For high-output activities, it’s hard to beat a softshell jacket. Their breathable and stretchy fabrics offer fantastic performance and a really comfortable fit that moves with you, and as long as you don’t take them out in a rain storm, their durable shells can withstand light wind and precipitation. You'll be hard-pressed to find a more versatile shell for a wide range of outdoor activities. Below we break down our favorite softshells for the 2023 season, ranging from casual jackets for daily use to performance pieces for backcountry skiing and ice climbing. For more background, see our softshell jacket comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
- Best Overall Softshell Jacket: Arc’teryx Gamma LT Hoody
- Best Softshell for Backcountry Skiing: Black Diamond Dawn Patrol
- Best Budget Softshell Jacket: Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hoody
- Best Ultralight and Packable Softshell: Black Diamond Alpine Start
Best Overall Softshell Jacket
Weight: 1 lb. 3.2 oz.
What we like: Arc’teryx fit, quality, and all-around performance.
What we don’t: Trim fit means you can’t layer much underneath.
The Arc’teryx Gamma LT takes our top softshell spot for putting it all together: solid performance, quality materials, and a great fit. This isn’t a super warm softshell with a thick fleece lining, but its thin construction is what gives the jacket its versatility. The durable outer fabric can withstand a day of backcountry skiing, but the Gamma LT also breathes really well and allows enough air in and out to keep you cool while on the go. And with clean looks that are completely passable around town, it’s a great all-rounder.
As with almost all Arc’teryx products, the fit of the Gamma LT is athletic. You’ll likely be able to slide a thin midlayer underneath, but it will feel too tight over most synthetic or down puffy jackets. That said, range of motion nevertheless is fantastic, and the LT’s long sleeves and helmet-compatible hood are great for activities like climbing, biking, and skiing (although we did find the wrist openings to be on the small side, which can create a bit of a challenge when paired with undercuff gloves). For a warmer softshell with the same general characteristics, check out the Gamma MX below. Editor's note: The Gamma LT is no longer made in a women’s version, although the new Kadin Softshell is a viable (albeit much pricier) alternative with Gore-Tex Infinium windblocking technology in a noticeably lighter (9.9 oz.) build.
See the Men's Arc'teryx Gamma LT
Best Softshell for Backcountry Skiing
Weight: 1 lb. 3 oz.
What we like: High-performance jacket, lots of pockets, classy looks.
What we don’t: Cuffs bunch up when cinched down.
In a few short years, Black Diamond has asserted itself as a major player in performance apparel. In fact, when it comes to a lightweight, breathable, and protective layer for high-output activities, the Dawn Patrol is competitive with class-leading softshells like the Gamma LT Hoody above and Ferrosi Hoody below. Similar to these jackets, the Dawn Patrol leaves the extra warmth of a fleece lining behind for a jacket that’s made to move and breathe with you, which is a real boon on the skin track. And with pockets that can be accessed over a harness and a helmet-compatible hood, the Dawn Patrol is even more backcountry-ready than the OR Ferrosi.
For $50 less, the Dawn Patrol is a viable alternative to our top-rated Gamma LT Hoody. It comes with adjustable cuffs, which make it more accommodating when wearing ski gloves (unfortunately those cuffs are less comfortable if you’re not wearing gloves), along with two extra internal drop pockets (great for stashing skins) and a zippered chest pocket on the exterior. We do prefer the more adjustable StormHood on the Gamma, and Black Diamond’s workmanship cannot yet match the quality construction of Arc’teryx. But if you’re looking for a backcountry-specific option that also looks great for daily use, the Dawn Patrol is a prime candidate. For an extra dose of protection, check out the Dawn Patrol Hybrid ($350), which uses a mix of softshell and waterproof hardshell fabrics.
See the Men's BD Dawn Patrol See the Women's BD Dawn Patrol
Best Budget Softshell Jacket
Weight: 13.9 oz.
What we like: Thin, light, breathable, and a great price.
What we don’t: Lightweight build means compromised durability and weather resistance.
The Outdoor Research Ferrosi is a far cry from the bulky, boxy design that epitomizes softshell jackets of old. At $129 and only 13.9 ounces, it’s an affordably priced, thin, and lightweight shell that won’t weigh you down and excels at nearly every high-output outdoor activity: hiking, biking, climbing, skiing, you name it. Plus, the Ferrosi is decently tough and abrasion-resistant, will block out a good amount of the elements, and has excellent stretch and breathability. All in all, it’s a really versatile piece: you can wear this jacket over a T-shirt in mild weather and over a puffy in the winter. And the cherry on top: the Ferrosi packs down really small for a softshell, stuffing into its own hand pocket (to streamline your kit even more, it’s also available in an anorak version).
The Ferrosi was lightly updated last spring, with notable changes including improved durability, stretchier fabric, and a larger, climbing-helmet-compatible hood. But while the hood adjusts and cinches nicely, it’s still too small to fit over a ski helmet, which will be a downside for some (that said, many backcountry skiers wear climbing helmets like the Petzl Meteor). Additionally, the hand pockets are not set high enough to be compatible with a harness or hipbelt, but that does make them more convenient for day-to-day use. These nitpicks aside, the Ferrosi undeniably is a superb value, extremely versatile for a range of activities, and a great crossover pick for both casual and performance use. And for those looking to shave weight, OR also offers the Ferrosi in an eye-catching Anorak design ($99).
See the Men's Outdoor Research Ferrosi See the Women's Outdoor Research Ferrosi
Best Ultralight and Packable Softshell
Weight: 7.4 oz.
What we like: Lightweight, packable, and versatile softshell.
What we don’t: Thin fabric offers little in the way of insulation.
The Black Diamond Alpine Start is one of the lightest softshells on our list and arguably the most versatile. Whereas burly jackets like the Arc’teryx Gamma MX below can only be worn when temperatures drop, the Alpine Start is a year-round layer. It’s easy to wear over anything from a t-shirt to a lightweight down jacket, depending on conditions. Made with thin stretch-woven nylon coated with BD’s proprietary NanoSphere water repellant, the Alpine Start is designed to keep out wind and rain without compromising ventilation. And in practice it delivers: throughout an all-day drizzle on a recent trek in Patagonia, the Alpine Start’s shell beaded water and kept us dry while our hiking partners were all forced to don their (less breathable) rain jackets.
The Black Diamond Alpine Start blurs the line between softshell and windbreaker jacket, a trend we expect to see more and more of as demand increases for lighter, more breathable, and more versatile layers. Don’t expect any insulation from the Alpine Start’s thin fabric though, and the stretch knit at the cuffs and hem will also limit how much you layer underneath. But for runners, backcountry skiers, and climbers wanting a weather resistant, breathable softshell that packs down small (into its chest pocket) and weighs nothing, the Alpine Start is our favorite ultralight offering... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Black Diamond Alpine Start See the Women's Black Diamond Alpine Start
Best of the Rest
Weight: 1 lb. 3.7 oz.
What we like: A good-looking softshell with everyday appeal.
What we don’t: Not our first choice for activities like skiing or snowshoeing.
Softshells offer great water resistance and breathability for fall and winter outdoor activities, but their hardwearing nature holds up well to everyday use too. The North Face’s Apex Bionic is a nice casual alternative to many of the more technical jackets here, with a clean appearance that includes just three external pockets (2 handwarmer and 1 chest) and a collar in lieu of a hood. Given that the Apex Bionic is offered in a wide range of colorways, it almost certainly pairs well with your favorite jeans or flannel. For everything from walking the dog in chilly or wet weather to light adventuring in the cold, it’s a good-looking softshell option.
Keep in mind that The North Face Apex Bionic was designed to be casual first and performance second, and it’s far from our first choice for active use. The jacket’s standard fit means it’s a little boxier (read: less mobile) than most performance-oriented softshells, and the bulky fabric won’t pack away as well as the lightweight offerings on this list. That said, the relaxed fit works well for layering and the jacket does deliver in terms of wind and water protection. For everything from wet-weather commuting to short hikes, it’s one of our favorite casual softshells of 2023.
See the Men's The North Face Apex Bionic See the Women's The North Face Apex Bionic
Weight: 1 lb. 3.6 oz.
What we like: Tougher and warmer than the Gamma LT.
What we don’t: Quite a bit more expensive.
The Arc’teryx Gamma MX has been on the market for years with plenty of summits and deep backcountry days to its name. It performs and is priced like a serious backcountry softshell: you get bomber outer fabric, tons of storage (five total exterior pockets), and that glorious Arc’teryx tailored fit that guides and the hardcore crowd love. But unlike many performance pieces, the MX’s clean styling means you can more easily get away with wearing it off the mountain. And with a recent update, this time-tested classic got a little bit better, with an altered fabric that's warmer for the weight, retooled cuff and hood adjustments, and taped seams.
In comparing the Gamma MX to its sibling Gamma LT above, the MX is quite a bit warmer with an added fleece lining. This can be a good thing or bad thing depending on your use, but the lining is quite comfortable and great on cold day. We like the versatility that comes with the non-insulated LT, but the more significant reason for the difference in ranking is price. There just isn’t enough there to justify an extra $100 in our eyes. That’s to take nothing away from the Gamma MX—its popularity is reaching legendary status in the alpine community... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Gamma MX See the Women's Arc'teryx Gamma MX
Weight: 11.8 oz.
What we like: A minimalist yet waterproof softshell.
What we don’t: Trim fitting; waterproof membrane impacts breathability.
U.K.-based Rab specializes in technical outerwear for alpine endeavors, and their Kinetic 2.0 is a high-performance softshell built for backcountry skiing, climbing, and other high-output activities in cold weather. This jacket inches closer to a hardshell than your standard softshell, combining a waterproof membrane with a stretchy knit face fabric. The end result is the softness and mobility of a softshell along with the protection of a hardshell, which is a winning combination for working hard in winter conditions. Rab rounds out the streamlined (11.8 oz.) design with an under-the-helmet hood, two harness or hipbelt-compatible handwarmer pockets, velcro cuff adjustments, and a single-end hem cinch.
Manufacturers have been toying with the hybrid hardshell/softshell concept for a while (the now-discontinued Patagonia Galvanized was one of our favorites), but the Kinetic 2.0 got our attention due to its impressively lightweight build. For 7 ounces less than the Gamma LT above, the Rab will keep you drier when the skies unleash. You do give up some breathability with the waterproof membrane, and the Kinetic’s decidedly trim fit doesn’t allow much room for layering (it offers less coverage too, with a center back length of 28 in. vs. the Gamma LT’s 30 in.). For a bump up in warmth and performance, check out Rab’s Kinetic 2.0 Alpine ($295), which adds a liner and a more robust feature set, including a 2-way front zip and over-the-helmet hood.
See the Men's Rab Kinetic 2.0 See the Women's Rab Kinetic 2.0
Weight: 13.8 oz.
What we like: The comfort and breathability of fleece with a protective softshell exterior.
What we don’t: You get more versatility by layering a baselayer with a lightweight softshell or windbreaker.
Patagonia’s R1 TechFace Hoody is a unique and modern take on the standard softshell jacket. You get a stretchy woven face fabric (the common denominator among softshells) with the addition of a soft fleece backer (in the form of Patagonia’s ever-popular R1). The result is the comfort and breathability of a fleece with the durability and weather protection of a softshell—all wrapped up in a reasonably light, 13.8-ounce package. And as we’ve come to expect from Patagonia, the R1 TechFace is good-looking, too, proving its chops as a highly versatile piece that you can wear both on the trail and around town.
In many ways, the R1 TechFace is an all-in-one answer to a popular layering choice for backcountry skiing, hiking, and cold-weather climbing: a thick baselayer and light shell. Oftentimes, we prefer the versatility of two layers instead of one, but there’s no denying the TechFace’s convenience. That said, compared to the more traditional softshells here, the TechFace offers slightly less protection (with a thinner shell) and slightly more warmth (with a thicker liner), which isn’t a winning combination for high-output activities in the winter. Keep these differences in mind, though, and the Patagonia is a great piece to reach for in the right conditions. For a warmer design, check out the thicker R2 TechFace Hoody ($199) and Jacket ($179)... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Patagonia R1 TechFace Hoody See the Women's Patagonia R1 TechFace Jacket
What we like: Nice clean styling and articulated patterning for comfort.
What we don’t: Too bulky for performance use; not everyone will want two chest pockets.
Most of the softshells here have a performance bent, but this style of jacket is also well suited for casual, everyday environments. For commuting, running errands, and hanging at the local brewery, softshells offer a comfortable and stylish combination of weather protection and warmth, and are generally more affordable and durable than other options (such as synthetic insulated jackets). Within the casual category, the Kuhl Klash goes head to head with The North Face’s Apex Bionic above, with a similarly clean yet functional aesthetic. Those looking for something a little different will especially like the drop-tail hem, which adds a nice dose of urban appeal.
The Klash gets the job done for light backcountry use, with great storage, a protective DWR coating, and articulated patterning that offers decent mobility. But its heavier build falls short for serious endeavors, and you’ll almost always want a hood for winter hiking, ice climbing, or backcountry skiing. We have found that Kuhl products fit decently well and always prioritize comfort, so the Klash is a great alternative if the Apex Bionic doesn’t quite work for you. For an even more casual option, check out their Impakt Jacket.
See the Men's Kuhl Klash See the Women's Kuhl Klash Trench
Weight: 10.5 oz.
What we like: A high-quality lightweight softshell at an affordable price.
What we don’t: Heavier and bulkier than the BD Alpine Start above.
We’ve been blown away by the performance chops of lightweight softshells like the Black Diamond Alpine Start above, and Rab offers up another quality option in their Borealis. Clocking in at just 10.5 ounces, the Borealis was designed to provide protection from the wind in a mobile and breathable package. True to its climbing intentions, it features two harness-compatible chest pockets (one of which doubles as a stuff sack) and a sleek hood that fits under a helmet, keeping it in place in a squall. Finally, a simple hem adjustment rounds out this jacket’s minimalist build.
The Rab is a full 3 ounces heavier than BD’s Alpine Start mentioned above, which translates to a boost in both durability and weather protection. Whereas the Alpine Start is still at home amongst windbreaker jackets, the Borealis is undeniably a softshell, which makes it a more suitable option for ski touring and ice climbing. On the other hand, we’d be more likely to wear the Alpine Start while winter running and rock climbing thanks to its more breathable and streamlined design (it also features a helmet-compatible hood). But for $50 less, the Borealis has a whole lot going for it and is a viable alternative for those looking for a minimalist (but still fully mountain-ready) softshell.
See the Men's Rab Borealis See the Women's Rab Borealis
Weight: 1 lb. 8.2 oz.
What we like: Style meets practicality.
What we don’t: Not a performance piece.
The Gravity doesn’t claim to be a technical, performance-oriented softshell, but that doesn’t seem to hold it back: it’s a top seller for Marmot year after year. Similar to The North Face Apex Bionic and Kuhl Klash, the Gravity is ideal for braving weather around town and the occasional dip into the mountains. Among the more casual options on our list, it provides solid weather protection. Expect the Gravity to be nearly windproof and highly water resistant when subjected to light to intermittent rain, but keep in mind that it’s not very breathable.
With a nearly identical price and feature set as The North Face Apex Bionic, there isn’t a lot separating the two softshell jackets. We do prefer the straightforward pocket arrangement of the Apex—the zippered sleeve pocket on the Gravity looks a little out of place around town—but the Marmot does have adjustable cuffs, which can be nice to cinch out the cold. Fit may be the deciding factor: the Gravity is a little tighter in the arms and can be more difficult to layer underneath, with the upside being a sleeker and more athletic look.
See the Men's Marmot Gravity See the Women's Marmot Gravity
Weight: 1 lb. 6.2 oz.
What we like: A cozy softshell hybrid with functional ski-specific features.
What we don’t: Too warm for most days.
Norway-based Helly Hansen has been quietly churning out premium mountain clothing for over a century, and their innovative Odin Pro Shield is case in point that they’re still evolving. Similar to the R1 TechFace above, the Odin Pro Shield (part of the brand’s ski touring-specific Odin collection) combines a softshell exterior with a fleece liner, balancing the durability and protection of the former with the warmth and comfort of the latter. For active days in variable winter conditions, it’s a thoughtfully made and purpose-built option from a trusted mountain brand.
However, at 1 pound 6.2 ounces, the Odin is even heavier than the R2 version of Patagonia’s TechFace above (1 lb. 1.1 oz.), which translates to a considerable increase in warmth and coverage, along with added bulk. It also tacks on an over-the-helmet hood (compared to the Patagoina’s under-the-helmet design), a drawcord adjustment at the hem (the TechFace has a simple elastic binding), and a built-in RECCO reflector. As a result, the Odin is a much closer hardshell alternative but not our favorite choice for mild conditions or those pushing particularly hard up the skin track. But for sub-freezing aerobic activity or slow uphill travel, it’s a fully serviceable choice.
See the Men's HH Odin Pro Shield Hybrid See the Women's HH Odin Pro Shield Hybrid
Weight: 1 lb. 3.4 oz.
What we like: Great feature set for ski touring.
What we don’t: Polarizing looks and not always easy to find.
Ski touring is the perfect use case for a softshell jacket: The windproof and water-resistant shell is sufficient for snowy conditions and—unlike a hardshell—you get decently high breathability, too. For dedicated backcountry riders, Dynafit’s extensive softshell lineup is a great place to start. The Free Infinium Hybrid is one of their most popular pieces, employing two fabrics to maximize performance: Gore-Tex’s windproof and water-resistant Infinium on high-exposure areas and more breathable Dynastretch at the back, belly, and underarms. Tack on a helmet-compatible hood, underarm vents, two large front pockets (easy to access with a pack on) and internal dump pockets, and a mesh powder skirt, and you get a fully backcountry-ready design with very few compromises.
Dynafit is a household name in Europe, but despite the growing popularity of skimo racing, their products are still hard to come by in the U.S. They’re also slightly polarizing compared to the relatively drab softshell norm, with bright colorways and fairly snug fits that won’t necessarily look the part at your local brewery. But for speed-focused backcountry skiers, you simply won’t find a more purpose-built collection. If you’re looking for a more streamlined option for dry or mild days, it’s also worth checking out Dynafit’s TLT Dynastretch ($200), which forgoes the Free’s Infinium shell for a boost in breathability (at the sacrifice of protection).
See the Men's Dynafit Free Infinium Hybrid See the Women's Dynafit Free Infinium Hybrid
Weight: 1 lb.
What we like: Breathable, lightweight, and versatile.
What we don’t: Gore-Tex Infinium is patterned only in moisture-prone areas.
Despite the performance attributes, many people wear softshells for daily use, so we love it when we find a jacket that offers a nice mix of both. Enter the ROM Hoody from Marmot, which has weather-resistant paneling that is great for keeping the elements at bay but is equally friendly around town. With features such as hand pockets that sit at a normal height—this is a welcome change for those annoyed by high, harness-friendly pockets—a regular fit, and clean styling (even better in the most recent update), the ROM is a well-rounded and versatile softshell from a respected brand.
The ROM uses Gore-Tex’s Infinium, which gives it a nice bump in weather resistance. But keep in mind that—unlike many Gore-Tex products—Infinium is not fully waterproof, and on the ROM it’s only patterned over areas most prone to moisture (the hood, arms, and shoulders). In other words, despite the added tech, all-around protection is only moderately better compared to shells like the Gamma LT and Dawn Patrol above. On the plus side, the Marmot’s fit nicely accommodates a midlayer, and the stretchy fabric around the core allows for good breathability and range of motion (hence the R-O-M). All told, the ROM Hoody is a good-looking piece that can transition between urban and mountain environments better than most.
See the Men's Marmot ROM Hoody See the Women's Marmot ROM Hoody
Weight: 15.2 oz.
What we like: Fun styling at an approachable price point.
What we don’t: Lacks the performance chops of the OR Ferrosi Anorak.
Several softshells here fit the bill for casual use, but none come close to matching the flair of REI’s new Trailmade Anorak. With bright, two-tone styling and a front kangaroo pocket, the Trailmade isn’t shy about its fashion-forward intentions. On the flip side, it’ll still get the job done for light activities like day hiking, casual biking, and beach weekends in the PNW. The stretchy double-weave shell (with DWR finish) keeps out wind and light rain while offering great freedom of movement, and you also get a fully adjustable hood and no shortage of storage.
The REI Trailmade is an undeniably fun piece, and our biggest knock is that you can get Outdoor Research’s more premium Ferrosi Anorak for the same price. The Ferrosi’s fabric is a fan favorite and has been refined over the years, and the OR is overall sleeker and crosses over much better for performance use. But styling could be the deciding factor for some, and for a casual frontcountry jacket that will keep you protected in shifting weather, there’s certainly a lot to like about the new Trailmade.
See the Men's REI Trailmade Softshell See the Women's REI Trailmade Softshell
Weight: 1 lb. 7 oz.
What we like: Works great for daily wear.
What we don’t: Generic fit; not a performance piece.
Like the Apex Bionic and Marmot Gravity above, the Columbia Ascender is geared toward everyday use and not necessarily for summiting mountains. If you want a softshell for daily wear from fall through spring or quick jaunts in the snow, the Ascender is just about ideal. It’s priced right and matches up well with the Apex and Gravity in durability and warmth, with a sturdy shell and fleece-lined interior.
What are you giving up at the Ascender's budget-friendly price? The fit is pretty generic, but you can squeeze a midlayer underneath or wear it over a dress shirt to and from the office. And don’t expect it to keep up if you’re working hard, but you probably already knew that by checking the price. On the topic of price, we often see the Ascender on a significant discount (sometimes half off or more), which makes it an even better value.
See the Men's Columbia Ascender See the Women's Columbia Kruser Ridge II
|Arc’teryx Gamma LT Hoody||$249||1 lb. 3.2 oz.||Performance/casual||Yes (climbing & ski)||3|
|Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Shell||$200||1 lb. 3 oz.||Performance/casual||Yes (climbing & ski)||5|
|Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hoodie||$129||13.9 oz.||Performance||Yes (climbing)||3|
|Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody||$165||7.4 oz.||Performance||Yes (climbing)||1|
|The North Face Apex Bionic||$149||1 lb. 3.7 oz.||Casual||No||3|
|Arc’teryx Gamma MX Hoody||$350||1 lb. 3.6 oz.||Performance/casual||Yes (climbing & ski)||5|
|Rab Kinetic 2.0||$250||11.8 oz.||Performance||Under-the-helmet||2|
|Patagonia R1 TechFace Hoody||$189||13.8 oz.||Performance/casual||Under-the-helmet||2|
|Kuhl Klash Jacket||$149||Unavailable||Casual||No||4|
|Rab Borealis Jacket||$115||10.5 oz.||Performance||Under-the-helmet||2|
|Marmot Gravity Jacket||$150||1 lb. 8.2 oz.||Casual||No||4|
|Helly Hansen Odin Pro Shield Hybrid||$220||1 lb. 6.2 oz.||Performance||Yes (climbing & ski)||3|
|Dynafit Free Infinium Hybrid||$350||1 lb. 3.4 oz.||Performance||Yes (climbing & ski)||4|
|Marmot ROM Hoody||$225||1 lb.||Performance||Yes (climbing)||3|
|REI Trailmade Softshell Anorak||$100||15.2 oz.||Casual||Under-the-helmet||3|
|Columbia Ascender Jacket||$80||1 lb. 7 oz.||Casual||No||3|
- What is a Softshell Jacket?
- Softshell Categories: Casual vs. Performance
- Wind and Water Resistance
- Thickness and Warmth
- Weight and Packed Size
- Stretch Fabrics and Mobility
- Fit and Comfort
- Hooded vs. Non-Hooded Softshells
- Windbreaker Jackets
- Softshells vs. Hardshells
As the name suggests, a softshell is a flexible outer layer that serves as an alternative to a traditional hardshell jacket. A fairly wide range of products fall under this jacket type, but all softshells are made with a woven nylon or polyester that gives them their signature stretchy feel. The face fabric is smooth and quite durable, while the interior is usually some form of brushed polyester or fleece grid that provides varying levels of warmth. Softshell jackets are not designed to be impervious to the elements; instead, they’re meant to balance water and wind resistance with performance characteristics like breathability and mobility. We’ve found them to be the ideal choice in cool weather and when you’re working hard. For an even deeper dive into this topic, we’ve written a dedicated article answering the question: What is a Softshell Jacket?
Much like rain jackets, the softshell market is large (and growing), but it can be broken into two general categories: casual and performance. Casual softshells have a generous fit and a basic feature set for use as an outer layer from fall through spring. They excel as a daily piece because their stretchy fabrics are far more comfortable and breathe better than a rain jacket. Even through a Seattle winter, we’ll still reach for our softshell jacket so long as there isn’t heavy precipitation in the forecast.
Performance softshells are intended for activities like climbing, mountaineering, and ski touring, and leverage the two primary benefits of a softshell: breathability and mobility. Furthermore, these jackets have outdoor-specific features like helmet-compatible hoods, pockets that are set high to accommodate a hipbelt or harness, and a tailored fit. Relative to other performance outerwear, cost doesn’t increase substantially between the casual and performance options, in part because the technology is largely the same across the board. Two notable exceptions are the Arc’teryx Gamma MX and Rab Kinetic 2.0, which offer excellent weather protection for serious outdoor pursuits.
One of the reasons that people hesitate in buying a softshell is that it lacks the security you get from a rain jacket or hardshell in terms of waterproofing. But with a durable water repellent coating (DWR) to bead up and shed water and a tough outer fabric, most softshells can handle light rain showers or wind gusts just fine. Sustained moisture will make its way through most jackets, however, because they lack seam taping and a waterproof membrane. In the end, we don’t recommend a softshell for prolonged exposure to precipitation—hardshell jackets still are the best in that type of weather. And at lower elevations, if you need an emergency waterproof jacket, a light and packable rain shell serves as an excellent backup.
Recently we’ve seen an increase in hybrid hardshell/softshell designs, with jackets like the Rab Kinetic 2.0 leading the charge. With a 3-layer waterproof construction, seam taping, and water-tight front zip, the Kinetic fits the definition for a hardshell, but a stretchy face fabric adds the mobility and breathability of a softshell. However, as we’ve come to expect with do-all jackets, the Rab makes compromises in both departments—with a streamlined build it's overall less protective than most hardshells, and the thin fabric doesn't offer the same level of windproofing or insulation as most of the softshell competition. On the other hand, the Kinetic 2.0 is a great jacket for those looking for something in between.
Along with stretchiness, the breathability of a softshell is one of the main reasons to purchase one. They far outperform waterproof hardshells in high-exertion activities like climbing or backcountry skiing. How well a softshell breathes does vary and is usually associated with a few common features. The most breathable softshells are thinner designs without a tightly woven and super tough (and less air-permeable) outer layer. For maximum breathability, air permeability is your friend as it moves more air in and out of the shell. On the other hand, too much airflow compromises weather resistance and warmth. It’s always a balance, but most softshells offer very good breathability for an outer layer, with standouts including the Arc’teryx Gamma LT, Outdoor Research Ferrosi, and Black Diamond Alpine Start.
Softshells can vary dramatically in thickness and warmth, from thin shells offering no insulation to thick, fleece-lined jackets. For use in the dead of winter, activities like ice climbing, or even over a puffy around town, thick softshells like the Arc'teryx Gamma MX or the Marmot Gravity are great options. We often, however, prefer the versatility of a lighter weight jacket, which can always be worn over insulating layers, and offers better breathability and the option to be worn in milder temperatures. Jackets like the Arc’teryx Gamma LT and Black Diamond Dawn Patrol are just as ready for a backcountry ski trip as they are for a spring hike.
It’s also important to note that uninsulated softshell jackets will not be warm enough on their own in subfreezing temperatures. Even if you’re working hard, you’ll need a good system of base and midlayers to stay comfortable. For recommendations on other insulated pieces, check out our articles on the best down jackets, synthetic jackets, and fleece jackets.
In general, softshell jackets are one of the heavier and least packable outer layer options, losing out to both hardshells and rain jackets in this regard. The weave of the stretchy fabric and fleece linings add both bulk and weight, so it follows that the worst offenders are the warmest and most feature-rich softshells (the heavyweight on this list is the Marmot Gravity at 1 lb. 8.2 oz.). Even the chart-topping Gamma LT Hoody (LT for “lightweight”) doesn’t pass the fast-and-light test, at a substantial 1 pound 3.2 ounces.
All that said, with minimalist gear growing in popularity, the softshell category is swiftly following suit. There are now are a number of lighter options that dip under 1 pound, including the Outdoor Research Ferrosi and 10.5-ounce Rab Borealis. Beyond that, we’ve begun to see a whole new style developing, merging the uberlight intentions of a windbreaker jacket with a softshell’s stretchy and breathable fabric (for more, see our section on “Windbreaker Jackets” below). Jackets like the Black Diamond Alpine Start (7.4 oz.) pack down to the size of a piece of fruit and are excellent for weight-conscious activities (trail running and climbing, for example) when you need a jacket to protect against the elements while still dumping heat.
While there aren’t exact parameters stating what is or isn’t a softshell jacket, one defining feature is the stretchiness of the shell fabric. In contrast to a rigid and sometimes confining hardshell or rain jacket, a softshell jacket flexes and moves with you. This stretchiness is particularly helpful for demanding activities like climbing or fast paced aerobic activities such as hiking or cross-country skiing. The extra give in the fabric also means you can be quite comfortable even with a trim, athletic fit, which makes them all the better for the activities mentioned above.
The fit of a softshell will most often correlate with its category, with casual jackets having a more generous, relaxed cut than tailored performance pieces. The fact that these jackets have extra stretch means that in most circumstances it’s still easy to slip a puffy underneath. If you’ll be taking the jackets into high elevations or need the added warmth of a winter-weight insulated jacket, you may need a more generous fit (or size up). Our ideal softshell has an athletic cut to fully enjoy the stretchy and very mobile characteristics of this jacket type.
Comfort is another area of strength for softshells, particularly next-to-skin feel. The soft-touch fleece liners on many of these jackets make them quite comfortable even when worn over a short-sleeved shirt. And as with fit, their stretchy nature is a boon for daylong enjoyment.
A good number of softshells are sold in both hooded and non-hooded styles, including our top-rated Arc'teryx Gamma LT. In general, those that choose a performance softshell will opt for the hooded version for better protection from the elements. While the hood isn’t waterproof, it can provide sustained relief from light rain and wind, keep snow from entering your jacket at the neck, and offer additional warmth. If you’ll be using the softshell as a midlayer or around town, the standard jacket may be your better option.
Finally, if you’re using a helmet, make sure the softshell has a helmet-compatible hood. Because helmet sizes can differ (ski helmets are generally quite a bit bulkier than climbing helmets), you'll want to pay attention to what sort of helmet the hood is sized for. To help, we've provided a detailed breakdown in our comparison table above.
Pockets are a great place to start if you’re wondering about a jacket’s true intentions. You’ll find a range of storage options among softshells, from the single chest pocket on a minimalist jacket like the Black Diamond Alpine Start to the five-pocket design of the skiing-focused Black Diamond Dawn Patrol. In a casually minded jacket, we look for two standard-height handwarmer pockets (just above the hip) and one to two chest pockets for storing valuable items. Performance-oriented softshells are more of a mixed bag depending on their end use, and you’ll have to decide whether you want to prioritize weight savings (less pockets) or convenience and organization (more pockets). When it comes to softshells in our performance category, look for torso-height handwarmer pockets (for easy access when wearing a harness or hipbelt), interior dump pockets for storing goggles or skins, or streamlined pockets that double as an integrated stuff sack for the jacket.
Outdoor gear is becoming more and more streamlined by the year, and windbreaker jackets sit at the helm of this movement. Also referred to as windshirts, these jackets are exceptionally lightweight—generally between 2 and 7 ounces—and commonly stuff down to about the size of a coffee mug. And they’re small but mighty—made with breathable and water/wind-resistant nylon, they provide valuable warmth and weather protection. Climbers will often bring a a windbreaker jacket in lieu of an insulating baselayer, as it easily attaches to their harness with a carabiner. They’re are also popular with weight-conscious bikers, runners, backcountry skiers, and thru-hikers.
We certainly wouldn’t classify all windbreaker jackets as softshells. Some, like the Patagonia Houdini, do not stretch and are significantly lacking in breathability. That said, we see a trend towards wind layers becoming more and more stretchy and breathable—in other words, taking on the properties of a softshell. This results in a best-of-both-worlds hybrid layer that’s light and packable, breathable and pliable, and still impressively weather resistant. We’ve included a few windbreakers in this year’s article—including the Black Diamond Alpine Start and Rab Borealis—but expect to see more and more of these hybrids pop up on our list as we continue testing them.
Softshells are a relatively young product, and early versions were simply fleece jackets with a tougher, more weather resistant face fabric. They’ve quickly grown in popularity and technology and are now a realistic competitor to a hardshell for a number of alpine sports. Where softshells excel is breathability, range of motion, and comfort. On the other hand, hardshells win out in harsh conditions with waterproof and windproof exteriors and lighter weights. There is some crossover between categories, including jackets like the Rab Kinetic 2.0, which includes mechanical stretch in its fully waterproof design. That being said, it’s not quite as stretchy as a softshell and its fully waterproof design does result in slightly compromised breathability.
Both jacket types are completely viable options for activities like mountaineering, climbing, hiking, and skiing, among others. Your priorities should push you in one direction or the other and, realistically, those that spend a lot of time in the outdoors have at least one of each type. From our experience, the more familiar we’ve become with our gear and the conditions we’ll be heading out into, the more willing we are to reach for our softshell. It may not have that extra security blanket that comes with all the “proofing” of a hardshell, but its breathable and very comfortable nature make it a lot more enjoyable to wear the entire day. For a deeper dive into the topic, see our article on Hardshell vs. Softshell Jackets.
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