I love the idea of soft shell jackets – jackets which are nicer to wear and more breathable than traditional waterproofs, yet give you more protection from water and wind than a fleece. It is a combination that sounds brilliant, and I was finally able to put one to the test this month when I was sent a North Face Apex Bionic Soft Shell Jacket to review by Webtogs. Can a soft shell replace a fleece / waterproof jacket combo?
[Disclosure – this jacket was provided by Webtogs for me to give my own personal opinions on it and they have no influence on these views and no editorial control.]
First impressions of the jacket were good – it looks great (I had the Asphalt Grey / Black one), and seems well manufactured (it weights in at around 837g). The main zip, as well as the zips on the Napoleon chest pocket and two hand pockets, seem well protected from the elements with easy to grab pulls. The outer fabric is slightly rubbery to the touch, but inside it is fleece lined to the back and sides, as well as the collar and the top of the pocket.
It is hard not to compare a soft shell jacket with either a waterproof jacket or fleece, in particular my treasured Mountain Equipment Men’s Touchstone Fleece Jacket. The jacket is certainly more pleasant to wear than a standard waterproof, helped by the inner fleece lining and softer fabric. However the rubbery exterior sometimes made me feel slightly like I was wearing a thin wetsuit, and it lack the cosiness of a fleece. The fit, described by the manufacturer as “regular, comfortable fit”, seemed a little short for my liking (I went for a large, which fitted nicely across my chest and shoulders) – although the jacket does have a hem cinch cord to pull the bottom of the jacket in. Slightly bizarrely, in my view, the hem cinch cord could also be tightened from a pull in either hand pocket which I found fiddly and an annoying addition. The jacket has thin rubber velcro adjustable cuffs, however I found them a bit more fiddly than the wider fabric cuffs on say my Berghaus Paclite Shell Jacket.
I had hoped to put the jacket through it’s paces on a weekend trip to Dartmoor however, instead of the showers and strong winds I had expected, we were treated to glorious sunshine and a much needed cooling breeze. Instead I had to content myself with wearing it around the camp site, and this gave me a chance to compare it against other soft shells worn by our group. Two noticeably missing features were a hood and under arm vents. The month of May this year, unfortunately if you are testing a soft shell jacket, was unusually warm and dry – even on the slightly colder and windier days, I found myself quickly overheating and sweating – there is no doubt that the Apex ClimateBlock Fabric blocks out all the wind (it is rated at 0 CFM) but certainly in these conditions it did not seem particularly breathable, and I wonder whether under arm vents would extend the amount of the year the jacket can be used (or whether they reduce the wind protection too much). Talking of wind protection, whilst I did find the fabric blocks out most (if not all) the wind, the collar seemed too wide and low cut and let a significant amount of wind blow down my neck.
I was going to conclude this review by saying that whilst I am unsure of the merits of the jacket, it would be unfair to not give it a second try in the colder months of the year….. but then it rained!
As soon as the rain (fairly heavy showers) started, I grabbed the jacket (and the dog) and did a three mile walk around the local fields and the nearby forest. Overall the exterior of the jacket kept me mostly dry, although towards the end of the walk I felt some slight dampness on my arms. The short cut of the jacket meant that more of my upper legs and bottom got wet from the run off, whereas my waterproof jacket offers more protection. Worst of all though is that the wide low cut collar and lack of hood meant the rain ran down my neck soaking the top of my t-shirt underneath and the fleece inside the collar. Even when the rain had stopped, I had the unpleasant sensation of wet fleece against my neck.
That to me is the final nail in the Apex Bionic’s coffin. It cannot protect me sufficiently from showers on a short walk, so I would need to always have a backup waterproof jacket (especially on longer hikes). If I have a backup waterproof jacket, then I may as well wear my lighter, comfier, and similarly priced Mountain Equipment Touchstone Fleece Jacket (which has a hood, is also stretchy and offers sufficient wind and brief shower protection). Even as a casual jacket, I found myself opting for the fleece over the soft shell (despite my best efforts to give it a go!)
I have not completely written off the idea of soft shell jackets – but in my opinion the North Face Men’s Apex Bionic Soft Shell Jacket is not good enough to replace a fleece / waterproof jacket combo.
Price: £79.99 from Webtogs