For 10 years, we've tested the best softshell jackets, putting over 60 unique models head-to-head. We highlight the top 9 in this 2021 review to help you zero in on that perfect balance of weather resistance and breathability. Softshells are highly breathable and mobile while still protecting you and your layers from the elements. Not as waterproof as a true rain jacket, softshell jackets are much better suited for athletic activities like hiking, climbing, biking, and even running. We tallied up our scores over many months and weather conditions and now offer a seriously in-depth and honest review.Related: Best Softshell Jackets for Women of 2021
Best Softshell Jackets for Men of 2021
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|Pros||Durable fabric, great fit, all-around usefulness||Great mobility, highly breathable, well-fitted||Inexpensive, great breathability, stretchy||Incredibly light, very mobile||Trim fit, abrasion resistant material, harness and helmet friendly|
|Cons||Limited water resistance, fitted cuffs||Only one hood adjustment, average weight||Limited weather protection||Limited weather protection, few features||Not as wet weather resistant, UK zippers can be awkward to use|
|Bottom Line||This is a great medium weight softshell jacket that will hold up to rugged use thanks to its durable fabric||This stretchy and mobile jacket is great for climbing and skiing thanks to its above-average breathability||For summertime rock climbing where cool winds and rough surfaces are expected||This is one of the lightest softshells out there, perfect for cool windy days at the crag||The Torque has a well thought out design that appeals to both summer and winter climbers and mountaineers|
|Rating Categories||Arc'teryx Gamma LT...||Marmot ROM 2.0||Outdoor Research Fe...||Rab Borealis||Rab Torque|
|Weather Protection (30%)|
|Specs||Arc'teryx Gamma LT...||Marmot ROM 2.0||Outdoor Research Fe...||Rab Borealis||Rab Torque|
|Measured Weight (size medium)||17 oz||17.1 oz||13 oz||10.5 oz||16.5 oz|
|Material||Wee Burly (56% nylon, 34% polyester, 10% elastane)||92% nylon, 8% elastane||Body/hood: 86% nylon, 14% spandex 90D stretch woven ripstop
Shoulders/lower sleeves: Cordura 91% nylon, 9% spandex 120D stretch woven
|Lightweight Matrix single weave with 2-way stretch and DWR||Ripstop Matrix stretch double weave|
|Hood?||Yes, helmet compatible, adjustable StormHood||Yes||Yes, adjustable||Yes, under helmet with lycra binding||Yes, helmet compatible with concealed cordlocks|
|Number of Pockets (zippered unless otherwise noted)||3 (2 handwarmer, 1 internal)||2 zippered hand, 1 zippered chest, 1 zippered||3 (2 handwarmer, 1 chest)||2 (external chest)||2 (external chest)|
|Adjustable Cuffs?||Stretch cuffs||Yes, Velcro||Elastic cuffs||Lycra cuffs||Yes, Velcro|
|Available Sizes||XS - XXL||S - XXL||S - XXL||S - XXL||S - XXL|
Best Overall Softshell Jacket
Arc'teryx Gamma LT Hoody
The Arc'teryx Gamma LT remains a top-performer in this category, and we heartily recommend it with our highest accolades. This jacket is everything you want in a piece of clothing meant for activity in the mountains while also being stylish enough to use in casual settings. It fits well thanks to expertly tailored panels, moves with your body during the most aerobic activity, and breathes well thanks to an unlined, wicking softshell fabric.
Arc'teryx garments are known for being expertly crafted, and the Gamma LT is no exception. Certain features, such as adjustable wrist cuffs, would make it even better, but we still recommend it as one of the best softshells you can buy.
Read review: Arc'teryx Gamma LT Hoody
Best Bang for the Buck
Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded
The Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded Jacket is a really great deal. This softshell jacket is lightweight enough to be perfect for cycling, rock climbing, and hiking but still durable enough to provide protection and abrasion resistance from the terrain and environment. With a helmet-compatible hood and an ample cut, this jacket also allows for layering underneath, which many other lightweight class options don't allow for.
While not the most weatherproof, the Ferrosi provides excellent 3 season protection from light precipitation and winds, making it a good choice for backpacking, alpine climbing, and mountain biking. A staple of the softshell category, this is one of the best deals that you can find.
Read review: Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded
Best for Climbing
Marmot ROM 2.0
The Marmot ROM 2.0 is one of our testers' favorite jackets for athletic climbing and skiing pursuits. This is a well-tailored piece that allows for base layers to be worn underneath, but it is still trim enough to be considered an athletic fit. Using a newer Gore-Tex Infinium Windstopper fabric that effectively sheds light precipitation and blocks wind, this updated jacket also breathes incredibly well, making it a great option for breaking trail at a quick pace.
The ROM 2.0 sports a single adjustment hood, wrist cuffs, and plenty of pockets to hold bars or extra gloves — or just to open up and dump some heat. Despite a slightly tight hood, it did so well during our testing period that we found it to be one of the best options for climbers.
Read review: Marmot ROM 2.0
Best for Ultralight Adventures
Mountain Hardwear Kor Preshell Hoody
The Mountain Hardwear Kor Preshell Hoody is the best choice for a person looking to cut every extraneous gram of weight from their clothing system. Weighing a mere fraction of some of the other so-called lightweight models, this jacket also packs down to the size of an apple, making it incredibly versatile for those who want to be prepared but don't plan on wearing it all the time. For wind and light precipitation protection while trail-running, cycling, or hiking, this is our favorite layer to throw in the pack.
The weight savings does come with a bit of a penalty in terms of weather resistance and durability, but for the ultralight connoisseur who values breathability and some light protection from the elements, this jacket is hard to beat.
Read review: Mountain Hardwear Kor Preshell Hoody
Why You Should Trust Us
Full-time mountain guide and OutdoorGearLab Review Editor Ryan Huetter is the mastermind behind this review. After earning a degree in Outdoor Adventure Management from Western Washington University, Ryan relocated from the Pacific Northwest to California's Sierra Nevada. He is an internationally licensed IFMGA mountain guide and has achieved many climbing ascents all over the world, including over 20 big wall routes in Yosemite and Fitz Roy in Patagonia. Softshell jackets are one of many pieces of gear that are a part of Ryan's daily life, whether he's spring skiing or needs a versatile layer for a climb.
Seeking the absolute best in available softshells starts with research into the market. Many offerings were up for consideration after our first pass, which we subsequently narrowed to the strongest 9 models discussed here. Each round, we test for at least two months around OGL home territory in the Sierra on various outings ranging from bike rides to climbs. We are able to evaluate all aspects of these jackets via extensive field testing, though we also supplement our real-world weather protection testing with a hose, to fully push these jackets to the limit. Overall, we're pleased to present this study, and we think you will find it a comprehensive guide to finding the best softshell for your needs.
Related: How We Tested Softshell Jackets
Analysis and Test Results
Our testers wear these softshell jackets in almost every conceivable weather condition throughout the year. We then correlate our real-world results with a set of predetermined metrics to analyze each jacket's performance and compile data to compare one model to another.
Related: Buying Advice for Softshell Jackets
Each softshell jacket's functionality falls somewhere between the extremes of a waterproof/windproof layer and a fully breathable layer. You pay more for a model closer to the waterproof end of the spectrum than the breathable end.
If you do need good weather protection, the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol (skiing emphasis) or Marmot ROM 2.0 (climbing emphasis) are good options. Less expensive, yet scoring better than most due to its overall usefulness, is the Outdoor Research Ferrosi. This one does well in the wind, but you'll have to step up to one of the higher-priced options for better water resistance. The Rab Borealis is another excellent choice if you need something light and stretchy without breaking the bank.
Weather protection is the most important attribute of an outer layer, and so we give the most weight to scoring this metric. We evaluate a jacket's resistance to weather by utilizing it in harsh weather environments to see how it performs in the real world. Taking each one out into inclement weather allows us to see how effective it is and the duration it can resist rain, snow, and wind before becoming saturated. We also use more objective tests such as a shower test to account for water permeability and a fan test to simulate standing on an alpine peak while an icy north wind rakes over the ridge.
Over the years, we've tested weather resistance in a myriad of conditions, from mountaineering in Alaska to ice and alpine climbing in Maine and New Hampshire. In our most recent update, we wore our test jackets in the high alpine during late-season conditions, climbing rock and ice routes in the High Sierra, and skiing through winter conditions.
For those seeking a jacket for above-treeline adventures, we strongly recommend a hood. While some of the jackets we reviewed are excellent choices for aerobic activities during fair weather where a hood might be cumbersome or unneeded, these hoodless models do not inspire confidence in inclement conditions.
While some hybrid softshells employ taped seams and waterproof membranes, these jackets tend to be very specialized and expensive. In this year's review, we mostly feature jackets that use typical, DWR-treated stretch softshell materials. The most weatherproof model, the Arcteryx Gamma MX, is suited for nasty alpine conditions. For something less water-impervious but still impressively protective, the top-scoring Arc'teryx Gamma LT and Marmot ROM 2.0 are both excellent options.
Breathability is the most important attribute of a softshell jacket. We choose these layers specifically because they breathe better than their hardshell counterparts. We place a slightly greater emphasis on their ability to transmit moisture (perspiration) through their exterior fabric over their ability to shed moisture (precipitation from the sky) based on the conditions we are confronting. While a hardshell layer will come close to blocking all precipitation, they also keep the body from getting rid of sweat, which in some cases can be up to 2 liters per hour! Vigorous activity in a hardshell jacket is surely going to leave you feeling damp and clammy. The Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded and Rab Borealis jackets were two of our favorites when it came to blending overall performance with breathability. The most breathable jacket, the crazy-light Mountain Hardwear Kor Preshell is exceptional in this metric but is less versatile overall.
Staying dry is also one of the biggest keys to staying comfortable and warm in cold climates since water transmits heat much faster than air. This fact is of critical importance in cold climates. You might be surprised that most cases of hypothermia occur in temperatures above freezing. When temperatures are lower, water freezes, and it becomes harder for us to get wet and subsequently chilled. One great way to get chilled in the snow, however, is to get soaked in sweat by wearing too many clothes or clothes that aren't breathable enough. Once your cardio output declines, you will chill rapidly.
As you increase your output (i.e., your level of aerobic activity), having an outer layer that can breathe well becomes more and more necessary. For example, cross-country skiing and backcountry ski touring demand highly breathable jackets, but activities like moderate hiking and downhill skiing do not. Many softshell jackets now are so light and breathable that they can also be considered wind shirts or wind jackets. A great example of this crossover appeal is the Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody, as well as the Mountain Hardwear Kor Preshell. Breathability is primarily determined by the presence or absence of a laminated membrane and/or a fleece liner. Both of these things decrease breathability compared to jackets that don't have layers or liners. Additionally, the thickness and weave of the fabric influence breathability; thin, loose-knit fabrics are the most breathable, and thicker fleece insulated jackets are less breathable. Models like the Arc'teryx Gamma MX feature an additional fleece backing that improves the inherent warmth when sedentary in cooler temperatures — but it doesn't improve ventilation.
After every outing, we gathered breathability feedback from each tester. These scores are largely subjective and reflect our testers' personal opinions about the level of breathability of each jacket. We found the Ferrosi to be one of the most breathable jackets in our review. It also, no surprise, earns a really low weather resistance score — this tends to be the tradeoff. The Kor Preshell is the same — its ultralight profile makes for exceptional breathability, but it's not the jacket you want to be caught wearing in a storm. However, the ROM 2.0 and Gamma LT balance the two demands better. They both earn admirable breathability scores while still providing decent protection from wind and falling snow.
The right shell for you largely depends on the amount of sweat you generate when playing in the mountains. Our bodies vary, which means that some of us need more breathable jackets than others. A person that sweats more may feel stifled faster than someone who naturally stays dry, so keep that in mind when narrowing down your choice. We can provide insight, but your personal ecosystem will play a significant role in the type of layers you ultimately prefer. If you sweat a lot or frequently engage in highly aerobic activities, you'll love the excellent breathability of a jacket like the Kor Preshell, OR Ferrosi, or Rab Torque.
If you love the feeling of being restricted by a starchy, rented tuxedo, then perhaps you should disregard our feelings on mobility. But most folks, whether they are at the cutting-edge of mountain athletics or just want to get out for an afternoon stroll, want to have the freedom of movement provided by synthetic softshell fabrics. These materials are stretch woven, meaning that they have, on average, between 5% and 15% elastic fiber spun into the nylon. This makes them highly mobile, a very important and necessary attribute when you are reaching for the next climbing hold, pedaling your heart out up the local singletrack, or running the trails.
Our mobility metric assesses each product's overall comfort during aerobic activities. We take into consideration whether it rides up when lifting the arms, if the shoulders allow for full rotation, and whether you can layer underneath without feeling restricted. During our testing, we not only studied the design of each product's arms and shoulders but also how they performed during all our day-to-day outdoor activities.
Some of our tested jackets are mobile enough in the body for activities like skiing, but when out ice climbing, they would either pull out of a harness when reaching up, or the cuff would fall out from under gloves, exposing the wrists to the cold and snow. Longer wrists and underarm gussets are both designed to help counter this problem. Another factor that has a significant influence on mobility is stretch. Stretch allows a model to fit snugly without impairing movement. Another benefit to stretch materials is that they are less noisy than windproof fabrics. We appreciate a trim, athletic fit for our jackets, allowing for a single fleece base layer. The exception may be found in finding a softshell jacket for backcountry skiing or resort skiing. In the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol, we liked the roomier fit that allowed for more layers and especially longer coverage below the waist.
Overall, the OR Ferrosi is the most mobile contender in our review. It is the only model that allows full mobility without the cuffs falling or hem rising. Surprisingly, it even beat out models made with stretchier materials, likely due to the more generous cut that also allows for layering underneath with a fleece base layer.
Weight and packed size can be essential attributes, especially on long trips or anytime you have to put a jacket in your pack. That said, we don't place as much of an emphasis on the weight of these products as we do on many other types of outdoor gear. The reason for this is that this style of jacket is specifically designed to be breathable enough to be worn all day without having to throw it into a pack.
Niche models such as the Kor Preshell astonished reviewers as the first sub-5 ounce softshell jacket to be featured in our review. This makes it less than half the weight of the next lightest softshell (the 10.5-ounce Rab Borealis), though that weight saving does come with a durability penalty. The lightweight but capable Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody might be a better choice for the lightweight enthusiast who doesn't want a paper-thin shell. We found our favorite models such as the Arcteryx Gamma LT and the Marmot ROM 2.0** to hover around the 17oz mark, which resulted in a perfect blend of weight and performance in both models.
It could be argued that when you are wearing a jacket, you do not notice its weight as much — and there is truth to this. Still, weight does factor into a jacket's overall performance in that the heavier it is, the less mobile it is likely to be, and the bulkier the material is. Heavyweight softshell fabrics do not breathe as well given the thicker material and inclusion of a fleece backing. All of these softshells have their place, though — heavier shells are ideal in cold winter months or slower activities, and lightweight models are best for spring through fall and during aerobic activity. The heaviest jacket in our review, the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol weighs 21.4oz, but also gives much more coverage than an extremely trim fitting model.
Versatility describes the utility that a jacket has over a range of different applications. Here we assess the quality and quantity of each jacket's features as they contribute to its specific end-use. We look at the design of handwarmer pockets, chest pockets, zippers, zipper pulls, pit zips, interior pockets, hoods, thumb loops, and adjustment cords. Well-designed features are critical for overall comfort, ease of use, and storage. Whether you're hoping to stash an entire day's worth of energy bars into your chest pocket or tote around your wallet and keys, great features can make your life easier. To rate each product in this metric, we included the feedback from the dozen or so people that contributed to testing.
Hoods are one of our favorite things, especially on softshells. If you're strolling about in the hills and it starts to snow, you are going to need something on your head to keep you from getting soaked. If you don't have a hood on your softshell, you're going to need some other layer to cover your head, be it an insulated jacket, rain jacket, or helmet.
Hoodless softshells are less versatile but still work well in many instances. If you are carrying a rain jacket (which will have a hood) to put on over your softshell, you might be entirely comfortable without a hood. For cross-country skiing, we rarely put on a hood and instead prefer a toque or balaclava. Finally, if you're only cruising around town, hoodless models can often be more stylish.
Pocket design is also essential. For climbing and backpacking, Napolean-style chest pockets like on the Torque are best since they won't get in the way of your harness or hip belt. Meanwhile, handwarmer pockets are best for around town and general use. Fleece-lined pockets can add extra comfort and coziness but can also add unnecessary weight and warmth. All of the pockets in this review have zippered closures; without this, snow and water can enter the pocket and make you wet. If you plan on using your jacket with big gloves on, you'll want to look for big zipper pulls that can be easily manipulated.
In another vein, we feel that it's important that you look good in a jacket you spend a lot of money on, especially one that also works well around town. Because of this, we leveraged our testers' perception of aesthetic appeal as part of the versatility score. In our opinion, simple exteriors look better than complex multi-color patterns. For around town, our testers prefer basic, handsome jackets like the Gamma MX or Gamma LT. It's also important here to consider the fit of your jacket. Often you will pay more for expert tailoring, but it really can make all the difference when it comes to fit, both for technical AND aesthetic reasons.
Best for Specific Applications
Cross-country skiing: Arc'teryx Gamma LT
Backcountry skiing: Black Diamond Dawn Patrol
Rock climbing: Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded
Most versatile: Arc'teryx Gamma LT
Softshell jackets are an incredibly useful piece of outdoor clothing. They do many things that hardshell jackets do, like block wind and precipitation, but they emphasize breathability — something the materials used in a hardshell cannot offer. Softshells allow you to be protected from the elements and recreate at a faster tempo, move freely with stretchier materials, and stay warmer because perspiration doesn't get trapped inside next to the skin. What was once considered a niche outdoor product is now one of the best and most versatile layers you can choose for outdoor activity, and we hope that this review has given you all the information you will need to select your next great softshell jacket.
— Ryan Huetter
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