Softshell or hardshell? A guide for the three season layering.

This article aims to provide the tools for understanding the criterias behind choosing between a hardshell and a softshell according to our activities and budget.

For this article I have been testing the VANIR LOGR Jacket by HELLY HANSEN, a versatile 3 season softshell that will help us understand the advantages and limitations of this category of jackets. Over a month I’ve been using it all the way from the North Atlantic shore to the high mountains of the Pyrenees. From alpine ridges, to ski touring, hiking, biking, climbing and even as my jacket to go for checking the surf.

“Always a good hardshell and cut the bullshit.”

That’s an easy statement, of course. Why wouldn’t you pack your 3 layer 30 000mm waterproof jacket and go instead for a two or two and a half layer jacket with a maximum of 12 000mm protection? Well, sometimes there is more to that dilemma that it may seem at first glance.

First of all, a jacket with a waterproof ratio over 30 000mm with sealed zippers will normally cost from 400€ all the way to over 700€. You are going to need such a jacket as soon as your activities will get more serious or generally if you venture in the high mountains during the winter. Period. However, that doesn’t imply that perhaps it’s wise to save your rent-like expensive jacket for when conditions and terrain are nasty and go for a softshell of 10 000mm and under 200€ for an all-round purpose when conditions are more friendly.In this case, the VANIR LOGR Jacket costs 180€. Budget apart, the second main reason for choosing a softshell, is that they can actually be more cleverly featured for a wide range of activities on the mountains during the three seasons than a hardshell.

THE SHELL

Softshells achieve greater breathability ratios and allow you to move more natural, diminishing the rigid, plasticky feeling of a hardshell. In the case of the VANIR LOGR Jacket I find smart that they use for the shell a combination of two different materials.

The exposed parts such as the upper back, front panel, upper arms and hood are made of a sturdier fabric called Helly Tech: two layers and a half, windproof and a waterproof ratio of  10 000mm. Then, for the less exposed areas where heat and sweat tends to concentrate such as the side panels, armpits, underarms and back panel (backpack area) they go for a less waterproof but high breathability fabric. This fabric is as well softer and more flexible making the jacket more ergonomic. It actually feels good to move on it for high intensity rhythm activities such as fast hiking and ski touring.

 

 I really embrace the extra ventilation net of the armpits and upper back. I have no problems with cold, but god, I can’t bear heat at all. The nets are protected from the element and you get a little extra airflow. I like in particular that there are no zipper on the armpits; clean and functional. I’m actually not a big fan of ventilation zippers on the armpits. It just gets heavier and it’s uncomfortable for climbing.

  

ONTHEBELAY  About finding couloirs, powder forests and been alone in the whole national park.

LINING

Softshells tend to be lighter and take less volume to pack; but watch out, this can be tricky. Some manufactures tend to overcharge their softshells with bulky insulating liners that turn your light jacket into a heavy layer that sucks to climb or move fast on it. Moreover they can take half of your backpack. I don’t know why some manufacturers keep going for such option, it just kills all the competitive advantages of a softshell.

In my layers I like things clear, the shell should be the shell and then you should have separately an insulating layer. When you try to add everything into the same piece of gear you end up having a weird thing that doesn’t work for any specific situation. The VANIR LOGR jacket has a very thin velvety liner. It’s just enough so it feels cozy to the touch and against a t-shirt but not too much as to feel unnecessary, bulky or heavy.

 There is as well a panel of this fabric on the neck. This is definitely king. It really feels great when the cozy fabric is covering your neck instead of the cold-like plasticky feeling of a shell.

PERFORMANCE UNDER THE RAIN

The fabric Helly Tech holds 10 000mm waterproof ratio. How does this translate in your daily use? well, I haven’t been quick enough with my camera yet, but when it’s raining you can actually take those fancy pictures of raindrops floating on the shoulder of your jacket and sliding down. This is pretty cool, but we have to think that on heavy prolonged rain, like the one we have on the European north atlantic shore, after some hours, it is going to go through.

The jacket has some weak spots; of course, it’s meant to be like this, it’s not a hardshell. Even though the zips are cleverly placed, hidden and doubled by layers of shell, they are not thermosealed. The side panels will slowly catch humidity and the sturdy panels will do so after some hours on proper heavy rain. This does not mean that you will end up soaked. Kind of the opposite actually. On a normal rainy day with periods of clouds, sun and occasional showers, you should not feel any moist going through the shell. As soon as rain stops and there is a bit of sun and wind the shell will get completely dry very fast.

On a proper heavy rain day after an hour of exposure, the side panels will start transferring moist and the Helly Tech panels will do so after the second hour. While you keep moving, you won’t feel soaked, it’s more a feeling of adding moisture to your warm sweat. For such days it is important to plan the exit in a way that we can be back home in a maximum time of three hours. To be fair, in proper nasty days, even with a hardshell, it’s hard not to end up the same way. The humidity present before and during a summer storm tends to make you sweaty and moist all over if you are on the move with a hardshell.

BEST ACTIVITY

Between may and october, If I go for a 4h activity and it is going to rain at some point, even if it’s going to be heavy rain, and my idea is to move fast, then I still would go for a softshell like the VANIR LOGR Jacket. This jacket works extremely well for fast hikes on a light backpack. For such situations, I combine the jacket with a high breathability t-shirt and then I pack on my backpack an extra t-shirt and a thin insulating layer. It does also a great job ski touring and scrambling. Ease of movement and high breathability. I have used it as well as my jacket to go for sport climbing and bouldering. It’s breathable for the approach and holds proper rain.

LIMITATIONS

I would only go for the softshell if I know that after some four hours I’ll be back home or somewhere where I can get dry and changed. On a more exposed activity such as a multi day hike, bivouacking or sleeping in a tent, then it is smarter to bring a proper hardshell and an extra thick insulating layer.

ONTHEBELAY  Ski Touring: choosing your first setup.

It’s not a running jacket. If you are into the trail running hipe and are out there enough for needing something specific instead of an all rounder, then this is not your jacket. Generally proper running shells are just a very packable plastic. For trail running less is more. So, linner, pockets, even full zips should go off. If you are not that much into trail running and just go for occasional mountain runs, as it’s my case, then the VANIR LOGR jacket is more than enough for you.

RESISTANCE TO ABRASION

Here is where we climbers have to be picky with our shells.  There are two things that destroy our shells: first, the regular wear against the backpack and harness and second, the friction against rock. This last one can be tricky, a bad move against a sharp rock can easily tear open a big amount of the technical fabrics on the market. After an intense month of use, so far it doesn’t have wear marks on shoulders or hips due to the friction against the backpack and harness. I’ve tested it with the classic heavy ski mountaineering pack and a harness full of gear, and it has been doing well so far. However, last week I took it on an alpine activity where there was a ridge graded III and IV. At some point I needed to do a friction maneuver, kind of chimney-ish like move and I tore three small holds towards the shoulder.

 

To be fair it was very sharp granite. This can as well  happen on hardshells that do not have a high abrasion ratio. That’s actually constantly happening on granite ridges to my hardshell ski pants from another manufacturer. However sturdy hardshell fabrics can easily take that kind of friction over and over again. I do have a sturdy hardshell, so from now on, I know that on sharp granite terrain that requires “dirty” climbing maneuvers I would rather take a sturdy hardshell like it can be the case of the Helly Hansen ODIN 9 WORLDS Jacket.

FIT

I am 1.80cm tall, I weight 78kg, I have quite long arms, thin hips and broad shoulders. On the images I am wearing the VANIR LOGR Jacket in size L and I get an accurate athletic fit. Actually I am very happy with the cut of the jacket. Another clever feature is that the jacket is slightly longer on the back than on the front. I really appreciate it while ski touring so wind don’t get me in the under back, and it’s also nice when you have a harness on. There is no extra fabric disturbing on the front, but your lower back is as well covered and well enveloped.

FINAL NOTE

The finishes of the jacket really do make it neat and smart. Moreover I find the bright chartreuse colour really cool. If been on the fancy train is important for you, then this probably should be your jacket! I hope now you have more clear what you have to look for when gearing up a shell. Do not hesitate on writing a comment if you need more specific information.


Happy times in the mountains and on the shores!

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