Softshell jackets have become one of the most popular garments in many outdoor enthusiasts' wardrobes, and it can be tough to decide which one is the best since there are so many on the market. We chose 12 of the top performing softshell jackets to test in our review from the many available and took them on rigorous outdoor adventures for real-world testing to see how they compared with one another. Our testers hiked, biked, climbed and skied in these jackets for months to research their merits and their shortcomings so that you can pick the right one for your needs. We are confident that our comprehensive review determines which of the 11 rose to the top and which did not.
The 12 Best Softshell Jackets for Men
Softshell jackets are now one of the most popular layers in the closet of an outdoor recreationist. They provide a blend of weather protection and breathability that hardshell jackets do not, but there are so many on the market now that it can be tough to figure out which one is best. For this updated review we added models from Arcteryx and Rab, which took home top awards for their alpine climbing prowess, as well as from Outdoor Research which garnered high scores for price and performance.
Arc'teryx Psiphon FL Hoody
Read review: Arcteryx Psiphon FL
Best Bang for the Buck
Outdoor Research Ferrosi
Read review: Outdoor Research Ferrosi Jacket
Top Pick Award for Climbing
Read review: Rab Torque
Analysis and Test Results
For two months, our expert testers wore these jackets across a range of outdoor recreation. We trekked and climbed, hiked and biked, ran and skied in the mountains that we live and work on. We defined how and why these jackets performed the way they did and experienced their shortcomings. We also used standardized tests such as the water submersion and cuff slip test to see how they compared side-by-side. Above you can see how each model stacked up overall, and you can continue reading on below to learn what metrics we used and how each one is defined.
Each softshell jacket's functionality falls somewhere between the extremes of waterproof/windproof layer, and fully breathable layer. As it turns out, you'll be paying more for a model closer to the waterproof end of the spectrum than the breathable end. If you do need good weather protection, the Arc'teryx Psiphon FL Hoody or Rab Torque (climbing emphasis) are good options at $239 and $200, respectively. On the price versus performance chart below, you can see that they're the rightmost jackets, meaning they scored highest in testing, yet are still less expensive than some other models that didn't perform as well. Down low on the chart at the $100 mark, yet scoring better than most is the Outdoor Research Ferrosi. This one does well in the wind, but you'll have to step up to one of the higher priced options for better water resistance.
In this metric, we evaluate how well these jackets keep you comfortable in windy and wet conditions. During our testing period, we used these softshells on windy alpine ridges, stuck our arms out the window while going 60mpg, and endured soaking waterfalls to test the water resistance of the jackets. Some of our test jackets, such as the Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody are lightly insulated, though we did not factor warmth into our scoring since most softshell jackets are meant to be worn on top of base layers in colder climates.
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 wore our test jackets in the high alpine, late-season conditions, climbing rock and ice routes in the High Sierra, and skiing during the sold beginnings of winter.
For those seeking a jacket for above-treeline adventures, we strongly recommend a hood. While some of the jackets we reviewed are excellent choices for aerobic activities during fair weather where a hood might be cumbersome or unneeded, these hoodless models did not inspire confidence in inclement conditions. Luckily, several of our reviewed jackets, such as the Arc'teryx Gamma MX are available with hoods as well.While some hybrid softshells employ taped seams and waterproof membranes, these jackets tend to be very specialized and expensive. In this year's review we mostly feature jackets which use typical, DWR treated stretch softshell materials. Some jackets, like the Adze, fell behind as water leaked through the untaped seams. It didn't breath well either. On the other end of the spectrum, the Outdoor Research Ascendent and the Outdoor Research Ferrosi Jacket defended against the torrent poorly; however, both of 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. 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 hardshell rain jacket, you probably feel wet and clammy. If you sweat that much in a lightweight softshell, you feel much drier and much happier. When being active in marginal conditions, you often need to choose whether you want to be wet on the inside or wet on the outside.
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), having an outer layer that can breathe well becomes more and more necessary. For example, cross-country skiing and backcountry ski touring demand highly breathable jackets, but activities like moderate hiking and downhill skiing do not. Breathability is primarily 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 layers 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 each tester. These scores are subjective and reflect our testers' personal opinions about the level of breathability of each jacket. The Outdoor Research Ferrosi Jacket received a score of 10 and is the most breathable jacket that we tested. It also, however, earned a weather resistance rating of 3. The Rab Torque received a score of 9 but did much better at providing some protection from the wind and falling snow. The Patagonia Adze was 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, 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 love the excellent breathability of a jacket like the OR Ferrosi or Rab Torque. 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 2 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 is comfortable if you're 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.
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 allow for full rotation and whether we could layer 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 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.
Another factor that has a significant influence on mobility is stretch. Stretch allows a model to fit snugly without impairing mobility. A great example is the Arcteryx Gamma MX which fit nearly as snug as the Columbia Ascender but was far more mobile because of the exceptional stretch. Another benefit to stretch materials is that they are less noisy than windproof fabrics.
Overall, the Outdoor Research Ferrosi was the most mobile contender. It was the only model that allowed full mobility without the cuffs falling or hem rising. Surprisingly, it even beat out models made with stretchier materials. The Marmot ROM, Outdoor Research Ascendant, and Arc'teryx Gamma MX all performed admirably as well. The North Face Apex Bionic 2 scored lowest in this category.
Weight and packed size can be essential attributes especially on long trips or anytime you have to put the jacket in your pack. 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 size are the most important factors when choosing a softshell jacket.
Our scores range from one to ten and reflect the full range of weights we tested.
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, thumb loops, 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 your life easier. 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 be entirely comfortable without a hood. The Arcteryx Gamma MX is a fantastic hoodless option. For cross-country skiing, we rarely put on our hood and instead prefer a toque or balaclava. Finally, if you're only cruising around town, we think that hoodless models are more stylish.
Pocket design is also essential. For climbing and backpacking, Napolean style chest pockets are best, like the Rab Torque, 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, like found on the sweatshirt styled pockets of the Patagonia Adze. Fleece-lined pockets can add extra comfort and coziness, 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.
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 subjective and, consequently, we make it a mere five percent of each jacket's total score.
In our opinion, simple exteriors look better than complex multi-color patterns. For around town, our testers prefer basic, handsome jackets like the Arcteryx Gamma MX and The North Face Apex Bionic 2 over models like the Rab Torque, which has offset colored zippers and duo color fabric designs. It's also important here to consider the fit of your jacket.
Softshells, especially uninsulated models, are great to pair with other layers, like a fleece, to increase the warmth. Most softshells pair well with our fleece jacket Top Pick Award 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.
Best for Specific Applications
Cross-country skiing: Arcteryx Gamma MX
Around town: Patagonia Adze
Ice climbing: Rab Torque
Resort skiing: Black Diamond Dawn Patrol
Backcountry skiing: Black Diamond Dawn Patrol
Backpacking: Arcteryx Psiphon FL
Most versatile: Outdoor Research Ferrosi
Softshell jackets have become a staple in the closet of most outdoor enthusiasts, for the reason that they can repel wind and light precipitation while still allowing you to move freely and expel perspiration, something the average hardshell jacket is not designed to do. For active pursuits in cold weather, consider a softshell with additional lining for warmth, while warmer weather or in dryer conditions an unlined softshell will work better. The sheer number of jackets available may be daunting, but we hope this review sets you up to choose the right one for your needs.
— Ryan Huetter