Tuesday 6 December 2011

Jack Wolfskin Atmosphere Softshell £75 - 15/4/11

The Jack Wolfskin Atmosphere Softshell jacket is a slightly unusual offering from an outdoor brand many will have heard of, but few may have used. Despite the English-sounding name they are, in fact, a German-based supplier, offering a wide range of products from clothing to rucksacks, tents to sleeping bags, and boots to baselayers. Their catalogue is a work of beauty: shot in the most stunning of locations, it contains gear-porn suitable for only the highest of top shelves.

Unsurprisingly given their location, much of the gear has a distinctly Alpine slant, covering expedition ski touring and mountaineering, as well as hiking and trekking in colder conditions. Because of that it’s often intended to be quite warm kit, and is not always ever so lightweight, but the range has distinct summer and winter collections, and there are definitely occasions when they have something more suited to the typical UK climate, particularly amongst the summer offering.

The Atmosphere Softshell is part of a growing lightweight collection that JW are now developing. Of course, the term “softshell” means different things to different people, including manufacturers, so any definition is likely to be rather vague. However, broadly speaking, it describes a garment occupying the middle ground between a fleece and a waterproof jacket – more weatherproof than the former yet more breathable than the latter, and with a degree of windproofing and/or stretch, too. The confusion comes in trying to work out where inside that particular square a product is positioned. The one thing they are not, though, is a substitute for a proper waterproof hardshell.

Another cause for confusion is the complexity of fabrics available, most of which are some type of laminated hybrid (with fabrics of differing attributes bonded together) with products often utilising two or more different fabrics in any one garment. Nowadays it is possible to buy anything from what is effectively a waterproof-treated fleece to a stretchy hardshell, and anything in between. And, as different activities call for different characteristics and features, the range of options is bewildering. Consequently, prices range between about £25 and £250! Somewhere out there will be a product with precisely the right characteristics for you. Finding it, however, may be far from easy!

But back to the Atmosphere Softshell. For some time, I had been on the lookout for a garment to do a specific job: a thin, lightweight layer, suitable for wearing over a wicking T-shirt or baselayer, for use on generally warm days if the temperature dropped a fraction. It’s surprising (to me at least) just how often such conditions can occur – early or late in the day, hitting a cool breeze on a ridge, finding the shady side of the hill, or it simply clouding over. A fleece, even a light 100gsm weight version, can still be a bit too warm in such circumstances, whilst a Microgrid top (much as I love ‘em) does not quite have the same venting options. So, when I first saw this product advertised, I was intrigued. Was this the very garment I’d been looking for?

Tracking one down proved a bit elusive – stockists are few and far between – but eventually I found one, and a couple of days later it arrived at my front door. Here are a few basic details:

· 290g, so lightweight and packable

· Full length 2-way offset main zip

· 2 Raised pockets with mesh lining

· Breathable stretch fabric (Flex Shield X-Lite DWR)

· Articulated sleeves

· Elasticated cuffs and hem drawcord

At 290g (as claimed in the technical spec and verified by my electronic scales) the Atmosphere Softshell certainly ticks the box for lightweight. OK, there are lighter garments – a gossamer-thin windproof layer for ultra-runners might now tip the scales at under 100g – but this is a perfectly respectable weight for a jersey-type material, especially considering the full length main zip and two pocket zips.

The fabric itself – JW’s own Flex Shield X-Lite DWR – is a highly breathable, stretchy 100% Polyester fabric with wind resistant properties and a DWR water repellent finish, all of which are ideal characteristics for a typical softshell fabric.

The main zip, a standard 2-way affair, is offset, supposedly to avoid bunching at the neck in a layering system. I’m not sure if that is a real problem that has been solved, but, although it feels slightly odd at first, I’ve not found anything detrimental about it yet. It works smoothly and can easily be adjusted to permit the correct airflow.

The two raised chest pockets are simple enough, and are positioned high enough so as not to be fouled by a rucksack hip-belt. The pockets are lined with mesh, so they can be left open as additional venting if required, and both are plenty big enough to take an OS map.

In use, the jacket is pretty comfortable, albeit quite close-fitting in the body, with a hem drawcord for adjustment.

Ventilation, a key requirement in my choice, is good, either by rolling up the sleeves, using the main, 2-way zip or opening the two mesh-lined pockets – I find I use these quite a lot to vent excess body heat away. There is even a mesh lining to the collar to aid venting as well.

Elsewhere, to keep the weight down, the jacket is unlined, has minimal features and uses as few seams as possible.

This is the point where I try to describe where in the square of wind resistance, water repellence, breathability and comfort this particular softshell sits. Although moisture can build up when walking hard, the fabric handles this quite well, and breathability is generally very good. It resists light drizzle for a few minutes, drying off quickly afterwards, but wouldn’t be proof against anything heavier or more prolonged, and there are no storm flaps to protect the zips. Wind resistance is quite good – it will keep a cool breeze at bay but won’t keep a gale out.

So, as part of a layering system in warmer weather, it slots in very neatly – as an outer layer in slightly cool conditions or a mid layer if it gets colder, windier or wetter, when a waterproof hard shell can be added. In short, slotting nicely between a base layer and a mid layer in weight, pretty much what I was hoping for.

If I had one slight criticism it would be it isn’t perhaps the most stylish of garments. It’s quite an odd garment, too – neither fish nor fowl, you might say – being quite good at several things without being very good at any of them. However, that may be the lot of the softshell – to forever be a jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-none. Whatever, it certainly makes for a versatile product.

The acid test, though, is this: can it stand up to the rigours of a trekking trip? I must admit I had my doubts if it would be tough enough, given the low weight. But I needn’t have worried – a weeks’ trekking in Corsica provided a real test, which it came through fine. The zips are very solid, as is the stitching at the seams – something to be aware of when carrying a 9kg pack for a week – the only discernable damage being a little bit of pilling under the rucksack hip-belt buckle.

In summary, I think this is a decent bit of kit, although it probably won’t be to everyone’s taste and seems to be a very niche-market product. Having said that, I think it definitely has a place in a warm weather layering system and, as it packs down so small, it is no bother to have on hand just in case. As it is quite small, light and versatile it is a good option for a multi-day trip. Long-term durability may yet be an issue, though, and I wouldn’t recommend it for a longer backpacking tour if it were to be worn all day, every day under a sizeable pack.

Pros: Low weight, packable, build quality, elasticated cuff adjustment, venting pockets, breathability, all day comfort, versatility.

Cons: Not very stylish colour, offset front zip, not as water repellent or wind resistant as some (heavier) jackets, long-term durability question, jack-of-all-trades.

Comfort: 7/10
Performance: 7/10
Value: 7/10

Overall: 21/30


  1. Jules, excellent review. That is a good weight for a softshell and I like the 2 way zip. Still thinking how best to fit mine into my walking kit.

  2. Thanks, Mark!

    Yes, an interesting bit of kit, indeed. It'll probably be consigned to the wardrobe until spring, then I can put it through it's paces again. TBH, it's taken me nearly 6 months to work out what I think of it so far ....

    But I agree with you - working out what you want is one thing, finding that product amongst the multitude of options out there is another thing entirely!