Softshell fabrics have exploded in the ski industry over the past few years. Jackets were the first garments to be manufactured with softshell fabrics, and through the past couple of winter seasons, pants have come into production. The term softshell means exactly that--a shell being the weatherproof outer garment while maintaining a softer quality--not the crinkly, crackly shell jackets and pants we used to wear in order to stay dry while on the slopes.
The softshell products are a great addition to the ski and snowboard world. The stretch in the textile provides great maneuverability and the breathable properties of the product prove vital for any active outdoor enthusiast.
Softshell fabrics combine some great qualities. They stretch and are abrasion resistant; they're windproof, waterproof, and highly breathable. Softshells are created using a three-ply construction that includes a soft, moisture-wicking fleece for the lining; a tightly woven abrasion resistant outer fabric that has a durable water repellant (DWR) coating; and in the center of these two fabrics is a layer that joins the others together. This middle layer is either a coating that bonds the two materials or a laminate. Either of these construction methods helps to determine the waterproofness of the softshell. DWR is the wonderful innovation that makes the water "bead up" and roll off the fabric. This keeps water from soaking into the material and aids the waterproofing middle layer.
While it does supply warmth, a softshell might not be for everyone. A person that is typically cold most of the time will most likely want an insulated jacket for that extra layer of comforting warmth. A person who is often out in the elements of nature for an extended period of time would probably enjoy the benefits of a conventional hard shell because the waterproof level can be higher.
Measuring how breathable a garment is can be done in two different ways. The first is similar to a waterproofing measurement: how many grams of vapor a square inch of fabric will allow to pass through over a 24 hour period. The higher the number, the more breathable a garment is. For a recreational user, 10,000/gm gets the job done. The second way is just the opposite where the lower the number is more desirable. Many manufacturers, including GORE-TEX, use this method. It measures the resistance of evaporation in a textile (RET). A softshell is inevitably more breathable than a hard shell, but a softshell can only dream of being as waterproof as a hard shell.
Most ski and snowboard clothing companies offer softshell pieces, usually a jacket, while some of them are manufacturing pants too. Spyder produces a softshell pant that looks great and is comfortable. The North Face also makes a pant using their Apex Softshell Technology. The Apex Trekking Pant for men is a packable, lightweight pant for aerobic activity in cold weather. Marmot manufactures many great softshell jackets with the help of GORE Windstopper from GORE-TEX. Two of these to try are the Super Hero Jacket that comes with a zip out hood and the Sharp Point jacket that comes without a hood; both are available for men and women. Two snowboarding brands to check out for some great looking softshell products this season are Burton and DC.
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