The North Face Kishtwar Jacket
Credit: The North Face

Ryan Stuart explains why soft shells are best for winter layering

A reader asked me my strategy for layering for ski touring. Here's what I replied:

In the winter my jacket strategy is a softshell 90 percent of the time.

I throw on light hard shell when it gets really nasty and a light insulated piece for rest stops or really windy summit pushes. With a base layer or two I'm set for temperatures that range from -25 to +10 C and exertion levels from sitting around for 30 minutes to going full out. If I'm wearing two, I'll wear a synthetic layer next to my skin and mid-weight merino or fleece on top of that. The key is to monitor yourself and add or drop layers to keep from sweating too much.

A lot of people will scoff at the idea of wearing a softshell most of the time in winter, but I think sweating is the big threat, not getting soaked. Plus, a new breed of these shells really do make this a realistic layering strategy.

Polartec's Power Sheild Pro is the top of the line in this category. It's 95 percent windproof and almost waterproof - I wore it in a downpour and it took two hours for it to soak through. For below zero temps it is almost as weatherproof as a hard shell, yet breaths far better, which means you'll be more comfortable (read: sweat less) in a greater range of temperatures. Plus a softshell, with a fleecy interior and lots of stretch, is more comfortable to wear. Both the North Face Kishtwar. The Kishtwar has a looser fit that will layer over a insulated piece or fleece well. Several more Power Sheild Pro jackets and pants will appear on the market this spring and fall.

Polartec also makes a few other heavy duty softshells under the Power Sheild family, Power Shield and Power Shield O2. Both are more breathable and less weatherproof than Pro. I like Arc'Teryx's Epsillon SV Jacket made from Powersheild 02 fabric. It also comes in an hooded versuib. It's ideal for aerobic activities in really cold temps.

Stoic's Welder softshells are great too. They're made with Power Sheild.

A fabric I haven't tried, but hear good things about is from Schoeller and is found on Mountain Equipment Co-Op's Fusion Jacket.

Any of these will provide enough light wind and precip protection for almost every winter activity, plus they'll breath a whole lot better than a hard shell.

For a hard shell I'd go for something light, like Marmot's Nano Jacket, an 11 ounce Gore PacLite shell. There are plenty of other shells like this and the nicest thing about them is that they're light enough for year round use, so there's no need to have a winter shell and summer shell.