Insulated Soft Shells Page 1 2 3 4

As a sizing reference: I'm 5'7", 155 lbs (yeah, I'm a little guy), medium build (BDU top medium/regular, BDU pant medium/short), waist 32", chest 43". Keep this in mind when you read my comments with respect to sizing, so you have an idea of how the garments featured below will fit on you. ALL garments in these pages are size Medium, unless stated otherwise.


Military Clothing Systems

Over the past decade, we've finally been seeing the military take notice and adopt some of the advanced technology/high performance fabrics and clothing that civilian mountaineers and backpackers have been using for quite a while. Lighter, more compressible, breathable, quick drying and wicking fabrics now clothe the soldier, doing their part to make a tough job a bit more efficient and a bit less uncomfortable. Clothing the soldier presents a unique challenge as temperatures in certain regions may range greatly over a 24 hour period, or missions might start off at low altitudes and end up much higher. Soldiers most often have to be self-sufficient, carrying everything in their rucks and on their person, so light weight and clothing versatility rank high in importance. Unlike most sporting events, the soldier might have to wear the same clothing for days or weeks on end, and subject them to abuse that civilian use won't.
There are quite a few different clothing development programs out there, and it can be confusing. Since I have no personal knowledge on the subject, I've summarized some of the info from Polartec® literature and other sources like the U.S. Army programs website. I've given credit to the sources of information where possible, and if there's any violation of website policies, webmasters please let me know. Polartec® manufactures much of this high-performance material, and their website is a wealth of information, so please visit it for details. This list is by no means all-inclusive - there are a LOT more programs out there, but I've chosen those that are relevant for this website.

  • ECWS - Extended Cold Weather Clothing System. Cold-wet and Cold dry systems, including the Gore-tex suit and insulating layers
  • SPEAR - Special Operations Forces Personal Equipment Advanced Requirements - A performance layering system developed by SOCOM.
  • MCPS - Multi-Climate Protection System - NOMEX flame resistant clothing for U.S. Marine and Navy aviators and aircrew.
  • SOF-PCU - Special Operations Forces Protective Combat Uniform - Layering garment system with 7 Levels developed by USSOCOM. The different levels are defined as follows (from this website). Also note that the actual products offered may vary slightly from these descriptions:

    Level 1
    Worn next-to-skin, a durable, silkweight Polartec Power Dry fabric worn next to the skin wicks away moisture and dries fast. It consists of a crew neck T-shirt and boxer shorts, or is available in long-sleeve top with invisible zipper and pants, built for comfort and minimal weight.
    Level 2
    A long-sleeve shirt and pants made from Polartec Power Dry fabric are worn next to the skin for extra warmth in extreme conditions, but still wicks away moisture quickly from skin and dries fast. An inserted side panel of Polartec X-Static fabric enhances fit and flexibility. The top has a front 15-inch zip for extra venting and a soft lining around the collar. Comfort features include an articulated side seam on the pants to minimize chafe on the kneecap.
    Level 3
    An insulative mid-layer jacket made from Polartec Thermal Pro fabric is water-repellent yet breathable. It is worn as an outer jacket in mild temperatures or as a heavy insulative layer in extreme cold. Seamless shoulders minimize chafe, which are then lined for extra warmth and padding for heavy pack straps.
    Level 4
    The soft windshirt is made from an encapsulated microfiber that repels water but also breathes for a variety of conditions. It's designed to pair with a next-to-skin layer for intense activity in cooler temperatures or with the Level 5 soft shell as a mid-layer. It stuffs into its own pocket for easy packing.
    Level 5
    The key to the entire system, this soft shell fabric jacket and pants are made with fibers encapsulated with silicone that are highly stretchable, windproof, water repellant and breathable. They are paired with Level 1 or 2 next-to-skin layers, ready for any cold weather aerobic activity.
    Level 6
    A lightweight waterproof and coated nylon hard shell is slightly oversized to fit easily and quickly over gear. The jacket features water-resistant zippers and armpit zips for maximum ventilation, pocket openings to quickly access inside layers and a hood that incorporates a stiff brim. The pants borrow the same design from Level 5 but provide waterproof protection.
    Level 7
    For extreme conditions, this lightweight, loft-insulated level in a jacket, vest and pants has the feel of down but retains its warmth when wet. Silicone-encapsulated fabric sheds water and is paired with Primaloft insulation for maximum warmth while the liner pulls away moisture.
    Level 8
    SOF-CCU (Close Combat Uniform) - Basically a RAID-type BDU.

Typically, there can be several different manufacturers/contractors making the same garments. Sometimes different manufacturers make different levels in the same program, and I hope to feature more of them here. I'm also learning that the item of the same name might vary by manufacturer with differences in materials and features. I was surprised to find this out, and expected the garments to be more standardized.


3/2/05 - SEKRI stands for South Eastern Kentucky Rehabilitation Industries and is a "non-profit organization whose primary purpose is to provide qualified personnel, facilities and related services for persons with disabilities, enabling them to obtain and to be successful in maintaining competitive employment". SEKRI manufactures Levels 1 (bottom wicking layer), 2 (added warmth) and 7 (water/wind resistant high loft insulated) garments of the SOF-PCU multi-layered cold weather system. All items are can be ordered directly from SEKRI online here.

PCU Level 7 Loft Garments - Level 7 is the warmest of the PCU clothes, meant for extreme conditions. SEKRI's Level 7 Loft garments are fully insulated, water and wind resistant, breathable and washable. The shell is constructed of the same lightweight alpha green/grey EPIC® nylon (called 'Praetorian', a 2.8oz fabric) by Nextec, as the Orc Ind. Level 5 soft shell. Nextec uses their encapsulation process to encapsulate the individual fibers of the fabric with silicone-based polymers to provide all-weather protection without coatings or laminates. Note that Epic® Nylon is water resistant, not 100% water proof. For use in wet conditions, the Level 6 Wet weather suit is recommended to be worn over the Level 7.
The garment linings are quilted and insulated with Primaloft® 5 oz. Sport fibers. Primaloft was developed for the U.S. Military as a filling for sleeping bags and clothing. It is a down-like insulation that has the lightweight compressibility and warmth of down, but also works when wet, as Primaloft's individual fibers are water repellent. Primaloft is highly compressible but quick to regain its loft. Primaloft Sport uses ultra-fine and multi-diameter fibers for water resistance and retention of loft, resulting in a water resistant, breathable, fast-drying and lightweight filling.

PCU Level 7 Loft Jacket - The SEKRI Loft jacket shown below is of a medium-length, hooded parka design. The front zipper is a YKK water resistant coil type with plastic splash guard. The removable zip-off hood is also fully insulated and quilted, with an elastic shock cord opening adjustment. It attaches behind the 3" tall collar. Both the jacket and hood are lined with soft, ripstop nylon material. On the front are two slanted slash pockets, with water-resistant zipper closures. The pocket openings are further protected by a flap to prevent water from dripping into them. The sleeves have elasticized cuffs. Inside the jacket are two large mesh pockets. The bottom of the jacket hem can be tightened around the hips with the elastic shock cord drawstring. The tops of the shoulders have Epic 'Glacier' (5.8 oz) non-swish material patches for abrasion resistance when wearing a pack.

Level 7 Loft Jacket

Side and rear views

Hood removed and showing front slash pockets

Inside of jacket showing mesh pocket

PCU Level 7 Loft Pant and Vest - The matching Level 7 Pant is also completely constructed of Epic® Nylon with Primaloft Sport insulation. It has a zipper fly and heavy duty snap waist. The waist is elasticized but also has velcro tabs on each side for adjustment. The pants don't have any pockets. The sides of the legs can be fully zipped open (actually, completely unzipped at the top), for ease of donning or a bit of ventilation if partially opened. The pant legs are pre-curved at the knee to better match the anatomy of the leg and bend more easily. The bottom of the pant leg cuffs are elasticized and have a velcro tab that protects the zipper.
The Loft Vest is a simple half-zip pullover design. The 14" zipper opens wide enough that donning and doffing isn't difficult, but I inquired about SEKRI making a full zipper opening design to increase versatility, which they're looking at. The vest is worn to keep the body core warm, if the extra bulk of the Loft Jacket can't be carried or isn't needed. There is a single, slanted opening, mesh-lined pocket over the left chest.

Level 7 Loft pant showing side zipper

Front and Rear views

Level 7 Loft vest

Collar open

Rear view

These garments are surprisingly easy to move in, despite their loft. I would have thought them to be more restrictive than they are. One minor nitpick (and it applies in general to most smooth nylon garments, not just these) is that they Epic® Nylon fabric is 'swishy' (might be because they're new) and might be of a concern to those who need stealth. The sound is most apparent when the inside of the thighs rub past each other when walking. On the shoulders of the jacket are two panels of Nextec® Glacier fabric that are different from the rest of the Epic® Nylon. It's a less 'swishy' sounding material. If SEKRI put a panel on the inside of each leg, from the crotch to the bottom of the knees, I believe this would really help in alleviating the noise. The 'swish' is a problem common to most smooth synthetic materials; that's why hunters wear silent fleece clothing when hunting.

Despite their 'loft', these garments compress quite nicely (one of the main features of the Primaloft® Sport insulation). I was quite surprised to find that I was able to stuff both the jacket with hood, and pant into the Kifaru back pouch shown below. The whole suit can be carried attached to the outside of your pack in a relatively compact package.

The jacket and pant will stuff into...

...a Kifaru back pouch


ARC'TERYX LEAF (Law Enforcement and Armed Forces) Products

Note that the product line is subject to change - some of the items below may be discontinued or changed from the time the review is written.

4/23/05 - Vancouver, BC, Canada-based Arc'Teryx is a well-known name in the outdoor world, producing the latest, high-end outdoor clothing, gear and accessories. Up till only a few years ago, military clothing technology has usually been a step behind what's been available on the civilian market. It makes sense that leading manufacturers of 'technical' outdoor clothing are entering the military market but it's more complicated than just producing civilian clothing in 'military' colours. The Arc'Teryx LEAF (Law Enforcement and Armed Forces) Purchase Program makes special versions of their product line available to military and LE professionals.
Side note: Arc'Teryx's logo is the fossil (actually, the Berlin Specimen found in 1877) of the Archaeopteryx, the prehistoric animal that looked like a bird, yet also had some of the features of a dinosaur/reptile. There's controversy over whether Archaeopteryx was the first bird, a reptile, or a transitional species, but in general, Archaeopteryx is viewed as a 'first of its kind' and a symbol of evolution. A good choice, symbolizing one of their mottos - 'Evolution in action'.



Bravo Jacket - The Bravo Jacket shown here in black (also comes in crocodile and foliage green), is a weather-resistant, lightly insulated soft shell. The Bravo Jacket is based on a commercial style, the Gamma SV Jacket with the addition of sleeve pockets and internal pockets to the LEAF version. The Gamma SV is the jacket that started the softshell revolution in the outdoor industry back in 1998. Thousands of these have been produced since, and it remains one of Arc'Teryx's best sellers. In combination with the Gamma Salopette, it was one of the original garments ever made with PowerShield®. Arc'teryx and Malden Mills worked together to commercialize this fabric. So the Bravo jacket really is still the original softshell, updated.

Constructed of Polartec® Power Shield ® and Tweave® Durastretch® ( pockets), the exterior of the fabric feels similar to the Bravo Pant, except that it is laminated to a thin insulating layer of fleece on the inside. A DWR finish provides water-resistance. Note that the DWR (water repellant treatment) will have to be 'renewed' after some time, just like Goretex, with a spray-on or wash-in treatment. As with the Bravo pant, the tight weave of the fabric is highly wind resistant, but not completely wind proof, as air can still be forced through. The Bravo jacket is designed to be worn alone, or with a light base layer. It combines the insulation of a light base layer with the protection of a soft-shell layer into one compact, quiet garment.

Front view, open

Front view, zipped up

Rear view

The brushed-lined 3" collar closes with a one-way zipper. The rubberized front/felt-backed storm flap behind it is folded over at the top to form a soft chin guard. The bottom hem of the jacket can be tightened using the shock cord drawstring with pulls on each side.
The pockets on each shoulder are actually quite spacious - approx 8.5"x7". The zippered opening is 6" long, with the zipper being laminated, not sewn, to the fabric. Since the fabric stretches, you can fit quite a bit in the shoulder pockets, if you really need to. The compartment of the slanted hand pockets on the front/side of the jacket are 12" tall, 6" wide at the bottom and 5" at the top. When closed, the metal portion of the zipper is covered by a piece of fabric (this is what is referred to as the 'zipper garage'). The silent pull tab is a length of cord, with rubber heat-shrink over it. They're easy to find and pull when wearing gloves.
The two interior 9"x6" pockets are laminated to the chest wind-panels with laminated zippers.
The brush-lined cuffs rely on the elasticity of the fabric to keep them snug - no velcro tab closure or extra elastic needed.

Shoulder, hand and internal pockets

Detail of interior front

Cool logo

Like the Bravo Pants above (an most other Arc'Teryx designs, I'm finding out), it's a very streamlined design, with very little to snag or get in the way. Much of that is due to the low profile of the pockets. Even when full, there are no flaps or bellows to catch on anything. The jacket shares the high 13-stitch per inch count as the pants, conveying the same impression of quality and neatness.
The cut is athletic, with enough room to fit over my Level 1 and Level 2 long sleeved shirts, but is a tight fit over my Level 3. If you plan to wear it over a thicker base layer, or if you're bulkier than I am and prefer a looser fit, get the next size up. The medium is an optimal fit for me, personally (see my measurements at the top of the page). I'd recommend any base layers to be form fitting and not too baggy or you may experience bunching under the arms. It'll also serve well as a mid layer under a hard shell for more extreme conditions.
On a week-long trip, I found the comfort range to be in the high 50's to mid 70's with a short sleeved t-shirt underneath. The breathability of the fabric prevents it from getting too muggy under normal activity, but obviously if you're going to exert yourself, you're going to sweat, no matter what the temperature is. I really like the stretch fabric. Did I say this already? It makes a huge felt difference when comparing it to similarly sized and cut non-stretch garments, which move over you rather than move with you when you change positions. Arms have full range of motion with no binding or tightness in the shoulders or back. I wish all my clothing could have some elasticity to them. Especially around the waistband after a meal.
Overall, the Bravo jacket is a very functional design and one of the most comfortable jackets I've worn (and it looks good, too). I made use of all the pockets on a recent trip and even when loaded up, it still retained its streamlined profile.
5/16/05 - This has become my most-used jacket, as it's prefect for cool mornings and evenings, and it looks smart with it's fitted cut. It just MAKES you look good. As close to the perfect all-round soft shell you can get. My wife really wanted one like it so I purchased the civilian version - the women's Gamma SV for her.







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