Technical mountain jackets are great in their place, but if you're just out for a walk in chilly autumn or winter weather you might prefer something snug, simple and comparatively affordable. Chris Scaife and Carolina Smith check out these men's and women's softshells.
Sprayway describes the Zennor (for men) and Maelor (for women) as 'the warmer siblings of our classic Anax Hoody soft-shells'. Designed for walkers more than mountaineers, these mid-to-heavyweight jackets are not made for extreme conditions, but ideal in the mix of chilly, windy and dank weather that characterise autumn and much of winter in the UK hills. My wife, Carolina, and I have been wearing them for hillwalking in the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales this autumn, a use they seem perfect for. In fact we've barely worn anything else for months.
Zennor Jacket (men's)
I first wore my Zennor jacket on a blustery day, walking up Hampsfell in Cumbria. As we walked across the open fell, underneath the jacket I was wearing just a t-shirt. This was most definitely autumn, and the previous day's warmth, stillness and brightness seemed a full season away, but I felt fine in just the two thin layers I was wearing.
From the day these jackets arrived, we have worn them almost every time we have left the house – whether for big walks in the hills or just popping out to the shop – and have always found them a comfortable top layer. The wind-resistance is impressive and has certainly been tested. We have worn them in light showers and not felt the need to put our waterproofs on, and the stretchy fabric has allowed real freedom of movement. We have not had them for long enough to test out the durability, but I get the feeling they'll last a while.
Available sizes range from Small to XXL. I have, in the past (actually quite recently), made mistakes when ordering online and seen a jacket that looked pretty snug on the model, so plumped for a Large – only to find that said Large jacket is absolutely enormous and immediately becomes relegated to the role of 'jacket I wear when putting away muddy caving/cycling gear'. With that recent traumatic shopping experience in mind, I cleverly opted for a Medium this time. This fits well, if perhaps very slightly larger than most Medium jackets. The material is quite stretchy, so even when wearing a number of layers underneath it is still comfortable.
The men's' Zennor weighs 620g in size M. There are of course lighter fleeces and softshells out there, but when you consider the cost and how warm this is going to keep you on a windy day, the weight:warmth ratio is really pretty good here. Also bear in mind that when you take this out into the hills you're likely to be wearing it most of the time, not keeping it in your bag as an extra layer.
Both Zennor and Maelor are made using TecWEAVE fabric – 94% recycled polyester, with 6% spandex that adds a bit of stretch for freedom of movement. At 75D it's thick stuff, a classic mid-to-heavyweight softshell. The outer layer is densely woven, making it very wind-resistant, and thanks to its Durable Water Repellent (DWR) treatment it can shrug off light rain. The main advantage of a softshell over plain fleece is its extra weather resistance, and in this case you definitely don't have to add a shell at the first sign of damp or wind. Inside, the jacket has a warm fleecy brushed backer, making it feel nice and snug on chillier days. Quick drying, the fabric is also pretty breathable, so while you definitely wouldn't pick this sort of thicker softshell for running, you do stay comfortably un-clammy when you're walking hard.
The hood is adjustable with drawcords on both sides and a wired peak that helps hold its shape in the wind. I tend not to find hoods particularly comfortable, but this one is and I have been happy to keep it up all day when the conditions have called for that sort of thing. The zip goes right up to chin-height and has a strip of TecWEAVE fabric running its entire length. This means that with the zip done up fully, you feel the warmth and snugness you'd normally expect from wearing a neck gaiter.
Pockets are an important feature of outdoor jackets and too often they are inadequate or poorly positioned. Well fans of larger pockets are in luck, because the Zennor has two spacious zipped pockets. I manage to fit my hat, gloves, neck gaiter and sunglasses in no problem; and, I suppose, they're big enough that you could just walk around with your hands in your pockets if that's what you're into. Unfortunately, however, the pockets are placed a bit low (it's a common complaint) so they're not properly usable when you're wearing a rucksack hip belt.
Spacious enough to fit over even bulky winter gloves, the cuffs have Velcro, so they can be adjusted to fit. Down at the hem there's a drawcord which can be pulled in close around the waist to keep the wind out.
Ethics and environment
The fabric is made from 94% recycled polyester, and the DWR is PFC-free. PFCs are chemicals that are harmful to the environment, and most DWRs are PFC-free these days, but if you want to do something good for the world, it is always worth checking. The jackets are made in China, but Sprayway is a member of Fair Wear Foundation, an independent non-profit organisation that works to improve labour conditions in garment factories.
- For more info on the Zennor see sprayway.com
Maelor Jacket – women's
The Maelor is really quite similar to the Zennor, so we'll just add a few words here. I've always been a bit wary about wearing matching outfits, so was relieved that when ours arrived they were different colours. The Maelor is available in asphalt/black – which is what Carolina's is – or marine blue. The men's options are black/asphalt – a different appearance from the women's, almost completely black – or dark spruce/black, which is what I've been wearing. It may make you more difficult to spot from a mountain rescue helicopter, but personally I'm a fan of these inconspicuous colours. I know that in a metaphorical sense we should all strive to stand out, but in reality in the outdoors I find it's usually better to blend in with your surroundings, being able to approach wildlife more easily, and just generally not causing a scene.
The main difference, as you'd expect, is with the fit. The Maelor comes in sizes from 8 to 18, and has a shape more in keeping with traditional women's jackets – narrower shoulders, shorter torso, slimmer, more tailored at the waist and more spacious in the chest area.
Carolina has a size 10, which is what she normally wears, and has found it comfortable to wear with just a single layer underneath, but also spacious enough to wear a couple of extra layers without it feeling in any way tight.
This comes to 520g in size 10, so similar to the Zennor. The reduction in weight is mainly down to the reduced amount of material for the slimmer fit.
- For more info on the Maelor see sprayway.com
We have both been pleased with these jackets. They cope well with light rain, and in heavy rain you can just put your waterproofs over the top. The outer layer is impressively windproof, whilst the fleece inner layer keeps you warm and toasty. They are comfortable enough to be worn all day and they have big pockets and a genuinely useful hood. If we were planning a winter ascent of K2 or an unsupported crossing of the Antarctic, obviously these wouldn't be on our kit list. But for autumn walks in British hills, when the temperature can drop to not much above freezing and occasional strong winds are to be expected, the Maelor and Zennor have been just what we've wanted.