The Best Softshell Jacket Review

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Credit: Stephanie Elford-Price
What's the best softshell jacket? To find out, we took 20 top models and used them for three years of skiing, ice climbing, alpine climbing, mountaineering, rock climbing, showshoeing, running, and hiking. We tested each jacket side-by-side, on the trails and while roped up climbing mountains, and scored them on weather protection, breathability, mobility, features, weight, and style. We learned a lot about each jacket and gave awards to several of the best. This review describes which jackets we loved, which worked well for specific applications, and which are best left on the hanger at the store.

You may also be interested in the Hardshell Jacket Review and the Women's Softshell Jacket Review

Read the full review below >

Review by: and Max Neale

Top Ranked Softshell Jackets - Men's Displaying 1 - 5 of 20 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #14 #13 #1 #6 #3
Product Name
Flylow Higgins
Flylow Higgins
Read the Review
Video video review
Patagonia Adze
Patagonia Adze
Read the Review
Arc'teryx Venta MX Hoody
Arc'teryx Venta MX Hoody
Read the Review
Arc'teryx Venta SV
Arc'teryx Venta SV
Read the Review
Video video review
Patagonia Knifeblade
Patagonia Knifeblade
Read the Review
Video video review
Editors' Awards      Top Pick Award     
Street Price $300
Compare at 4 sellers
Varies $70 - $139
Compare at 7 sellers
$450
Compare at 3 sellers
$399
Compare at 4 sellers
Varies $265 - $379
Compare at 4 sellers
Overall Score
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Editors' Rating
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User Rating Be the first to rate it
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2 ratings
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100% recommend it (4/4)
Be the first to rate it
Pros Waterproof, durable, well-featured.Windproof, slightly insulated, stylish, affordable, handwarmer pockets are good for use without gloves.Windproof and highly water resistant, long length stays under harness, comfortable hood, very ergonomic and comfortable, versatile, perfect zippers.Windproof, excellent features, stylish.Windproof, highly water resistant, slightly more breathable than a hardshell.
Cons Not stretchy, restrictive.No hood, pockets are obscured by a backpack and harness, heavy for its warmth.Front interior hood pull cords are harder to adjust than external cords, more chin coverage would be warmer, very expensive.Fleece insulation can be too warm for active use, hood does not protect face well.Not waterproof, hood is relatively small and does not protect face, hardshells are better for climbing and are a better value, questionably durable membrane.
Best Uses Skiing and snowboarding.Around town, spring and fall hiking, cross-country skiing, general use.Alpine skiing, ice and alpine climbing.Alpine skiing, cold weather general use.Ice climbing.
Date Reviewed Mar 12, 2013Mar 14, 2014Mar 14, 2014Mar 13, 2014Mar 10, 2014
Weighted Scores Flylow Higgins Patagonia Adze Arc'teryx Venta MX Hoody Arc'teryx Venta SV Patagonia Knifeblade
Weather Protection - 30%  
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9
Breathability - 30%
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Mobility - 20%
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8
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7
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7
Weight - 10%
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Features - 5%
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9
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Style - 5%
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9
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Product Specs Flylow Higgins Patagonia Adze Arc'teryx Venta MX Hoody Arc'teryx Venta SV Patagonia Knifeblade
Type Waterproof Windproof Windproof Windproof + Fleece Insulated Windproof
Weight (oz) 24.6 22.5 19.9 23 18
Material 3 layer waterproof breathaable Polartec Windbloc windproof membrane Gore Windstopper Gore Windstopper Polartec Powershield Pro
Number of Pockets 2 handwarmer, 1 interiot zip, 1 interior mesh 2 handwarmer, 1 interior zip 2 chest, 1 interior zip 2 handwarmer, 1 interior zip 2 handwarmer, 1 chest
Hood Yes Optional Yes Yes Yes
Adjustable Cuffs Yes No Yes Yes Yes
Thumb Loops No No No No No
Pit Zips Yes No Yes Yes No

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review


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  • All Reviewed Products
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Patagonia Traverse
$129
100
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68
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Patagonia Simple Guide Hoody
$149
100
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59
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Arc'teryx Venta MX Hoody
$450
100
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69
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Outdoor Research Salvo
$260
100
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61
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Patagonia Adze
$139
100
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58
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Arc'teryx Venta SV
$400
100
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66
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Marmot Leadville
$150
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66
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Arc'teryx Gamma MX
$379
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63
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Mountain Hardwear Dragon
$260
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Mountain Hardwear Kepler
$340
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Flylow Higgins
$270
100
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57
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Patagonia Alpine Guide Jacket
$229
100
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60
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Patagonia Northwall
$450
100
0
46
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Outdoor Research Lodestar jacket
$450
100
0
46
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Patagonia Knifeblade
$379
100
0
67
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Rab Zephyr
$110
100
0
66
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North Face Apex Bionic
$130
100
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45
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Patagonia Mixed Guide Hoody - Men's
$299.00
100
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60
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Marmot Approach
$100
100
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60
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Marmot Super Hero
$280
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Mammut Herron
$250
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REI McCone Jacket
$129
100
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48
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Outdoor Research Alibi
$260
100
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55
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Patagonia Guide
$150
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REI Elk Ridge
$160
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Patagonia Guide Hoody
$180
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Choosing the Right Product
Softshell jackets aim to provide the perfect amount of weather protection and breathability for aerobic activities in cold weather. They are more breathable and more comfortable than hardshell jackets and more weather resistant than wind jackets. Softshells are best for high output aerobic activities where your body is working hard and generating a lot of heat and moisture. They are a specialized and luxurious type of apparel in the sense that no one needs a softshell. From a value perspective, a softshell is a poor purchase because it's not waterproof and each model works well for only a small set of activities. We strongly recommend purchasing: (1) a wind jacket; and (2) either a rain jacket or a hardshell jacket before a softshell. See our Buying Advice Article for a more detailed discussion of softshells and their applications.

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Lightweight softshells are the best type of jacket for cross-country skiing. Here Meghan, Sarah, and Dan ski in three different softshells. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan.
Credit: Max Neale
Types of Softshells
This reviews tests every available type of softshell jacket. Below we describe the pros and cons, and best application, for each type. Note that these categories are not mutually exclusive; some jackets tested are both midweight and fleece insulated, or windproof and fleece insulated. We list each jacket's type in the specification table found above and in each individual product review.

Lightweight
Weighing around 10 oz. and under, lightweight softshells prioritize breathability over weather protection. They are ideal for day hikes, running, and cross-country skiing. Examples include the Patagonia Traverse and the Rab Zephyr.

Midweight
These are the most common and perhaps the most versatile type of softshell. They aim to balance a moderate amount of breathability with a moderate amount of weather protection. They perform well for a range of activities, including ice climbing and winter hiking, but are rarely ideal for any single activity. Midweight softshells typically have a brushed fleece liner that provides a small amount of insulation. The midweight softshells we tested weigh between 18 and 25 ounces. Examples include the Patagonia Simple Guide Hoody and Arc'teryx Gamma MX.

Windproof
Windproof softshells are built with three layers: an exterior face fabric, a windproof membrane, and an interior liner fabric. These are the most weather resistant type of softshell we've tested because they are windproof and highly water resistant. They are very similar to hardshell jackets, except they are not waterproof. Windproof softshells are best suited to ice and alpine climbing and can be used for downhill skiing. Most windproof softshells are not insulated are therefore easy to layer with—we very much appreciate this. Examples include the Arc'teryx Venta MX and Outdoor Research Salvo.

Fleece Insulated
Although we have tested several, we rarely recommend fleece insulated softshells because they are extremely limited in their applications and are a poor value. The large amount of insulation in these jackets makes them cozy for around town, but too hot for many winter activities, and difficult to layer with. This type of jacket is best for for cold (below 20 Fahrenheit) days of ice climbing. Examples include the Outdoor Research Lodestar and Patagonia Northwall.

Waterproof Hybrid
In the above categories we do not distinguish when a jacket uses a combination of materials. However, manufacturers are increasingly building jackets with a combination of waterproof hardshell materials and midweight softshell materials, and this type of jacket, which we call waterproof hybrid, deserves special attention. We have found that waterproof hybrid softshells are ideal for warmer weather ice and done-in-a-day alpine climbing, when dripping water commonly lands on your hood and shoulders. This is very specialized type of jacket that we only recommend if you're an experienced ice climber and you know exactly what you want (likely, you already own a hardshell, wind jacket, and perhaps a lightweight or midweight softshell).

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The author climbing Mt. Whitney in a midweight softshell, the Beyond Clothing Cold Fusion Shock.
Credit: Matteo Willhelm
Criteria For Evaluation
Breathability
Our breathability ratings are a subjective assessment that reflects our testers' opinion about the rate that moisture vapor passes through the softshell material. Gear manufacturers test this using a variety of methods, but we do not yet have the capability to do so, and we feel that our qualitative observations from field testing under dynamic, active conditions provides a result that is more meaningful than laboratory testing.

Breathability is the single most important part of a softshell and it's the main reason to choose a softshell over a waterproof jacket. Increasing your output, i.e. the level of aerobic the activity, increases the importance of breathability. For example, cross-country skiing and winter hiking typically require a highly breathable jacket but multi-pitch ice climbing (a stop-and-go activity) do not. Breathability is largely determined by the presence or absence of a windproof membrane, which decreases breathability compared to jackets that don't have membranes. Additionally the thickness and weave of the fabric influences breathability; thin loose knit fabrics are the most breathable and thicker fleece insulated jackets are less breathable.

The Patagonia Traverse, a lightweight running and cross-country softshell, is the most breathable jacket tested. The FlyLow Higgins, a membrane equipped snowsport shell, is the least breathable jacket tested.


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Fleece insulated softshells are less breathable and less versatile than uninsulated jackets. Outdoor Research Lodestar shown here.
Credit: Max Neale
Weather Resistance
Softshells are not waterproof and shouldn't be used in conditions that demand that attribute. The combination of thick face fabrics and the inherent limitations of DWR coatings (chemical coatings that allow water to beat up and roll of the surface of a fabric) make softshells a very poor choice for wet environments. We've found that they quickly turn from comfy and cozy into heavy, waterlogged messes that are neither warm nor comfortable. Windy and dry conditions, below freezing temperatures, and high output highly mobile activities are the optimal conditions for a softshell. The importance of this cannot be overstated.

We tested weather resistance through three years of field-testing in a myriad of conditions. The most illustrative testing environments were mountaineering in Alaska and ice and alpine climbing in Maine and New Hampshire. The most weather resistant softshells have a windproof membrane (see description above and in the specifications table). These include the Arc'teryx Venta MX and Patagonia Knifeblade, all receive a score of nine in our ratings, but at best, they only kept our testers dry for about thirty minutes of rain. The Patagonia Traverse is the least weather resistant jacket tested—it's best for winter running and cross-country skiing.

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Windproof softshells like the Arcteryx Venta MX (yellow) are the only type of softshell that work well in exposed, above treeline environments. In this photo two of three people are using hardshell jackets, which are wind and waterproof.
Credit: Zeb Engberg
Mobility
This variable assesses a jacket's comfort during aerobic activities with lots of upper body motion, e.g. running, cross-country skiing, and ice climbing. We assessed each jacket's mobility by doing those activities and by doing side-by-side tests. For example, the main factor that reduces mobility is the design of a jacket's arms; the most mobile jackets allow you to move your arms overhead and to the side without feeling restricted.

Our mobility tests showed a significant difference between softshells that are otherwise very similar; both the Patagonia Northwall and Outdoor Research Lodestar are fleece insulated and entirely or mostly windproof climbing softshells that use many of the same materials. Though they have similar specifications, our mobility tests with three people show that it is more difficult to raise your arms overhead while wearing the Lodestar than the Northwall—the entire jacket rises up, thereby forcing your body to expend more energy, and it exposes your stomach and lower back to the cold (the latter result is particularly problematic when you're wearing a climbing harness because the jacket can come untucked).

Another factor that has a large influence on mobility is stretch. Both the Lodestar and Northwall use fabrics that have low stretch. Consequently, the patterning and arm design are the primary determinants of mobility. Lightweight and midweight softshells use fabrics that have more stretch than windproof softshells. This reduces the influence of arm design, and when coupled with an unrestrictive arms design, makes you feel light and free. Overall, the most mobile softshells tested here are the Patagonia Traverse and the Rab Zephyr. The standout in this category was the Arc'teryx Venta MX, which, despite being windproof, had a fantastically ergonomic fit that stunned our testers—we gave it a score of nine. The FlyLow Higgins scored lowest in this category.

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Max in the Patagonia Traverse softshell, right, a highly breathable and comfortable lightweight jacket.
Credit: Gavin Taylor
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Jeff Smith gets some air in the Arcteryx Venta SV, a windproof softshell best for downhill skiing and snowboarding.
Credit: Andrew Jackson
Weight
Weight can be a very important attribute for a softshell activities like alpine climbing, cross country sking, and running because having a heavier jacket reduces your ability to perform said activities. Additionally, lighter jackets are more compact than heavier jackets. Weight is perhaps the single best proxy for softshell performance; heavier jackets will (on average) be less breathable, less mobile, and more weather resistant. We scored each jacket based on its measured weight. Our scores range from one to ten and reflect the 18.4 oz. range between the lightest jacket tested (the 9.8 oz. Patagonia Traverse) and the heaviest jacket tested (the 28.2 oz. Outdoor Research Lodestar). Thus, a one-point difference between two jackets' scores reflects the observed 1.8 oz. difference in their measured weight. Unlike other apparel types that are better for multi-day backpacking and climbing trips, weight represents a relatively small share (10%) of each softshell's total score.

Features
Here we assessed the quality and quantity of each jacket's features as they contribute to its specific end use. We looked at the design of hand warmer pockets, chest pockets, zippers, zipper pulls, pit zips, interior pockets, hoods, and adjustment cords. In order to increase the accuracy of this highly subjective assessment, we include the feedback from the dozen or so people that contributed to testing.

The Arc'teryx Venta MX scores highest in this category because nearly every component is designed with the utmost attention to detail and balances function with ergonomics and style. The hood is the most difficult-to-design, and most important feature found on any hooded softshell. It's the make-or-break difference between keeping your face warm the wind is whipping hard, and being cold and miserable, or worse: getting frost nip.

Pocket design is also critically important. For climbing, cross-over chest pockets are best (see the Arc'teryx Venta MX) and handwarmer pockets are best for around town and general use (see the Patagonia Traverse.

The photos below show the Arc'teryx Venta MX's hood, which is the best of any softshell tested. Note the four drawcords that create a very comfortable fit with or without a helmet.

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Style
We feel that it's important that you look good in a jacket you spend a lot of money on. Therefore we scored each jacket based on our testers' perception of its aesthetic appeal. We recognize that our assessment is highly subjective and, consequently, we make it a mere 5% of each jacket's total score.

Generally, we feel that simple exteriors look better than complex multi-color patterns. For around town, our testers prefer basic, handsome jackets like the Marmot Leadville and Patagonia Adze to jackets like the Marmot Up Track, which have offset colored zippers (for example, the jacket could be blue with a yellow zipper, or dark green with a light green zipper). Our scores in this category range from nine to five and multiple jackets received our top score. If good looks and around town use are your top priority we recommend considering the Patagonia Adze.

Accessories
Softshells are great to pair with other layers, such as a fleece, to increase the warmth. We recommend our editor's choice winner, the Patagonia R1 Hoody and our top pick winner, Arc'teryx Fortrez. For a more in-depth look at fleece jackets check out The Best Fleece Jacket Review.

AWARD WINNERS
Editor's Choice Award: Patagonia Traverse
The highly specialized nature of softshell jackets makes us feel that there's no single "best" all-purpose jacket. The Patagonia Traverse wins our Editor's Choice Award because it performs very well for a variety of activities and is the second highest scoring jacket we tested. The Traverse is a rock star for cross-country skiing, hiking, running, biking, and for blocking the wind on the walk to the coffee shop. This jacket is a fantastic value.

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Patagonia Traverse softshell and Patagonia Capilene 4 balaclava in light "wintry mix".
Credit: Max Neale
Best Buy Award: Patagonia Simple Guide Hoody
Built with a heavier fabric than the Patagonia Traverse, the Patagonia Simple Guide Hoody is a durable midweight jacket well suited to climbers, skiers, and all-purpose use for people on a budget. Without a hood, this jacket is slightly cheaper than the Traverse, and with a hood it's slightly more expensive; but its tougher fabric is the main reason why it wins our Best Buy Award. Overall we love the Simple Guide Hoody because it's bomber and versatile.

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Patagonia Simple Guide Hoody. White Mountains, New Hampshire. We wish the jacket had a more protective hood that covered more of your face and was more adjustable.
Credit: Max Neale
Top Pick Award for Ice Climbing: Arc'teryx Venta MX
The Venta MX takes ice climbing to the next level with its exceptionally comfortable and well-featured design. A Gore Windstopper membrane and two different face fabrics make this jacket completely windproof, highly water resistant, and very durable. The MX is cut longer than most softshells, which keeps it tucked underneath a harness better than any other softshell we've tested. Two large crossover chest pockets are backpack and harness compatible and the large hood is the most comfortable helmet compatible hood of all softshells tested. If you have the cash to push the performance envelope, the Venta MX is the best ice climbing softshell we've tested.

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Zeb Engberg snaps a selfie in the Arcteryx Venta MX jacket. Huntington Ravine, Mt. Washington, New Hampshire.
Credit: Zeb Engberg

Best Softshells for Specific Applications
Cross-country skiing: Patagonia Traverse
Ice climbing: Arc'teryx Venta MX
Around town: Patagonia Adze
Most versatile: Patagonia Simple Guide Hoody

Chris McNamara and Max Neale
Buying Advice
How we Test
Helpful Buying Tips
How to Choose the Best Softshell Jacket - Click for details
 How to Choose the Best Softshell Jacket

by Chris McNamara and Max Neale
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