The Best Women's Softshell Jackets of 2020
Arc'teryx Sigma SL Anorak Pullover - Women's
The Arc'teryx Sigma SL Anorak is a fantastic softshell pullover designed for summer and alpine rock climbing. The "SL" stands for "super light," an attribute we appreciated both in our packs and on our bodies. This well-featured piece breathes like a second skin, dries lightning-fast even after being soaked, and is durable enough to wear as a skin-saver in Vedauwoo off-widths. With great features like four-way stretch fabric, a stowable helmet-compatible hood, and special Hemlock inserts to save you from the embarrassment of climber's crack, it's no surprise the Sigma took our highest award, yet again.
As with anything in life, there are a couple of trade-offs with this top-ranked jacket. What you gain in breathability, you lose in warmth. However, in cooler weather or higher altitudes, the Sigma Anorak layers well with a thin fleece, like the Patagonia R1, for an unstoppable alpine climbing duo. What you gain by having a super-light jacket, you lose in features like a stow-away pocket for stashing the jacket on your harness when you're not wearing it. Additionally, the sleeves have a stretchy nylon fabric in the cuff that became a little baggy with use. That said, the downsides are minimal with this jacket. If you need a durable, wind-proof climbing jacket that moves and breathes effortlessly, this is a clear winner.
Read review: Arc'teryx Sigma SL Anorak Pullover - Women's
Best Bang for the Buck
Rab Borealis - Women's
The Rab Borealis is the lightest-weight softshell made by the UK-based company. It is a savvy and well-tailored layer, making it flattering and practical for cragging, peak-bagging, alpine climbing, or big walls. It effectively takes the edge off the wind, features UPF-50 protection from the sun, and is ultra-breathable. The four-way stretch of Rab's proprietary Matrix fabric provides unrestricted mobility. The Napoleon-styled pockets are high enough that a harness doesn't impede access in the slightest. It stashes easily into one of the mesh-lined pockets and has a decently robust carabiner loop for clipping to your harness when you're not wearing it. This softshell was clearly designed by and for climbers, but with the low price, it suits anyone in search of a lightweight, quick-drying, well-tailored wind-layer for summer hikes, trail runs, or travel.
The Borealis may not be the most feature-rich of the models in our review, but it has some of the most features for its weight. The hood and cuffs are not adjustable, but the lycra binding around the edges gives just the right amount of snugness without being uncomfortable. While the Borealis has a DWR-coating, it delivers only minimal rain protection and it doesn't provide much warmth at all. This didn't bother our reviewers, because this is primarily a fair-weather wind-jacket. All in all, this innovative jacket is a great, low price option for anyone that needs some protection from the wind and sun while climbing, trail running, hiking, or traveling.
Read review: Rab Borealis - Women's
Best for a Hybrid
Arc'teryx Proton FL Hoody - Women's
The Arc'teryx Proton FL Hoody is a fantastic jack-of-all-trades hybrid for those who want something extra from their softshell. This jacket is a perfect companion on windy days, long multi-pitch rock climbs, or high on alpine walls in the summer. To be honest, there is very little this jacket can't do: it is lightweight, features great mobility, and is super cozy, even next to bare skin. The attentive folks at Arc'teryx have also improved upon previous generations, and now this jacket is durable enough that our reviewers were able to skuz through granite chimneys without ripping the fabric. Whether you need a layer for alpine or multi-pitch climbing, insulation for ice climbing, or a breathable but decently warm layer for backcountry or cross-country skiing, mountain climbing, or hiking — this ingenious mid-layer is a great one to add to your kit.
The drawbacks with the Proton FL are minimal and fairly inconsequential. For long rock climbing routes, it can be helpful to have a stow-away pocket with a loop to clip to your harness. Sadly, the Proton does not have this feature, so if you need to stash your jacket mid-route, you'll have to get a stuff sack specific for the job. Some of our reviewers felt that the fit ran a bit small, while others felt it ran true to size — if you're on the fence order up. Finally, given that the hood is meant to be worn under a helmet, it can feel a bit snug and restrictive. All that aside, if you need a cozy mid-layer with breathable insulation, the Proton might be just the ticket for you.
Read review: Arc'teryx Proton FL Hoody - Women's
Best for Alpine Conditions
Mammut Ultimate V - Women's
The Mammut Ultimate V is another contender for a great all arounder. With Gore-Tex Windstopper fabric and a fleece lining, this jacket is wind-proof, exceptionally water-resistant, and warm. Windproof softshells tend to be thick, heavy, and unbreathable due to their inner liner, meaning mobility and ventilation are sacrificed. By contrast, the Ultimate V is supple and stretchy, allowing you full mobility. Then, to achieve breathability, this layer features a 2-way side-zip that goes from armpit to hem. The result is a lined and warm but lightweight and pliant jacket with excellent mobility. All these innovative features point to a shell that handles like a boss in winter alpine conditions, mountaineering, or high on a multi-pitch on sunny (but not exactly warm) January days.
While you can fully open up the sides of the Ultimate V for ventilation, the chest and arms can get a bit stuffy if you're really sweating. Thus, it is not ideal for highly aerobic activities, unless it is pretty dang cold. This jacket also comes at a premium, being on the spendier end of the spectrum. That said, for unbeatable weather protection coupled with a shocking degree of ventilation and mobility, this jacket is a great value for winter alpine enthusiasts and cold-blooded climbers looking to extend their climbing season.
Read review: Mammut Ultimate V - Women's
Best for Ultralight Pursuits
Mountain Hardwear Kor Preshell Hoody - Women's
The Mountain Hardwear Kor Preshell is an absurdly lightweight and packable jacket for those who need just a little protection from the wind on an otherwise warm day. This jacket packs down smaller than your cordalette and is barely noticeable on a harness or in your pack. When you need to go fast and light, but want a layer while you're belaying on a multi-pitch or to keep your core temps up while the sun moves behind a cloud, the Kor Preshell is an awesome option for you.
What you gain by having an ultralight and packable jacket, you lose in terms of weather protection and durability. That said, for fair-weather climbing, trail-running, or peak-bagging, this jacket is still a great option. Be fair-warned, one of our reviewers found this jacket ran a little on the large size. She typically wears a size small but found the extra-small to be a better fit overall. If you're looking for an ultralight, breathable jacket with minimal weather protection, then this jacket is hard to beat.
Read review: Mountain Hardwear Kor Preshell Hoody - Women's
Best for Summer Monsoons
Rab Kinetic Plus Hoody - Women's
Typically softshells sacrifice waterproofing for breathability. This is less of an issue when you're getting after it in the winter, but in the alpine in the summer, you often need protection from thunderstorms. Enter the Rab Kinetic Plus. This jacket combines the stretchy mobility of a softshell with the water-proofing of a hardshell without sacrificing too much breathability. While the Kinetic does not breathe as well as other less weather-proof softshells in our review, it breathes far better than nearly all laminate rain jackets and immensely better than other waterproof softshells we have previously tested. As if you can walk and chew gum, the material on this jacket is both breathable and impermeable to water — although, as with most hybrids, it doesn't do either perfectly. Regardless, we fell in love with this layer because of its superior fit, soft feel, lightweight, packability, and of course, its ability to keep us dry.
While there are innumerable perks to the Kinetic, it is not without a few drawbacks. Surprisingly, despite keeping water out, it doesn't dry super fast after it has been truly soaked. Additionally, while the Kinetic is fairly breathable, it does not have ventilation beyond opening the hand pockets, so you're still likely to get swampy if you're moving fast and working up a sweat. The fit is generally fantastic, but the hood is a little too snug to be helmet-compatible. Drawbacks aside, if you are in the market for a lightweight, ultra-packable, waterproof softshell to stay dry while in the alpine during summer monsoon season, (or anywhere rainy and cool), look no further than the Kinetic.
Read review: Rab Kinetic Plus Hoody - Women's
Notable Performance for a Casual Softshell
The North Face Apex Bionic 2 - Women's
While this jacket did not earn any awards, The North Face Apex Bionic 2 is a noteworthy jacket for being a great casual softshell. This jacket is a crowd-pleaser for a reason, it features very soft fleece around the wrists and chin, and the face fabric is durable, windproof, and very water-resistant. These features translate into exceptional warmth. This is an attractive non-technical jacket perfect for casual outings, kicking around town, or for keeping toasty while car-camping.
The superior warmth and weather protection offered by the Apex Bionic have some unfortunate trade-offs. This jacket is made with a stiff windproof fabric that does not facilitate mobility while engaging in technical activities (like climbing, mountaineering, or skiing). Additionally, given the windproof face-fabric and lack of ventilation, this jacket feels stifling and is not very breathable during aerobic activities. However, if you are not planning to use your softshell for technical outings, then these things may not really matter. Indeed, if you are looking for an affordable but warm and durable jacket to wear to work, around campus, or around the campfire, then this is a worth choice.
Read review: The North Face Apex Bionic 2 - Women's
Why You Should Trust Us
This review is brought to you by a team of badass women, headed up by Mary Witlacil. Mary spends her summers alpine climbing in Colorado and when she can get away, she chases sun in the deserts of Utah, Arizona, and California during the rest of the year. A true outdoor enthusiast, when she isn't climbing rock, this gal can be found swinging ice tools, climbing mountains, backpacking, or sitting on a rock gazing at the clouds.
Our team tested each of these jackets side-by-side in various climes from blustery days climbing ice in the Rockies to surprisingly frigid desert climbing days in Indian Creek, Joshua Tree, and Red Rocks. This testing round, jackets were put to the test shimmying up granite chimneys and jamming in Indian Creek splitters. We even wore these jackets in the shower to test how they performed under pressure (water pressure that is). After more than 100 hours of rigorously testing these jackets, we've got some seriously expert advice to lend on which is the best softshell jacket on the market and for your needs.
Analysis and Test Results
Softshell jackets are an interesting gear category because they strive to do the job of multiple layers at once — resist wind, repel water, provide warmth, and breathe well. They aim to be a comfort piece and a protection piece at the same time, all without hindering movement. Unlike potentially life-saving layers such as waterproof hardshells and insulative baselayers, a softshell is great to have but won't keep you warm or dry enough if you get caught in a serious storm.
The primary objective of a softshell jacket is to increase comfort through breathability and supple flexibility while offering some degree of weather protection. These layers are less stiff, noisy, and suffocating than hardshells, making them more pleasant to wear, but they also don't offer the same level of weather protection. Ultimately, a softshell is an ideal layer for colder temps where you're likely to encounter wind or snow, but not buckets of rain. They are also ideal for activities where you need some extra wind or weather protection but are likely to build up a sweat, so breathability is a must. This includes activities such as climbing (rock, ice, mixed, or alpine), skiing (backcountry or cross-country, for alpine/down-hill you'll want something warmer), snowshoeing, mountaineering, trail-running, peak-bagging, or hiking.
We have tried to distill the main types of softshells into three broad categories: active, technical, and casual. Active softshells are great as wind-layers during aerobic activities, which include models as diverse as the Sigma SL Anorak and the Kor Preshell. 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 otherwise warm weather. Technical softshell jackets are ideal for technical pursuits like ice/mixed climbing, winter mountaineering, backcountry skiing, etc. These jackets, like the Ultimate V, the Marmot ROM, and the Arc'teryx Gamma MX provide superior weather protection but aren't as lightweight as an active softshell. By contrast, casual softshells are more ideal as winter and shoulder-season layering in urban environments. Jackets like the Apex Bionic 2 fit this bill quite well.
If you can afford a specialized item like a softshell, you probably still want to make the most of your money — who doesn't? We paid attention to how well each jacket performed relative to their retail price.
Our Best Buy winner, the Borealis, successfully triangulates between a great value and a top-performing jacket. A match made in outdoor gear heaven. Several other models in our review also exemplify this crucial balance such as the Kor Preshell and the Sigma SL. The Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hoody is another well-priced and versatile option to consider, though it scored lower in our review.
A softshell jacket will never be as weather protective as a hardshell. Hardshells are waterproof and windproof. By and large, softshells are only water and wind resistant. While there are some windproof softshells available (we have a few in this review), the designation of waterproof is mostly reserved for hardshells. Though, again, we have one exception to that as well with the Rab Kinetic Plus, which is why this jacket nabbed an award for being our Top Pick for Summer Monsoons.
Some of the models we tested are more water-resistant than others, but these pieces should not be worn as rain jackets in a severe storm. Overall, softshells are ideal for mild weather when you need some protection from wind and water, but when full-on storm protection isn't required. These are often good pieces for shoulder seasons for this reason. When evaluating each jacket's weather protection, we took into consideration both wind and water resistance.
The Mammut Ultimate V, our Top Pick for Alpine Conditions, is fully windproof and will keep you quite warm in cold, windy weather. This jacket also repels water like a boss, though it does not have taped seams and is not designed to withstand a deluge. While the Ultimate V kept us warm in frigid alpine winds and blowing snow (at least while moving) and high up on multi-pitches in the middle of winter, the tradeoff for thicker designs is almost always a noticeable lack of breathability and mobility. That being said, the Ultimate V breaks the mold by being incredibly pliant for easy movement, and it features two-way zippers that extend from above the armpits all the way down to the hems. Hello, ventilation!
Other favorites for this category include the nearly waterproof Marmot ROM, shockingly water-resistant Apex Bionic 2, and the impressively constructed Arc'teryx Gamma MX. The ROM performed well in this category for being incredibly water-resistant with taped seams and Gore-Tex Infinium fabric. As long as they were moving, this jacket kept our reviewers warm in sub-freezing temps. Another top performer in this category is the Bionic 2, one of the warmer softshells in our review. It performed incredibly well in our water-resistance test, making it a great option for a winter jacket in an urban environment. Finally, the Gamma MX scored quite high in this category and is an ideal option for mixed conditions and chillier days while ice climbing or mountaineering. Armed with the Gamma MX, we hiked into frigid temps and blowing snow, and climbed ice for hours, staying sufficiently warm, moving without feeling stifled.
Breathability is one of the top reasons people buy a softshell jacket. If your primary need is weather protection, then you want a fully waterproof hardshell. When your weekend adventure plans include getting rowdy in the backcountry, a hardshell will never do. They can leave you feeling swampy, suffocated, and stuffy. Enter the softshell. A garment that aims to strike the perfect balance between breathability and weather protection so you can feel unencumbered on your outdoor adventures.
We tested the softshells in our review in sun and shade; rain, snow, and wind; desert and mountains, doing an array of activities designed to get the blood moving and the sweat flowing. A few models constructed with very thin material scored well in this category. While we recognize that thin fabric and breathability are not the same things, we couldn't ignore the fact that jackets with minimal material often breathe well by default.
Our Best Buy winner, the Rab Borealis is a highly breathable option. It provides an adequate barrier to the wind but doesn't provide the weather protection of less breathable options. The slim fit, stretchy fabric, and lack of bulk mean that it's a fantastic option for layering over a thin fleece or under a big puffy. If you're working hard and keeping your core temperature high, it's a perfect layer for cutting the wind on brisk mornings, windy summits, or high on a wall.
The Editors' Choice-winning Sigma SL Anorak is a favorite in this category, triangulating between ventilation and mild weather protection. This jacket is durable enough to climb granite off-widths and long alpine routes, and sufficiently wind and water-resistant without sacrificing any breathability. While it is only minimally water-resistant, it dries lightning fast if you get caught in a light rainstorm or if you work up a serious sweat. The pullover design has a deep front zip that allows for even more airflow. There's a reason this layer took home the highest score in our review; it does everything it sets out to do with precision and ease.
The Kor Preshell is another highly breathable option. This jacket is an ideal layer for taking the edge off a breeze on an otherwise warm day or for early morning summer trail runs when breathability is far more important than weather protection.
Another great option, if you want a warmer jacket that still delivers on the breathability front, is the Arc'teryx Proton FL. This little number is an insulated hybrid that is wicked breathable, has a moisture-wicking liner to manage sweat, and keeps you sufficiently warm in cooler weather. It's also a great companion on alpine rock climbs, shoulder-season multi-pitches, sun-rise trail-runs, and aerobic activities of any kind where temps are cool, wind likely, and you plan to work up a sweat.
Mobility is one of the most important elements of a softshell jacket. Softshell jackets are designed for backcountry adventures like climbing, backcountry skiing, and trail-running — all activities that demand un-hindered movement. There are definitely plenty of jackets geared toward more casual urban outings, but regardless of your chosen activity, a restrictive jacket will not allow you to move freely enough to enjoy yourself. We looked for softshells that layered and fit well, were comfortable, and those that had stretchy fabric or other features to enable movement. We ended up with a diverse set of contenders whose performances spread all over the board.
We have some stellar options in this review that exemplify unimpeded mobility. Our favorites are the minimal Kor Preshell, Sigma SL, Borealis, and the Proton FL. Each of these stretch easily and feel more like a shirt than a jacket. Beyond these ultralight layers, the Ultimate V scores high in this category as well. This incredible jacket does it all, and with style, no less: it is warm and windproof, breathable with the full-length side-zips, and yet stretchy enough to handle like a boss while climbing, hiking, mountaineering, or skiing.
The Editors' Choice Sigma SL has high scores in this category as well. It offers strategic tailoring, including gusseted underarms and Hemlock inserts to keep the jacket in place below your harness. In spite of the slim and streamlined cut, these features guarantee that mobility and comfort are not sacrificed. Beyond this, the jackets' excellent stretch enables unrestrictive movement, whether climbing through a crux high on an alpine wall or an early morning hike on your favorite trail.
Jackets in this review ranged from 4 ounces at the lightest to 20.2 ounces at the heaviest. No matter what your needs are, our review has some fantastic options.
The Kor Preshell is unbeatably lightweight. This featherweight jacket weighs a mere 4 ounces, taking home our Top Pick Award for Ultralight Pursuits. It can be easily and unnoticeably stowed on your harness, in your pack, or in your jersey pocket. This jacket isn't very warm or weather-resistant, but it effectively cuts the wind high up on a ridge or rock face, or when the sun hides behind a cloud on a warm day.
The four next lightest-weight softshell jackets, the Borealis, Sigma SL, Proton FL, and Kinetic Plus all weigh around 9-9.5 ounces. The Borealis and Sigma are perfect options for alpine rock climbing, peak bagging, and backpacking where weight and packability are major considerations. The Proton and the Kinetic offer more weather protection, with the Proton being insulated and formidably water-resistant, while the Kinetic is completely waterproof for the same weight.
If warmth and weather protection are major concerns, the Ultimate V or the ROM are great options for the weight. The Ultimate V is fully windproof, warm, and surprisingly water-resistant (for not having any taped seams), and it only weighs 12.5 ounces. While the ROM is on the heavier end of the spectrum at 15 ounces, it weighs less than a liter of water, and it handles weather like a boss. Saving a few grams is essential if you're going fast and light, but if you're heading deep into alpine environs, sacrificing a few grams for superior weather protection is a trade-off we're willing to accept.
The jackets that weigh 20 ounces or more are the less technical offerings in our review. They work well for casual, around-town use where you're not working up a sweat but aren't ideal for wrangling into your pack when you're headed into the backcountry for more technical pursuits.
We assessed the versatility of our test suite by considering features, durability, style, and the ease of use between various activities and climates. Many of the shells in this review come with excellent features that we thoroughly enjoyed and put to regular use. The jackets that ranked the highest in this category were ideal for myriad activity types and could handle well in diverse weather. They proved durable and could withstand the abrasion of granite walls, sandstone cracks, being tossed around in the back of a truck, and wouldn't disintegrate at the mention of crampons and ice tools. We also took style into consideration. While style is subjective, it is important — no one wants to pay top dollar for an ill-fitting or unattractive article of clothing. Some of our favorite pieces in this review could move seamlessly from the trail or crag to dinner with friends (as long as you don't mind rocking brightly colored gear at the pub), a clear bonus in our book.
There are a number of badass contenders in this category. The top two most versatile jackets are the Proton and the Ultimate V. While the Proton is not made to be an ideal layer for activities like ice climbing, it is one of the most versatile of the bunch, because it can be worn as an outer layer on warmer days, or as an insulating layer on colder ones. Our reviewer tested this jacket all over the mountains and the desert, taking it up granite chimneys and sandstone fist cracks. Then when it was paired with another softshell, it proved ideal for granite mixed climbing and swinging ice tools on ice in Ouray, CO, or for approaches on warmer days.
The Ultimate V is a beast with regard to versatility. It takes the bite off the wind during blustery days climbing granite multi-pitch in the winter and is an awesome wind layer or shell when ice climbing. This jacket is on the lighter end of the spectrum for our technical softshells, which makes it more ideal for stowing in the pack while skinning on sunny days. The Ultimate V may not be an ideal jacket for warm weather climbing or hiking days, but if you wish to extend your climbing season or if you love to ice climb or backcountry ski, this little gem may be the perfect option for you.
Other faves in this category are the ROM and the Kinetic Plus. Being a technical softshell, the ROM is a bit too heavy and restrictive for warm breezy days at the crag. Instead, it excels as a mid-layer for ice climbing, spring alpine missions, and backcountry ski-touring — especially in inclement weather. Alternatively, the Kinetic Plus proves a worthy, non-crinkly (i.e. loud) companion for use in alpine rainstorms, or as the ideal travel jacket for warm but wet climates. It is soft, stylish, well-constructed, and the only fully water-proof model in our review.
Also worth mentioning is our Editors' Choice, the thin Sigma SL pullover. While this layer may not be so versatile as to take you to the slopes in the winter, it is the best option for breezy or drippy days during shoulder seasons, as well as a great wind-layer during the summer. It is exceptionally durable, able to withstand months of abuse in granite cracks. This jacket looks great, fits well, and is perfect for hiking, evening trail runs, alpine rock climbing, summer multi-pitching, spring cragging, or whatever else you can dream up.
Truth be told, even though softshells claim to do everything, there are specialized niches for each style of jacket. Some are ideal as wind layers while summer or alpine climbing, trail running, or hiking; others are best for ice and mixed climbing, winter mountaineering, snowshoeing, and backcountry and/or cross-country skiing. It is crucial to consider the primary activities for which you will use your new softshell, and whether you need an active, technical, or casual jacket.
With the many different types of shells and layers on the market, it can be hard to know which pieces will work best for your individual needs. We hope that this review has answered some of your softshell questions and helped guide you toward the right model for your next outdoor adventure.
— Mary Witlacil and Penney Garrett