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The role of this layer is protection from the elements. Separating it from your insulation makes the gear very versatile.
Here's the key pieces of our outer layer:
Convertible hiking pants. We prefer convertible pants for the kids (when available), they are easy to zip off the legs to make shorts and zip back on when you need more protection. Otherwise, pants and shorts. Spring, summer, fall.
Windbreaker. Of course we're huge into lightweight so we ours are really thin. Their purpose is just to break wind (ha, ha!!). Spring, summer and fall use. Lots of brands and models have worked for us over the years. These jackets tend to last well for us since they don't need to be waterproof.
Rain jacket. Spring, summer and fall. Good rain jackets are expensive and they are finicky. The waterproof coating doesn't last forever so we are vigilant in how the children treat these pieces.
Soft Shell. A soft shell is a key piece of outdoor gear for us, especially useful in winter.Soft Shells are pants and jackets made from stretchy fabric that fit like a glove without constricting, stretch fluidly with the body without resisting, and allow moisture to escape from inside without letting it penetrate from outside. They are good for all types of climbing, cross-country and backcountry skiing, hiking, and for any outdoor activity with an aerobic element where protection from rain and snow is important. Think of Soft Shells as one big efficient moisture management system.
Soft shells are worn by the whole family for winter aerobic activity. It's the outer layer we wear while going up. Anything warmer and we'd get too hot. When we're at the top or if we get cold we add a puffy layer.
Although soft shells are part of our "gear list" only for winter (i.e.: we don't hike with them in the other seasons) they are a go-to jacket for spring and fall everyday use.
Soft shells, as described by backcountry.com are not always easy to find for kids. True soft shells are a somewhat technical piece of clothing but we have made due with a variety of "soft shell"-like jackets for the kids.