Soft shell pants and jackets have been used for many years by mountaineers, and are now becoming more popular with the general public. They make great sense for nearly all environments, and offer excellent advantages for hunters. They are not meant to be waterproof or particularly insulating, but they will keep you comfortable in a wider range of conditions than any other single layer. There are two main types of soft shells: shelled micro-pile, and stretch woven.
Shelled Micro-Pile and Wind Shirts
This is the original soft shell in its purest form. It consists of an inner layer of low density synthetic “micro fur” that is light, comfortable, and wicks moisture better than virtually anything else. The inner layer is bonded to a highly breathable, windproof and water resistant outer fabric. The Rab Vapour Rise line best exemplifies this type of soft shell, and stands out in its category.
The properties of the outer fabric must be such that breathability is maximized. Pertex Equilibrium is unique in that it transfers internal moisture to the outside of the fabric via capillary action. The larger internal face fibers deliver moisture to the finer outer fabric, where it evaporates quickly.
Wind shirts are also sometimes considered soft shells. While they lack an interior wicking layer, they have the same highly breathable, wind and water resistant properties. With many coming in between 3 and 5 ounces, they are an incredibly valuable piece of clothing for the weight. Paired with a stretch woven or fleece layer, they offer excellent flexibility in layering. If counting on your soft shell for wind and precipitation protection, a hood is a significant benefit.
These are now the most common conformation of soft shells. They are generally stretchy, breathable, and weather resistant. The many styles and fabrics offered can be difficult to navigate, but by looking at the fabric mixes and weight you can often get an idea of what to expect.
One of the top stretch woven fabric manufacturers is Schoeller, who makes soft shell material used in many high end products from Westcomb, Mammut, and others. Schoeller Dryskin is a mid weight, highly breathable, water resistant, wind resistant weave with excellent durability. It is one of the fastest drying soft shells on the market thanks to very non-absorbent fabric composition. Schoeller Dryskin Extreme is very similar, but uses the same denier gradient design used in Pertex Equilibrium to move moisture away from your body even faster. Schoeller Dynamic is a very stretchy, light, water resistant fabric. It is fairly wind resistant, though is best employed for three season conditions when used alone. It will not dry quite as quickly as Dryskin; the stretchiness of the fabric results in more water absorption. Schoeller WB-400 is a cool to cold weather fabric that consists of a light inner material, stretch woven outer material, and stretchy, perforated polyurethane layer in between. The polyurethane layer adds high levels of wind resistance and warmth, but breathability is slightly reduced. For that reason it is best used as a colder weather piece when breathability is less of a concern and the temperature gradient between your skin and the outside air will help draw moisture from the interior.
Polartec Power Shield is another common fabric used on high end jackets, pants, and gloves. It is an excellent choice for cool to cold weather, as it offers a similar design to Schoeller WB-400. It is very durable, wind resistant, water resistant, and quite breathable.
Many companies have begun to produce proprietary stretch woven fabrics that compete with Polartec and Schoeller. Both Outdoor Research and Patagonia offer soft shells that are among the best available.
Avoid soft shells with a completely windproof or waterproof membrane such as Gore Windstopper, as they will not perform as they should. Breathability is reduced such that moisture will accumulate from the inside of the fabric and make your inner layers unnecessarily damp. Recall that a soft shell must breathe very well in order to keep you dry in a wide range of conditions, and dry very quickly if it becomes wet.
Both shelled micro-pile and high quality stretch woven soft shells are effective as mid layers or as outer layers in all but the wettest conditions. Soft shell pants in particular show a great ability to handle the rigors of serious backcountry and backpack hunting better than anything else on the market. Their incredible durability and flexibility shines in a broad range of conditions. Likewise, a properly chosen soft shell jacket can make the difference between arriving at your camp, glassing location, or the end of your stalk dripping wet from sweat or misting rain, or remaining dry and comfortable.