Best Softshell Jackets of 2020 (Buying Guide)

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You need to buy a softshell jacket but you don’t know much about what’s available on the market? Or you’re wondering which one to choose?

Don’t worry, you got to the right place. Here we highlighted our top 12 softshell jackets for 2020. In this in-depth post, we reviewed softshells for all budgets and styles of travel. You will find softshell jackets suited for a range of outdoor activities in a variety of conditions. You will also find a softshell jacket comparison table that we assembled to help you get a quick review of the most important characteristics, pros, and cons of each softshell jacket on our list.

Make no mistake, this is not just a breakdown of some gear. If you’re looking for this, you can find it on many other sites. This comprehensive guide is aimed at one thing only – help you choose the best softshell jacket for your needs. That’s why below the breakdown of our favorite softshell jackets for 2020, we explain the main designs, materials, features, and characteristics of softshells.

For more of our top gear recommendations, check out the Best Convertible Pants for Hiking.

Hiker wearing a softshell jacket in the woods

Quick answer: BEST SOFTSHELL JACKETS FOR 2020

1. Arc’teryx Gamma LT Hoody                                    View on Amazon

2. Helly Hansen Odin Mountain Softshell            View on Amazon

3. Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded                     View on Amazon

4. Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody                    View on Amazon

5. The North Face Apex Bionic 2                                View on Amazon

6. Arc’teryx Gamma MX Hoody                                  View on Amazon

7. Rab Kinetic Plus                                                              View on Amazon

8. Columbia Ascender                                                      View on Amazon

9. Marmot ROM                                                                   View on Amazon

10. Mountain Hardwear Kor Preshell Hoody    View on Amazon

11. Rab Torque                                                                     View on Amazon

12. Marmot Gravity                                                           View on Amazon

 

Best overall softshell jacket

#1 Arc’teryx Gamma LT Hoody

Arcteryx Gamma LT HoodyCategory: Performance/casual

Weight: 545 g (19.2 oz)

Materials: Abrasion-resistant 4-way stretch woven softshell fabric (the Wee Burly double weave fabric is made of 56% nylon, 34% polyester, 10% elastane)

Notable features:

  • Helmet-compatible hood with laminated brim
  • Spacious pockets
  • Gusseted underarms

Pros:

  • Great all-round softshell jacket of excellent quality
  • Perfect for all-weather conditions, environments, and activities – equally good for mountain, town, and backcountry
  • The streamlined design allows for a better fit, easy layering, and a full range of motion
  • Extremely breathable, light, and comfortable

Cons:

  • The hood is massive, which lowers the attractiveness of the jacket
  • The inside pocket is too small so you won’t be able to hold larger items such as a smartphone there
  • Not waterproof

Best for: High-intensity outdoor activities

Women’s Version: Available -> Amazon | REI | Moosejaw

Find the latest price:

Amazon | REI | Moosejaw

 

Best technical features

#2 Helly Hansen Odin Mountain Softshell

Helly Hansen Odin Mountain SoftshellCategory: Performance/casual

Weight: 722 g (25.5 oz)

Materials: 4-way stretch softshell fabric (including a waterproof breathable membrane)

Notable features:

  • Hybrid construction (there’s a waterproof breathable membrane in the top part for added weather protection; the bottom part is constructed in such a way to allow for maximum breathability)
  • Helmet-compatible hood with vertical and horizontal hood adjustment
  • Gusseted underarms

Pros:

  • While it’s made for all-weather conditions, this jacket excels in extreme pursuits
  • Waterproof and highly breathable softshell jacket for active people
  • Durable, flexible, and comfortable
  • It provides plenty of room to layer underneath, which also makes it good for colder temperatures and environments

Cons:

  • The hood is a bit oversized
  • Helly Hansen Odin Mountain Softshell is a bit heavier than the other jackets on this list

Best for: Extreme pursuits in the backcountry

Women’s Version: Available -> Amazon | CampSaver

Find the latest price:

AmazonBackcountry

 

Best budget softshell

#3 Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded

Outdoor Research Ferrosi HoodedCategory: Performance/casual

Weight: 424 g (15 oz)

Materials: 90D ripstop nylon (86%) and stretch woven spandex (14%) body and hood; 120D Cordura nylon (91%) and stretch woven spandex (9%) shoulders and lower sleeves

Notable features:

  • Reinforced shoulders and lower arms
  • Left-hand zip pocket doubles as a stuff sack
  • Elastic cuffs with internal thumbholes

Pros:

  • This softshell is rugged and highly breathable – great for active people
  • Packs down light and small; yet it provides plenty of room for its size
  • Great quick-drying fabric – stretchy for added freedom of movement, it’s nice and soft to wear
  • Cheaper than most jackets on this list

Cons:

  • Water-resistant not waterproof, which limits its ability to keep the wearer dry in foul weather
  • Poor fit (runs small) so you might have to buy a larger size if you want to wear another layer underneath

Best for: Active lifestyle and vigorous activities

Women’s Version: Available -> Amazon | REI | Backcountry

Find the latest price:

Amazon | REI | Backcountry

 

Best ultralight softshell

#4 Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody

Black diamond alpine start hoodyCategory: Performance/casual

Weight: 210 g (7.4 oz)

Materials: Schoeller stretch-woven nylon with NanoSphere Technology (80 gsm, 93% nylon, 7% elastane)

Notable features:

  • Self-stowing chest pocket for easy storage
  • Underarm gussets for added range of motion
  • Climbing-helmet-compatible hood

Pros:

  • Versatile – can be used in different environments; can be used as a mid-layer or outer layer; provides complete freedom of movement for active people
  • Ultralight (because of the lightweight fabric) but resistant to wear and tear
  • Weather-resistant with a good balance between air permeability and windproofing
  • Simple and intelligent design with minimal lines and a few pockets

Cons:

  • Too loose sleeve openings
  • No insulation means that it isn’t good for the cold unless you wear it above/under another layer
  • A bit short and somewhat boxy fit
  • No snap closure in the chin area means that the hood won’t stay on if the zipper is wide open (a huge drawback for runners, etc. who won’t be happy with the limited degree of external air permeability)

Best for: Minimalist climbers

Women’s Version: Available -> Amazon | REI | Moosejaw

Find the latest price:

Amazon | CampSaver | Moosejaw

 

Best casual softshell jacket

#5 The North Face Apex Bionic 2

The north face apex bionic 2Category: Casual/performance

Weight: 680 g (23.9 oz)

Materials: 351g/m2 WindWall fabric – 96% polyester/4% elastane

Notable features:

  • WindWall fabric is specially engineered to reduce the wind chill
  • Hem cinch-cord for individual fit
  • Three zippered pockets for secure storage of items

Pros:

  • Suitable for a wide range of activities and weather conditions – especially for windy, cool-weather activities
  • The North Face Apex Bionic 2 is stylish and comfortable – it looks good and feels good
  • Provides good fit and is functional enough for many activities

Cons:

  • No hood – bad news for those avid outdoorsmen who are used to hike and bike in bad weather
  • No inside pocket(s) means less space for important items
  • Too long sleeves aren’t very convenient; no elasticated adjustable Velcro cuffs to keep the warmth in

Best for: Casual use in windy and cool-to-cold conditions

Women’s Version: Available -> Amazon | Moosejaw | Backcountry

Find the latest price:

Amazon | Moosejaw | Backcountry

 

Best of the rest

#6 Arc’teryx Gamma MX Hoody

Arcteryx Gamma Hoody MXCategory: Performance/casual

Weight: 565 g (19.9 oz)

Materials: Fortius 2.0 fabric – face: 85% nylon, 15% elastane. backer: 94% polyester, 6% elastane

Notable features:

  • Enhanced wind and moisture-resistance, and snow-shedding
  • Helmet-compatible hood
  • Articulated elbows and gusseted underarms for enhanced mobility (useful for alpinists and other outdoor enthusiasts who get more adrenaline through participation in more extreme pursuits)

Pros:

  • Great for changing weather conditions (drizzle, snow, wind, whatever, it’s all fine, yet for a limited time), its’s built for enhanced mobility
  • Top quality craftsmanship
  • Tough and abrasion-resistant
  • Wind-resistant, warm, and comfortable

Cons:

  • High price
  • No interior pockets
  • Not very water-resistant – gets soaked really fast in rainy conditions
  • No adjustable Velcro wrist cuffs

Best for: Mountain use – climbing, skiing, hiking

Women’s Version: Available -> Amazon | Moosejaw | Backcountry

Find the latest price:

Amazon | REI | Backcountry

 

#7 Rab Kinetic Plus

Rab Kinetic PlusCategory: Performance/casual

Weight: 320 g (11 oz)

Materials: Proflex stretchy, breathable and waterproof fabric

Notable features:

  • Taped seams and breathable membrane
  • Hood with laminated and stiffened peak
  • Stitch-free adjustable hem and cuffs

Pros:

  • Designed for active mountain use and is great for alpinists
  • Provides complete freedom of movement
  • Super lightweight and waterproof (10 000 mm)
  • Exceptional breathability (35,000cc/sqm/24hrs)

Cons:

  • Close-fitting – might be difficult to wear layers underneath
  • The color pallet is a bit restrictive – makes it a bit unusual for casual use

Best for: Alpinism and all kinds of high-intensity activities in the mountain

Women’s Version: Available -> Amazon | Moosejaw | Backcountry

Find the latest price:

Amazon | Moosejaw | Backcountry

 

#8 Columbia Ascender

Columbia AscenderCategory: Casual/performance

Weight: N/A

Materials: 100% polyester Contour Softshell

Notable features:

  • Abrasion-resistant chin guard
  • Adjustable hook-and-loop cuffs and drawstring hem
  • Three secure-zip pockets

Pros:

  • Stylish softshell jacket that looks good; perfect for everyday use
  • Good wind-resistance. Plus, this softshell jacket is warm for cooler weather (autumn, winter)
  • Budget-friendly
  • Good quality and comfortable

Cons:

  • No hood
  • Poor quality zippers

Best for: Everyday use in fall/spring

Women’s Version: Available (Columbia Kruser Ridge II) -> Amazon | REI | Backcountry

Find the latest price:

Amazon | REI | Backcountry

 

#9 Marmot ROM

Marmot ROMCategory: Casual/performance

Weight: 500 g (17.6 oz)

Materials: GORE Infinium 3L 92% Nylon, 8% Elastane Plain Weave 4.7 oz/yd | Softshell Double Weave 90% Polyester, 10% Elastane Stretch 5.8 oz/yd

Notable features:

  • GORE-TEX WINDSTOPPER (outer side) and Marmot M2 Softshell (inner side)
  • Attached hood with peripheral cord adjustment
  • Adjustable elastic drawcord waist and Velcro cuffs

Pros:

  • Made from nice and stretchy fabric, it’s a great all-around jacket that fits perfectly
  • Highly wind and water-repellent – performs well in inclement weather and in a variety of environments
  • Warm and comfortable – pairs great with a light fleece/merino baselayer
  • Breathes well

Cons:

  • Narrow shoulders – bad news for people with athletic figures. The Marmot ROM doesn’t allow for more flexible layering
  • Not the most durable softshell; some even call it flimsy
  • The lower half or even 3/4 of the jacket isn’t windproof

Best for: Epic adventures in the mountain

Women’s Version: Available -> Amazon | CampSaver | Moosejaw

Find the latest price:

Amazon | REI | Backcountry

 

#10 Mountain Hardwear Kor Preshell Hoody

Mountain Hardwear Kor Preshell HoodyCategory: Performance/casual

Weight: 140 g (4.9 oz)

Materials: Pertex Quantum Air 20D Stretch Ripstop nylon fabric

Notable features: Super lightweight water and wind-resistant fabric, packs into right-hand pocket, harness-compatible zip hand pockets

Pros:

  • Ultralight and extremely compact/packable – it takes very little space and packs down nicely in any pack or bag you take anywhere (perfect jacket for travel, ski tours, running, etc.)
  • Versatile softshell/wind shirt with great breathability: can be used for both aerobic and anaerobic activities
  • Great concept and design; soft, pliable, and comfortable fabric
  • Resilient for its weight

Cons:

  • The biggest flaw – not durable (though this can be expected for a shell of this size and weight)
  • The weight makes the hand pockets unusable for heavier items (phone, etc.)
  • No hook-and-loop cuffs as the sleeve openings sealing is done via elastic trim here

Best for: Layering and as a go-anywhere jacket for a variety of activities

Women’s Version: Available -> Amazon | Moosejaw | Backcountry

Find the latest price:

Amazon | REI | Backcountry

 

#11 Rab Torque

Rab TorqueCategory: Performance/casual

Weight: 520 g (18.5 oz)

Materials: Matrix stretch double weave softshell fabric

Notable features:

  • Softshell reinforced hood, forearms, and elbows
  • Helmet-compatible hood
  • Adjustable hook-and-loop cuffs and drawstring waistband

Pros:

  • Versatile – can be used for a range of mountain activities
  • Many functional features (Napoleon pockets for maps, helmet-compatible hood, etc.)
  • Excellent breathability and yet has the ability to cut the wind really well
  • Stretchy fabric and great fit allow for complete freedom of movement

Cons:

  • Massive hood, which makes the softshell jacket look not very appealing
  • As a typical climber’s jacket built for performance, it doesn’t look that good for walking around town

Best for: Active mountain use

Women’s Version: Available -> Amazon | CampSaver

Find the latest price:

Amazon | Moosejaw | Backcountry

 

#12 Marmot Gravity

Marmot GravityCategory: Casual/performance

Weight: 686 g (24.2 oz)

Materials: Softshell WPB 88% Nylon, 12% Elastane

Notable features:

  • DriClime-lined high collar with chin guard
  • Adjustable waistband and Velcro cuffs
  • Four zippered pockets provide ample and secure storage capacity

Pros:

  • Solid weather protection; good for cold and winter days and activities
  • Tough, durable, and wear-resistant
  • Thick enough to keep you warm; it also provides enough room to wear another layer underneath
  • Comfortable; looks good (clean, simple lines) and can be worn in the office or on the trail

Cons:

  •  Not very breathable – makes it a bit inappropriate for active pursuits
  • The sleeves seem to run a bit long
  • Fits snug/too tight than most jackets of the same size; a lot of people complain of poor fit

Best for: Daily wear and casual hiking during transitional seasons

Women’s Version: Available -> Amazon | REI | Moosejaw

Find the latest price:

Amazon | Moosejaw | Backcountry

 

Table 1: Best softshell jacket – comparison table

PRODUCTDESCRIPTIONPROSCONS
Arcteryx Gamma LT Hoody
Arc'teryx Gamma LT Hoody

#1 Best overall softshell jacket



Category -> Performance/casual
Price -> $$$
Weight -> 545 g (19.2 oz)
Hood -> Yes


-> Great all-round softshell jacket of excellent quality
-> Perfect for all-weather conditions, environments, and activities
-> Streamlined design
-> Extremely breathable, light, and comfortable


-> The hood is massive
-> The inside pocket is too small
-> Not waterproof

Helly Hansen Odin Mountain Softshell
Helly Hansen Odin Mountain Softshell

#2 Best technical features



Category -> Performance/casual
Price -> $$$
Weight -> 722 g (25.5 oz)
Hood -> Yes


-> Made for all-weather conditions; excels in extreme pursuits
-> Waterproof and highly breathable
-> Durable, flexible, and comfortable
-> Provides plenty of room to layer underneath


-> The hood is a bit oversized
-> A bit heavier than the other jackets on this list

Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded
Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded

#3 Best budget softshell



Category -> Performance/casual
Price -> $
Weight -> 424 g (15 oz)
Hood -> Yes


-> Rugged and highly breathable
-> Packs down light and small
-> Great fabric
-> Cheaper than most jackets on this list


->Water-resistant not waterproof
-> Poor fit (runs small)

Black diamond alpine start hoody
Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody

#4 Best ultralight softshell



Category -> Performance/casual
Price -> $$
Weight -> 210 g (7.4 oz)
Hood -> Yes


-> Versatile
-> Ultralight (lightweight fabric) but resistant to wear and tear
-> Weather-resistant
-> Simple and intelligent design


-> Too loose sleeve openings
-> No insulation
-> A bit short and boxy fit
-> No snap closure in the chin area

The north face apex bionic 2
The North Face Apex Bionic 2

#5 Best casual softshell jacket



Category -> Casual/performance
Price -> $$
Weight -> 680 g (23.9 oz)
Hood -> No


-> Suitable for a wide range of activities and weather conditions
-> Stylish and comfortable
-> Provides good fit and is functional


-> No hood
-> No inside pocket(s)
-> Too long sleeves; no Velcro cuffs

Arcteryx Gamma MX
Arc'teryx Gamma MX Hoody

#6



Category -> Performance/casual
Price -> $$$$
Weight -> 565 g (19.9 oz)
Hood -> Yes


->Great for changing weather conditions
-> Built for enhanced mobility
-> Tough and abrasion-resistant
-> Wind-resistant, warm, and comfortable


-> High price
-> No interior pockets
-> Not very water-resistant
-> No adjustable Velcro wrist cuffs

Rab Kinetic Plus
Rab Kinetic Plus

#7



Category -> Performance/casual
Price -> $$$
Weight -> 320 g (11 oz)
Hood -> Yes


-> Designed for active mountain use
-> Provides complete freedom of movement
-> Super lightweight and waterproof
-> Exceptional breathability


-> Close-fitting
-> Restrictive color pallet

Columbia Ascender
Columbia Ascender

#8



Category -> Casual/performance
Price -> $
Weight -> N/A
Hood -> No


-> Stylish and good for everyday use
-> Good wind-resistance and insulative properties
-> Budget-friendly
-> Good quality and comfortable


-> No hood
-> Poor quality zippers

Marmot ROM
Marmot ROM

#9



Category -> Casual/performance
Price -> $$
Weight -> 500 g (17.6 oz)
Hood -> Yes


-> Great all around jacket that fits perfectly
-> Highly wind and water-repellent
-> Warm and comfortable
-> Breathes well


-> Doesn't allow for more flexible layering
-> Flimsy
-> The lower half or even 3/4 of the jacket isn't windproof

Mountain Hardwear Kor Preshell Hoody
Mountain Hardwear Kor Preshell Hoody

#10



Category -> Performance/casual
Price -> $$
Weight -> 140 g (4.9 oz)
Hood -> Yes


-> Ultralight and extremely packable
-> Versatile softshell/wind shirt with great breathability
-> Great concept, design, and fabric
-> Resilient for its weight


-> Not durable
-> The hand pockets are virtually unusable for heavier items
-> No hook-and-loop cuffs

Rab Torque
Rab Torque

#11



Category -> Performance/casual
Price -> $$
Weight -> 520 g (18.5 oz)
Hood -> Yes


-> Versatile
-> Many functional features
-> Excellent breathability; has the ability to cut the wind really well
-> Allows for complete freedom of movement


-> Massive hood
-> The design isn't suitable for daily use in town

Marmot Gravity
Marmot Gravity

#12



Category -> Casual/performance
Price -> $$
Weight -> 686 g (24.2 oz)
Hood -> No


-> Solid weather protection
-> Tough, durable, and wear-resistant
-> Thick enough to keep you warm; provides room to wear another layer underneath
-> Clean, simple lines


-> Inappropriate for active pursuits
-> The sleeves are a bit long
-> Fits too tight than most jackets of the same size

 

What is a softshell jacket? Basic features, characteristics, materials, and uses

The classic layered clothing system is very useful most of the time, especially for cold protection. Outdoor clothing must be well-designed, flexible, and functional – it should not restrict the body movements necessary for high intensive pursuits. Generally, it consists of a moisture-wicking base layer, warm mid-layer, and wind- and waterproof outer layer. The mid-layer provides most of the insulation. It comprises one or several garments of thicker material (often fleece), though the choice of textiles is more or less arbitrary as long as good insulation is provided.

For many years waterproof breathable garments were promoted as being the only shells needed, able to protect from both wind and rain. Although true, even the best waterproof fabrics are far less breathable than those that are windproof but not waterproof. Additionally, waterproof breathable fabrics aren’t very durable because the membranes are very thin and getting even thinner.

Nowadays, it’s recognized that waterproof breathable garments aren’t suitable for all conditions and actually clothing that’s water-repellent, windproof, and highly breathable is more versatile and more comfortable. This new clothing is called softshell and rain gear is called hardshell.

The softshell bridges the gap between mid and outer layers – we called it the “fourth layer” in our post about hiking clothing layering. Softshell jackets are designed to maximize both water resistance and breathability. Composed of two- or four-way stretch-woven fabrics, these garments are flexible, so they tend to fit and to drape better than hardshells.

Softshell as part of hiking clothing layering

The ideal shell is fully waterproof, windproof, and completely breathable. As usual, what’s ideal doesn’t exist in life. However, there are various strategies that come close to the aforementioned ideal. One strategy is to have a single, multifunctional, waterproof breathable shell. Given that this shell is breathable enough, it may be the best way to go. Another strategy used by many backpackers relies on two shell layers: a light, windproof, and breathable wind top and a light rain jacket. This allows the wind top to be worn in cool, windy, and even light rain, whereas the more expensive jacket, is worn in the heavy rain. This garment combination can be cheaper. What’s more, the wind gear allows much better ventilation. But a nonbreathing layer (if used) will be more uncomfortable than a waterproof breathable rain jacket, and bringing two shell layers means additional weight.

Each layer has its own specific function in the classic layered clothing system. Base layers worn next to the skin are designed to wick away humidity to the outer layers, to stay dry, and to offer thermal protection in cold weather. Mid-layers focus on thermal insulation and to draw moisture away from the skin to the outer layer. Outer layers protect from the rain, snow, and wind. Combined, these three layers are designed to work together to offer overall comfort and protection. The classic layered clothing system is well adapted to outdoor activities such as hiking or backpacking where breathability has become the main performance feature. Nowadays, the focus shifts to the mid-layer which is replacing the outer layer as the most important clothing layer.

Softshells situate between mid and outer layers. They are more breathable than an outer layer (classic rain jacket), provide better wind protection and are water-repellent (to a degree), unlike fleeces. Softshell jackets usually provide warmth, flexibility, and wind resistance.

Softshells are designed for intense activities like backcountry skiing and combine ease of movement, wind protection, and water repellency. They’re also lighter than classic insulation jackets (our top-rated ultralight softshell Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody weighs just 210 g or 7.4 oz), are easily stored into a backpack and pull on when conditions get rough. Softshell jackets generally resist water penetration for 20-30 minutes – time enough to find shelter or to put on a rain jacket. A shell jacket designed for lightweight and compact protection is easy to store in a backpack and pull on when conditions get rough.

Following the trends in the last several years, it’s quite easy to identify that the outdoor market is moving to a four-layer system in very cold and extreme conditions. Then, the wearer will combine four garments: base layer, fleece, softshell, and an insulation jacket for maximum warmth and protection.

On the table below, you see the evolution stages of hiking clothing layering from the classic three-part system to the new clothing system, which includes softshell.

The Evolution of Layering

Source: Textiles in Sport*

Materials

The shift of emphasis from waterproofness to breathability first became an issue in waterproof breathable membranes when membrane manufacturers shifted the focus of their research and development on improving the breathability of their products. The arrival of solid hydrophilic, as opposed to microporous hydrophobic, membranes and coatings, made it possible to bypass the complex matter of trying to balance the porous nature of a microporous membrane with its necessary waterproofness.

Softshells jackets are made of synthetic materials (such as nylon and polyester) with an open weave that allows body heat and built-up moisture from inner layers to escape but is still tightly woven enough to repel light wind and rain. Many of these fabrics are made from microfibers – soft, supple, strong, and very comfortable. Microfibers are also windproof and water-resistant since air spaces are fewer and smaller than in other fabrics. Once you apply a coating to a fabric, however, you reduce the breathability even if it still isn’t fully waterproof.

Characteristics

Softshell jackets serve as a mid-layer and outer layer together and are more breathable with moderate wind resistance. Moreover, they could also protect from light showers and most snowfall. Manufacturers have developed durable composite stretch textiles to offer a new series of functions: breathability, thermal insulation, ease of movement, and, depending on the face fabric, abrasion, and/or water resistance.

Man with jacket in winter

Wearing a softshell jacket is popular for skiing, snowboarding, and other winter activities…

The high air permeability makes fleeces highly breathable, however, it also makes them prone to strong winds. Thus, fleece manufacturers have sought to reduce the air permeability of their products to make them better suited to outdoor activities by bonding the fleece to a woven face or to a wind-blocking membrane.

Here are some of their main pros and cons:

Advantages

  • Breathable – a softshell outperforms a hardshell, especially in high-exertion activities like climbing or backcountry skiing.
  • Warm – thanks to the fleece lining, a softshell jacket traps enough air and provides insulation to make you feel warm and cozy.
  • Wind resistant – in comparison to fleeces, most softshells can handle wind gusts fine. Some of them are actually windproof and can protect you from the wind very well. Wind-resistant and windproof shells can drastically increase your overall warmth offering just enough breathability to stay comfortable in cold weather.
  • Flexible – the shift from protection to ease of movement has introduced a new leaner and cleaner silhouette made to enhance thermal insulation and to reduce bulk to improve ease of movement and comfort. This new approach has influenced hardshell jacket design too – the new generation of hardshells promotes the leaner, fitted look typical for softshell jackets.
  • Water-resistant – they are either water-resistant or water-repellent and will keep you dry in light rain. There are also waterproof softshell jackets and in certain conditions, they can be quite useful though the whole idea behind the softshell is to be a breathable garment. Keep in mind that waterproof softshell jackets are usually heavier and less breathable than non-waterproof models.

Disadvantages

  • Not waterproof – most softshell jackets are not waterproof as they are not made with waterproof breathable membrane and do not have taped seams to stop water entering in at the stitched areas. Anyway, waterproofness is rarely necessary, though it can be crucial on long backpacking trips and/or when hiking in wet areas/regions.
  • Have less airflow than a fleece – both the woven face and the wind-blocking membrane reduce the airflow passing through the fleece fabric making the softshell less breathable than an ordinary/regular fleece.
  • Dry more slowly than a fleece – the additional coating slows down the drying time of a softshell.
  • Heavier – they are relatively heavy and not as packable as thin fleeces. As a result, they dry fairly slow which makes softshell jackets unsuitable for long trips where you might need to dry your clothes overnight.
  • Expensive – this is one of the most typical characteristics of softshell jackets (the Arc’teryx Gamma MX Hoody costs in the excess of $300) and probably the number one disadvantage most backpackers point out when asked about softshells’ pros and cons.

Softshell jacket design

The technology associated with the design, cutting, and manufacture of performance clothing such as a softshell is highly complex. Typical functional details include arm lift and articulated elbow construction. Additionally, sophisticated hoods concealed in collars, intricate closures and many other features relevant to movement and body protection are developed through experience and experimentation. Specialist studies are carried out by the military and by commercial concerns, but this data is not readily accessible in the public domain so the development of garment blocks for performance sportswear has been through trial and error or from adaptations of existing garments.

The usual requirement for an outer shell is to be lightweight and packable for easy storage, especially for summer hiking. Additional features include but are not limited to adequate map-sized chest pockets, zip guards, slim fit, drawstring waistband with cord lock, Velcro adjustable cuffs, adjustable hood, high stand-up collar and temperature regulating zip vent under arms for ventilation.

Typical waterproof softshell jacket in grey color

Left to the right: Softshell Jacket – front view, Softshell Jacket – from the inside (lining details)

Hood
The hood, in particular, is important as it can be pulled up to provide warmth and ward off the wind or light showers without needing to break stride. However, not all softshell jackets come with a hood. If the sole purpose of your softshell will be to act as a mid-layer underneath a waterproof breathable jacket, a softshell without a hood may be a better option. However, if you intend to wear your softshell jacket as an outer layer, an adjustable hood is a useful feature intended to add flexibility as conditions change throughout the day. A hooded softshell will help you stay warm and dry in light rain as well as in windy conditions. There are also technical softshells with helmet-compatible hoods such as our choice for best technical features – the Helly Hansen Odin Mountain Softshell. These are great for those who need to accommodate a climbing helmet.

Internal and external pockets
Most softshell jackets have plenty of pockets and the majority of them come with a zippered closure to securely store your personal belongings. For example, pockets are useful for fitting small items such as maps, gloves, money, etc. Some softshell jackets will have pockets on the back of the jacket. These are particularly handy for storing small items such as your lighting in case you decide to give night hiking a shot.

Underarm vents
Zip vent under arm provides enough airflow for better ventilation as it lets perspiration out as well as lets air in to help dry the skin. This way, you can easily adjust the airflow to carry away some of the moisture.

Inner fabrics
Many softshell jackets have fleece linings for better thermal insulation and warmth. For more info about fleece and its features, you can read our blog post dedicated to fleece and fleece jackets.

Stretchy fabric
Softshells can be great for active pursuits due to the comfortable and stretchy fabric which does not restrict movement and improves breathability, mobility, and fit. Especially useful are elastic-bound sleeve cuffs as they won’t let cold air in.

Softshell categories: casual/day hiking vs multi-day hiking

Softshell jackets are meant to protect you from wind, rain, and cold “most of the time”. It means that this concept is good for city wear and also for day hikes. But when going on multi-day hikes, you need something that will give you full protection from the cold, heavy rain and wind. Unfortunately, softshells offer this just for the first half an hour. A second strike against softshell jackets for long trips is their weight, which makes them suitable for both city walks and for day hiking but not for layering and long hikes. As they are close-fitting to trap warm air efficiently, the cut doesn’t suit for a warm coat underneath. Moreover, most softshell jackets are just water-resistant or lightly waterproof (such as the Outdoor Research Ferrosi) so a softshell jacket is no substitute for a rain jacket (though there are exceptions such as the Rab Kinetic Plus, for example). Keep in mind that there’s a tradeoff between waterproofness and breathability so a waterproof softshell jacket is usually heavier than a water-resistant shell (sometimes it’s even heavier than a combination of fleece and rain jacket).

Man with green softshell jacket in town

And no less popular for walks around town

The human body must be kept within a narrow temperature range, outside of which well-being suffers. Exclusion of rain or water is especially important because water can conduct away body heat much faster than air can. On multi-day hikes, you need to stay as dry as possible because often you don’t have easy access to shelter. In this case, an effective layered clothing system with a good rain jacket is going to be much more effective because using separate layers has several advantages over softshells. Firstly, they provide fuller protection and more flexibility. Secondly, they’re more compact than a softshell. And finally, they can be lighter.

Softshell vs hardshell jacket

It can be very difficult to orient yourself in the overwhelming variety of softshells and hardshells available on the market. In this section, we will compare these two types of shells to help you differentiate between a softshell and a hardshell jacket.

Hardshell jacket

Hardshell jacketA hardshell is what you need when backpacking in the rain. It is an outermost layer expected to provide excellent weather protection. Since hardshells are designed to keep you dry in bad weather (for this reason they are also known as rain jackets), they are waterproof, windproof, and most of them have decent to very good breathability. Keep in mind that they are usually engineered to meet specific performance needs so there can be huge differences between the features and characteristics of two different hardshell jackets. As a rule, cheaper models are less breathable while the more expensive hardshell jackets are better ventilated (though it may not be enough to keep you dry during intensive outdoor activities like skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, and backpacking). You can learn more about this topic in our comprehensive guide to waterproof breathable clothes.

Rain jackets are usually used in changing weather as well as in cool-to-cold conditions. Safety is a primary concern in the backcountry so keep your hardshell handy just in case.

Softshell jacket

Compared to hardshells, softshells are much more breathable, but also less water- and wind-resistant. Moreover, softshell jackets are flexible (our top-rated Arc’teryx Gamma LT Hoody is a great example) and well suited for any conditions except for the most extreme weather. They are warmer, stretchy, and are more comfortable next to the skin thanks to the fleece lining.

Softshell jackets are usually worn in better weather and can be used either as a mid-layer covered by a more water-resistant hardshell in bad weather or as an outer layer.

Manufacturers

Softshell clothing and especially jackets are becoming more popular in recent years because they offer functionality, flexibility, and comfort. At the same time, softshell jackets are built to fit, work well with layers, and can keep you warm, dry, and active. The stylish look of many softshells, as well as the comfort-enhancing features, makes them also pretty good for city wear.

The major players in the softshell jacket industry are big manufacturers such as VF Corporation (Dickies, The North Face), the Columbia Sportswear Company (Columbia, Mountain Hardwear), Russell Brands, LLC (Russell), Sports Direct International plc (Karrimor), Jarden (Marmot), Amer Sports Oyj (Arc’teryx). It’s interesting that no matter the brand, most garments are made predominantly in Asia and especially in China (often by Chinese manufacturers under contract for producing a certain model(s), collection(s), etc.), where there’s a boom in the technical clothing manufacture.

Conclusion

Comfort in all its forms is important especially on the trail where, in certain cases, it can be vital for survival. Hiking clothing should be as lightweight as possible in addition to not restricting body movements. Hiking outfit should exclude wind and especially rain as well. It should be hard-wearing, easily maintained, and quick drying. Fabric construction, aesthetics, design, functionality, and fitting are all extremely important for a quality, comfortable and high-performance garment. Nevertheless, keep in mind that fabric performance can be lost by frequent washing.

Nowadays, we can add a fourth layer to the classic layered clothing system – the so-called softshell designed for multifunctionality and high-intensity activity. Made from synthetics such as polyester and nylon, softshell jackets are flexible, breathe reasonably well, and are usually hooded to insulate well from the wind and to protect from light rain. These characteristics make the softshell jacket an ideal outer layer for city walks as well as day hiking and high-intensity winter pursuits. However, no single garment is ideal for all backpackers or all conditions. The disadvantages of the softshell jacket make it less suitable for multi-day trips. In such cases, you need constant and better protection from the elements – a waterproof breathable outer layer, which will help you stay dry even in heavy rain.

We hope that you enjoyed reading this guide to (the best) softshell jackets and it will help you find the right softshell jacket for your outings. Oh, and if you have any suggestions, comments, remarks or questions, drop us a line in the comments section below.

 

* In R. Shishoo (Ed.), Textiles in Sport, 2005, Woodhead Publishing Limited, p.34

 

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Ultimate Guide to Hiking Clothing

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Layering for Hiking Explained

Properties of Cold Weather Apparel

Fleece and Fleece Jackets

Insulated Jackets Basics

Best Zip-Off Hiking Pants

 

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