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, we bought 11 top softshells and tested them side by side. Over three months, our testers scraped through off-width rock climbs, climbed ice in freezing wind, ski toured, snowshoed, and hiked while wearing these jackets. After comparison, we ranked each product's weather protection, breathability, mobility, features, weight, and style. With jackets that differ 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 Overall Softshell Jacket
Patagonia KnifeRidge Jacket
The specialized nature of softshell jackets makes us feel that there's no single "best" all-purpose jacket. However, the Patagonia KnifeRidge Jacket wins our Editors' Choice Award because it performs well for a variety of activities and is the highest scoring jacket tested. It was the most weather resistant jacket and is mobile. Though it was not very breathable compared with lightweight softshells, it was breathable for most of our uses. Combined with water resistance, there is little compromise in this jacket. Each feature and detail looks and feels meticulously crafted, which is a good thing for a jacket that retails for $450! We love using this jacket for demanding activities like ice climbing, alpine climbing, and backcountry skiing.
Very weather resistant
Excellent attention to detail
Good hood and hem adjustments
Not super breathable
Best Bang for the Buck
Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hoody
The Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hoody is a lightweight uninsulated jacket well-suited to cross-country skiing, hiking, and climbing. Its greatest asset is its mobility, fit, and breathability. It wins our Best Buy award because it is a high performing jacket at a bargain price. It has a stretchy body that allows you to move. Plus, we love the minimal design and think that it is more versatile than most the other jackets tested. This was the jacket that several testers went out and bought upon the conclusion of this review. However, keep in mind that the Ferrosi offers less weather protection than many competitors.
Pockets covered by harness
Not very water resistant
Hood could be bigger
Top Pick Award for Skiing
Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Shell
The Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Shell is ideal for backcountry skiing because it provides a mix of weather resistance and breathability. This jacket has the features we love and is very well designed. We loved using it for ice and rock climbing as well. It employs a stretch woven design and is cut to be mobile. It's a versatile jacket that competed head-to-head with the top performers in this review for the price of just $199. If you want a softshell that gives an equal balance of weather resistance and breathability, this is it. Our Top Pick Award winner is also an excellent choice if you are eyeing the technical performance of the Patagonia KnifeRidge, but just can't quite carve out $450 for a softshell.
Breathable yet water resistant
Cell phone pocket
Internal stash pockets
Long technical fit
Pockets are covered by harness/hip belt
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
Backpacking: Rab Vapour-Rise Lite Alpine
Most versatile: Outdoor Research Ferrosi
Analysis and Test Results
For three months, our expert testers wore these jackets across a range of outdoor recreation. The lead author also designed tests to tease out the differences between the jackets, such as checking water resistance with the aid of a wintery waterfall. Through field use and intentional testing, we discovered differences in performance across several key areas. The table above displays the combined weighted scores overall. Below, we describe how we scored the models in each individual metric, as well as highlighting the best performers in each area.
In this metric, we evaluate how comfortable these jackets are in windy and wet conditions. During testing, we used each on windy alpine ridges, stuck our arms out the window while going 60mph, 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 not waterproof and shouldn't be used in conditions that demand that attribute. If liquid water is falling on you, it's a matter of time before these jackets go from being cozy to being heavy, waterlogged messes that are neither warm nor comfortable. The weather resistance of the softshells 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 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. 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 tested, followed by the Patagonia Adze Hybrid Hoody. The Adze fell behind as water leaked through the untaped seams. Keep in mind that neither of these jackets breathe 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 poorly, but both are breathable and 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. 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 drier and happier. Staying dry is also one of the biggest keys to staying comfortable and warm in cold climates since water transmits heat faster than air. This fact is critical 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 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 important. For example, cross-country skiing and ski touring 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 influence 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 testers. These scores are subjective and reflect our testers' opinions about each jacket's breathability. The Black Diamond Alpine Start received a score of 10 and is the most breathable jacket 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 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 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, which means that some of us need more breathable jackets than others. If you sweat a lot or engage in aerobic activities, you'll probably love the 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 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 comfortable if you're just walking around. However, many outdoor sports involve things like stretching your arms above your head to reach a climbing hold, twisting your hips into a powder turn, or looking up with a hood on. Because we are searching for the highest performing gear for outdoor activities, we rank mobility as a high priority.
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 without feeling restricted. During testing, we not only studied the design of each product's arms and shoulders but also how they performed during 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. Longer wrists and underarm gussets are both designed to help this problem.
If a jacket fits you, the wrist cuffs should not fall when you reach up and the hem should stay below your waist.
Another factor that has 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 jacket to fit snuggly without impairing mobility. A great example is the Outdoor Research Ferrosi, which fit nearly as snug as the Marmot Gravity, but was more mobile, in large part because of the stretch. Another benefit to stretch materials is that they are less noisy than windproof fabrics.
Overall, the most mobile piece tested 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 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 Hoody all performed admirably as well. The Columbia Ascender Jacket scored lowest in this category.
Weight & Packed Size
Weight and packed size can be important attributes, especially on long trips or anytime you put the jacket in your pack. You might notice that we don't place as much 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 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 tote around your wallet and keys, great features can make life easier. In order to rate each product in this metric, we included the feedback from the dozen or so people that tested.
Hoods are one of our favorite things, especially on softshells. If you're strolling in the hills and it starts to snow, you need something on your head to keep you from getting soaked. If you don't have a hood, 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 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 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 reviewed have zippered closures; without this, snow and water can enter the pocket. If you plan on using your jacket with big gloves, 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 utmost attention to detail, balancing function with ergonomics and style. With its easy to use draw cords, this jacket was also 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 well around town. Therefore, we scored each jacket based on our testers' perception of its aesthetic appeal. We recognize that our assessment is 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 patterns. For around town, our testers prefer basic 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 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 warmth. We recommend our Editors' Choice winner, the Patagonia R1 Hoody. As we've mentioned, 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 doing high energy activities in 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 layering. By using our 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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