Between weather protection, breathability, and mobility — softshells strive to cover a lot of bases in a single layer. This includes everything from technical highly weather-resistant layers for winter alpine conditions, to active softshells for summer or alpine rock climbing, and casual jackets to keep warm in the city. To make sure we put each of these jackets to the test, we ambled around the Colorado Rockies and the Utah desert to engage in a wide array of activities in all manner of conditions. From winter multi-pitch climbing and ice climbing in the Rockies to early spring crack climbing and long hikes in the desert. We inspected every feature and tested their efficacy. We got rowdy and sweaty in each of the jackets to test their breathability and mobility. We even wore them in the shower. We did all this to make sure you know what you're getting into before you pull the trigger on a new softshell.
We endured brutal winds, hammering rain, cold temps, and sweltering heat in these jackets to test their weather resistance. We wore these jackets on blustery ice climbs, cold and windy multi-pitches, shady desert crag days, sunny hikes in the early spring, and single-digit bike commutes. We tried to be as varied as possible, both with setting and temperature, to push each jacket's limit and to test how well they resisted wind, rain, snow, and how well they handled in both cold and hot temps.
As a part of weather resistance testing, we did a shower-test and a soak-through test. In the shower test, we wore each shell under the stream to observe its ability to repel water under pressure in an equal and controlled environment. Then to test the ability of each jacket to resist water absorption, we poured water on the chest of each jacket for ten minutes and used a paper towel to see how much soaked-through. While softshells aren't meant to handle heavy moisture, this test was highly revealing and gave us a better understanding of weak points in the fabrics and designs of each jacket.
Breathability and Mobility
To test for both of these metrics, we climbed (rock and ice), hiked, ran, and biked as much as possible. The objective was to get rowdy and sweaty in a variety of temps and doing a variety of activities to test for breathability. We considered whether there was sufficient ventilation or if the fabrics were breathable on their own. Then, while playing in each of the jackets, we paid attention to how well we could move in them or if the jackets felt particularly stiff or restrictive. Does the hemline lift-up when we climb? Are any aspects of the jackets annoying or cumbersome? Does the hood provide sufficient coverage without cramping my style with & without a helmet? Are there any activities where the jacket/s particularly enable or hinder movement?
Weight and Versatility
Immediately after receiving the jackets, we weighed them on a scale. Then we assessed how they all moved and fit our anatomy. Some were heavier on the scale but didn't feel cumbersome on our bodies. Some were nice and light but provided zero to no protection from the elements.
To assess versatility, we considered each jacket for its features, durability, and style. Then we took note of how versatile each jacket would be in an array of climates and doing a range of activities. We considered how well each performed in bad versus good weather; during fair weather versus cold-weather activities; and while climbing (rock/ice) versus skiing, cycling, and hiking/mountaineering. In other words, how many activities and weather types could each jacket cover?
Before testing in earnest, we always spend time researching each candidate. We want to know about all the features and how the manufacturers claim we should use them. Are their claims true in real life? Are the features helpful or do they feel like more of a hindrance? Are they worth the extra money, material, or weight?
We assessed durability and abrasion resistance by taking the jackets ice and mixed climbing, skuzzing up chimneys and off-widths, and jamming cracks. Every jacket hiked miles with a pack on, was worn repeatedly under a harness, stuffed into multiple packets, and thrown in the back of a truck after long days in the backcountry. We adjusted and readjusted all of the hoods and tried them both over and under helmets. We used every cuff with gloves. We learned the ins and outs of all the offered features by trying them out, both as intended and sometimes in our own less traditional ways.
Style is a very personal thing, but it is something we still wanted to account for in our testing process. We took note of how well each jacket fit and how well-tailored they each were, for both the sake of wearability and pleasure. Whether you're on a wall or at the bar, most of us like to know we look good, especially after shelling out our hard-earned cash.