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Saturday, 8 March 2014

Fleece or Soft Shell?

In the Superstition Mountains on the Arizona Trail.

This piece was written as the introduction for a review of fleece and soft shell jackets in The Great Outdoors several years ago. I was asked recently why I still wore fleece. I think this answers that question. 

Just about every outdoor clothing company makes a range of bright coloured fleece and soft shell clothing and racks of the stuff can be found in every outdoor shop. Look beyond the colours and brand names though and most garments are surprisingly similar with designs dominated by zip-fronted jackets with two lower pockets. This simple design is okay for casual use but not the best for hill walking and backpacking, especially for soft shell. In this feature I’m going to consider the most functional designs and materials for both fleece and soft shell and look at which is best for the hill rather than the high street.

FLEECE & SOFT SHELL DEFINED & ASSESSED

Whilst some fabrics are clearly fleece and some clearly soft shell others are a mix of both so there is no absolute distinction. At what point does a windproof soft shell become a windproof fleece? What about garments with a brushed fleece inner and a smooth soft shell outer?

The basic difference is that fleece is designed to provide warmth not weather protection while soft shell is designed to provide weather protection before warmth. Fleece is only wind or water resistant if a second material – an inner membrane or outer tightly woven shell – is added. Soft shell is wind and water resistant by design. With both fabrics insulation is determined by thickness. Generally fleece is lighter in weight for the same warmth. The warmest soft shells usually have fleece inners, which makes for a fairly heavy and bulky combination. Fleece is very much a mid layer, designed to be worn under wind and waterproof shells while soft shell, as the name suggests, is designed to cope with at least some wind and rain on its own. Fleece comes in different weights (thicknesses). The basic ones are often labelled 100, 200 and 300 after a system devised by Polartec. I think 100 weight fleece, which is the thinnest and lightest, is the most versatile for hill walking as it can be used year round. In summer I carry it as my main warmwear. In winter I often wear it while walking and carry a second warm layer. The heavier fleeces tend to be too warm in summer though people who feel the cold often like them for autumn to spring wear. However 200 and 300 weight fleece and similar are quite bulky and heavy. I’d rather carry two 100 weight fleeces.

Because fleece isn’t windproof it’s very breathable. Condensation inside a fleece is very unusual. Combined with the softness of the fabric this makes fleece very comfortable to wear. However in anything but a light breeze a windproof shell garment is needed. Lightweight windproofs are ideal for this, except in heavy rain, as they are also very breathable. The combination of a light windproof and a light fleece is more breathable than windproof fleece, which is made of two layers of fleece with a windproof membrane sandwiched between them, and usually lighter in weight as well. I think windproof fleece is great for casual use but isn’t versatile or breathable enough for the hills. I can get sweaty very quickly inside a windproof fleece. You can’t separate the layers and just wear one of them as with a fleece and windproof combination either.

Whilst the definition of soft shell is debatable most companies now use it to mean a stretchy fabric that is wind and water resistant and that’s how I’ve used it here. Soft shell garments can be worn as the outer layer much of the time, if the design allows. The last is an important point as many soft shells don’t have the features needed for an outer garment, particularly a hood. Soft shells that rely on a tightly woven structure to repel the weather are not as wind or water resistant as ones with a membrane. Such woven soft shells are quite breathable but also much heavier than fleece for the same warmth whilst still needing a shell in strong winds and rain. They are also slow drying and bulky to pack. I don’t really see the point of these fabrics for jackets (trousers are a different matter) as the performance doesn’t compare with a fleece and windproof shell combination. Soft shell with a membrane is better as it will cope with all but the heaviest rain and strongest winds, meaning that only a very light waterproof need be carried. Even so the weight and bulk of soft shell and the lack of versatility over separate fleece and windproof garments means I only use soft shell jackets on day walks or overnight trips. Of the different soft shells with membranes I’ve found Polartec Power Shield the most breathable as well as being windproof and almost waterproof. The better breathability than other membranes is due to the membrane which is 98% not 100% windproof. Polartec says the remaining 2% allows air to circulate, increasing breathability. It’s not perfect of course and I have got quite sweaty in a Power Shield jacket during long climbs.

Fleece top for warmth in a bothy.

 
DESIGNS

As I’ve indicated most soft shell jackets have poor designs for outdoor use. Makers seem to have forgotten the word “shell” in “soft shell” and gone for standard fleece jacket designs. Few soft shell garments have hoods, which are essential in my view, or front zips and pockets designed to resist rain. If you need to wear a wind or waterproof shell on top of a soft shell in anything more than light rain or a breeze then you’d be better off with a fleece. To be suitable for the hills a soft shell should have an adjustable hood, large pockets accessible when wearing a hipbelt and water resistant closures.

The best designs for fleece are the opposite. In storms fleece is worn under shell garments so big pockets and water resistant zips are unnecessary. A hood can be useful, and can replace a warm hat, but isn’t essential. In fact my favourite fleece is a pullover design with no pockets and only a short zip. It’s very light though and performs perfectly as warmwear, which is all I want.



7 comments:

  1. We could use a few more bothys around here…

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  2. Or what about the new lightweight top from Berghaus Chris? It's lighter than fleece and warmer and was mentioned in TGO last month.

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    1. Greg, yes the VapourLight Hyper Therm Reversible Jacket, to give it it's full name, would be a good substitute for a fleece top, especially if you run cold (it was my review in the March issue). It's quite a bit warmer than a 100 weight fleece though - which would be too warm for me May to October. It's still not as versatile as a windproof top plus microfleece either. In winter this shouldn't matter (and if you want more features - pockets, hood - garments like the new Rab Strata Hoodie with Polartec Alpha fill are worth considering for winter - I've been wearing one a fair bit recently). However May to October I often wear a thin windproof over a base layer so I like to have separate windproof and warm layers. Of course I could carry a windproof plus the HyperTherm and may try that soon. Another point is durability. Fleece is very tough - my lightest one, the 215 gram Jack Wolfskin Gecko, has been on two multi-month walks and many other trips and is still fine. I don't yet know how long the latest synthetic insulations will last but I haven't found any previous ones that lasted anything like as well as fleece.

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  3. I've got a Mammut softshell. Good hood, pockets are roomy and rucksack-friendly. Its excellent for wind proofing and keeping reasonable amounts of rain off. The downsides are its not especially breathable, its easy to develop a damp microclimate when working hard and its quite hard to regulate temperature. Best for day/overnighters when you know it won't rain heavily and isn't too hot.

    Like Chris, I find the best combination to be a light fleece and and wind stopper. I use a Montane Featherlite and either a cheapo microfleece with a full zip or a Trekmates microfleece pullover. Versatile, good temperature/venting control but need a proper waterproof shell when it rains heavily.

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  4. Almost everyone I talk to advises that soft shell are the new thing, were the new thing, and I have to get with it. I never have and doubt I ever will. In a particular set of conditions I can understand they're the optimum choice - cool, fairly light rain, and you don't want to be fussing with changing your clothes. But if you step outside those conditions and if you undertake a multi day trek the traditional concept of layers makes far more sense: base, fleece, shell, varied as required.

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  5. For me it’s not an either/or choice. Over three years ago I bought a ME Astron Hooded Jacket, made from Polartec Powershield with Polartec Powerstretch panels, which has rarely been off my back in the hills since. Sometimes I’ve worn it over a base, sometimes over a base and a Polartec 100 fleece. It weighs around 400g I think, the hood is excellent and unlike James I would take it on a long trip without a second thought. I didn’t buy it because it was a ‘soft shell’ but because I was fairly sure it would suit my needs, which is the only reason I ever buy gear. The hood is compatible with a helmet (cycling or climbing) and rolls away nicely to form a collar, although I don’t often do this. It's hopeless in anything other than light rain but that’s why I have a waterproof jacket.

    Apart from weight though, it offers no advantages over my 18 year old ME Ultrafleece jacket which I'm fairly sure is more windproof.

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  6. The Keela Lynx is a great soft shell and teamed with the Stashaway Pro has you covered for chillier summer days on the tops with the lightweight rain protection we need here in the UK. Works for me and makes for a really liht back pack, or more room for lunch!

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