how do you use soft shells in cold weather and wind?

3:46 p.m. on January 17, 2013 (EST)
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nitpicky question: I'm going hiking around Mt. Washington in New Hampshire in a few weeks.  my normal hiking clothes would be some sort of insulating layer or layers under shell pants and jacket, depending on weather of course.

i'm going to test-drive soft shells this time around.  I already understand that the soft shell jacket and pants may be a pretty good option if the winds are manageable, unless it gets obscenely cold.  also, i already know that high winds, 60 mph or more, probably warrant hard shell pants. 

what i'm not so clear about is where the tipping point lies.  if i wake up on a particular morning and the forecast is winds steady at 30-40 but gusting to 50, am i going to be OK with soft shell pants? or am i likely to be happier with a base layer and a hard shell?

a second/related question: if the soft shell jacket i have isn't just a straight soft shell because it has a neoshell membrane, how does that change the tipping point? i think (but don't know from experience) that the neoshell jacket might be fine in higher winds, but if we're getting battered (steady 70-80 mph or higher), it's hard shell land in all likelihood.

any thoughts?

 

6:47 p.m. on January 17, 2013 (EST)
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Great question. Im curious myself, I have the same prob with soft shells. I know you will get good info here. When in doubt I always go hard shell, in my opinion better safe than sorry.

6:48 p.m. on January 17, 2013 (EST)
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Don't know if this helps and those wind forecasts sound crazy, but here goes:

Been wearing softshell trousers and jacket for the last week or two, lately with snow and below freezing, winds around 10mph gusting 30-40mph (or felt that way!). So mostly dry and cold with significant windchill but nothing outrageous. This is about 800m max, along ridges etc.

I have worn mid weight softshell trousers (non-membraned) on the above freezing temp hikes. The only time I felt cold was when I wore a 150 weight merino base layer instead of the 200+ weight. So with midweight (marmot scree pants type) softshell top and bottoms, I had to wear a hardshell over the top in the beginning and after lunch, but only because the baselayer was too thin.

At freezing temps or below hikes, I wore the thicker softshell trousers and jacket, the jacket having a lightweight fleece-type lining in it (think it is called Patagonia Winter Guide, from five years ago?). All non-membraned. I wore a 150 merino and felt fine one day, and wore a 200 merino and felt warm only going up, when I wasn't even wearing gloves until I got to the top, it was so steep. After lunch/resting, I felt fine again.

Bear in mind I have lunch wearing a duvet/belay jacket and this stays on for half an hour until I warm up.

Summing up: for top half, 200 or 260 (the icebreaker bodyfit stuff?) weight merino and a heavier weight softshell is more versatile when it is snowing, as you can add the hardshell or subtract the softshell/vent the zips should you need to regulate. A thin baselayer means you never sweat but then you are never really warm enough, and if you have to keep the hardshell on because you are not warm enough, then why bother using softshell at all? For bottom half, I find warmer (not the lightweight fleece lined, such as Patagonia Northwall things, however) weight softshell is fine with the leg vents, which really work on the way up. Midweight softshell would probably be fine also but not below freezing with gusting winds. I never wear baselayer under softshell legs on the hill.

There are so many variables, I doubt the above is relevant but it may help you get an idea for how using a thicker softshell makes a hardshell a bit redundant but as most people won't leave home without it anyway, it serves as a backup warm over-layer before your belay/duvet jacket has to be worn. A hardshell being carried could always be substituted for the heavy softshell and that combo would be less hot, but I don't do that because I find my winter hardshell (Proshell) is too sweaty - I would rather have a wet back and and slow down my pace and vent than swap the softshell for goretex.

The one time I tried layering a patagonia R1 hoody underneath a softshell, I sweated too much.

Maybe they need a third category: Firmshell.

Have fun and let us know what you think. Oh, and if you get a pair of softshell trousers with the eyelets and lace hook, for making gaiter-bottoms for the snow, let us know how you get on with that - I keep forgetting to buy some shock-cord and making some myself, it would be handy to just loop the cord under the boots when there's a patch of deep snow, rare as that is in the UK (I hate gaiters, would rather pull snow from my boots every five minutes ;-) I do wear gaiters when the snow is deep and when wearing crampons to save my trousers from getting cut up.

Edit: as for the neoshell softshell (?) I don't have that but as it is already windproof as well as waterproof, it would act as if you were wearing two layers of goretex windblocker, rather than two layers of pertex or something like that, not uncommon in the UK. It just wouldn't breathe as well as a normal non-membraned softshell with a membrane on top, if you see my point. That is one reason why I don't see membraned-softshells as useful except for cycling in winter etc. But, one's mileage may vary.

9:11 p.m. on January 17, 2013 (EST)
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Soft shell.  Seriously what does that mean?  Can’t answer this question unless there is a mutual understanding of the terminology.  For instance I believe soft shells ARE suitable for high winds (think of the old 60/40 parkas or artic parkas) but they are not water proof.  But that is my definition.  So define what you mean by soft shell - don't give examples, we might not be familiar with current products.  Explain the performance spec. that defines soft shell.

Ed

9:17 p.m. on January 17, 2013 (EST)
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First, thanks.  this is the kind of real-world experience that helps a lot.  my pants are relatively heavy (patagonia alpine guide), no membrane, but don't have eyelets for shock-cord.  with the amounts of snow that are almost always present this time of year, i'll be wearing gtx gaiters.  

second, happy to define my terms.  to me, a 'soft shell' is made primarily of woven polyester, usually with a little bit of spandex or lycra, treated with an outer DWR so moisture tends to bead up on the outer face, unless you're in a driving rain for a while.  like old school stretch downhill ski pants, but with updated materials.  if you were to grab a square of soft shell fabric and pull the ends, it would stretch a fair bit, depending on how thick and tightly woven it is.  at the same time, the weave can be sufficiently tight that the shell is still very wind and water resistant, though not completely windproof and almost never 'waterproof' unless the polyester outer shell is combined with some kind of membrane. most soft shells tend to feel 'thick' in your hand and may have a somewhat fuzzy inner face.  

to me, hard shells are primarily nylon, woven much tighter than a 'soft shell,' hence have little or no ability to stretch and tend to vent significantly less moisture than soft shells.  but, i consider hard shells to be much more wind-resistant or windproof than soft shells.  hard shells are generally much thinner and more 'crinkly.'  i considered my old 60/40 parka (cotton/nylon blend) to be a hard shell, it didn't have any 'stretch' to it, though it was certainly softer-feeling in your hand than many of today's 100% nylon 'hard shells.'  very light nylon wind shirts, coated nylon rain jackets, and most waterproof/breathable rain/ski/climbing shells also fall into this category for me.  

Neoshell is very wind-resistant but perhaps not completely windproof, especially in really high wind and with the membrane combined with a soft shell rather than a hard nylon shell.  it is slightly air-permeable and consequently feels slightly 'colder' than a hard shell jacket with a GTX or eVent membrane.  

Second, regarding the weather, the mountains in Northern New Hampshire routinely have challenging winter conditions.  check out the Mount Washington Observatory weather page:

http://www.mountwashington.org/weather/

the forecast for tomorrow: highs at roughly -10F, winds 50-70 mph with stronger gusts.  in other words, tomorrow is NOT a soft shell day.  

9:49 p.m. on January 17, 2013 (EST)
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Check with the folks at VFTT, the NE site. It's kind of funny in a way, but after constantly reading all the posts there about lost hikers and rescues, you'd think that place was the most dangerous on Earth for hikers.

10:01 p.m. on January 17, 2013 (EST)
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I've used softshell jackets under my hardshell.  Like I have a Marmot M3 softshell and have worn it under a gortex jacket just like you would wear a puffy jacket for an insulating layer.

10:18 p.m. on January 17, 2013 (EST)
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Mt. Washington does have some of the worst weather on the planet, including the highest recorded wind gust. It has its own micro climate, def has very changeable weather. Those temps and wind speeds he quoted are not out of the ordinary at all, could be much worse this time of the year.

10:20 p.m. on January 17, 2013 (EST)
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Right now it is -12.2 the wind is steady at 48.3 with a wind chill of -48.

5:18 a.m. on January 18, 2013 (EST)
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Ed is right of course, in that we have to state our terms if we are not to talk across one another and just confuse the situation. I see that marmot have some kind of stretch hardshell jkt and that arcteryx have belay jkts with either waterproof or highly water resistant shells.

So if a windproof like pertex or simple nylon shell is 1 and having stretch is 1.1 and having a membrane is 1.2 and having membrane with stretch is 1.3; and a waterproof is 2, and 2.1 with stretch; and a (inclusive/not inclusive) fleece (lining) is either A for thin and B and C for thick; and down or synthetic down insulation is X, Y, Z, going from thin to thick, then:

Ice Climbing with Keanu Reeves for the day only: Baselayer, 1.3.B, Z1.2

Backpacking with Bette Midler for week: Baselayer, 1, A, 2, Y

In other words, neoshell stretchy softshell (herein Firmshell) can be coupled with a shelled belay jacket if, and only if, you are not staying overnight/carrying a 70 litre pack etc, where single-function layers of more number are better than fewer multi-layers. (IMO.) If a Firmshell is not taped, I hereby recommend the term Stiffshell.

9:24 a.m. on January 18, 2013 (EST)
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leadbelly2550 said:

..to me, a 'soft shell' is made primarily of woven polyester, usually with a little bit of spandex or lycra, treated with an outer DWR so moisture tends to bead up on the outer face, unless you're in a driving rain for a while.  like old school stretch downhill ski pants, but with updated materials.  if you were to grab a square of soft shell fabric and pull the ends, it would stretch a fair bit, depending on how thick and tightly woven it is.  at the same time, the weave can be sufficiently tight that the shell is still very wind and water resistant, though not completely windproof and almost never 'waterproof' unless the polyester outer shell is combined with some kind of membrane. most soft shells tend to feel 'thick' in your hand and may have a somewhat fuzzy inner face.  

to me, hard shells are primarily nylon, woven much tighter than a 'soft shell,' hence have little or no ability to stretch and tend to vent significantly less moisture than soft shells.  but, i consider hard shells to be much more wind-resistant or windproof than soft shells.  hard shells are generally much thinner and more 'crinkly.'  i considered my old 60/40 parka (cotton/nylon blend) to be a hard shell, it didn't have any 'stretch' to it, though it was certainly softer-feeling in your hand than many of today's 100% nylon 'hard shells.'  very light nylon wind shirts, coated nylon rain jackets, and most waterproof/breathable rain/ski/climbing shells also fall into this category for me.  

Neoshell is very wind-resistant but perhaps not completely windproof, especially in really high wind and with the membrane combined with a soft shell rather than a hard nylon shell.  it is slightly air-permeable and consequently feels slightly 'colder' than a hard shell jacket with a GTX or eVent membrane...  

It is still hard for me to determine the difference between what you call a soft shell versus a hard shell.  There seems significant overlap.  I would not base the definition on materials used per se, especially since there are plenty of exceptions to the guide lines as you describe.  Instead I prefer classifications centering on performance characteristics that remain consistent through history, regardless of advents in material and fabrication techniques. 

In my world anything not windproof isn’t a shell; it is at best “outer wear.”  For example down sweaters are usually not wind shells; nor are most wool jackets.  To me both soft and hard shells are effectively windproof  (my old 60/40 was effectively windproof coming just short of completely blocking air circulation through the fabric).  The difference between soft and hard shells then are the manner they deal with liquid water and water vapor.

The operative difference between soft shells and hard shells is a hard shell is intended block liquid water, while a soft shell is intended to permit free passage of water vapor.  A hard shell is not merely water resistant; it is water proof.  It will keep you dry under continuous expose to dew and rain.  Coated nylon and membrane technologies are examples of materials used to achieve waterproof function.  Anyone familiar with these materials realizes they achieve their waterproof characteristics at the expense of allowing free passage of water vapor through their fabrics.  Gore-Tex and similar membrane technologies claim to permit venting of water vapor, but anyone who has worn such garments while under physical labor knows membrane solutions don’t vent sweat nearly as well in this regard as tight woven uncoated nylon, the old 60/40 fabrics, etc.  Hence why many membrane and coated garments have vent zippers.  

Soft shells on the other hand readily permit evaporating sweat and water vapor to flow through their fabrics, but are at best only water resistant.  Soft shell garments do not have  membrane layers or urethane-like coatings.  They may, however, have spray-on or dipped chemical treatments that make them water resistant – good for a brief sprinkle - but they aren’t good solutions if you are in sustained exposure to rain or dew.  And in any case I find water resistant treatments like silicone sprays and chemical dips partially impede the moisture venting characteristics of soft shells, so I do not treat my soft shell garments with these products.   

Given this functional difference, I prefer soft shells for subfreezing conditions and other conditions where liquid water is not a concern.  I want something that will allow sweat to readily vent from my garments, as sweat is the primary cause of wet garments for the experienced winter and arid climate traveler.  This said, assuming you are not post holing about or thrusting your hands into a snow bank.  For those conditions I may use a combination of soft and hard shells, with hard shell items covering areas that must deal with prolonged contact with external water and soft shell items for the rest of my coverage.  For example I may go with hard shell gaiters and pants if post holing, but soft shells for these items if I can remain on top of the snow; I will use soft shell gloves for skiing and camp-side activities, but choose hardshell gloves for climbing and other activities where my hands are in regular contact with snow and ice surfaces.  And of course I use hard shell garments in rainy and dew prone environments and soft shells where rain or dew in not a consideration such as rain-free desert locations.

You will notice I did not dwell on other performance features one may want in a shell garment.  For example you address on how supple and stretchy different fabrics are.  To me these are secondary considerations as tailoring can compensate for these qualities.  In any case if one attempted to consider such additional criteria to delineate between soft and hard shells, the definition matrix would be orders of magnitude more complex.

If not to confuse the topic further, there are some garments that confound these classifications.  Oil cloth, for example is water proof, when maintained, and vents water vapor well.  But it is not very windproof, so I am hesitant to declare it a shell garment in this context.  And then there are the tech fabrics with fuzzy surfaces that use water surface tension to repel water; such fabrics fall just short of being water proof, but claim they will keep you dry for long periods, vent sweat vapor well, and are wind proof.  Such tech fabric items I might consider hybrid shells, but I really do not have any experience with these items, so I cannot comment about how I would use them in the field.  Lastly there are garments with chemical applications the manufacturers claim are durable and water proof, but I am disinclined to declare them as hard shells since every example of this type of technology I have seen has a short work life span, relative to membrane and coated technologies.

Ed

12:08 p.m. on January 18, 2013 (EST)
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I wear a soft shell old TNF jacket with a sweatshirt underneath and other layers to hike and bike in cold weather. It blocks the cold wind and keeps me warmer than just the layers of clothing can.

2:32 p.m. on January 18, 2013 (EST)
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I've been wondering this myself. I have a hoody made of Polartec Windpro, fleecy inside with a stretchy but shiny DWR surface. Like a varnished sweatshirt, which it is. I have another jacket made of Polartec Windproof, which has two soft fuzzy sides with a DWR membrane between them. More water resistance in the 'Windpro', more insulation in the 'Windproof', because of their surfaces.

Are they both 'softshells'? Is one a 'fleece'? Same ingredients, different layers.

For what it's worth, Leadbelly, I find both Polartec fabrics do the breathable windblocking they promise. Plenty of air flow, but it's under a speed limit. Great for high intensity in cold wind.

3:51 p.m. on January 18, 2013 (EST)
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i can live with Ed's functional definition, with the caveat that you have to look at all of these on a continuum, thanks to the growing variety of options.  the marmot jacket i am thinking about using this winter has an outer shell that feels, in your hand, like a soft shell, and functionally, the jacket does a really nice job allowing moisture to escape.  but, it also has a membrane that has a little stretch to it and that is completely waterproof.   

i played hookey from work this morning, a nice 35 degree, 25 mph wind sunny morning, hiked in this jacket the whole time.  the fairly thin base layer was damp, but the inner surface of the jacket was only barely damp.  by contrast, the true soft shell pants i wore, no membrane, didn't even feel damp inside.  both were more than up to the task with winds at this level.   

10:33 a.m. on January 19, 2013 (EST)
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Let's sum up the discussion this way.  I used to live in Wyoming which is cold in winter, as in below zero with lots of wind.  Mt Washington is famous for its crappy weather in winter.  Why would you chose that as a destination in January?  If you think that it matters what kind of shell you are wearing will make the difference in being comfortable with 50 mph winds when it is below zero, that is some wishful thinking.

It will be much more important that you figure out ways to get out of the wind.  You are talking about conditions that kill people even when they are well dressed with the latest fabric.

11:25 a.m. on January 20, 2013 (EST)
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ppine said:

Let's sum up the discussion this way.  I used to live in Wyoming which is cold in winter, as in below zero with lots of wind.  Mt Washington is famous for its crappy weather in winter.  Why would you chose that as a destination in January?  If you think that it matters what kind of shell you are wearing will make the difference in being comfortable with 50 mph winds when it is below zero, that is some wishful thinking.

It will be much more important that you figure out ways to get out of the wind.  You are talking about conditions that kill people even when they are well dressed with the latest fabric.

 

i like climbing up there this time of year because:

-it is challenging.  

-the landscape and the things I see are so different from the hikes i normally do - and strikingly beautiful or awesome a lot of the time.

-the mountains are so empty this time of year; no crowded trails, for sure.  

-it's a bonding experience i share with friends & family that is somehow more memorable than doing the same hike in the summer.  

and, the gear you bring actually does make a difference.  you never know what kind of weather you will get up there.  i'm perfectly ready for the really bad weather.  my goal here is finding a better comfort zone for the relatively good days, where i tend to overheat.  

4:13 p.m. on January 24, 2013 (EST)
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I tend to like the patagonia base layers.  So for me with what you have assuming you dont want to use some kind of insulated jacket.  I would use a capalene 2 with a capelene 4 zip up under your soft shell.  They both breathe really well so over heating is not as easy.

 

Side note: I never really use "soft shell" stuff as i generally like items that can be used for a wide variety of situations  Soft shell (to me) cant do anything that a "hard shell" can do.  But a hard shell can hold up to weather that a soft shell cant.  So there is no place for one in my pack(summer) or sled(winter).

12:33 a.m. on January 25, 2013 (EST)
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Noeshell is intriguing. I say push the limits of the material to see how far you can take it and remain comfortable, which of course is contingent upon your level of exertion when battling the most extreme conditions. If you are moving while the temps and wind are really hellacious, and you run warm under exertion like I do, then the supposedly very slight air permeability of Neoahell at the extreme may keep you dry and warm (acting synergistically with your insulating base layers). As prepared as I suspect you'll be, you'll quickly have an impenetratable hard shell (hopefully nice and light) ready if you need it... Best wishes and a safe return :)

11:51 a.m. on January 25, 2013 (EST)
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that's the plan - check things out, see how the stuff works, but carry backup and come home in one piece.  the weather has been frigid and extremely windy the past few weeks, so should be interesting. 

12:22 p.m. on January 25, 2013 (EST)
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stop into International Mountain equipment store in North Conway and ask for Rick Wilcox, owner of the IME.......take his advise! He'll happily outfit you with the proper gear.  He'll give you better advise than all of us weekend warriors are able to.    Rick recently climbed Everest, and has climbed MT. washington in Winter as many times as any person alive, probably....He's the real deal! 

3:40 p.m. on January 25, 2013 (EST)
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I'm a former NH native and have been in there a few times.  nice high-end gear and very good rental equipment.  I'm pretty well geared at this point and much more apt to be down the road at Elvio's for a slice, though. 

I'm no Rick Wilcox.  But, I have been up the Presidentials in the winter at least 20 times over the last 28 years.   

He climbed Everest recently? Isn't he in his mid-60s? wow. 

4:11 p.m. on January 25, 2013 (EST)
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well...........maybe in the last dozen years..time does go by!

6:09 p.m. on January 25, 2013 (EST)
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I have spent a nightmare day wearing a soft-shell jacket on a rainy climb up Lunch Counter on Mount Adams.  I stupidly did not bring a hard-shell.

Being synthetic they still keep you warm-ish when wet but stopping will leave you cold.  My solution was to keep hiking, set up the tent, get inside and into dry clothes. 

These are NOT as waterproof as they say and they are heavy.  The DWR finish will leak once the beaded water is rubbed in by pack straps or any other type of friction.  Do not wear one if you expect anything other than DRY snow or if you are trying to be light.  They do not remain waterproof.  I have owned three and, once I understood this limitation I found them great in winds up to anything I can comfortably tolerate (20-30 mph-ish) and light rain or dry snow.

7:41 p.m. on January 25, 2013 (EST)
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that was my experience with a 'regular' soft shell, a north face that has DWR but isn't waterproof.  once they wet out, they are sodden/heavy and don't keep you very warm or dry.

entirely different for a soft shell jacket with a neoshell membrane, which is completely waterproof, including taped seams.  has kept me dry in all-day steady rain.  not as stretchy as a regular soft shell, but has many of the same qualities - the thick/quiet outer fabric, some level of stretch, more comfortable/less baggy to wear.  really a hybrid soft shell/hardshell.  the new membrane is noticeably more air-permeable, though, so high winds may be a concern.

we'll see.....

 

9:07 p.m. on January 25, 2013 (EST)
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Well I just climbed Mt Washington last weekend and here's what I wore. It was a mild day, about 10 degrees with 80 mph winds. Maybe between 30 and 40 below zero.

Below treeline - base layer tops and bottom, medium fleece jacket and polypropylene pants,  soft shell full zip pants and a soft shell jacket. 

Above treeline - the only thing I added was a hard shell jacket to handle the extra wind, a balaclava, and goggles.

Just remember, in a few weeks, it's still going to be full winter conditions above tree line, but leading up to that when down in the valley, temps could be significantly warmer. A soft shell is not the best if there's a lot of water moisture, but as long as it's all frozen it's a great choice.

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