The Best Softshell Jacket for Women Review
What makes the perfect softshell? After evaluating multiple models, and seeing different versions come and go over the course of several years, we feel like we have zeroed in on what makes the ideal softshell and what needs each different piece meets. To test these jackets we romped through all kinds of winter weather during a span of activities. We wore them ice climbing, alpine climbing, skiing in the backcountry, nordic skiing, hiking, and snowshoeing. We even wore them around town to see how they held up to peer scrutiny. Then we compared and contrasted these jackets based on the primary categories of breathability, weather protection, mobility, weight, features, and style. Read our full review to see which ones came out on top and to see if it is even worth spending your hard earned dollars on a softshell jacket.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
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Analysis and Test Results
The softshell is an interesting piece because it strives to do so much in one layer: resist wind, repel water, and breathe well. It wants to be a comfort piece and a protection piece at the same time. Ultimately, we find the softshell to be a luxury layer. Some athletes such as ice climbers and backcountry skiers may find a layer of this type to be a necessary addition to their garment quiver, but the majority of users don't need a softshell. Unlike potentially life-saving layers like protective, waterproof hardshells and insulation layers that are essential to your outdoor layering kit, a softshell is nice to have because it is, well, soft and extra comfortable, but it won't keep you warm and dry if you get caught in an unexpected storm. The primary objective of a softshell is to increase comfort through breathability and supple flexibility while offering some degree of weather protection. These layers are less stiff, noisy, and suffocating than hardshells, making them more pleasant to wear, but they only offer protection in mild weather. If you realize that you need more weather protection, check out our Women's Hardshell Review.
For more details on different types of shells and the level of protection they provide, reference our Buying Advice article.
Uses for Softshell Jackets
So when do you wear a softshell jacket? They are not ideal for overnight or multi-day trips when it is much safer and preferable to have a hardshell or a rain jacket to keep you dry in an unexpected storm. However, there are several activities where a softshell is the ideal piece.
For winter activities that involve an elevated heart rate, a softshell can be perfect. From hiking and running to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, a softshell will be the perfect blend of breathability and protection. These activities usually take place over a few hours, so the lack of beefier weather protection does not leave you vulnerable to incoming storms.
Skiing at the resort usually is more comfortable in an insulated ski jacket, but in the spring when it is sunnier and warmer, a softshell may be more comfortable and will allow the wearer to better regulate her temperature. Backcountry skiing in particular involves much more time spent sweating and working hard, and in these situations a softshell is far superior to an insulated jacket. In this case, many skiers will skin up in a softshell and relayer with an insulating layer as they change over at the top.
Ice and Alpine Climbing
Due to the stop-and-go nature of climbing and the environment where it takes place, a climber simultaneously requires breathability and protection from wind and wetness. Climbing involves bouts of moving fast, working hard, and building up body heat, but those periods of activity are punctuated with periods stillness, leaving the climber vulnerable to weather and cold. Also, ice climbing naturally takes place in wet and windy environments. This dual function is essentially the definition of a softshell, making it the ideal layer for this specialized activity. For mountaineering expeditions that take place over several days, a hardshell may be the most functional layer.
Since softshells lean towards comfort and flexibility, they are just plain nice to wear. A flattering, affordable, and comfortable softshell can be the perfect jacket to wear for all your less extreme day-to-day outdoor activities such as walking the dog, gardening, shoveling the driveway, and running errands.
Types of Softshell Jackets
In addition to your standard issue softshell jacket, which is wind and water resistant as well as flexible and breathable, there are several other types on the market. While we tested a wide range of these jackets, we didn't test every possible type. Here is a brief run-down of the unique types you may consider.
Some shell jackets are ultra-thin and light and are designed with runners and hikers in mind. In fact, some pieces in our Running Jacket Review could be considered softshells. These are best suited to high-exertion, aerobic activities that require outstanding breathability where wind and water resistance are less important. An example of this would be the Rab Solar jacket which is so thin, you may not even consider it a shell.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from ultralight models are windproof models that offer the most protection possible short of being a hardshell. These models typically incorporate a membrane into the face material, which also makes them highly water resistant (not waterproof), but they usually aren't as breathable or as flexible as thinner, membrane-free shells. They tend to be thicker, stiffer, and less comfortable, but they are often warmer and more protective. The clear advantage of having a windproof shell is that it eliminates the need to have a wind jacket. Though a softshell will be heavier than a dedicated wind layer, a windproof softshell might mean you only need one layer instead of two when heading out into the mountains for a day. Examples of windproof shells are the Patagonia Adze Hoody - Women's, The North Face Apex Bionic Hoodie - Women's, and the Mammut Ultimate hoody - Women's.
There are a few designs on the market that combine a weather resistant face material with a high-loft, insulating fleece interior. Backcountry makes some shells like these with their Stoic brand and Arc'teryx has made several models in the past which fits in this category. These models are warmer than a softshell without an insulated lining, but a tiny bit less breathable. They are also heavier and bulkier, but may make a more complete and useful everyday jacket for someone living in a mild climate.
An emerging yet popular category is hybrid jackets. These jackets combine two materials with very different properties to create a jacket that bridges the gap between two functions. The Outdoor Research Enchainment - Women's uses a similar design. Additionally, the Marmot ROM - Women's uses Gore Windstopper in concert with an extremely thin and breathable layer to offer wind protection and outstanding breathability.
Criteria for Evaluation
Breathability is the reason why people buy softshell jackets. If your primary need is weather protection, then you want a fully waterproof hardshell. However, when you plan to get your blood moving, a hardshell can feel suffocating and stuffy. Enter the softshell. Finding a piece that strikes the perfect balance between breathability and weather protection is key.
We tested these softshells in a variety of conditions during a number of different activities. The most telling is when we wore them for high exertion activities such as skate skiing and hiking. Both of these activities get the blood moving and the sweat flowing. We found the Arc'teryx Gamma MX Hoody - Women's to be the most breathable and the hybrid Marmot ROM to be on the same plane. Just after these two standouts came the windproof Mammut Ultimate Hoody - Women's, which also features pit-zips in case you need extra ventilation. The least breathable were the windproof models that include a membrane or laminate of some kind: the Patagonia Adze and The North Face Apex Bionic. We also found the hybrid models that provide additional water resistance, such as the OR Enchainment, to be less breathable than the thin and flexible Gamma MX.
Most of the jackets in this review have mesh-lined hand pockets that can be left unzipped and used as vents if more ventilation is needed. The only ones that did not have this extra feature were the Kruser Ridge and the Mountain Hardwear Alchemy.
No softshell is as fully protective from weather as a hardshell, which is waterproof and windproof. While there are some windproof models, the designation of "waterproof" is reserved for hardshells. Most softshells are designated as water and wind resistant. Some of the hybrid designs that we tested have waterproof parts, but these jackets should not be worn as rain jackets in a bad storm. Overall, softshells are ideal for mild weather where some moderate protection from wind and water is needed, but full storm protection isn't required. When evaluating for weather protection we took into consideration both wind resistance and water resistance.
We tested four windproof models: the Patagonia Adze, North Face Apex Bionic Hoodie - Women's, the Mammut Ultimate Hoody, and the Mountain Hardwear Alchemy Hooded Jacket - Women's. The Adze features a polyurethane barrier membrane in the material to block wind, and incidentally this construction is also highly water resistant. The Apex Bionic has a similar construction with a tightly woven exterior fabric and a fleecy interior material. These shells offer the most weather protection of any of the jackets we evaluated, allowing the wearer to protect herself from a gusting windstorm. Of these four, the lightest and most flexible is the Mammut Ultimate Hoody, which is made from Gore Windstopper and weighs less than a pound.
The other notable mentions are the hybrid designs made to increase water resistance: the Outdoor Research Enchainment - Women's which uses a tightly woven 100% polyester shell material that is extremely water resistant. Both of these repel more weather than the soft and supple shells like the Gamma MX or the Columbia Kruser Ridge; however they are also slightly stiffer and less comfortable. These hybrid designs are useful for more specific applications such as ice climbing or skiing where more weather protection is needed and beneficial. Even more specialized than the already specialized softshell, hybrid jackets are tools for a focused athlete rather than the general outdoorswoman who is in the market for a multi-use jacket.
Mobility is important in a softshell jacket because these types of shells are designed to be worn during activities that involve raising the heart rate through a lot of movement. A restrictive jacket will not allow you to move freely enough to enjoy your sport. We looked for jackets that fit well, layered well, and had designs tailored towards motion.
The clear winner in the mobility category is the Arc'teryx Gamma MX. It has articulated elbows, gusseted underarms, and is made from a lightweight, stretchy material that feels like a second skin when worn. It does not ride up when the arms are lifted, and actually doesn't make the wearer think about it at all, which is a good thing.
We found that the Mountain Hardwear Alchemy has too short of a hem, so it rides up when the arms are lifted and struggles to stay underneath a harness. We also found the stiff windproof shells, the Adze and the Apex Bionic, to be less supple and flexible than the thinner and softer shells.
At 1.36 lbs, the Apex Bionic and Patagonia Adze are tied for the heaviest shells we tested. On the featherweight side is the 0.85 lb Marmot ROM - Women's, half of which is constructed with a very thin and light material. All of the other shells hover around a pound each, which is adequate. None are so heavy and bulky that we could consider leaving them behind on a long day, but at the same time none of them are light or protective enough to be much use on a backpacking or overnight trip. In that case we would suggest a lightweight waterproof layer.
The shells in this review came with a similar list of features with a few exceptions: every one except the Mammut Ultimate Hoody comes with an adjustable hem, all except the MHW Alchemy have zippered hand pockets, and all except the Kruser Ridge have hoods.
Some shells are designed with a specific purpose in mind. For instance the Alchemy are targeted at ice and alpine climbers. Because of this they both have features that climbers look for, such as helmet-compatible hoods, adjustable cuffs, and cross-over chest pockets that don't interfere with a harness or pack waist-belt.
The Marmot ROM is designed more for runners, hikers, and nordic skiers, so the hood does not fit well over a helmet; in this piece, Marmot combines two materials to create a mostly windproof, yet highly breathable jacket.
One feature that varies quite a bit from jacket to jacket is the sleeve cuffs. Typically a jacket will have either adjustable cuffs with a Velcro tab or stretchy, nonadjustable cuffs. We think there are plusses and minuses to each style. The adjustable cuffs can be cinched around the outside of glove cuffs to keep wind and water away from the wrists, but they are harder to fit underneath gloves with long gauntlets. The stretch woven cuffs more easily fit with gloves of this style. It can be nice to not have to fiddle with the cuff adjustment all the time, but having the option to wear the sleeves either way can be beneficial.
In our review two jackets have unique sleeve cuffs: the Apex Bionic has an interior fleece cuff that fits snugly around the wrist. This prevents wind from leaking into the sleeves and makes the jacket a bit warmer, but it makes layering difficult. The Mammut Ultimate Hoody has stretchy sleeve cuffs with thumb loops incorporated. This can be comfortable for when you are not wearing gloves but want to keep the wrists a bit warmer.
Though style is clearly subjective, it still find place in our scoring metrics. Who wants to wear an ugly jacket? Especially a $200 ugly jacket. We have evaluated these shells based on how classic or versatile the look is, and how easily it could be worn in day-to-day applications.
We find that for daily around town applications we prefer the look and fit of the Columbia Kruser Ridge - Women's or the Arc'teryx Gamma MX. The Kruser Ridge has simple, clean lines; an attractive longer-than-average hem; and long, asymmetrically cut sleeves. These features give it a comfortable, flattering fit. The Gamma MX has a sleek look and fit that blends in well in a lot of different situations. The rest of the shells in this review have more technical applications, and therefore a more technical and less casual appearance. We still find the Mammut Ultimate Hoody and the Patagonia Adze to have a flattering look, and don't mind wearing them around on a daily basis.
With the many different types of shells and layers on the market, it can be hard to know which pieces will work best for you. The jackets in this review prioritize breathability, comfort, and weather protection but are not waterproof. We hope that this review has helped answer whether you need a softshell and if so, what type will work best for you. Read our Buying Advice guide for additional help with understanding the uses of each type of layer available.
— McKenzie Long
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