The Best Softshell Jacket Review

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Credit: Stephanie Elford-Price
What's the best softshell jacket? We tested 18 top-tier softshells over three years of skiing, ice climbing, mountaineering, rock climbing, showshoeing, and hiking. Our tests compare different types of jackets, from highly insulated models to thin, uninsulated models in an effort to examine the pros and cons of each type. We evaluated every jacket on its breathability, wind resistance, water resistance, features, weight, versatility, mobility, and style. Our awards and ratings highlight the best jackets for specific applications.

Read the full review below >

Review by: Max Neale ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab February 24, 2013

Top Ranked Softshell Jackets - Men's Displaying 1 - 5 of 17 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product Name
Arc'teryx Venta MX Hoody
Arc'teryx Venta MX Hoody
Read the Review
Patagonia Traverse
Patagonia Traverse
Read the Review
Arc'teryx Venta SV
Arc'teryx Venta SV
Read the Review
Video video review
Marmot Leadville
Marmot Leadville
Read the Review
Outdoor Research Salvo
Outdoor Research Salvo
Read the Review
Editors' Awards  Editors' Choice Award  Editors' Choice Award  Top Pick Award  Top Pick Award   
Street Price Varies $314 - $450
Compare at 2 sellers
Varies $84 - $129
Compare at 6 sellers
Varies $299 - $399
Compare at 2 sellers
Varies $95 - $160
Compare at 4 sellers
Varies $140 - $155
Compare at 2 sellers
Overall Score 
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100% recommend it (4/4)
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1 rating
Pros Windproof and highly water resistant, long length stays under harness, comfortable hood, very ergonomic and comfortable, versatile, perfect zippers.Very comfortable, breathable, lightweight, great value, recycled materials.Windproof, excellent features, stylish.Moderately lightweight, great combination of materials, unrestrictive fit, great cuffs.Windproof, highly water resistant, versatile.
Cons Front interior hood pull cords are harder to adjust than external cords, more chin coverage would be warmer, very expensive.Small pocket zipper pulls are hard to grad.Fleece insulation can be too warm for active use, hood does not protect face well.Best for high output activities in cold windy weather.Non-adjustable hood lets in cold air and isn't comfortable when used with a helmet.
Best Uses Alpine skiing, ice and alpine climbing.Hiking, cold weather running, cross-country skiing.Alpine skiing, cold weather general use.Nordic skiing, winter hiking, snowshoeing, winter running.Winter hiking, skiing, climbing.
Date Reviewed Mar 16, 2014Mar 22, 2014Mar 16, 2014Mar 16, 2014Mar 16, 2014
Weighted Scores Arc'teryx Venta MX Hoody Patagonia Traverse Arc'teryx Venta SV Marmot Leadville Outdoor Research Salvo
Breathability - 25%
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Wind Resistance - 20%
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Water Resistance - 5%
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Weight - 15%
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Features - 5%
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Versatility - 10%
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Mobility - 10%
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Style - 10%
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Product Specs Arc'teryx Venta MX Hoody Patagonia Traverse Arc'teryx Venta SV Marmot Leadville Outdoor Research Salvo
Weight (oz) 19.9 9.8 23 17 20.2
Insulation Midweight None Midweight None None
Material 3 layer with Gore Windstopper membrane 4.7-oz 93% all-recycled polyester/7% spandex 3 layer with Gore Windstopper membrane 3 layer with Gore Windstopper membrane and stretch side panels 3 layer with Gore Windstopper membrane
Number of Pockets [exterior] 2 [interior] 1 zip [exterior] 2 [interior] 0 [exterior] 2 [interior] 1 zip [exterior] 3 [interior] 1 zip [exterior] 3 [interior] 1 zip
Hood Yes Yes Yes No Yes
Helmet Compatible Hood Yes Yes Yes No No
Adjustable Cuffs Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Thumb Loops No Yes No No Yes
Pit Zips Yes Yes Yes No No
Headphone Port No No No No Yes
Two-Way Front Zipper No No No No No

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review


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  • Editors' Choice Winners
  • All Reviewed Products
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Patagonia Traverse
$129
100
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65
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Patagonia Simple Guide Hoody
$149
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Marmot Leadville
$150
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63
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Patagonia Adze
$139
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Outdoor Research Salvo
$260
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Arc'teryx Gamma MX
$379
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Mountain Hardwear Dragon
$260
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Flylow Higgins
$270
100
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52
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Patagonia Alpine Guide Jacket
$229
100
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53
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Patagonia Northwall
$450
100
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51
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Outdoor Research Lodestar jacket
$450
100
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46
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North Face Apex Bionic
$130
100
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43
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Patagonia Mixed Guide Hoody - Men's
$299.00
100
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57
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Marmot Super Hero
$280
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Marmot Approach
$100
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Mammut Herron
$250
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REI McCone Jacket
$129
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45
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Outdoor Research Alibi
$260
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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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The Softshell Jacket: A Luxurious Comfort
Softshell jackets strive to provide the perfect amount of weather protection and breathability for day use cold weather activities. They specifically aim to be more breathable than hardshell jackets and are therefore best for consistently high output activities where your body is working hard and generating a lot of heat and moisture. Although some softshells can be more comfortable than other types of jackets, they are a weight-inefficient form of insulation and weather protection. Therefore, softshells are rarely suitable for multi-day overnight trips. Also important, recent advances in waterproof breathable technology and ultralight windproof textiles are further encroaching on the space traditionally occupied by softshells. Although we love softshells for select winter activities, like climbing and cross-country skiing, we encourage you to consider purchasing a wind jacket and either a rainjacket or a hardshell before a softshell, if you don’t own them already.

Product Selection and Testing
We selected eighteen top-tier softshells that span all types of construction. Some have windproof membranes, others have thick fleece lining, and others are not insulated and don’t have membranes. Testing occurred over a three-year period in Alaska, the Sierra-Nevada, Cascades, Rockies, Midwest, and in Northern New England. We speak about the advantages and disadvantages of specific types of softshells in our Buying Advice Article.

Criteria For Evaluation
Breathability
Breathability is the single most important part of a softshell and its the main reason to choose a softshell over a hardshell or rainshell. However, there is an inherent tradeoff between breathability and wind and water resistance. Increasing breathability decreases weather resistance. As long as you keep moving, highly breathable softshells can keep you warm in windy and cold environments (see photo below). The Patagonia Traverse, a lightweight running softshell, is the most breathable jacket tested and the FlyLow Higgins, a membrane equipped snow sport shell, is the least breathable jacket tested.

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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
Water and Water Resistance
Softshells are not waterproof and shouldn’t be used in conditions that demand that attribute. Windy and dry conditions, ideally between 0 and 30 degrees Fahrenheit, with high output activities are the optimal conditions for a softshell. In anything else, you’re likely better off with some combination of a hardshell, fleece, wind shell, or synthetic insulated jacket. Unfortunately, conditions can turn for the worse and, depending on where you live and what activities you plan on doing, you might want a softshell that offers a greater degree of wind and/or water resistance. A windproof and highly water resistant membrane such as Gore Windstopper and Polartec Powershield Pro makes a softshell more water resistant and completely windproof. Several jackets tie for being highly water resistant. The Patagonia Traverse is the least water resistant jacket tested.

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DWR coatings help to shed melting snow and dripping water but wear off over time. Windproof membranes like Gore Windstopper and Polartec Powershield Pro help to increase water resistance after DWR wears off. It's important to reapply DWR frequently.
Credit: Max Neale
Mobility
This variable measures comfort in motion. Jackets with high mobility scores are unrestrictive and perform well for activities like cross-country skiing, running, and ice climbing. Fit, patterning, weight, and stretch contribute to mobility. The Marmot Leadville, Beyond Clothing Cold Fusion Shock, and Arc'teryx Venta MX tie for first place here. The FlyLow Higgins was the least mobile jacket tested.

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. The Arc'teryx Venta SV and Venta MX score 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 important feature found on any softshell and both of these Arc'teryx jackets have exceptionally comfortable hoods that work well whether worn with or without a helmet. The Beyond Clothing Cold Fusion Shock takes second place in this category because each jacke tis custom made to order; you to select the exact features you want.

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Soffshells can be the jacket of choice for active winter pursuits in dry climates like the Sierra Nevada.
Credit: Max Neale
Versatility
Softshells are designed for very specific end uses. Increasing performance, i.e. breathability, for high aerobic activities activity generally decreases performance for foul weather activities. Therefore, softshells with windproof membranes and pit zippers are more versatile that those without because they can be used in a wider range of conditions. The decreased breathability resulting from a windproof membrane can be mitigated by opening pit zips. Overall this system is more capable in a wider range of environmental conditions and physical activities because it works well both when you’re working hard and when the wind is howling and you’re not moving. The Arc'teryx Venta SV is most versatile jacket tested. The highly insulated, cold weather climbing specific Outdoor Research Lodestar is the least versatile jacket tested.

Style
This variable reflects the average score given by a group of seven (five female, two male) judges with no prior knowledge of the jackets. Two people modeled each softshell while the judges assessed appearance. According to this rating system, the Arc'teryx Venta SV is the best looking jacket because its simple design and sleek lines —there are no chest pockets— trumped many of the more cluttered jackets.

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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
Although a softshell will primarily be worn on your body, weight can be an important attribute for if you need to carry the jacket in backpack. Lighter jackets are generally more compact, more comfortable and more mobile, too. At 28.5 ounces the Outdoor Research Lodestar is the heaviest jacket tested and, at 9.8 ounces, the Patagonia Traverse is the lightest jacket tested.

A Note About Warmth
Softshells are designed specifically to be more comfortable than other types of winter sport shells but they are a weight-inefficient type of insulation. In general, we prefer uninsulated softshells because they are lighter, more versatile, and a better value than insulated softshells. Layering with a baselayer and a fleece midlayer outperforms highly insulated softshells. Again, softshell jackets are not well suited for use on most multi-day overnight trips- they are too heavy and are not waterproof.

Editor’s Choice Award
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Arcteryx Venta MX softshell has an extremely ergonomic fit. The arms, articulated elbows, and hood make it the most comfortable windproof softshell we've tested.
Credit: OutdoorGearLab
The Venta MX takes ice and alpine 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 is a critical feature that keeps it tucked underneath a harness all day long and helps to prevent deep powder from getting into your pants while skiing. The extra length also makes this piece warmer than other shells that ride up and expose your lower back to the elements. Two massive crossover chest pockets are backpack and harness compatible and the large hood is truly comfortable when worn over a helmet. At 18 ounces the Venta MX is surprisingly lightweight and packable, which makes it more pleasant to carry in a backpack if you need to (many other softshells weigh four to eight ounces more). Although best for climbing, our testers reached for this jacket more than any other- for all types of activities. The Venta MX represents the pinnacle of technical all-weather softshell design.

Top Pick Award for Versatility
The most versatile jacket tested is the Arc'teryx Venta SV which is also a past Editors Choice winner and third highest scoring jacket overall. It's warm, has near perfect zippers, a comfortable and and can be used in just about any cold activity you throw at it.
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The author climbing Mt. Whitney in a midweight softshell, the Beyond Clothing Cold Fusion Shock.
Credit: Matteo Willhelm

The past winner is the Cold Fusion Shockbut it is currently unavailable. It is custom made in Seattle to fit your body. Measure yourself, select various build options to suit specific end uses, and design your own softshell online. This jacket fits perfectly and moves with your body like a professional ballet dancer. The Cold Fusion is slightly more breathable than the Arc'teryx Venta MX. The ability to choose the features you want— such as hoods, pockets, and zippers— makes this jacket a true versatile winner.

Top Pick Award For Aerobic Activities
Cold weather high output activities like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, running, and day hikes require maximum breathability. The Marmot Leadville delivers this, plus strategically placed Windstopper panels that increase weather resistance, two handwarmer pockets, and a chest pocket. This simple and affordable jacket is a highly comfortable, all-purpose shell for less than terrible weather.

Best Buy Award
The Patagonia Simple Guide Hoody offers climbers and general winter lovers a high quality softshell for less than $150. That’s one-third the price of the Arteryx Venta MX!! We were truly impressed with this shell’s ability to balance weather resistance and breathability. It works well for climbing and pushes the performance-per-dollar limit farther than any other softshell we’ve tested.
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Patagonia Simple Guide Hoody (softshell, yellow), Patagonia Capilene 4 1/4 Zip Hoody (baselayer, red), and Mountain Hardwear Drystein Pant (blue).
Credit: Anna Joseph

Max Neale
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