What is a softshell? Why would you use one?
One of the most common questions we get from new climbers regarding clothing is “what’s a softshell, and why do I need one?”
Softshells are an invaluable piece of any mountaineering clothing system. They consist of a range of fabrics characterized by breathability, stretch, and weather resistance. The easiest way to think of a softshell is as a hybrid of a hardshell waterproof piece and a breathable insulating midlayer. While a softshell sheds wind, snow, and some rain (like hardshells), it is also air-permeable, so allows excess heat to escape while you’re working hard (like midlayers). This combination of characteristics makes softshells perfect for many of the conditions we find in a mountaineering context.
For example: it is blustery and snowing lightly, but you are walking uphill on a rope team – while a hardshell will not provide enough breathability, quickly becoming clammy while you are exercising, a midlayer alone will not provide adequate wind and weather protection to keep you dry. Either option leaves you wet, chilled, and uncomfortable. A softshell, on the other hand, will allow you to ventilate excess heat and moisture produced while excercising, while simultaneously shedding wind and precipitation, keeping you dry and, ultimately, comfortable.
Softshells come in several styles and weights, from paper-thin ultra-breathable pieces designed for moving fast and providing very light levels of weather protection to burly winter-weight models with super durable face fabric and fleece backing for extra warmth that fend off all but the wettest weather. For most people, a midweight softshell with little to no fleece backing allows for the most versatility in layering while providing a good level of weather protection in most conditions.