I promised this soft shell review/comparison last fall. Several things got in the way from getting it done.
The trivial excuses don't really matter. But what does matter and what has influenced this comparison the most is the newest fabrics that have been incorporated into these garments. Both Gortex and Polartec are represented here. As climbers we have never had it so good.
There are so many really great fabrics available that you have to really work hard to get a bad one.
But the best fabrics simply point out no matter how good the fabric is the fit and patterns of these soft shells are what really make or break them.
As far as function in concerned you would be hard pressed to better the original Dachstein sweater for breathability, stretch, warmth and being weather proof in wind, rain and snow.
Weight and bulk it is easy enough to better however in a big boiled wool sweater. But as hard as it might be to believe, when it comes to soft shell comparisons the Dachstein is not a bad place to start.
I look for a couple of very specific attributes for a soft shell fabric and the garment's pattern cut. The first is how "soft" is it? I want my soft shells to stretch and be comfortable from the inside out. Ideally they will stretch a lot. That means a garment I can fit pretty tightly but never have it bind on difficult gymnastic style climbing. And a soft interior that keep them from feeling clammy when I am working hard.
Generally I'll want to tuck my soft shell jacket's tail into my harness and never have it pull out while climbing. That means a preference for longer than normal hem line and hopefully a sophisticated pattern the keeps the hem down when my arms go up. Up? As in swing an ice tool or making that long reach to clip a fixed pin. When you have to stretch to your max it is also nice to not pull your cuff over the glove and break the seal there. I want to keep the seal tight there and not have a gap for wind, water or snow sneaking in. That with a long gauntlet glove and shorter gloves as well. It is a tall order.
I ski in my soft shells on occasion, walk the dog and may be even ride my bike or trail run in them if the weather is bad enough. But I have better clothing for all those activities than a soft shell generally. So my likes and dislikes and how I judge a soft shell is based on what I like about them for climbing. If you read the last bit on climbing packs or "climbing sacs" in part three of that commentary you will get the idea of just how climbing specific my own uses are and because of that bias how my own judgement calls are attained. Pays to remember while I live in the rainy and wet PNW I seldom climb in the rain and I really like cold weather climbing. So while water proof protection is nice I don't typically require it. But what I do require is the best breathability any of the newest fabrics has to offer
I'll take breathability over water resistance every time. I haven't used a soft shell for a couple of seasons now until this Spring. I've been lucky enough to try some of the best new fabrics in several different garments and I am still testing them. As much as a fabric will define the performance of a garment, the design of the garment will also define in part just how well a fabric will perform. It is a synergistic combination of fabric and pattern. As my comparison and reviews will point out you have to have both the best pattern and the best fabrics to compete these days.
I am really happy that I have gone back and given the current crop of soft shells a try. Because things have changed for the better with these garments...all of them... in just a few seasons.. As much as I like the Arcteryx Atom LT as my main outer garment for the light weight and warmth I have never been happy with its durability on anything but pure ice routes. Heaven forbid you ever run one up against the rocks or actually have to climb anything mixed and get it dirty. You would likely shred the Atom quickly on Canadian limestone or Chamonix granite on a climb like the one pictured below.
The newest soft shells breath better, are more water resistant, can be lighter and can in the right material offer more protection from the typical climbers abuse of mixed rock and sharp tools..
The blog is acting up a bit so composing a new review has been slowed way down. I will get it done and published in the next few weeks. Just wanted to give you a heads up. .