Softshell jackets can be thought of as the great mediators in outdoor apparel. From resisting wind to repelling water to breathing well, these layers aim to strike a balance between weather protection and comfort. Ideally, they should also be highly mobile, soft, and supple.
Sounds amazing, right? Well, they certainly can be, depending on what type of outdoor activities take up your time. While softshells can be excellent layers to have in your kit, they may not be a necessary addition to your closet. If you are new to outdoor adventuring, you might want a hardshell and an insulating layer before considering a softshell. That said, softshells are an ideal layer for athletic endeavors in the backcountry, where temps and weather vacillate, and you need both weather protection and breathability to be comfortable.
We recommend referencing our Introduction to Layered Clothing Systems article to help you decide when you might want to wear a softshell and when you might not, as well as what jackets or fleeces to layer with them. First and foremost you will want to determine if you need a softshell, a hardshell, or both. If you are primarily concerned with weather protection, then you should look into hardshells. If you value breathability over everything else, then you'll want a fleece. And if you want a layer that gives you a little bit of both, then a softshell will be your jam.
Types of Shell Layers
There are an incredible number of protective layers available on the market. This can make it difficult to determine which type will best suit your needs. Here we outline some of the most common shell layers and their ideal uses to help guide your decision.
hardshell is a waterproof layer that protects in stormy weather. This is the layer you want to have with you on overnight trips in the mountains, while skiing, or on mountaineering expeditions. It will be the most protective of all the shell layers, being windproof, waterproof, and durable. Usually, hardshells are more breathable than a rain jacket but less breathable than a softshell. They are also fairly expensive.
rain jacket is also a waterproof layer, but it tends to use less sophisticated fabrics than a hardshell, meaning it won't be as breathable or durable. However, they are also less expensive than hardshells and serve essentially the same purpose, though they can get swampy if you’re doing any aerobic activity while wearing them. They are an excellent protective layer for the budget-conscious outdoors person or for someone who needs a waterproof layer only occasionally.
softshell is generally wind and water resistant (though some models, particularly hybrids, stray from convention here). These layers are breathable (windproof or waterproof versions tend to be less so) and very flexible, making them more comfortable than a hardshell or a rain jacket. They work best for activities that involve aerobic activity, lots of movement, and exposure to the elements but not an all-out deluge.
windbreaker is a lightweight layer that protects from wind. It will not be waterproof and usually is not very water-resistant either. Typically, wind jackets are very packable and are ideal for clipping to a harness on a multi-pitch climb or tossing into a backpack for a multi-day trip. The benefit to these layers is that they are much lighter than other types of shells, but they also offer less protection.
running jacket is a jacket that adds a thin layer of protection while running in the cold. It can be either a wind jacket or a softshell, but is highly breathable and usually has features tailored towards runners to make it more functional and comfortable.
ski jacket is an insulated jacket with either a softshell or hardshell exterior. In most cases, it is better to have an insulation layer separate from a shell layer, but for skiing at a resort, it is convenient and comfortable to have both in one layer. These jackets usually have features to allow for temperature regulation, such as pit zips, and also have features targeted specifically towards skiers like powder skirts and pass pockets.
When to Wear a Softshell Jacket
Hardshell vs. Softshell
The primary difference between these two layers is that hardshells are waterproof while softshell are typically only water resistant. In the outdoor industry, waterproof means the material is impervious to water even during a continuous downpour. Waterproof jackets have taped seams and either waterproof zippers or a storm flap underneath the zipper to protect the zipper from water seepage. By contrast, water resistant means that the garment will repel a drizzle for a short period but will eventually "wet out" or absorb water. The seams and zippers may or may not be designed to resist water. A hardshell can function as a rain jacket, while a softshell (that is not waterproof) cannot. Bottom line, hardshells are more expensive but also more protective than softshells.
The trade-off for the lack of a waterproof designation is that softshells breathe far better than hardshells. High-end hardshells allow some moisture to transfer through the material, but softshells do this better and more comfortably. Rather than leaving you feeling swampy inside a rubbery jacket, softshells help regulate your temperature with thinner, more porous materials.
Another big difference between hard- and softshells is tactile. Softshells tend to be much more comfortable than hardshells; they are stretchier, more flexible, less stiff and noisy, and not as suffocating. As the name implies, softshells are often soft and silky to the touch. Some are even fleece-lined to be even cozier and provide more warmth. They feel incredible and are much more enticing to wear. While softshells do not provide the same degree of water protection as hardshells, they are more pleasurable to wear — especially while climbing, ski-touring, running, or hiking. Besides, a hardshell may be unnecessary, depending on how and where you plan to use your jacket.
Softshell vs. Fleece
Some of you might be asking, if storm protection is not my top priority and if breathability is the main reason to wear a softshell, then why not just wear a fleece jacket? A fleece will be less expensive and far more breathable than a softshell. In most cases, it will also be more insulating, offering a thin layer of warmth. However, except for a few windproof fleeces, they aren’t designed to provide weather protection. Softshells allow for breathability while repelling a moderate amount of wind and water at the same time. For activities such as ice climbing or ski-touring, where you work up a sweat and need something breathable, you may also want some wind or water resistance for protection from snow or running ice. Both of which would soak right through a fleece. This is where a softshell shines.
Best Uses for a Softshell Jacket
Ultimately, these specialized jackets work best for day trips when the weather is predictable rather than on multi-day trips where a waterproof layer and an insulating layer will most likely be required. They excel during winter aerobic activities such as Nordic skiing, where some protection from the weather is needed, but where letting your body breathe is also extremely important.
The activities that are most conducive to softshell wear are backcountry and cross-country skiing, ice/mixed climbing, rock climbing (especially alpine and multipitch), mountaineering, fall and winter hiking, camping, and snowshoeing. They can also be fantastic for urban cycling and general commuting during the spring, fall, and even winter. A flattering, affordable, and comfortable softshell can also be the perfect jacket to wear for all your less extreme day-to-day outdoor activities such as walking the dog, gardening, shoveling the driveway, and running errands.
Types of Softshell Jackets
If you've decided that you do indeed want to purchase a softshell, you'll need to choose from the many different styles and types available on the market. For the sake of clarity in our review, we have delineated between technical, active, casual, and hybrid softshells.
Technical softshells are ideal for technical pursuits like ice/mixed climbing, winter mountaineering, and backcountry skiing. These jackets aim to provide superior protection from the wind, moisture, and cold temps. They are often lined for extra warmth and are only able to offer ventilation through pit zips. Some are windproof, others have taped seams like a hardshell. Most technical softshells are pretty dang water-resistant (and some are practically waterproof). These softshells are often heavier and less breathable than active softshells. Instead, they aim to strike a balance between weather protection and mobility while still being breathable enough for cold-weather aerobic pursuits. This category includes jackets such as the Marmot ROM, and Arc'teryx Gamma MX.
Active softshells are much lighter-weight than technical softshells. These jackets are meant as wind layers with minimal water-resistance, and they offer superior breathability for fair-weather aerobic endeavors. Active softshells are ideal for warm weather rock climbing, alpine climbing, trail-running, peak-bagging, and summer mountaineering. This category includes models as diverse as the Rab Borealis, Kor Preshell, Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody, or Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hoody. These softshells are not designed to keep you ultra warm or provide premium weather protection, but they are great layers to keep you comfortable in wind or shade in cool, but not cold weather.
By contrast, casual softshells are more ideal for providing warmth in urban environments. These jackets don't offer the premium mobility or breathability of active or technical softshells. As such, they are not really made for more technical activities like rock/ice climbing, mountaineering, or backcountry skiing. Jackets like The North Face Apex Bionic fit this bill quite well.
Hybrid softshells have recently become all the rage. These jackets aim to be do-it-all shells that combine two types of materials with different properties, resulting in a piece that has qualities usually found in different types of jackets. Examples of this are jackets that use both hardshell and softshell materials or jackets that combine lightweight insulation with a windproof material. With strategically-placed fabrics, the resulting jacket can function well in very specialized applications, but they generally don't perform either function to perfection. For instance, a jacket that uses hardshell and softshell materials won't be as storm-proof as a hardshell, but will also be less breathable than a typical softshell. This category includes the almost waterproof Kinetic Plus, which is less breathable than other softshells and less waterproof than a traditional hardshell. The Octa Loft insulted Arc'teryx Proton FL Hoody is a hybrid that combines the warmth of a light puffy with some of the added protection of a softshell.
Most jackets on the market come with a standard set of features like hand pockets, an adjustable hem, and a hood. There are, however, a few features that don't come standard issue. Think about your favorite activities and whether or not you want a helmet-compatible hood, adjustable sleeve cuffs, gusseted underarms, and various extra pockets.
We always prefer hoods on jackets that provide weather protection, though many are available in non-hooded versions. Some hoods are roomy enough to accommodate going over a helmet, and some are streamlined and designed to fit underneath. If you are a runner or a nordic skier, having a smaller hood may be preferable, but for ice and rock climbing or other types of skiing, having a large hood that can fit over a helmet (or a trim hood that can fit under) is mandatory.
Many activities that demand a softshell also require wearing gloves, so it's important to think about cuffs and whether or not you want them to be adjustable. Adjustable cuffs make it easy to pull the sleeves over a pair of gloves and secure them with velcro to keep snow, wind, and wetness away from the wrists — keeping you warmer and dryer. But stretchy, non-adjustable cuffs are easy to fit underneath gauntlets and, depending on their construction, easy to push up to your forearms and have them stay in place.
As a general rule of thumb, we think that if a softshell has pit zips (which most of them do not), it is not worth purchasing. A softshell is supposed to be breathable by nature, and that breathability should come from the material. Some hardshells or insulated ski jackets need the ventilation provided by pit zips to be comfortable, but a softshell shouldn't require this feature. The more important thing to look for is whether or not the pockets are mesh-lined — if they are, this is a great way to ventilate and heat dump when you're working hard and verging on overheating.
Other features worth considering include strategic gussets to improve movement and fit, a drop tail hem to ensure your backside stays covered while climbing or moving around, and key clips or internal pockets for valuables.
Lastly, we'll cover fit so you can see how several of the jackets in our review measured-up in terms of hood fit, torso, and sleeve length.
No matter how active a softshell might be, the fit of the body and hood can vary wildly.
Finding the correct fit in your jacket is vitally important for your overall experience while wearing it. It should be form-fitting but not too snug. You will want to make sure that you can wear a few layers underneath — at the very least a base layer and a fleece — ideally even a thin insulated jacket. You don't want it to be too loose because extra space lets in the cold. It's also smart to check that it does not ride up when you lift your arms and that the jacket stays in place during all kinds of movement.