The Best Softshell Jacket for Men Review
In this update, we continue our quest for the best in our popular softshell jacket review! Continually looking for the highest-performing jackets on the market, we bought 11 top softshells and tested them side-by-side. Over the course of three months, our testers scraped through arm-eating offwidth rock climbs, climbed ice in freezing wind, ski toured for days, snowshoed, and hiked local trails while wearing these jackets. After side-by-side comparisons, we ranked each product's weather protection, breathability, mobility, features, weight, and style. With jackets that differ greatly in their levels of water resistance and breathability there's one for nearly any use. Though competition was fierce, we gave awards to the best. Continue reading to see how these jackets compare and which one is best for you.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best for Specific Applications
Cross-country skiing: Black Diamond Alpine Start
Around town: Mountain Hardwear Fairing
Winter day hikes: Patagonia Adze Hybrid Hoody
Rock climbing: Arc'Teryx Gamma MX Hoody
Summer alpine climbing: Outdoor Research Ferrosi
Winter alpine climbing Patagonia KnifeRidge
Ice climbing: Patagonia KnifeRidge
Resort skiing: Patagonia KnifeRidge
Backcountry skiing: Black Diamond Dawn Patrol LT
Backpacking: Rab Vapour-Rise Lite Alpine
Most versatile: Outdoor Research Ferrosi
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Analysis and Test Results
Softshell jackets aim to provide the perfect combination of weather protection and breathability for aerobic activities in cold weather. They are much more breathable and more comfortable than hardshell jackets. This means that softshell jackets 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. If you're building your outerwear gear arsenal, we think that most people should invest in a true waterproof layer like a rain jacket or hardshell jacket and an insulated jacket before entering the world of softshells. Although softshell jackets are more comfortable and breathable than waterproof layers, they are really only suitable for a small set of technical activities and weather conditions. When the weather worsens, you'll need to throw on an insulated and/or waterproof jacket. See our Buying Advice Article for a more detailed discussion of this layer and its applications.
Types of Softshell Jackets
This review tests every available type of softshell jacket. Below we describe the pros, cons, and best applications for each type. Note that these categories are not mutually exclusive; some jackets tested are both stretch woven and fleece insulated, or membrane lined and fleece insulated. We list each jacket's type in the comparison table found above and in each individual product review.
These are typically lightweight models that prioritize breathability over weather protection. They rely on the tightness of the fabric's weave to protect from the elements. Some are nearly windproof, while others block only the smallest gusts. They are ideal for climbing, backcountry touring, running, and cross-country skiing in dry conditions. Examples include the Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hoody and the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol LT Shell.
These usually have a face fabric that is similar to stretch woven softshells, but have the addition of a membrane lining on the inside. Membrane lined softshells are the most weather resistant type we tested. Subsequently, they are less breathable than their stretch woven counterparts. These windproof models are best suited to ice and alpine climbing and can also be used for downhill skiing. Examples include the Patagonia KnifeRidge Jacket.
These are perhaps the most versatile type of softshell jacket. Based on the occasion, the user can either layer the shell over base and mid-layers or just a t-shirt for warm days. Because of the versatility of uninsulated softshells, they work well in a wide range of activities. Some have windproof materials that excel in cold, windy environments while others are very light and are great for running on brisk days. Uninsulated softshells have the capacity to feel more breathable because there is one less layer blocking sweat from exiting the jacket. Finally, they are typically lighter, which makes them easier to throw in your pack on long trips. The uninsulated models we tested weigh between 8 and 20 ounces. Examples include the Black Diamond Alpine Start and Patagonia KnifeRidge.
Fleece insulated jackets are less versatile but typically provide a little warmth over their unlined counterparts. The downside of these jackets is that they are often too warm for milder temperatures. Many fleece insulated jackets are designed for casual use, but some offer excellent technical performance in very cold environments (below 20 degrees Fahrenheit) during activities such as ice climbing. Examples include the Patagonia Adze Hybrid Hoody and Arc'teryx Gamma MX Hoody.
Water Resistant Hybrid
In the categories above, we do not distinguish when a jacket uses a combination of waterproof materials and softshell materials. This type of design, which we call water resistant hybrid, deserves special attention. We have found that waterproof hybrid softshell jackets are ideal for warmer weather ice climbing and done-in-a-day alpine ascents, when dripping water commonly lands on your hood and shoulders. This is very specialized type of jacket. We recommend this style of jacket for conditions in which you expect a little bit of water to fall on you, but not enough to warrant a full hardshell. For instance, climbing a long alpine route in the spring when the snow is melting all around you. For situations like this, these jackets shine because you would likely overheat in a hardshell, but they would also quickly wet-out a softshell jacket. That said, we think that fully waterproof jackets or more breathable softshells will work better the rest of the year. As a result, we only recommend this specialized type of jacket if you're certain it will meet your needs. We didn't test any water resistant hybrid softshells this year.
Criteria For Evaluation
In this metric, we evaluate how well these jackets keep you comfortable in windy and wet conditions. During our testing period, we used each softshell on windy alpine ridges, stuck our arms out the window while going 60mpg, and even jumped in a waterfall with each jacket. Warmth didn't factor into our evaluation of this metric since we don't think that warmth is one of the primary reasons that you should buy a softshell. If you're looking for a warm, water resistant jacket, we recommend checking out the Rab Xenon X Hoodie.
Although we tested each softshell jacket in a waterfall, these jackets are by no means waterproof and shouldn't be used in conditions that demand that attribute. If liquid water is falling on you, it's just a matter of time before these jackets go from being comfy and cozy to being heavy, waterlogged messes that are neither warm nor comfortable. The weather resistance of the softshells we tested varies greatly some models are almost fully waterproof while others are barely wind resistant.
Over the years, we've tested weather resistance in a myriad of conditions, from mountaineering in Alaska to ice and alpine climbing in Maine and New Hampshire. In our most recent update, we ice climbed and skied throughout Colorado's Front Range and combined our field-testing with a series of controlled tests, including our now-infamous waterfall test. In the weeks before ice season in Colorado, one tester jumped on the opportunity to test these jackets in a frigid soon-to-be-ice climb. Jackets with hoods fared better than those without and allowed our tester to be further emerged in the torrent than those without hoods. Because mountain weather is fickle, we think that hoods are a mandatory feature for activities above treeline.
In our tests, we found that the most weather resistant softshell jackets have a laminated membrane (see description above and in the specifications table). The membrane lined Patagonia KnifeRidge was the most water resistant softshell we tested followed by the Patagonia Adze Hybrid Hoody. The Adze fell behind as water leaked through the untaped seams. Keep in mind, however, that neither of these jackets breathe very well. On the other end of the spectrum, the Rab Vapour-Rise Lite Alpine Jacket and the Black Diamond Alpine Start defended against the torrent very poorly; however, both these jackets are very breathable and therefore allowed us to dry out quickly. These pieces are best for winter running, cross-country skiing, and spring/summer alpine rock climbing.
Breathability is the calling card of a softshell jacket and one of the most important benefits of a softshell jacket. In fact, we think that that breathability is the main reason to choose this type of layer over a waterproof jacket. If you have ever worn a cheap, plastic poncho from the dollar store you understand why breathability is important. The term breathability describes the ability of a material to transport moisture. Even if a waterproof jacket helps you stay dry from the rain, during high activity our bodies can perspire two liters per hour! If you sweat that much while wearing a cheap, plastic rain layer, you'd feel soaked and gross. If you sweat that much in a lightweight softshell you'll feel much drier and much happier. Staying dry is also one of the biggest keys to staying comfortable and warm in cold climates since water transmits heat much faster than air. This fact is of critical importance in cold climates. You might be surprised that most cases of hypothermia occur in temperatures above freezing. When temperatures are lower, water freezes and it becomes harder for us to get wet and subsequently chilled. One great way to get chilled in the snow, however, is to get soaked in sweat by wearing too many clothes or clothes that aren't breathable enough. Once your cardio output declines, you will chill rapidly.
As you increase your output (i.e. your level of aerobic activity), breathability becomes more and more important. For example, cross-country skiing and backcountry ski touring typically demand highly breathable jackets, but activities like moderate hiking and downhill skiing do not. Breathability is largely determined by the presence or absence of a laminated membrane and/or a fleece liner, both of which decrease breathability compared to jackets that don't have membranes or liners. 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.
After every outing, we gathered breathability feedback from each tester. These scores are subjective and reflect our testers' personal opinions about the level of breathability of each jacket. The Black Diamond Alpine Start received a score of 10 and is the most breathable jacket that we tested, however it also earned a weather resistance rating of 2. The Outdoor Research Ferrosi and Rab Vapour-Rise Lite Alpine both received a score of 9 but did a little better at providing some protection from wind and falling snow. These uninsulated non-windproof jackets were the only ones that we could wear when charging hard uphill without unzipping or taking them off. The Patagonia KnifeRidge and Adze Hybrid were much less breathable, but in turn offer more weather protection.
The right shell for you largely depends on the amount of sweat you generate while playing in the mountains. Our bodies vary greatly, which means that some of us need more breathable jackets than others. If you sweat a lot or frequently engage in highly aerobic activities, you'll probably love the excellent breathability of a jacket like the Ferrosi or Alpine Start. If you're not planning to wear your shell during high output activities, then consider a more weather resistant shell like the The North Face Apex Bionic Jacket.
Mobility & Fit
If you enjoy the restrictive feeling of wearing formal clothing, disregard our comments on mobility. But if you're like most people, then mobility is a key factor to consider when buying technical clothing. Most outdoor apparel is moderately mobile and will be very comfortable if you're just walking around. However, many outdoor sports involve things like stretching your arms above your head to reach an out-of-reach climbing hold, twisting your hips into a joyous powder turn, or looking up with a hood on to see a magnificent mountain peak. Because we are searching for the highest performing gear for outdoor activities, we rank mobility as a high priority for our needs.
To account for this, our mobility metric assesses each product's overall comfort during aerobic activities. We took into consideration whether it rode up when lifting our arms, if the shoulders were designed for full rotation, and whether we could layer effectively underneath it without feeling restricted. During our testing, we not only studied the design of each product's arms and shoulders, but also how they actually performed during all our day-to-day outdoor activities.
Some jackets were mobile enough in the body for activities like skiing, but when we took them ice climbing, the jackets either pulled out of our harnesses when reaching up, or our cuff fell below our gloves exposing our wrists to the cold and snow. Longer wrists and underarm gussets are both designed to help counter this problem.
If a jacket fits you perfectly, the wrist cuffs should not fall when you reach up and the hem should stay below your waist.
Another factor that has a large influence on mobility is stretch. A stretch body reduces the influence of a poor fit and makes the jacket feel like it's moving with you. Stretch allows a jacked to fit quite snug without impairing mobility. A great example is the Outdoor Research Ferrosi which fit nearly as snug as the Marmot Gravity, but was far more mobile in large part because of the great stretch. Another benefit to stretch materials is that they are less noisy than windproof fabrics.
Overall, the most mobile pieces tested here was the Patagonia Adze Hybrid. Despite its bulky fabric, it was the only jacket that allowed full mobility without the cuffs falling or hem rising. Surprisingly it even beat out jackets made with stretchier materials. When we handed the Adze to one tester for the first time, he was less than excited to use this jacket based on the weight and bulk, but after putting it on and raising his arms, his first comment was, "Wow, this thing is mobile!" The Patagonia KnifeRidge, Black Diamond Dawn Patrol, and Arc'teryx Gamma MX all performed admirably as well. The Columbia Ascender Jacket scored lowest in this category.
Weight & Packed Size
Weight and packed size can be very important attributes especially on long trips or any time you'll have to put the jacket in your pack. You might notice that we don't place as much of an emphasis on the weight of these products as we do on many other types of outdoor gear. The reason for this is that these products are designed to be breathable enough that they can be worn all day without having to throw them into your pack. Weight carried on your body isn't as noticeable as weight in a backpack. For this reason, we do not think that weight and packed sizes are the most important factors when choosing a softshell jacket. Our scores range from one to ten and reflect the full range between the lightest jacket tested (the 7.4 oz. Black Diamond Alpine Start) and the heaviest jacket tested (the 25.2 oz. Patagonia Adze Hybrid Hoody).
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. Well-designed features are critical for overall comfort, ease of use, and storage. Whether you're hoping to stash an entire day's worth of energy bars into your chest pocket or just tote around your wallet and keys, great features can make your life easier. In order to rate each product in this metric, we included the feedback from the dozen or so people that contributed to testing.
Hoods are one of our favorite things especially on softshells. If you're strolling about in the hills and it starts to snow, you are going to need something on your head to keep you from getting soaked. If you don't have a hood on your softshell, you're going to need some other layer to cover your head be it an insulated jacket, rain jacket, or helmet.
Hoodless softshells are less versatile, but still work well in many instances. If you are carrying a rain jacket (which will have a hood) to put on over your softshell, you might find that you can be perfectly comfortable without a hood. The Mountain Hardwear Fairing Jacket is a fantastic hoodless option. For cross-country skiing, we rarely put on our hood and instead prefer a balaclava. Finally, if you're cruising around town, we think that hoodless models are generally more stylish.
Pocket design is also important. For climbing and backpacking, cross-over chest pockets are best (see the Rab Vapour-Rise Lite Alpine) since they won't get in the way of your harness or hip belt. Meanwhile, hand warmer pockets are best for around town and general use (See the Marmot Gravity). Fleece-lined pockets can add extra comfort and coziness for your hands, but can also add unnecessary weight and warmth. All of the pockets in this review have zippered closures; without this, snow and water can enter the pocket and make you wet. If you plan on using your jacket with big gloves on, you'll want to look for big zipper pulls that can be easily manipulated.
The Patagonia KnifeRidge earned the highest scores in this category because nearly every component is designed with the utmost attention to detail and balances function with ergonomics and style. With its super easy to use draw cords, this jacket was also extremely easy to adjust.
We feel that it's important that you look good in a jacket you spend a lot of money on, especially one that works so well around town. 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 five percent 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 Mountain Hardwear Fairing and The North Face Apex Bionic to jackets like the Rab Vapour-Rise or Patagonia KnifeRidge, which have offset colored zippers and duo-chrome fabric designs. It's also important here to consider the fit of your jacket. Our scores in this category ranged from 9 to 4 and multiple jackets received our top score.
If good looks and around town use are a top priority we recommend considering the Mountain Hardwear Fairing or another classic non-hooded model that offers decent technical performance as well.
Softshells, especially uninsulated models, are great to pair with other layers, such as a fleece, to increase the warmth. We recommend our Editors' Choice winner, the Patagonia R1 Hoody. As we've mentioned multiple times in our review, we recommend purchasing a hardshell or rain jacket and an insulated jacket before you invest in a softshell.
Some great options include:
For those of you adventure junkies doing high energy activities in the cold weather, a jacket in this category might be just what you are looking for. Combining weather protection with breathability, these jackets work best when you are working hard. Depending on your intended use, the best jacket for you may differ. Some materials work better on cold, wet, and windy days, while others specialize in breathability and work well for laying. By using our in-depth research, we hope you can find the right jacket to fit your lifestyle. Take a look at our Buying Advice article for further help in making your decision.
— Jeremy Bauman and Max Neale
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