Softshells are somewhat of a luxury item, and we don't recommend them as your first outdoor apparel purchase. They work great for some activities and poorly for others. For example, when the clouds start dumping, you'll wish you were wearing a rain jacket. And when the temperatures plummet, you'll wish you bought an insulated jacket. That said, if you already have these two layers, a softshell can be an excellent addition to your kit. Softshells fill a distinct niche within the gear world. We'll start off this article by outlining the uses for softshells and comparing them to other types of outer layers before moving on to explain the different categories and what to look for in your next purchase.
For more holistic advice about how to layer for outdoor activities, check out our Introduction to Layered Clothing Systems article.
Softshell Jackets vs. Other Outwear
Because these jackets come in a variety of styles and have multiple uses, they should be compared with several other types of outdoor clothing.
Hardshells & Rain Jackets
- Hardshells and rain jackets are waterproof. Softshells are not.
- Softshells are far more breathable and more comfortable than hardshells and rain jackets.
- Hardshells and rain jackets are almost always windproof; softshells are sometimes windproof.
- Hardshells and rain jackets provide more weather protection for less weight.
- Both wind jackets and softshells range from wind resistant to windproof.
- Wind jackets are a fraction of the weight (4 oz compared with 13 oz).
- Softshells are often more breathable, more comfortable, and more durable than wind jackets.
- Fleeces offer almost zero water resistance. If snow or rain falls, you will get wet. Most softshells offer some water resistance.
- Softshells are wind resistant; the best fleeces have almost no wind resistance.
- On windless days, a fleece will be warmer for the weight.
- The combination of a fleece and a wind shell is much more versatile than a softshell but may be less breathable.
- Both range from windproof to wind resistant.
- Both provide limited water resistance via a DWR water repellent treatment.
- Insulated jackets are warmer and typically lighter/more packable.
- The most breathable insulated jackets breathe as well as a softshell.
- Insulated jackets aren't as durable and don't stretch as much.
The Need for Softshell Jackets
In a perfect world, outdoor clothing would repel ALL exterior weather while allowing ALL moisture generated from sweat to escape quickly. Sadly, we still can't have both: enter the great schism between waterproofness and breathability. Rubber rain jackets are waterproof, but try hiking up a hill in one, and you'll end up soaked in sweat. Conversely, breathable fleeces keep you from getting drenched in sweat, but the rain will destroy your hopes of being warm and dry. For decades, big money has poured into perfecting various types of waterproof/breathable membranes; however, real-world experience proves that they still have a long way to go. When working hard, it doesn't take long to realize that these waterproof fabrics don't breathe well enough to keep you dry. Hence the need for a different type of jacket that fills the gap by breathing adequately when you're working hard, but remaining weather-resistant enough to counter some snow and wind. Welcome to the beautiful world of softshells - the gap between the extremes.
Thanks to industry developments, waterproof/breathable technologies are becoming more breathable, lighter, and more durable. Most even provide stretch! The stifling and heavy hardshells of a decade ago have been replaced by eight-ounce hardshells that perform extremely well for a variety of activities in a variety of environments. That said, we still think that softshells meet a distinct need and we recommend purchasing one if you find that your hardshell or rain jacket is continually leaving you swampy.
The Action Suit: How to Layer with a Softshell Jacket
While you're moving quickly and generating heat, the softshell should breathe well enough to vent moisture produced by sweat. When you stop, you should put an insulated jacket or down jacket on over your softshell to avoid getting chilled. This is especially true when ice climbing or backcountry skiing - softshells work great while you're moving, but need to be paired with something warmer when you're standing around or moving slowly. Softshells can also be paired with a hardshell or rain jacket in inclement weather. Different softshells offer differing levels of weather protection, and none are fully waterproof. If there's a chance of precipitation, be sure to bring an impermeable layer to wear over your softshell. Finally, remember that softshells function the best when they're relatively close to your skin. A lightweight fleece such as the Patagonia R1 Hoody is a great layer to wear under a softshell in cold (<30F) conditions when you're moving quickly.
What Defines a Softshell
Every year, garment manufacturers come out with new materials and market them with zippy new buzzwords, both of which can make it somewhat difficult to define was a softshell jacket is. For the most part, we define them as garments that are weather-resistant rather than weather-proof, highly breathable, mobile, and usually provide some stretch. In this section, we walk through the different types of softshells on the market. Keep in mind, however, that these categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, a jacket can be membrane lined and stretch woven.
These jackets rely on a woven nylon face fabric to block most of the wind and elements. In its most basic form, this style of jacket will function much like a wind jacket, but will usually stretch, weigh more, and have increased durability and breathability. Because stretch woven jackets are air-permeable, dry air can force its way through the shell, pick up moisture generated by our sweat, and leave causing us to dry out. In practice, this process works quite well. The thickness of the weave greatly affects the wind resistance and subsequent breathability of these pieces. To protect from precipitation, a DWR coating is used that causes water to bead along the garment's surface. However, it's important to keep in mind that the DWR treatment will eventually wear out and allow the jacket will wet out. This is the biggest drawback of softshells. If someone could develop a DWR treatment that didn't fail, it would likely be a game changer for the outdoor garment world. In the meantime, consumers must reapply the DWR coating using after-market products like Nikwax. Examples of this type of wind resistant jacket include the Outdoor Research Ferrosi, Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Shell, and Arc'teryx Gamma MX.
Many softshells on the market feature a membrane laminated to the inside of the nylon face fabric to provide wind resistance and some water protection after the DWR treatment fails. These garments do a great job of blocking the elements at the cost of reduced breathability (wind can't transport moisture away as easily as it does with more air-permeable, stretch woven jackets). There are many different kinds of membranes some of which are air-permeable (Polartec Power Shield Pro) and some of which are not (Gore Windstopper).
The less air-permeable the membrane is, the more the jacket relies on water vapor having to force its way through the membrane thanks to the humidity gradient between the inside and outside of the shell. This process of breathability is much less efficient than that found in air-permeable garments. If the face fabric wets out, it is significantly more difficult for the vapor to penetrate the soaked fabric and the breathable characteristics of the membrane are substantially reduced. An example of this softshell is the Mountain Hardwear Dragon, which uses AirShield fabric.
Some shells feature a hybrid construction that use more weather resistant fabrics on the shoulders and arms and more breathable materials across the body. The Arcteryx Psiphon FL is an example of this. It uses a windproof membrane on the shoulders and hood but employs a lighter stretch woven material on the back and body to increase breathability.
Fleece Insulated vs. Non-Insulated
Many of the softshells we tested have a fleece lining. Not surprisingly, these insulated shells are much warmer than their non-insulated counterparts. Most of the insulated shells that we tested lend themselves best to casual use or activities like winter hiking. For high output ventures and milder temperatures, we reach for non-insulated softshells so that we won't overheat. Keep in mind that you can always layer a base layer or fleece under a softshell, especially a non-insulated one. For this reason, we find non-insulated shells to be more versatile.
Bottom Line: Windproof softshells block most weather at the cost of breathability. They do breathe better than waterproof/breathable hardshells but don't provide as much weather protection. Wind resistant softshells that only rely on the weave of the fabric are the most breathable but don't stand up to the elements nearly as well as their membrane lined counterparts. Neither style is necessarily better than the other; they are just different - excelling in various applications and conditions. The more aerobic the activity, the more likely we are to reach for a jacket without a membrane. But during reduced temperatures and lower output activities, you're probably going to be happier with a windproof/waterproof shell that is either fleece lined or allows you to layer a fleece underneath.
The features we look for in softshell jackets are good wrist closures, adjustable hems, well-designed pockets, a helmet compatible hood, and a fit that allows for excellent mobility. For lightweight softshells, we like elastic wrist cuffs that are minimal and can be pulled up to our elbows if needed. If skiing is your thing, you might prefer velcro closures that cinch tight over your gloves. If you're a climber or a skier, it is very nice to be able to put your hood over your helmet when conditions deteriorate. If you don't participate in activities that require helmets, then a non-helmet compatible hood will fit better and be less bulky.
The latest and greatest jacket in the world won't do you any good if it fits poorly. For technical uses, softshells should provide a Goldilocks-like fit…not tight enough to impair movement but not too big as to bulge out of your harness or backpack hip belt. You should be able to fit a baselayer or fleece underneath, but not much more. Remember, softshells work best as active layers coupled with puffy jackets and waterproof jackets, the purpose of a softshell isn't so much to keep you warm or protected from downpours as it is to keep you dry during strenuous activities.
Softshell jackets are comfortable pieces that are ideal for most conditions we face in the mountains. If you're a fair weather adventurer, you'll probably fall in love with a softshell. They are ideal especially ideal for rock climbing, ice climbing, and spring skiing. Be sure to read our full review to see how these jackets competed with one another.