Soft shell vs. hard shell.

4:36 a.m. on August 22, 2019 (EDT)
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I just got a new jacket that I'd ordered.  I wanted a shell with large pockets that would hold my new camera.  I couldn't really tell from the photo or specs if it was hard shell or soft shell.  Turned out to be soft shell.  Nice jacket for $20.  Man, I love Sierra Trading Post.

I have a ridiculous number of jackets, both hard shell and soft shell.  Soft shell is nice.  It's supple, stretchy, and quiet.  But it does have a couple drawbacks.  It's generally heavier than hard shell and takes up more room in my pack.  Soft shell isn't just one material.  I have really thin soft shell jackets and some pretty thick soft shell jackets.  I have a Gore Running wear Windstopper jacket that I just love.  It is made out of a really thin, light soft shell fabric.  I have other jackets that are a really thick, heavy soft shell material and wear them mostly around town. 

My question is, do the thick soft shell jackets offer any significant insulation value?  None of them seem to make that claim.  I've heard them referred to as warm, but everyone seems reluctant to claim any insulation value.  If they have none, I find it hard to justify their extra weight and bulk.  My personal experience is that they do add some warmth, whether you call in insulation or not.  On the other hand, a heavy soft shell can compress the insulation of a puffy jacket.  I'm inclined to only wear them over fleece or alone.

I guess my favorite shell material is a soft shell of the thin, light, stretchy variety.  Hard to find, but grab it if you do.

1:27 p.m. on August 22, 2019 (EDT)
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taking your question apart a little - 

-the heavier soft shells usually weigh more because they have something other than the shell itself. it might be a thin layer of fuzzy material on the inside; it might be a polartec neoshell or gore windstopper membrane bonded to the soft shell. The internal fuzz doesn't add a whole lot in terms of insulation; a membrane might both improve the shell's ability to repel wind and keep some internal heat in. Soft shells with a membrane definitely feel warmer during hard use, eg hiking uphill, nordic skiing or snowshoeing. Either way, though, I don't consider any soft shell without dedicated insulation (eg down, primaloft) to impart much warmth.

-the main benefit of soft shells, for me, is that they stretch some, nice when you're really active or reaching your arms around (climbing), and because soft shells may do a better job allowing some air flow in and moisture (vapor) flow out than many hard shells - looser weave, better 'breathability.' but it depends on the soft shell you have. anyway, if your goal with a soft shell is breathability, wearing a puffy underneath kind of defeats the purpose. 

-any shell, soft or hard, can compress the insulation on a puffy mid-layer if the shell isn't sized to fully accommodate the puffy layer. No shell i have ever used is sized to accommodate a down or synthetic fill jacket designed for sub-zero weather - at that point, the outer shell isn't really giving you any function the puffy jacket isn't. so, the real question is, is your shell large enough that it doesn't compress a light to light-mid puffy layer? to answer this question, it really depends on the particular shell you're wearing.  

-for the reasons i noted above, i don't think most soft shells are sized to accommodate a puffy unless it's a very lightweight one. a lighter down sweater like mountain hardwear's ghost whisperer, Arcteryx Atom, patagonia nano air can work under my soft shell. hard shells come in many shapes and sizes; some are very 'athletic' profiled and don't have room for much more than a baselayer, while others can readily handle a light puffy underneath. consider Arcteryx - some of their jackets are a very athletic cut, not much room for layering (but lighter weight), vs. other jackets that have more volume in the arms and torso for layering.  

-gave my brother a gift several years ago, an eddie bauer/first ascent sandstone soft shell. it's very light and stretchy. it wouldn't be my choice on a very cold, blustery day because it's only partially effective with wind, but it's very comfortable and thin, and wasn't terribly expensive.  

November 21, 2019
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