Versatile new jackets combine protection and breathability.
Last February, when climber Sean Isaac completed the first ascent of Cryophobia, a ten-day mixed rock-ice route in the Canadian Rockies, he wasn't wearing a waterproof mountaineering jacket.
Facing everything from warm chinook winds to snowstorms to minus 5°F [minus 21°C] temperatures, Isaac had instead brought a pliable, woven-nylon soft shell, a new breed of outerwear that's more comfortable in a wide range of conditions.
Soft-shell fabrics aren't as water-resistant as materials like Gore-Tex or Entrant, but they are virtually windproofand they breathe up to three times better. They're also more durable and less expensive.
We tested a dozen soft shells in the snow, wind, and thundershowers of upstate New York. When it was pouring rain, we got wet. In all other conditions, the jacketsespecially our four favorites, reviewed herestruck a fine balance between protection and breathability.
Each of our picks comes in both men's and women's sizes.
All prices in U.S. dollars.
0 to 35°F [-18 to 2°C]
Arc'Teryx Easy Rider
Telephone: 800 985 6681 (U.S. and Canada only)
Lined with heavy, furlike fleece, the Arc'Teryx Easy Rider was the warmest jacket of the bunch. During a winter scramble, sleet did penetrate the nylon face (which is laminated to the fleece to create wind-blocking Polartec Power Shield fabric), but the inner layers stayed warm and dry, andequally importantmoisture left the jacket efficiently.
The Easy Rider has sealed zippers (no storm flaps) and laminated seams (not stitched) to reduce bulk and improve water resistance, and its short waist leaves plenty of room for a backpack hip belt or climbing harness.
5 to 45°F [-15 to 7°C]
Telephone: 800 866 4595 (U.S. and Canada only)
The classic-looking Patagonia Dimension jacket is the most versatile piece we tested. Credit goes to its durable, weather-repelling outer layera woven nylon blend that stretches in two directionsand to a soft polyester interior that insulates without catching on base layers. Unlike some soft shells, the Dimension is loose enough for traditional layering, and every pocket doubles as a vent, which further boosts its range.
Wearing it, our testers stayed dry while cross-country skiing through freezing rain, and warm during an early spring windstorm.
15 to 45°F [-9 to 7°C]
Telephone: 800 654 2668 (U.S. and Canada only)
With its sleek, motocross-inspired cut and trendy colors, the Salomon STL-551 seems an unlikely choice for the serious skier or hiker. But the jacket is as technical as it is stylish.
Featuring Schoeller WB-400a weather-blocking polyester-acrylic membranesandwiched between knit fleece on the inside and tough Cordura on the outside, the jacket breathed exceptionally well on uphill slogs. It also fended off winds and snow and, like Patagonia's Dimension, was roomy enough for layering.
One caveat: The armpit zips may dig into your body when you wear a pack.
35 to 55°F [2 to 13°C]
Pearl Izumi Crescendo
Telephone: 800 328 8488 (U.S. and Canada only)
The Pearl Izumi Crescendo jacket may look like a basic fleece layer, but behind its outer fabric is eVent, a Teflon film that renders the Crescendo windproof and hydrophobic (unable to absorb sweat or rain) while keeping fabric pores open for breathability. There are stretch panels on the armpits to aid movement, and the jacket's back pocket can hold ski goggles or a spare bike tube. It lacks a waist drawstring, however. The Crescendo was a favorite among testers, partly because its fleece exterior made it look good during everyday use.
Photographs by Francesco Bittichesu