have been just fine with a baselayer, a soft shell jacket, and an insulation layer in my pack. If I get too hot, I simply unzip the soft shell a little, exposing just the baselayer to the cooler temperatures. If I get a little chilly, such as on a summit or during an extended break, I pull out the insulation layer.
This is really just a winter version of the 3 season layering system I was using, and it is the soft shell that makes it possible.
Realizing that I needed a soft shell was a much easier decision than figuring out which one to buy. This is such a popular technology that the market is flooded with all sorts of styles, and weights, and features… and I really couldn’t find a lot of comparative reviews online. So I started with some criteria and began to narrow down my options. The soft shell I was after would have to:
- Cost less than $200 – Obviously, saving money is great… but I was after best price for the quality here, not just the cheapest jacket.
- Be a midweight design – Too heavy and chances are it would keep me too warm during high aerobic activities. If I need more warmth I can wear a thicker baselayer under it. I also want this jacket to have some utility in late fall and early spring… so I ruled out anything too thick.
- Look good – The whole ‘towns’ and ‘trails’ thing. I want my outerwear to perform in both settings, and so this jacket has to look good enough for me to feel comfortable wearing it while out and about off the trail.
From my criteria, I narrowed it down to 3 possible choices:
REI One Jacket – $199
The REI One is a fantastic jacket and mostly lives up to its billing as the “one” jacket you will ever need. For non-technical use and everyday wear it was my favorite of the three I considered. I think it is great looking and I have coveted it as a general winter jacket ever since I got a look at their 2008/2009 model in green. I spent the better part of a week calling around to REI’s trying to find that exact item at the end of last winter, only to strike out. When REI announced this year’s winter clothing lineup I eagerly jumped online only to find they no longer offered it in that color. I called and asked when they were going to release it in that “awesome two tone green” from the previous year. The reply I got was, “I think you were the only one who thought it was awesome, so we decided not to produce the jacket in that color.” Jeez, if I was the only one who wanted it, why the hell couldn’t I find it?!
When considering outdoor activities, I found the One Jacket was the heaviest of the three – really bordering on too heavy for what I wanted. However, this is something I believe I could live with given how awesome the jacket is otherwise. Some of the extra weight is due to the jacket’s thickness. As a result, it’s a bit of a stiff and bulky fit on me, but this is also what make this jacket as weather proof as it is. REI claims it is wind proof up to 57 mph, and the weight and bulk also gave me the feeling that this would be a warmer jacket than the others. The One also includes some nice comfort features, such as an internal pocket with a headphone port.
Patagonia Guide Jacket – $175
Crack open a climbing magazine and turn to a photo where a professional mountaineer is wearing a soft shell jacket. There is a good chance that jacket will be the Guide. It has an amazing reputation among people who play in the outdoors for a living, and for good reason. The quality and simplicity of the design is classic Patagonia, and is why this jacket is so often described as a “workhorse” and the “go to” piece of gear for those who own it.
It is slightly lighter than the One Jacket, and its styling is more on the simple side, but its fit was perfect for what I was looking for. It has a very athletic feel and offers a good range of motion. It is also slim enough that it allows for flexibility in layering. Adding a thicker baselayer under it, or an insulating layer over it, would not be a problem at all. This jacket would be a real pleasure to wear on the trail and was at the top of my list for that purpose.
The EMS Endotherm didn’t hit my radar till late in the search. In fact, I didn’t even realize EMS was making a soft shell jacket along these lines till I saw it mentioned, almost in passing, on an outdoor internet forum. Curious about what they had to offer, I made a run to the nearby EMS (in Lake Placid) to check it out. I’m glad I did.
The Endotherm reminds me a lot of the Guide jacket. It may not be as refined, but it has a similar no-nonsense styling and design, and the fit is almost as good. It has a very athletic feel to it and allows for a wide range of motion. Layering under and over it is not a problem due to its slim fit. While it weighs slightly more than the Guide (but less than the One), it strikes me as the thinnest of the three. I have no technical specs to back this up, but I felt that the Endotherm would run slightly colder than the other two. Its construction seems less substantial. This is not necessarily a bad thing, given what I was looking for, but generally when I add ounces to my gear I expect it to be either warmer, or have more features.
In the end, I was very impressed with the options in this price range and I’m convinced I would have been really happy with any of these jackets. While each one has specific strengths and weaknesses, overall they each represent what I believe a great soft shell should be.
The overall best jacket, in my opinion, was the Patagonia Guide. The no-nonsense design, athletic fit, and battle-tested reputation put this at the top of my list. Its weight and thickness were exactly what I was looking for and while it may not be as stylish as the REI One, it is still nice enough looking for a romp around town. It is really the best mix of technical design and style.
The best general jacket for lots of off trail activity was the REI One. Hands down, really. If I were buying a soft shell to primarily use around town, biking to work, etc… but also wanted something that I could live with in the backcountry, this is the jacket I’d be looking for. Put another way, if I still lived in the city and only occasionally made it up to the mountains, I would probably own this jacket right now.
However, the best value, and the jacket that I ended up buying, was the EMS Endotherm. In the end it came down to the best bang for my buck. The Endotherm was not as technically refined as the Guide, and not as nice for general around town action as the One, but it was close enough to each that when I found it on sale for over $100 cheaper than the others… it was a no-brainer. I snatched it up and have been extremely happy with the purchase since. The deal I took advantage of is still going on as I post this, and you may be able to take advantage of it as well. However, even without the sale price, the Endotherm is a truly great value.