For high-output activities, it’s hard to beat a softshell jacket. Their breathable and stretchy fabrics offer fantastic performance and a really comfortable fit that moves with you, and as long as you don’t take them out in a rain storm, their durable shells can withstand light wind and precipitation. You'll be hard-pressed to find a more versatile shell for a wide range of outdoor activities. Below we break down our favorite softshells for the 2022 season, ranging from casual jackets for daily use to performance pieces for backcountry skiing and ice climbing. For more background, see our softshell jacket comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
- Best Overall Softshell Jacket: Arc’teryx Gamma LT Hoody
- Best Softshell for Backcountry Skiing: Black Diamond Dawn Patrol
- Best Budget Softshell Jacket: Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hoody
- Best Ultralight and Packable Softshell: Black Diamond Alpine Start
Best Overall Softshell Jacket
Weight: 1 lb. 3.2 oz.
What we like: Arc’teryx fit, quality, and all-around performance.
What we don’t: Trim fit means you can’t layer much underneath.
The Arc’teryx Gamma LT takes our top softshell spot for putting it all together: solid performance, quality materials, and a great fit. This isn’t a super warm softshell with a thick fleece lining, but its thin construction is what gives the jacket its versatility. The durable outer fabric can withstand a day of backcountry skiing, but the Gamma LT also breathes really well and allows enough air in and out to keep you cool while on the go. And with clean looks that are completely passable around town, it’s a great all-rounder.
As with almost all Arc’teryx products, the fit of the Gamma LT is athletic. You’ll likely be able to slide a thin midlayer underneath (the Atom SL, for example), but it will feel too tight over most synthetic or down puffy jackets. But range of motion nevertheless is fantastic, and the LT’s long sleeves and helmet-compatible hood are great for activities like climbing, biking, and skiing (although we did find the wrist openings to be on the small side, which can create a bit of a challenge when paired with undercuff gloves). For a warmer softshell with the same general characteristics, check out the Gamma MX below. Editor's note: Arc'teryx expects updated inventory for their Gamma jackets to release in early October.
See the Men's Arc'teryx Gamma LT See the Women's Arc'teryx Gamma LT
Best Softshell for Backcountry Skiing
Weight: 1 lb. 3 oz.
What we like: High-performance jacket, lots of pockets, classy looks.
What we don’t: Cuffs bunch up when cinched down.
In a few short years, Black Diamond has asserted itself as a major player in performance apparel. In fact, when it comes to a lightweight, breathable, and protective layer for high-output activities, the Dawn Patrol is competitive with class-leading softshells like the Gamma LT Hoody above and Ferrosi Hoody below. Similar to these jackets, the Dawn Patrol leaves the extra warmth of a fleece lining behind for a jacket that’s made to move and breathe with you, which is a real boon on the skin track. And with pockets that can be accessed over a harness and a helmet-compatible hood, the Dawn Patrol is even more backcountry-ready than the OR Ferrosi.
For $50 less, the Dawn Patrol is a viable alternative to our top-rated Gamma LT Hoody. It comes with adjustable cuffs, which make it more accommodating when wearing ski gloves (unfortunately those cuffs are less comfortable if you’re not wearing gloves). Additionally, you’ll find two extra internal drop pockets (great for stashing skins) and a zippered chest pocket on the exterior. However, we prefer the more adjustable StormHood on the Gamma, and Black Diamond’s workmanship cannot yet match the quality construction of Arc’teryx. The Gamma LT still gets our pick for the best all-around softshell, but if you’re looking for a backcountry-specific option that also looks great for daily use, the Dawn Patrol is worth a look. And for an extra dose of water protection, check out the Dawn Patrol Hybrid ($350), which features a mix of softshell and waterproof hardshell fabrics.
See the Men's BD Dawn Patrol See the Women's BD Dawn Patrol
Best Budget Softshell Jacket
Weight: 13.9 oz.
What we like: Thin, light, breathable, and a great price.
What we don’t: Lightweight build means compromised durability and weather resistance.
The Outdoor Research Ferrosi is a far cry from the bulky, boxy design that epitomizes softshell jackets of old. At $129 and only 13.9 ounces, it’s an affordably priced, thin, and lightweight shell that won’t weigh you down and excels at nearly every high-output outdoor activity: hiking, biking, climbing, skiing, you name it. Plus, the Ferrosi is decently tough and abrasion-resistant, will block out a good amount of the elements, and has excellent stretch and breathability. All in all, it’s a really versatile piece: you can wear this jacket over a T-shirt in mild weather and over a puffy in the winter. And the cherry on top: the Ferrosi packs down really small for a softshell, stuffing into its own hand pocket (to streamline your kit even more, it’s also available in an anorak version).
The Ferrosi was lightly updated for the spring of 2022, with notable changes including improved durability, stretchier fabric, and a larger, climbing-helmet-compatible hood. But while the hood adjusts and cinches nicely, it’s still too small to fit over a ski helmet, which will be a downside for some (that said, many backcountry skiers wear climbing helmets like the Petzl Meteor). Additionally, the hand pockets are not set high enough to be compatible with a harness or hipbelt, but that does make them more convenient for day-to-day use. These nitpicks aside, the Ferrosi undeniably is a superb value, extremely versatile for a range of activities, and a great crossover pick for both casual and performance use. And for those looking to shave weight, OR also offers the Ferrosi in an eye-catching Anorak design ($99).
See the Men's Outdoor Research Ferrosi See the Women's Outdoor Research Ferrosi
Best Ultralight and Packable Softshell
Weight: 7.4 oz.
What we like: Lightweight, packable, and versatile softshell.
What we don’t: Thin fabric offers little in the way of insulation.
The Black Diamond Alpine Start is one of the lightest softshells on our list and arguably the most versatile. Whereas burly jackets like the Arc’teryx Gamma MX below can only be worn when temperatures drop, the Alpine Start is a year-round layer. It’s easy to wear over anything from a t-shirt to a lightweight down jacket, depending on conditions. Made with thin stretch-woven nylon coated with BD’s proprietary NanoSphere water repellant, the Alpine Start is designed to keep out wind and rain without compromising ventilation. And in practice it delivers: throughout an all-day drizzle on a recent trek in Patagonia, the Alpine Start’s shell beaded water and kept us dry while our hiking partners were all forced to don their (less breathable) rain jackets.
The Black Diamond Alpine Start blurs the line between softshell and windbreaker jacket, a trend we expect to see more and more of as demand increases for lighter, more breathable, and more versatile layers. Don’t expect any insulation from the Alpine Start’s thin fabric though, and the stretch knit at the cuffs and hem will also limit how much you layer underneath. But for runners, backcountry skiers, and climbers wanting a weather resistant, breathable softshell that packs down small (into its chest pocket) and weighs nothing, the Alpine Start is our favorite ultralight offering... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Black Diamond Alpine Start See the Women's Black Diamond Alpine Start
Best of the Rest
Weight: 1 lb. 3.7 oz.
What we like: A good-looking softshell with everyday appeal.
What we don’t: Not our first choice for activities like skiing or snowshoeing.
Softshells offer great water resistance and breathability for fall and winter outdoor activities, but their hardwearing nature holds up well to everyday use too. The North Face’s Apex Bionic is a nice casual alternative to many of the more technical jackets here, with a clean appearance that includes just three external pockets (2 handwarmer and 1 chest) and a collar in lieu of a hood. Given that the Apex Bionic is offered in a wide range of colorways, it almost certainly pairs well with your favorite jeans or flannel. For everything from walking the dog in chilly or wet weather to light adventuring in the cold, it’s a good-looking softshell option.
Keep in mind that The North Face Apex Bionic was designed to be casual first and performance second, and it’s far from our first choice for active use. The jacket’s standard fit means it’s a little boxier (read: less mobile) than most performance-oriented softshells, and the bulky fabric won’t pack away as well as the lightweight offerings on this list. That said, the relaxed fit works well for layering and the jacket does deliver in terms of wind and water protection. For everything from wet-weather commuting to short hikes, it’s one of our favorite casual softshells of 2022.
See the Men's The North Face Apex Bionic See the Women's The North Face Apex Bionic
Weight: 1 lb. 3.6 oz.
What we like: Tougher and warmer than the Gamma LT.
What we don’t: Quite a bit more expensive.
The Arc’teryx Gamma MX has been on the market for years with plenty of summits and deep backcountry days to its name. It performs and is priced like a serious backcountry softshell: you get bomber outer fabric, tons of storage (five total exterior pockets), and that glorious Arc’teryx tailored fit that guides and the hardcore crowd love. But unlike many performance pieces, the MX’s clean styling means you can more easily get away with wearing it off the mountain. And with a recent update, this time-tested classic got a little bit better, with an altered fabric that's warmer for the weight, retooled cuff and hood adjustments, and taped seams.
In comparing the Gamma MX to its sibling Gamma LT above, the MX is quite a bit warmer with an added fleece lining. This can be a good thing or bad thing depending on your use, but the lining is quite comfortable and great on cold day. We like the versatility that comes with the non-insulated LT, but the more significant reason for the difference in ranking is price. There just isn’t enough there to justify an extra $100 in our eyes. That’s to take nothing away from the Gamma MX—its popularity is reaching legendary status in the alpine community... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Gamma MX See the Women's Arc'teryx Gamma MX
Weight: 11.8 oz.
What we like: A minimalist yet waterproof softshell.
What we don’t: Trim fitting; waterproof membrane impacts breathability.
U.K.-based Rab specializes in technical outerwear for alpine endeavors, and their Kinetic 2.0 is a high-performance softshell built for backcountry skiing, climbing, and other high-output activities in cold weather. This jacket inches closer to a hardshell than your standard softshell, combining a waterproof membrane with a stretchy knit face fabric. The end result is the softness and mobility of a softshell along with the protection of a hardshell, which is a winning combination for working hard in winter conditions. Rab rounds out the streamlined (11.8 oz.) design with an under-the-helmet hood, two harness or hipbelt-compatible handwarmer pockets, velcro cuff adjustments, and a single-end hem cinch.
Manufacturers have been toying with the hybrid hardshell/softshell concept for a while (the now-discontinued Patagonia Galvanized was one of our favorites), but the Kinetic 2.0 got our attention due to its impressively lightweight build. For 7 ounces less than the Gamma LT above, the Rab will keep you drier when the skies unleash. You do give up some breathability with the waterproof membrane, and the Kinetic’s decidedly trim fit doesn’t allow much room for layering (it offers less coverage too, with a center back length of 28 in. vs. the Gamma LT’s 30 in.). For a bump up in warmth and performance, check out Rab’s Kinetic 2.0 Alpine ($295), which adds a liner and a more robust feature set, including a 2-way front zip and over-the-helmet hood.
See the Men's Rab Kinetic 2.0 See the Women's Rab Kinetic 2.0
What we like: Nice clean styling and articulated patterning for comfort.
What we don’t: Too bulky for performance use; not everyone will want two chest pockets.
Most of the softshells here have a performance bent, but this style of jacket is also well suited for casual, everyday environments. For commuting, running errands, and hanging at the local brewery, softshells offer a comfortable and stylish combination of weather protection and warmth, and are generally more affordable and durable than other options (such as synthetic insulated jackets). Within the casual category, the Kuhl Klash goes head to head with The North Face’s Apex Bionic above, with a similarly clean yet functional aesthetic. Those looking for something a little different will especially like the drop-tail hem, which adds a nice dose of urban appeal.
The Klash gets the job done for light backcountry use, with great storage, a protective DWR coating, and articulated patterning that offers decent mobility. But its heavier build falls short for serious endeavors, and you’ll almost always want a hood for winter hiking, ice climbing, or backcountry skiing. We have found that Kuhl products fit decently well and always prioritize comfort, so the Klash is a great alternative if the Apex Bionic doesn’t quite work for you. For an even more casual option, check out their Impakt Jacket.
See the Men's Kuhl Klash See the Women's Kuhl Klash Trench
Weight: 10.2 oz.
What we like: A good-looking option for mild conditions; impressive weather protection for the weight.
What we don’t: Offers very little warmth and not designed to wear with a harness or helmet.
Arc’teryx’s Gamma series is a clear leader when it comes to softshells, with three models in our top 10 for 2022. The Gamma SL is the lightest of the bunch and best-tuned for mild conditions with a thin build, excellent breathability, and trim fit (the LT and MX above have “regular” fits for easier layering underneath). This streamlined design makes for a very versatile piece—while hiking in the Yukon this summer, the SL became our go-to layer for wind protection, pesky mosquitos, and even fending off light rain. And it doesn’t hurt that the SL is also arguably the most appealing Gamma jacket for casual use, with a smaller, non-helmet-compatible hood, hand pockets that sit lower (just above the hip), and a less technical look than the MX in particular.
As a hiking and everyday piece, there’s not a lot to complain about with the Gamma SL—except the price. $225 is steep for such a thin jacket, especially when you can get much of the same performance with a windbreaker like the Black Diamond Alpine Start ($165) above. And unlike the Alpine Start, the SL doesn’t pack into its own pocket, which is a bummer for climbers in particular. In terms of warmth, the SL falls short of most jackets here, and it’s less protective overall in wind and snow than the burlier Gamma options. Tack on the aforementioned smaller helmet and pocket placement, and the SL becomes less desirable for skiers and ice climbers. But for mixed hiking and everyday use, we think this jacket is a solid option... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Gamma SL See the Women's Arc'teryx Gamma SL
Weight: 13.8 oz.
What we like: Great-looking jacket and a stretchy combination of warmth and protection.
What we don’t: You’ll get more versatility by layering a thin fleece with a lightweight softshell.
Patagonia’s R1 TechFace Hoody is a unique and modern take on the standard softshell jacket. You get a stretchy woven face fabric (the common denominator among softshells) with the addition of a soft fleece backer (in the form of Patagonia’s ever-popular R1). The result is the warmth and breathability of a fleece with the durability and weather protection of a softshell, all wrapped up into one, 13.8-ounce package. And as we’ve come to expect from Patagonia, the R1 TechFace is a good-looking jacket too, proving its chops as a highly versatile jacket that you can wear both on the trail and around town.
In many ways, the R1 TechFace is an all-in-one answer to a popular layering choice for backcountry skiing, hiking, and cold-weather climbing: a thick baselayer and light shell. That said, we’ll take the versatility of two layers over one, which is why the R1 TechFace is ranked here. The R1 can’t wick moisture like a true baselayer, and it’s cut too large to wear on its own, plus the added warmth limits it to truly cold days. But if you want a warmer and well-made design that crosses over nicely to daily use, the R1 TechFace delivers. For winter-ready warmth, Patagonia also offers the R2 TechFace Hoody ($199) and Jacket ($179)... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Patagonia R1 TechFace See the Women's Patagonia R1 TechFace
Weight: 1 lb. 8.2 oz.
What we like: Style meets practicality.
What we don’t: Not a performance piece.
The Gravity doesn’t claim to be a technical, performance-oriented softshell, but that doesn’t seem to hold it back: it’s a top seller for Marmot year after year. Similar to The North Face Apex Bionic and Kuhl Klash, the Gravity is ideal for braving weather around town and the occasional dip into the mountains. Among the more casual options on our list, it provides solid weather protection. Expect the Gravity to be nearly windproof and highly water resistant when subjected to light to intermittent rain, but keep in mind that it’s not very breathable.
With a nearly identical price and feature set as The North Face Apex Bionic, there isn’t a lot separating the two softshell jackets. We do prefer the straightforward pocket arrangement of the Apex—the zippered sleeve pocket on the Gravity looks a little out of place around town—but the Marmot does have adjustable cuffs, which can be nice to cinch out the cold. Fit may be the deciding factor: the Gravity is a little tighter in the arms and can be more difficult to layer underneath, with the upside being a sleeker and more athletic look.
See the Men's Marmot Gravity See the Women's Marmot Gravity
Weight: 10.5 oz.
What we like: A high-quality lightweight softshell at an affordable price.
What we don’t: Heavier than the BD Alpine Start above.
We’ve been blown away by the performance chops of lightweight softshells like the Black Diamond Alpine Start above, and Rab offers up another quality option with the Borealis. Clocking in at just 10.5 ounces, the Borealis was designed to provide protection from the wind in a mobile and breathable package. True to its climbing intentions, it features two harness-compatible chest pockets and a sleek hood that fits under a helmet, keeping it in place in a squall. Finally, a simple hem adjustment rounds out this jacket’s minimalist build.
The Black Diamond Alpine Start and Rab Borealis go head-to-head in most departments, but we rank the Rab lower for a few reasons. For one, it doesn’t stuff into its chest pocket, which strikes us as a major omission for a climbing-focused softshell. Second, the Borealis is a full 3 ounces heavier than the Alpine Start without a noticeable upgrade in weather protection, durability, or breathability. Last, we prefer the Black Diamond’s helmet-compatible hood for its easy on/off design. But Rab’s Borealis is an interesting alternative for $50 less.
See the Men's Rab Borealis See the Women's Rab Borealis
Weight: 1 lb.
What we like: Breathable, lightweight, and versatile.
What we don’t: Gore-Tex Infinium is patterned only in moisture-prone areas.
Despite the performance attributes, many people wear softshells for daily use, so we love it when we find a jacket that offers a nice mix of both. Enter the ROM Hoody from Marmot, which has weather-resistant paneling that is great for keeping the elements at bay but is equally friendly around town. With features such as hand pockets that sit at a normal height—this is a welcome change for those annoyed by high, harness-friendly pockets—a regular fit, and clean styling (even better in the most recent update), the ROM is a well-rounded and versatile softshell from a respected brand.
The ROM uses Gore-Tex’s Infinium, which gives it a nice bump in weather resistance. But keep in mind that—unlike many Gore-Tex products—Infinium is not fully waterproof, and on the ROM it’s only patterned over areas most prone to moisture (the hood, arms, and shoulders). In other words, despite the added tech, all-around protection is only moderately better compared to shells like the Gamma LT and Dawn Patrol above. On the plus side, the Marmot’s fit nicely accommodates a midlayer, and the stretchy fabric around the core allows for good breathability and range of motion (hence the R-O-M). All told, the ROM Hoody is a good-looking piece that can transition between urban and mountain environments better than most.
See the Men's Marmot ROM Hoody See the Women's Marmot ROM Hoody
Weight: 1 lb. 7 oz.
What we like: Works great for daily wear.
What we don’t: Generic fit; not a performance piece.
Like the Apex Bionic and Marmot Gravity above, the Columbia Ascender is geared toward everyday use and not necessarily for summiting mountains. If you want a softshell for daily wear from fall through spring or quick jaunts in the snow, the Ascender is just about ideal. It’s priced right and matches up well with the Apex and Gravity in durability and warmth, with a sturdy shell and fleece-lined interior.
What are you giving up at the Ascender's budget-friendly price? The fit is pretty generic, but you can squeeze a midlayer underneath or wear it over a dress shirt to and from the office. And don’t expect it to keep up if you’re working hard, but you probably already knew that by checking the price. On the topic of price, we often see the Ascender on a significant discount (sometimes half off or more), which makes it an even better value.
See the Men's Columbia Ascender See the Women's Columbia Kruser Ridge II
|Arc’teryx Gamma LT Hoody||$249||1 lb. 3.2 oz.||Performance/casual||Yes (climbing & ski)||3|
|Black Diamond Dawn Patrol||$200||1 lb. 3 oz.||Performance/casual||Yes (climbing & ski)||5|
|Outdoor Research Ferrosi||$129||13.9 oz.||Performance||Yes (climbing)||3|
|Black Diamond Alpine Start||$165||7.4 oz.||Performance||Yes (climbing)||1|
|TNF Apex Bionic||$149||1 lb. 3.7 oz.||Casual||No||3|
|Arc’teryx Gamma MX Hoody||$350||1 lb. 3.6 oz.||Performance/casual||Yes (climbing & ski)||5|
|Rab Kinetic 2.0||$250||11.8 oz.||Performance||Under-the-helmet||2|
|Arc’teryx Gamma SL||$225||10.2 oz.||Casual/performance||Under-the-helmet||2|
|Patagonia R1 TechFace||$189||13.8 oz.||Casual/performance||Under-the-helmet||2|
|Marmot Gravity||$150||1 lb. 8.2 oz.||Casual||No||4|
|Rab Borealis||$115||10.5 oz.||Performance||Under-the-helmet||2|
|Marmot ROM Hoody||$225||1 lb.||Performance||Yes (climbing)||3|
|Columbia Ascender||$70||1 lb. 7 oz.||Casual||No||3|
- What is a Softshell Jacket?
- Softshell Categories: Casual vs. Performance
- Wind and Water Resistance
- Thickness and Warmth
- Weight and Packed Size
- Stretch Fabrics and Mobility
- Fit and Comfort
- Hooded vs. Non-Hooded Softshells
- Windbreaker Jackets
- Softshells vs. Hardshells
As the name suggests, a softshell is a flexible outer layer that serves as an alternative to a traditional hardshell jacket. A fairly wide range of products fall under this jacket type, but all softshells are made with a woven nylon or polyester that gives them their signature stretchy feel. The face fabric is smooth and quite durable, while the interior is usually some form of brushed polyester or fleece grid that provides varying levels of warmth. Softshell jackets are not designed to be impervious to the elements; instead, they’re meant to balance water and wind resistance with performance characteristics like breathability and mobility. We’ve found them to be the ideal choice in cool weather and when you’re working hard. For an even deeper dive into this topic, we’ve written a dedicated article answering the question: What is a Softshell Jacket?
Much like rain jackets, the softshell market is large (and growing), but it can be broken into two general categories: casual and performance. Casual softshells have a generous fit and a basic feature set for use as an outer layer from fall through spring. They excel as a daily piece because their stretchy fabrics are far more comfortable and breathe better than a rain jacket. Even through a Seattle winter, we’ll still reach for our softshell jacket so long as there isn’t heavy precipitation in the forecast.
Performance softshells are intended for activities like climbing, mountaineering, and ski touring, and leverage the two primary benefits of a softshell: breathability and mobility. Furthermore, these jackets have outdoor-specific features like helmet-compatible hoods, pockets that are set high to accommodate a hipbelt or harness, and a tailored fit. Relative to other performance outerwear, cost doesn’t increase substantially between the casual and performance options, in part because the technology is largely the same across the board. Two notable exceptions are the Arc’teryx Gamma MX and Rab Kinetic 2.0, which offer excellent weather protection for serious outdoor pursuits.
One of the reasons that people hesitate in buying a softshell is that it lacks the security you get from a rain jacket or hardshell in terms of waterproofing. But with a durable water repellent coating (DWR) to bead up and shed water and a tough outer fabric, most softshells can handle light rain showers or wind gusts just fine. Sustained moisture will make its way through most jackets, however, because they lack seam taping and a waterproof membrane. In the end, we don’t recommend a softshell for prolonged exposure to precipitation—hardshell jackets still are the best in that type of weather. And at lower elevations, if you need an emergency waterproof jacket, a light and packable rain shell serves as an excellent backup.
Recently we’ve seen an increase in hybrid hardshell/softshell designs, with jackets like the Rab Kinetic 2.0 leading the charge. With a 3-layer waterproof construction, seam taping, and water-tight front zip, the Kinetic fits the definition for a hardshell, but a stretchy face fabric adds the mobility and breathability of a softshell. However, as we’ve come to expect with do-all jackets, the Rab makes compromises in both departments—with a streamlined build it's overall less protective than most hardshells, and the thin fabric doesn't offer the same level of windproofing or insulation as most of the softshell competition. On the other hand, the Kinetic 2.0 is a great jacket for those looking for something in between.
Along with stretchiness, the breathability of a softshell is one of the main reasons to purchase one. They far outperform waterproof hardshells in high-exertion activities like climbing or backcountry skiing. How well a softshell breathes does vary and is usually associated with a few common features. The most breathable softshells are thinner designs without a tightly woven and super tough (and less air-permeable) outer layer. For maximum breathability, air permeability is your friend as it moves more air in and out of the shell. On the other hand, too much airflow compromises weather resistance and warmth. It’s always a balance, but most softshells offer very good breathability for an outer layer, with standouts including the Arc’teryx Gamma LT, Outdoor Research Ferrosi, and Black Diamond Alpine Start.
Softshells can vary dramatically in thickness and warmth, from thin shells offering no insulation to thick, fleece-lined jackets. For use in the dead of winter, activities like ice climbing, or even over a puffy around town, thick softshells like the Arc'teryx Gamma MX or the Marmot Gravity are great options. We often, however, prefer the versatility of a lighter weight jacket, which can always be worn over insulating layers, and offers better breathability and the option to be worn in milder temperatures. Jackets like the Arc’teryx Gamma LT and Black Diamond Dawn Patrol are just as ready for a backcountry ski trip as they are for a spring hike.
It’s also important to note that uninsulated softshell jackets will not be warm enough on their own in subfreezing temperatures. Even if you’re working hard, you’ll need a good system of base and midlayers to stay comfortable. For recommendations on other insulated pieces, check out our articles on the best down jackets, synthetic jackets, and fleece jackets.
In general, softshell jackets are one of the heavier and least packable outer layer options, losing out to both hardshells and rain jackets in this regard. The weave of the stretchy fabric and fleece linings add both bulk and weight, so it follows that the worst offenders are the warmest and most feature-rich softshells (the heavyweight on this list is the Marmot Gravity at 1 lb. 8.2 oz.). Even the chart-topping Gamma LT Hoody (LT for “lightweight”) doesn’t pass the fast-and-light test, at a substantial 1 pound 3.2 ounces.
All that said, with minimalist gear growing in popularity, the softshell category is swiftly following suit. There are now are a number of lighter options that dip under 1 pound, including the Outdoor Research Ferrosi and 10-ounce Arc’teryx Gamma SL. Beyond that, we’ve begun to see a whole new style developing, merging the uberlight intentions of a windbreaker jacket with a softshell’s stretchy and breathable fabric (for more, see our section on “Windbreaker Jackets” below). Jackets like the Black Diamond Alpine Start (7.4 oz.) pack down to the size of a piece of fruit and are excellent for weight-conscious activities (trail running and climbing, for example) when you need a jacket to protect against the elements while still dumping heat.
While there aren’t exact parameters stating what is or isn’t a softshell jacket, one defining feature is the stretchiness of the shell fabric. In contrast to a rigid and sometimes confining hardshell or rain jacket, a softshell jacket flexes and moves with you. This stretchiness is particularly helpful for demanding activities like climbing or fast paced aerobic activities such as hiking or cross-country skiing. The extra give in the fabric also means you can be quite comfortable even with a trim, athletic fit, which makes them all the better for the activities mentioned above.
The fit of a softshell will most often correlate with its category, with casual jackets having a more generous, relaxed cut than tailored performance pieces. The fact that these jackets have extra stretch means that in most circumstances it’s still easy to slip a puffy underneath. If you’ll be taking the jackets into high elevations or need the added warmth of a winter-weight insulated jacket, you may need a more generous fit (or size up). Our ideal softshell has an athletic cut to fully enjoy the stretchy and very mobile characteristics of this jacket type.
Comfort is another area of strength for softshells, particularly next-to-skin feel. The soft-touch fleece liners on many of these jackets make them quite comfortable even when worn over a short-sleeved shirt. And as with fit, their stretchy nature is a boon for daylong enjoyment.
A good number of softshells are sold in both hooded and non-hooded styles, including our top-rated Arc'teryx Gamma LT. In general, those that choose a performance softshell will opt for the hooded version for better protection from the elements. While the hood isn’t waterproof, it can provide sustained relief from light rain and wind, keep snow from entering your jacket at the neck, and offer additional warmth. If you’ll be using the softshell as a midlayer or around town, the standard jacket may be your better option.
Finally, if you’re using a helmet, make sure the softshell has a helmet-compatible hood. Because helmet sizes can differ (ski helmets are generally quite a bit bulkier than climbing helmets), you'll want to pay attention to what sort of helmet the hood is sized for. To help, we've provided a detailed breakdown in our comparison table above.
Pockets are a great place to start if you’re wondering about a jacket’s true intentions. You’ll find a range of storage options among softshells, from the single chest pocket on a minimalist jacket like the Black Diamond Alpine Start to the five-pocket design of the skiing-focused Black Diamond Dawn Patrol. In a casually minded jacket, we look for two standard-height handwarmer pockets (just above the hip) and one to two chest pockets for storing valuable items. Performance-oriented softshells are more of a mixed bag depending on their end use, and you’ll have to decide whether you want to prioritize weight savings (less pockets) or convenience and organization (more pockets). When it comes to softshells in our performance category, look for torso-height handwarmer pockets (for easy access when wearing a harness or hipbelt), interior dump pockets for storing goggles or skins, or streamlined pockets that double as an integrated stuff sack for the jacket.
Outdoor gear is becoming more and more streamlined by the year, and windbreaker jackets sit at the helm of this movement. Also referred to as windshirts, these jackets are exceptionally lightweight—generally between 2 and 7 ounces—and commonly stuff down to about the size of a coffee mug. And they’re small but mighty—made with breathable and water/wind-resistant nylon, they provide valuable warmth and weather protection. Climbers will often bring a a windbreaker jacket in lieu of an insulating baselayer, as it easily attaches to their harness with a carabiner. They’re are also popular with weight-conscious bikers, runners, backcountry skiers, and thru-hikers.
We certainly wouldn’t classify all windbreaker jackets as softshells. Some, like the Patagonia Houdini, do not stretch and are significantly lacking in breathability. That said, we see a trend towards wind layers becoming more and more stretchy and breathable—in other words, taking on the properties of a softshell. This results in a best-of-both-worlds hybrid layer that’s light and packable, breathable and pliable, and still impressively weather resistant. We’ve included a few windbreakers in this year’s article—including the Black Diamond Alpine Start and Rab Borealis—but expect to see more and more of these hybrids pop up on our list as we continue testing them.
Softshells are a relatively young product, and early versions were simply fleece jackets with a tougher, more weather resistant face fabric. They’ve quickly grown in popularity and technology and are now a realistic competitor to a hardshell for a number of alpine sports. Where softshells excel is breathability, range of motion, and comfort. On the other hand, hardshells win out in harsh conditions with waterproof and windproof exteriors and lighter weights. There is some crossover between categories, including jackets like the Rab Kinetic 2.0, which includes mechanical stretch in its fully waterproof design. That being said, it’s not quite as stretchy as a softshell and its fully waterproof design does result in slightly compromised breathability.
Both jacket types are completely viable options for activities like mountaineering, climbing, hiking, and skiing, among others. Your priorities should push you in one direction or the other and, realistically, those that spend a lot of time in the outdoors have at least one of each type. From our experience, the more familiar we’ve become with our gear and the conditions we’ll be heading out into, the more willing we are to reach for our softshell. It may not have that extra security blanket that comes with all the “proofing” of a hardshell, but its breathable and very comfortable nature make it a lot more enjoyable to wear the entire day. For a deeper dive into the topic, see our article on Hardshell vs. Softshell Jackets.
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