Softshell jackets can be thought of as the great mediators in outdoor apparel. From resisting wind to repelling water to breathing well, these layers try to strike a perfect 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. But it's also important to keep in mind that these jackets are somewhat specialized. In many respects, softshells are a luxury layer and not a necessary addition to your closet. If you are new to outdoor adventuring, you will need a hardshell and an insulated layer far before you should consider purchasing a softshell. That said, we do love this style of jacket for many applications, finding them incredibly comfortable and useful.
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 kind of pieces to layer both over and under. First and foremost though, 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 or on mountaineering expeditions. It will be the most protective of all the shell layers, being windproof, waterproof, and fairly 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, making it less breathable and less durable. However, they are also less expensive than hardshells and serve essentially the same purpose. They are an excellent protection layer for the budget conscious outdoorswoman or for someone who needs a waterproof layer only occasionally.
softshell is generally wind and water resistant (though some models are indeed windproof), but not waterproof. These layers are breathable (the windproof 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 an elevated heart rate, which take place within one day.
windbreaker jacket 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, simply put, a jacket to add a level 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 if you only plan to use it for that purpose.
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 a hardshell is waterproof while a softshell is classified as water resistant. In the outdoor industry, waterproof means that the material will not allow water through, even during a continuous downpour, and the seams and zippers are designed to withstand the same level of wetness. Water resistant means that the garment will repel a drizzle for a short period, but will eventually "wet-out," or allow water in. The seams and zippers may or may not be designed to keep water out. A hardshell can function as a rain jacket and a softshell 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 the wearer feeling stuffy inside a rubbery jacket, they help regulate the wearer's temperature with thinner, more porous materials.
The next main difference between the two types of shells is a tactile one. Softshells tend to be much more comfortable than hardshells; they are more flexible, less stiff and noisy, and not as suffocating. As the name states, softshells are often soft and silky to the touch. They feel incredible and make you want to wear them. Although these jackets only provide moderate weather protection, they are much more pleasing to wear than hardshells.
Softshell vs. Fleece
Some may ask if wetness protection isn't a priority, and breathability is the main reason for wanting a softshell, 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 provide no weather protection at all. Softshells allow for breathability while repelling a moderate amount of wind and water at the same time. For an activity such as backcountry skiing, the wearer will work up a sweat and want a breathable outer layer, but she will also be coming into contact with wet snow which would soak right through a fleece. This is where a softshell heroically comes into play.
Best Uses for a Softshell Jacket
Ultimately, these specialized jackets work best for day trips when the weather is easily predicted 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 and alpine climbing, fall and winter hiking and camping, and snowshoeing. They can also be fantastic for urban cycling and general commuting during swing seasons. A flattering, affordable, and comfortable softshell can 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.
These models will be very thin, lightweight, and highly breathable, like the Rab Borealis. Often aimed at runners and hikers, these minimal jackets offer less weather protection than thicker, heavier models but are ideal for cardio activities. They are also more conducive to an overnight trip since they won't add much weight to your pack. You can wear these very thin jackets for sun protection in summer or as a light wind layer on a cool weather jog. Some of them, like our Editors' Choice for Fast and Light, the Arc'teryx Psiphon FL Hoody or our Best Buy winner, the Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded, are durable enough to protect your skin when scraping up rocks (as when off-width climbing) without adding much bulk or unneeded insulation.
Windproof models lie at the opposite end of the spectrum from lightweight models. These shells offer more weather protection than the average softshell and will block all wind instead of just some. Most windproof versions include a lining or a membrane incorporated into the main material to accomplish this. The tradeoff is that the jacket will be stiffer, heavier, and less breathable — but also usually more water resistant. These models are the most protective versions of softshells on the market. The windproof models that we tested include the the mobile Marmot Moblis, warm Columbia Phurtec II, and the water resistant The North Face Apex Bionic 2.
Hybrid shells are appearing on the market more frequently. These jackets combine two types of materials with different properties, resulting in a piece that has qualities usually found in completely different types of jackets. Examples of this are pieces that use both hardshell and softshell materials, or jackets that combine extremely lightweight material with a windproof material. With combined and 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.
Examples of these in our review include our Top Pick for Warmth, the Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody and the somewhat uncomfortable Patagonia Adze Hoody. The Ascendant combined the warmth of a light puffy with some of the added protection of a softshell but fell short in regards to durability. The Adze Hoody was a bomber layer in regards to weather protection but isn't very breathable and is incredibly stiff.
Though not as common as other types of shells, some models feature different kinds of fleece interior combined with a weather-resistant exterior. These shells will be warmer and more insulating than other softshells, but sacrifice some degree of breathability and mobility. If designed well they can make for an extra cozy and comfortable piece, especially for everyday wear, but are heavier and bulkier for days spent in the mountains. The Phurtec II is this kind of jacket, as is the Adze Hoody.
Most all 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 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 jackets are available in non-hooded versions. Among the models that come with hoods, about half are roomy enough to accommodate a helmet. If you are a runner or a nordic skier, having a smaller hood may be preferable, but for ice climbing and 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 depending on your preferred activities include strategic gussets and articulation to improve movement, a drop tail hem to ensure your backside stays covered, and key clips or internal pockets for valuables.
Lastly, 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. Make sure that you can wear a few layers underneath, at the very least a base layer and a fleece, and possibly 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.