Last year, "soft shell" was a foreign term, but now these futuristic garments are changing the way we dress for our sport. The long-held paradigm of a three-tiered system (wicking base layer, insulating mid layer, waterproof-breathable outer shell) is giving way to a simpler idea: Throw on a jacket and go skiing.
Cut from stretch-woven fabrics by Schoeller or versions of Polartec's Power Shield, created for one-jacket versatility, and emphasizing breathability, soft shells are comfortable in a surprisingly wide range of conditions. You don't have to stop and shed clothing just because the sun comes out while you're boot-packing up a ridge; in most cases, all you need underneath is a base layer. And although some weather protection is compromised, most soft shells block wind and repel water well enough that skiers can leave their trusty Gore-Tex in the closet on all but the dankest days.
As the next generation of soft shells hits the slopes, they're more versatile than ever: Some feature bomber waterproof-breathable protection; others add hoods, larger pockets, and vents. Best of all, with sleek, pared-down styling and distinctive fabrics, even fashion-phobes have to agree that soft shells look cool. And looking cool isn't so bad, is it?
Svelte, Athletic Performer
It's a cute little number, but Sierra Designs' M8 for women is also a technical workhorse. Made from a thin version of Power Shield with a brushed micro- fleece lining and a DWR (Durable Water Resistant) coating, it's exceptionally weather resistant, although, like most soft shells, not completely waterproof. Underarm stretch-fleece inserts increase ventilation and mobility. The men's version, the Black Ice, comes in a masculine greenish-brown. ($199; 800-635-0461, sierradesigns.com)
Cozy Warmth, Lightweight Versatility
The North Face's Vector Thermal jacket has a furry high-loft fleece lining for insulation, but it's so breathable you won't overheat. When you do get warm, simply unzip the large chest vents for instant AC. The jacket's lightweight fabric, an abrasion-resistant stretch-woven Polartec Power Shield, blocks wind and, with a DWR coating, takes a serious dunking to get soaked. ($229; 800-447-2333, thenorthface.com)
Chill Fighting with Smart Fabric
For extra warmth when you need it-those clammy lift rides after you've pounded a long bump run-Cloudveil's Cascade takes highly breathable Schoeller Dynamic and lines it with a brushed "smart" fabric that reduces evaporative heat loss by retaining and reflecting body heat. Emphasizing breathability over weather resistance, this lean-fitting top makes sense for aggro skiers. ($240; 888-763-5969, cloudveil.com)
Half soft shell, half bomber ski jacket, the hooded Arc'Teryx Javelin Comp pieces together two technical fabrics to create a true hybrid. The body is highly breathable Schoeller Dryskin 300 with a soft interior and DWR finish for extra water- repellency; the shoulders and outer arms have a three-layer waterproof-breathable laminate similar to Gore-Tex. ($325; 800-985-6681, arcteryx.com)
Versatile Body Armor
With taped seams, water-resistant vent zips, an adjustable hood, and burly shoulder reinforcements, the Mammut Castor represents the next generation of full-featured soft shells: Unlike the rest of the fleet here, it's completely waterproof-albeit, slightly less breathable. Its stretchy Schoeller Dynamic Drytech Extreme fabric is soft, yet rugged enough for a day in the hardwoods. ($345; 800-451-5127, climbhigh.com)
Shell and Fleece In One
The Patagonia Core Skin jacket is made from yet another version of Polartec Power Shield-this one with a grid-patterned fleece interior for lightweight yet amazingly compressible innsulation. The stretch nylon outer face is wind and abrasion resistant yet breathable enough for touring. A DWR finish ups the water- repellency. Thankfully, the between-the-legs strap-said to keep the jacket in place-is removable. ($249; 800-638-6464, patagonia.com)