See also: Clothing Guide
Over the past 6 years or so we have seen the garment known as a softshell jacket morph from basically a heavy duty windshirt through to a stretchy waterproof and then most of the way back again. There is no consensus between shops or brands over what constitutes a softshell. This is NOT a definitive answer but what we at Facewest think about it and how we categorise the softshell we sell.
Softshell is a concept and can range from light non membraned fabrics through to heavy duty membraned ones. It is now possible to make a 100% waterproof membraned and taped jacket with stretch and a soft exterior. Some brands are calling this a waterproof softshell but at Facewest we call this a waterproof jacket. Just look at how the different brands market the new Polartec Neoshell fabric, as an example of the general confusion. For us if it's 100% waterproof then its a waterproof jacket, if its abrasion resistant, not waterproof and stretchy then it's a softshell. Softshell can then be subdivided by the type of fabric.
Heavy Duty Softshell
Heavy duty softshell generally has either a full membrane which is not taped (Gore Windstopper) or a non taped perforated membrane (Polartec PowerShield). The membrane is bonded to a fairly thick, hard wearing and stretchy outer fabric. Sometimes the membraned fabric is combined with non membraned fabrics in the perspiration areas for better breathability. This type of softshell is great for winter climbing and general winter use but can suffer from clamminess when working hard. These jackets are generally 500 - 750g in weight. They are very abrasion resistant so popular with climbers. One concept we don't subscribe to at Facewest is that if you have a nearly waterproof softshell, you do not need to carry a proper waterproof in the mountains. The idea that you don't need a waterproof if it is below freezing, that you will turn for home if the weather craps out or generate enough heat on the move to not need a waterproof assumes that you are always in control of what goes on and will not have circumstances forced upon you. This is not our experience of days out in the mountains. So any softshell jacket needs to be backed up by a waterproof jacket. Now you can have a very minimalist waterproof that you will hardly ever wear (the best idea for those chimney\crack climbing) or choose to have a lighter weight softshell jacket for better breathability and put your waterproof on slightly earlier in poor weather (the better choice for hill walkers).
Generally made from one or two non membraned fabrics, that are very tough, block a good amount or wind and will shrug off a light shower. These lighter softshells can be used at any time of year depending on what you layer with them and your choice of waterproof. Most brands use proprietary fabrics here so they have all sorts of names. Light softshells are very good at coping with abrasion so make excellent cragging jackets and if your crag is not a mountain one you could dispense with your waterproof. The fabrics are also much more versatile style wise so a softshell jacket can also be used as an everyday jacket for work etc and so offer good value for money. Generally lightweight softshells without membranes are quite breathable but be careful as the more wind they block, the more body vapour they retain. Wearing a lightweight waterproof with a softshell is a good combination for climbers but softshell jackets are not the best midlayers (too heavy, not breathable enough and too thick) so if abrasion is not an issue then consider a windshirt instead. Non membraned softshells are considerable cheaper then those with membranes and can be washed more frequently. They are also lighter around 350 - 500g.
At Facewest we make a distinction between windproofs and softshell jackets but you could also argue that windproofs are just the lightest category of softshell. They block a small amount of weather, breathe really well and work as a mid or outer layer depending on conditions. The heaviest of windproofs, like a Rab VR Lite jacket is obviously a softshell jacket. Heavyweight windproofs are even pretty abrasion resistant. If you do not plan to be dragging yourself up Chinmeys and cracks and are not bothered about the less 'street' styling of windproofs then these make the most versatile mid \ outer layers. Costing about the same as lightweight softshell they are more comfortable to wear, and layer better with a waterproof jacket.
Softshell jackets are tough, comfortable, weather resistant and look pretty good but do not layer particularly well. Heavy weight membraned softshells are good for winter climbing, but you still need a waterproof in our opinion. Lightweight softshells can be used in a layering system at any time of year, great for climbing and everyday use but there are better options if you wear a shell quite frequently. Windproofs are awesome for most things except high abrasion climbing but the look of them puts some people off. The combination of a windshirt, light softshell jacket and lightweight waterproof cover all the bases, unless you are a winter climber or skier who needs a tough and weatherproof outer layer.