Soft Shells for Hard Climbing

By blending excellent breathability with solid weather protection, soft shell jackets have transformed the way climbers dress in the mountains. Climbers can now avoid the heat-robbing, moisture build-up that frequently occurs with hardshell garments without sacrificing protecting from rain, wind and snow. And thanks to the material’s built-in stretch and soft hand, these jackets allow for easy movement during difficult climbing. Finally, softshells are also surprisingly abrasion resistant, shrugging off abuse that would normally punch holes in traditional hardshells. With all these benefits, it’s not surprising that soft shell jackets have become so popular.

Here are construction details worth considering when purchasing a softshell jacket:

Hood

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Hoods add valuable weather protection when the conditions crap out but may seem superfluous during milder weather. If the jacket does have a hood, confirm that it fits over bulky hats and helmets.

Insulation

Most softshell jackets work best as shell layers but occasionally some are lined with light insulation. Depending on the conditions, most climbers should opt for the stripped down jackets as they tend to weigh less and offer greater versatility in changing weather.

Breathability

While all softshell garments provide excellent breathability, membrane-laminated softshell fabrics are less breathable than woven fabric softshells. Climbers should choose a style according to the anticipated weather and exertion levels.

Hybrids

This new softshell-jacket trend involves combing panels of waterproof/breathable fabric in the shoulders and upper arms with more breathable woven softshell fabric in the body. The result is superior water protection when climbing dripping floes and reduced moister build-up on long approaches.

Outdoor Research Women's Alibi Jacket - $289
Women’s Alibi Jacket – $299
Outdoor Research

The women’s Alibi is one of a new crop of softshells that combines the weatherproofing of traditional hardshells with the improved breathability of woven softshells. OR uses a waterproof breathable softshell fabric on the shoulders and arms for protection from wet ice and seeping rock and adds stretchy softshell fabric on the body for easy movement and exceptional breathability. Climbing specific features include an excellent helmet-compatible hood, a built-in helmet liner and hem-to-pit zippers (the most effective venting option short of removing the jacket). Wrist gasket cuffs add warmth and minimize drafts while waterproof zips prevent water entry without the need for bulky zipper flaps. Last year, the men’s version of this jacket was highly rated in a Gripped gear review; the women’s version of the Alibi jacket delivers the same performance. This is an exceptional, no-compromise climbing jacket for women.

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Dragon Jacket – $300
Mountain Hardwear

With its supple lightweight fabric and low-bulk welded seams, the Dragon jacket never gets in the way during difficult climbing. This jacket allows for incredible mobility and ease-of-movement especially considering that it’s not a stripped-down minimalist garment. Useful features include waterproof zippers, pit-zips, draft-fighting wrist gasket cuffs and an easily adjustable helmet compatible hood. This is an excellent jacket for serious winter climbing.

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Fusion Jacket – $325
Rab
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Rab’s Fusion jacket combines a hardshell Event fabric on the shoulders, hood and upper arms with a stretchy and highly breathable softshell fabric in the torso.  This hybrid construction offers climbers incredible weather protection without limiting the breathability required for difficult climbing. Pockets are positioned high on the chest ensuring easy access even while wearing a harness. For protection from driving rain and snow, the Fusion includes a helmet compatible hood with a pliable wire brim for optimal protection without restricting visibility. This is a solid function-driven jacket that blends exceptional weather protection and breathability.

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Gamma MX Hoody – $400
Arc’teryx

By avoiding any unnecessary features, this beautifully made softshell remains light enough for challenging routes while providing sufficient weather protection when conditions crap out. The jacket’s slim fit ensures it won’t get in the way when wearing a harness and trim wrist cuff construction easily slides inside gloves without adding bulk or restricting movement. A helmet compatible hood and action-oriented patterning, round out the features on this functional climbing jacket.

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Herron Jacket – $289
Mammut

Unlike many lightweight softeshells, the rugged Herron Jacket will survive many years of use in the mountains. This exceptional durability comes from Mammut’s savvy fabric choices which provide good breathability and excellent weather protection without compromising abrasion resistance or ease of movement. The roomy cut allows for easy layering in colder weather and a helmet compatible hood protects climbers from cold, wind and snow. This is a solid jacket that can withstand regular use in the harshest mountain environments.

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Kingpin Jacket – $250
Marmot
With its clean, uncluttered construction, the Kingpin excels in difficult climbing situations. Marmot uses a midweight softshell fabric that effectively blocks wind, sheds rain and is breathable enough to prevent moisture build-up in all but the most aerobically challenging conditions. A helmet compatible hood provides extra protection when the conditions crap out while low-profile pit-zips help vent any excess heat. Two chest pockets offer storage for small necessities even when wearing a harness, while the more traditionally located hand warmer pockets can hold larger items.  This is a great climbing jacket for anyone seeking climbing-specific performance without cumbersome features.


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