Arc'teryx Gamma LT Hoody
: 1.06 lbs | Number of pockets
Mobile, stretchy fabric
Excellent all-weather shield
Quality, detailed construction
Pricier than others
Less waterproof than other models
The Arc'teryx Gamma LT is a benchmark for what a softshell jacket could and should be. Perfectly tailored, this layer fits well and is stretchy and mobile. The softshell fabric blocks wind and keeps light drizzle and snow at bay, making this a great piece for cooler winter months as well as summertime in the higher elevations. Its simple yet elegant design makes this versatile piece at home on the trails as well as in a more urbane setting.
While this is a high-end jacket, it does not include some of the features that are common on heavier jackets in this category, such as adjustable cuffs. IT sheds light rain, but it is not as waterproof as models with a more durable water treatment. All considered, however, this is a great coat and we recommend it again as our Editors' Choice Award winner.
Read review: Arc'teryx Gamma LT Hoody
Best Bang for the Buck
Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded
: 0.8 lbs | Number of pockets
Breathes very well
Does not restrict movement
Cuffs not adjustable
Below-average wet weather protection
The Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded Jacket wins our Best Buy Award for the third year running. This jacket is one of the stretchiest, most mobile layers, which makes it perfect for an active lifestyle. This is one of the few softshells that we could go trail running in thanks to its higher than average breathability performance. With simple, yet intentionally designed features like the thumb loops, we appreciate this jacket most when we want an extra layer of weather protection but don't want a full-fledged windproof softshell.
With top-notch breathability and mobility, the Ferrosi Hooded Jacket is one of our go-to layers for aerobic sports. It is not nearly as weatherproof as other lightweight models though, so in unstable weather conditions, it might be worth it to spend a bit more to access some of the lightweight yet moisture-resistant fabrics found on more expensive models.
Read review: Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded
Top Pick Award for Climbing
: 1.03 lbs | Number of pockets
Combines exceptional breathability with water resistance
Harness-friendly Napolean pocket layout
Specialized for alpine use
The Rab Torque is a climbing-inspired jacket that is at home on rocky alpine ridges where wind protection and durability are paramount. With Ripstop Matrix fabric providing extra reinforcement on high-wear areas like the elbows and hood, you can scratch your way up your favorite alpine testpiece without having to worry about your jacket failing you. This softshell layer again wins our Top Pick as the jacket that climbers will most benefit from.
We appreciated the pocket layout on the Torque allows access even when wearing a harness or a hip belt that rides above the waist. While it is a useful alpine climbing jacket for summer months, we tended to want a bit more warmth and protection when winter weather came around, and this unlined, relatively lightweight jacket did not have as much winter utility as the thicker Arc'teryx Gamma MX.
Read review: Rab Torque
Notable Performance in Wet Weather
: 1.1 lbs | Number of pockets
Excellent weather protection
Roomy is perfect for layering underneath
Durable fabric breathes well
Not as versatile as other models
The Patagonia Galvanized is a unique offering in this review, in that it is a hybrid softshell/hardshell combination. By using a proprietary H2No waterproof fabric that is stretch woven into the shell of the jacket, Patagonia has made a breathable and mobile layer that actually sheds water like a rain jacket. Since it is hard to find such a featured layer that not only repels wet weather but also breathes well, we really like the Galvanized jacket for ski touring and winter climbing, as the roomy fit allows for layering underneath.
This is one of the most expensive jackets in our review, as it features high-end materials and will probably only appeal to a small segment of those looking for a new softshell jacket. It is great at what it does, and is worth the price tag, but most reading this review would find their needs met by one of the many other high quality )and less weatherproof) models we have in this review.
Read review: Patagonia Galvanized
Our lead tester while out on a fast-paced jaunt, testing breathability.
Why You Should Trust Us
Full-time mountain guide and OutdoorGearLab Review Editor Ryan Huetter is the mastermind behind this review. After earning a degree in Outdoor Adventure Management from Western Washington University, Ryan relocated from the Pacific Northwest to California's Sierra Nevada. Ryan is an internationally-licensed IFMGA mountain guide and has many climbing ascents all over the world, including over 20 big wall routes in Yosemite and Fitz Roy in Patagonia. Softshell jackets are one of many pieces of gear that are a part of Ryan's daily life, whether he's spring skiing or needs a versatile layer for a climb.
Seeking the absolute best in available softshells started out with research into the market. Over 60 offerings were up for consideration after our first pass, which we subsequently narrowed to the strongest 12 models that we discuss here. We tested for two months around OGL home territory in the Sierra on a variety of outings ranging from bike rides to climbs. With the exception of weight, we were able to evaluate all aspects of these jackets we were interested in via field testing. We did, however, supplement our weather protection test with a hose, as the fall proved a bit dryer than we would have liked to thoroughly test resistance to precipitation. Overall, we're pleased to present this study, and we think you will find it a comprehensive guide to finding the best softshell for your needs.
Related: How We Tested Softshell Jackets
Analysis and Test Results
For months, our testers wore these softshell jackets in almost every conceivable weather condition, during every season of the year. After this thorough testing period, we correlated out real-world results with a set of predetermined metrics so that we could analyze each jacket's performance as well as have data with which to compare jackets to one another.
Related: Buying Advice for Softshell Jackets
Each softshell jacket's functionality falls somewhere between the extremes of a waterproof/windproof layer and a fully breathable layer. You pay more for a model closer to the waterproof end of the spectrum than the breathable end. If you do need good weather protection, the Patagonia Galvanized (skiing emphasis) or Rab Torque (climbing emphasis) are good options. Less expensive, yet scoring better than most due to its overall usefulness is the Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded Jacket. 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.
The Patagonia Galvanize jacket is an excellent choice for funky weather, where the protection of a hardshell is warranted but the breathability of a softshell is necessary.
In evaluating weather protection, we rate how well the jacket in question will stand up to adverse weather conditions like cold wind, snow and light rain. Softshell jackets are not meant to be impermeable, so we do not intend to compare them directly to rain jackets (see Tip Box below). We do, however, test them with a spray test in the shower to mimic real-life conditions with which to fairly evaluate the jackets against each other, and we stand in front of a powerful swamp cooler to simulate the cold winds common to lofty alpine ridgelines.
We tested these jackets in adverse, harsh weather, and placed an added emphasis on how well they performed when in wet conditions. Softshell jackets certainly have a limit to their water resistance, though, based on the reality that they are not made from a fully waterproof membrane. If liquid water is falling on you, it's 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. 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 wore our test jackets in the high alpine, late-season conditions, climbing rock and ice routes in the High Sierra, and skiing during the cold 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.
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. The most waterproof model, the Patagonia Galvanized, features fully waterproof H2No material, making it more like a hardshell-softshell hybrid that is better suited for nasty alpine conditions. The Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded Jacket defended against the torrent poorly but is very breathable, and therefore allowed us to dry out quickly. This piece is best for winter running, cross-country skiing, and spring/summer alpine, rock climbing.
When the storm clouds start building, you want to make sure that your softshell can handle light snow and rain.
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.
Moving quickly through the mountains requires a breathable layer, and this jacket does a great job at letting perspiration pass through, keeping our base layers dry.
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. Models like the Outdoor Research Ferrosi Grid Hooded Jacket and the Arc'teryx Gamma MX Hoody feature additional fleece backing that improve the inherent warmth of the jacket when sedentary in cooler temperatures. 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.
Uphill to downhill sports like mountain biking and ski touring need the right blend of breathability on the up and wind protection on the down.
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 is one of the most breathable jackets we review. It also, however, earns a really low weather resistance score. The Rab Torque balances the two demands better, received a top breathability score, and does a much better at providing some protection from the wind and falling snow. We were intrigued by the Arc'teryx Sigma SL Anorak, a pullover that only has a half zipper. It offers less ventilation out the front, but in colder weather offers enough breathability, and by foregoing extra pockets and zippers, the weight savings is noticeable.
In the mountains, we don't always have the luxury of drying our baselayers out if we overheat and get wet from perspiration, so it's important to keep them as dry as possible with a breathable shell if a shell is needed at all.
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.
The summit block of Thunderbolt Peak requires lots of mobility (and a good deal of friction).
Mobility & Fit
If you love the feeling of being restricted by a starchy, rented tuxedo, then perhaps you should disregard our feelings on mobility. But most folks, whether they are at the cutting-edge of mountain athletics or just want to get out for an afternoon stroll, want to have the freedom of movement provided by synthetic softshell fabrics. These materials are stretch woven, meaning that they have on between 5% and 15% elastic fiber spun into the nylon making them highly mobile, a very important and necessary attribute when you are reaching for the next climbing hold, pedaling your heart out up the local singletrack, or running the trails.
Often, product manufacturers will describe the intended fit of the garment in question, labeling it with descriptors such as "standard", "trim" or "athletic". This can help you in selecting the right product, since an athletic fitting jacket is probably going to be form-fitting, and not allow for lots of layering underneath if that is what you are looking for.
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.
If a jacket fits you perfectly, the wrist cuffs should not fall when you reach up, and the hem should stay below your waist.
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. Another benefit to stretch materials is that they are less noisy than windproof fabrics.
Overall, the Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded Jacket 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, likely due to the more generous cut that also allows for layering underneath with a fleece baselayer.
The Ferrosi is lightweight and packable, making it an easy choice to bring along just in case. Here it is, stuffed into its own hand pocket, but it can compress to about half this size in your pack.
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 matters in that it often can be equated with mobility and breathability. Lighter weight jackets easier to move in.
Although it could be argued that when you are wearing the jacket you do not notice its weight as much, and there is truth to this. Having to haul around a lightweight jacket in your pack while you do not need it certainly is less of a chore than with a heavier model, but weight did factor into a jacket's overall performance in that the heavier it is, the less mobile it is likely to be, and the bulkier the material is going to be. The heavyweight softshell fabrics do not breathe as well given the thicker material and inclusion of a fleece backing. All of these softshells have their place, though, and we tend to emphasize heavier shells in cold winter months or slower activities, and lightweight models for spring through fall, and during aerobic activity.
When traveling deep into the backcountry, weight will be more of a concern to you than if you were only using your jacket for hikes close to a trailhead.
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 Arc'teryx 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.
The unique No-Slip zipper featured on this shell keeps it from sliding down on its own.
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, handwarmer pockets are best for around town and general use. 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 Arc'teryx Gamma MX 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.
If good looks and around town use are a top priority, consider the Arc'teryx Gamma MX or another clean-cut model that offers high technical performance as well.
Not only is it a good shell for the mountains, but the Gamma MX is stylish enough to wear on a popular walk in our local park.
Best for Specific Applications
Arc'teryx Gamma LT
The North Face Apex Bionic 2
Black Diamond Dawn Patrol
Most versatile: Arc'teryx Gamma LT
Softshell jackets are an important part of an active layering system, as they allow for unrestricted mobility and breathability, attributes that are harder to find in a rain shell. These jackets are a great choice for outdoor pursuits in most climates, as long as it isn't pouring rain. We think that they are incredibly useful in effectively blocking wind and light rain, and are easily are most favored layers when engaging in mountain sports.
Here's a perfect day for a softshell: cold temps, a cool breeze, and lots of activity.