In this buying advice guide, we'll walk you through the ins and outs of purchasing the best softshell jacket to meet your specific needs. We find these jackets to be excellent layers for aerobic activities in cold environments. They combine varying levels of comfort, breathability, and weather resistance into a single functional piece. They are mainly ideal when you're charging hard and generating a lot of heat and sweat, but you need the external shell to protect you from mild weather that your fleece would not hold up in. Furthermore, their enhanced breathability over hardshell jackets makes them much more comfortable. When you need a piece that provides excellent mobility and durability, or if you enjoy the stylish appeal of many casual softshell jackets, continue reading to learn what to look for when buying this type of jacket.
Softshells are somewhat of a niche 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 hard shell 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.
- Fleece material is not waterproof. It will get wet in poor weather, though will still retain some insulating value, unlike cotton materials.
- Fleece jackets are not very wind resistant unless they are one of the hard-faced versions.
- On calm days, when wind protection is not required, fleece will provide more insulation than a softshell.
- Combining a fleece and a lighter weight wind shirt may be a substitute for a softshell depending on the situation, but will not be as breathable as the softshell jacket.
- Both range from windproof to wind resistant.
- Can be made with either synthetic fibers or down feathers.
- Both provide limited water resistance via a DWR water repellent treatment, though will lose much of their insulating value when wet.
- 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
The term "waterproof/breathable" is perhaps one of the most touted descriptors that manufacturers use to sell products in the outdoor garment industry. In an ideal world, that term would ring true, but unfortunately, we tend to have to make a choice between true waterproofness and a jacket's ability to breathe well. When working hard, it doesn't take long to realize that these waterproof fabrics don't breathe well enough to keep you dry, even though the industry has spent years developing advanced fabrics to bridge the gap. When perspiration clogs the "pores" of the waterproof membrane, it starts being a whole lot less breathable and will only continue to perform more poorly. 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.
The Action Suit: How to Layer with a Softshell Jacket
A softshell jacket's usefulness diminishes as you attempt to stuff a lot of extra layers underneath it, as the more insulation you have, the more your body heat will be trapped by those layers. We find that wearing a softshell on top of a light or midweight base layer is the best combination during activity in even cold weather. The less material you have under the softshell, the more capable it is of breathing. Once you stop, it is important to quickly put on an insulated jacket to trap your body heat as the need for breathability is no longer important.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 an ideal 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. The type of material that the outer shell is comprised of will generally include a blend of nylon, polyester, and elastic fibers, and may be licensed from a third party such as Polartec or Gore, though increasingly clothing makers are developing their proprietary fabrics such as Matrix, Wee Burly, Fortius 2.0 or TerraTex. Rest assured, we list a jacket's source fibers and their percentages in the materials section of each jacket's individual review.
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 Hooded, 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.
Some jackets feature materials that blend the weather proofness of a hardshell jacket with the stretch and mobility of a softshell. The Patagonia Galvanized is a perfect example of this. Others place more water resistant panels around the head, shoulders, and upper arms, where the jacket is most vulnerable to getting soaked through.
Fleece Insulated vs. Non-Insulated
Some of the jackets we tested feature a fleece backing behind the stretch woven outer material. This can aid in comfort against the skin especially if the jacket is worn over a t-shirt, and does add some warmth to the layer. We tend to prefer an uninsulated softshell, as those do not trap perspiration within the fleece backing, breathing better, and give the user a bit more latitude in choosing what base layers to wear based on conditions and aerobic output.
Bottom Line: Windproof softshells block most weather at the cost of breathability. They do breathe better than waterproof/breathable hard shell 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 you plan on wearing gloves, especially large gauntlet style gloves, while skiing or climbing in cold weather, then having large cuff openings with glove-friendly Velcro tabs will be more important. Hoods are an important consideration, too. Skiers and climbers will want a helmet compatible hood, while those who don't practice those sports can forgo some weight and bulk by choosing a coat with a more fitted hood.
The best softshell jacket on the market won't do you much good if it fits poorly. Climbers, trail runners, and cyclists want a shell that is fitted, down not have too much extra material flapping around, and allows for a midweight base layer to be worn underneath but not much more. Skiers and backpackers may want a bit more room, for layering underneath as well as to offer more protection past the waistline. Some models are quite small for their size, so might require upsizing or downsizing to get that Goldilocks fit…just right.
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.