Are you in the market for a new jacket? If so, we should talk about the merits of adding a softshell to your wardrobe. These jackets are a fantastic blend of weather protection, breathability, and mobility. It's thanks to this that their use has grown so much in popularity over recent years — they have become one of the most versatile layers for a myriad of different conditions.
Why not just wear a regular rain shell, you might ask? Well, for starters, it seems like the price of the average waterproof jacket is just continuing to soar, and the price of softshells is much more affordable. Rain jackets, or hardshells, as we will refer to them, are fully waterproof and offer top-tier weather protection when it's wet out. But softshells are often just as good at protecting from the wind and snow. They do a far superior job of allowing you to sweat and not get cold and clammy inside, and they feel far more mobile with their stretchy fabric versus the less comfortable fabric usually found in the hardshell variety.
Softshell jackets may have been a niche item in the past, but the materials have gotten lighter and more effective at blocking wind and rain while continuing to improve on flexibility and mobility. It is hard to find a closet in a mountain town that doesn't have at least one, proving their usefulness in the conditions that most of us want to go out and recreate in. Without a doubt, you will still need a rain jacket for when the skies really open up, and an insulated jacket for when the temperatures drop and you need to trap some heat, but for most of us, a softshell jacket gives us all the weather protection that we need while still allowing moisture to wick through and keep our bodies warm and dry.
For more holistic advice about how to layer for outdoor activities, check out our How to Layer Clothing to Keep Warm article.
Softshell Jackets vs. Other Outwear
Because these jackets come in a variety of styles and have multiple uses, they should be compared with several other types of outdoor clothing.
Hardshells & Rain Jackets
- Hardshells and rain jackets are waterproof. Softshells are not.
- Softshells are far more breathable and more comfortable than hard shell and rain jackets.
- Hardshells and rain jackets are almost always windproof; softshells are only sometimes windproof.
- Hardshells and rain jackets provide more weather protection for less weight.
Very few of the jackets we reviewed here can be called waterproof. Most softshell jackets are water-resistant thanks to their weave and treatments applied to the fabric.
- Both wind jackets and softshells range from wind-resistant to windproof.
- Wind jackets are usually a fraction of the weight of a typical softshell.
- Softshells are often more breathable, more comfortable, and more durable than wind jackets.
While most of the softshells we have reviewed are wind resistant, the best example of a wind jacket hybrid is the Black Diamond Alpine Start, an extremely lightweight shell that weighs a mere 7.4 ounces. Fully windproof softshells tend to weigh considerably more but lose breathability in the process.
- Fleece material is not waterproof. It will get wet in poor weather, though it will still retain some insulating value, unlike cotton materials.
- Fleece jackets are not very wind resistant unless they are one of the hard-faced versions.
- On calm days, when wind protection is not required, fleece will provide more insulation than a softshell.
- Combining a fleece and a lighter weight wind shirt may be a substitute for a softshell depending on the situation, but will not be as breathable.
Many softshell jackets do have a light fleece backing, such as the Arc'teryx Gamma MX. This backing does add weight and bulk, making them less breathable, but the benefit is that they are warmer and more comfortable against the skin when worn without a base layer.
- Insulated layers can be made with either synthetic fibers or down feathers.
- Both softshells and insulated jackets range from windproof to wind resistant.
- Both provide limited water resistance via a DWR water repellent treatment, though they will lose much of their insulating value when wet.
- Insulated jackets are warmer and typically lighter/more packable than a softshell.
- The most breathable insulated jackets breathe as well as a softshell.
- Insulated jackets aren't as durable and don't stretch as much.
Few softshell jackets include an insulated inner layer that is anything more than fleece. The goal of the softshell is to be more active and more breathable. Because of this, layering a separate down jacket on top of a softshell is more common.
The Need for Softshell Jackets
The term "waterproof/breathable" gets thrown around a lot by outdoor apparel manufacturers and is ultimately trying to describe a product that can both repel water AND allow perspiration to pass through. This feat of engineering would be a whole lot more impressive if it were true. The unfortunate reality is that you have to make a choice between the two. Fully waterproof means diminished breathability, even in the most advanced fabrics available today. The wetter the exterior of the fabric, the more its "pores" become clogged, making it harder for perspiration to pass through. This is why softshell jackets have become so popular — they offer adequate protection from many weather elements while using a woven fabric that allows for much more airflow leading to enhanced breathability.
The Action Suit: How to Layer with a Softshell Jacket
A softshell jacket's usefulness diminishes as you attempt to stuff a lot of extra layers underneath it, as the more insulation you have, the more your body heat will be trapped by those layers. We find that wearing a softshell on top of a light or midweight base layer is the best combination during activity in cold weather. The less material you have under the softshell, the more capable it is of breathing. Once you stop, it is important to quickly put on an insulated jacket to trap your body heat as the need for breathability is no longer critical.
Softshells can also be paired with a hardshell or rain jacket in inclement weather. Different softshells offer differing levels of weather protection, and none are fully waterproof. If there's a chance of precipitation, be sure to bring an impermeable layer to wear over your softshell. Finally, remember that softshells function the best when they're relatively close to your skin. A lightweight fleece such as the Patagonia R1 Hoody is an ideal layer to wear under a softshell in cold (< 30F) conditions when you're moving quickly.
What Defines a Softshell
Every year, garment manufacturers come out with new materials and market them with zippy new buzzwords, both of which can make it somewhat difficult to define what a softshell jacket is. For the most part, we define them as garments that are weather-resistant rather than weather-proof, highly breathable, mobile, and usually provide some stretch. In this section, we walk through the different types of softshells on the market. Keep in mind, however, that these categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, a jacket can be membrane lined and stretch woven. The type of material that the outer shell is comprised of will generally include a blend of nylon, polyester, and elastic fibers, and may be licensed from a third party such as Polartec or Gore, though increasingly clothing makers are developing their own proprietary fabrics such as Matrix, Wee Burly, Fortius 2.0 or TerraTex. Rest assured, we list a jacket's source fibers and their percentages in the material section of the chart on our main review page.
The term stretch woven refers to an outer layer that is a blend of more static fibers (typically nylon and polyester) that is then interwoven with between 5% and 15% stretchy elastic fibers. This allows the shell material to stretch in response to movement, with some providing up to 4-way stretch! This is in stark contrast to most rain jackets that have far less range of motion.
DWR Treatment and Water Resistance
In addition to being comprised of some blend of synthetic fibers with stretchy materials, manufacturers may choose to further enhance the weather-proofness of their product by coating the exterior of the shell fabric with a DWR (durable water resistance) treatment that helps to bead water off. DWR treatments have their limits even when brand new, and fall quite short of a true hardshell jacket when it comes to a heavy downpour. They also break down with time and washing and require the use of products like Nikwax to revive their effectiveness after seasons of use.
Many softshells on the market feature a membrane laminated to the inside of the nylon face fabric to provide wind resistance and some water protection after the DWR treatment fails. These garments do a great job of blocking the elements at the cost of reduced breathability (wind can't transport moisture away as easily as it does with more air-permeable, stretch-woven jackets). There are many different kinds of membranes, some of which are air-permeable (Polartec Power Shield Pro) and some of which are not (Gore Windstopper).
The less air-permeable the membrane is, the more the jacket relies on water vapor having to force its way through thanks to the humidity gradient between the inside and outside of the shell. This process of breathability is much less efficient than that found in air-permeable garments. If the face fabric wets out, it is significantly more difficult for the vapor to penetrate the soaked fabric, and the breathable characteristics of the membrane are substantially reduced.
Some jackets feature materials that blend the weather-proofness of a hardshell jacket with the stretch and mobility of a softshell. The Marmot ROM 2.0 is an example of this. Others place more water-resistant panels around the head, shoulders, and upper arms, where the jacket is most vulnerable to getting soaked through.
Fleece Insulated vs. Non-Insulated
Some of the jackets we tested feature a fleece backing behind the stretch woven outer material. This can aid in comfort against the skin and add some warmth, especially if the jacket is worn over a t-shirt. We tend to prefer an uninsulated model, as those do not trap perspiration within the fleece backing, breathe better, and give the user a bit more latitude in choosing what base layers to wear based on conditions and aerobic output.
Membrane or fleece-lined and insulated softshell jackets do a much better job at keeping you warm and dry when the weather really starts getting bad, but they do so at the cost of weight, mobility, and breathability. These jackets offer a more substantial barrier to the elements but become limited in their usefulness outside of cold and inhospitable conditions. Lighter weight models can still do a good job in this regard and have the added benefit of being able to be worn over thin baselayers in warmer weather, while the thicker models do not. We tend to recommend heavy-duty, lined jackets for more demanding weather conditions and lower-output activity.
The features we look for are good wrist closures, adjustable hems, well-designed pockets, a helmet-compatible hood, and a fit that allows for excellent mobility. For lightweight softshells, we like elastic wrist cuffs that are minimal and can be pulled up to our elbows if needed. If you plan on wearing gloves while skiing or climbing in cold weather, especially large gauntlet style gloves, then having large cuff openings with glove-friendly Velcro tabs will be more important. Hoods are an important consideration, too. Skiers and climbers will want a helmet-compatible hood, while those who don't practice those sports can forgo some weight and bulk by choosing a coat with a more fitted hood or no hood at all.
The best jacket on the market won't do you much good if it fits poorly. Climbers, trail runners, and cyclists want a shell that is fitted, does not have too much extra material flapping around, and allows for a midweight base layer to be worn underneath but not much more. Skiers and backpackers may want a bit more room for layering underneath as well as to offer more protection past the waistline. Some models may not run true-to-size, so might require upsizing or downsizing to get that Goldilocks fit…just right.
Softshell jackets are perfect for many conditions and do a great job at repelling wind and light rain while allowing freedom of movement that most other shells do not. Be sure to read our full review to see how the jackets we tested fared against one another.
Softshell jackets are a beautiful combination of weather resistance, breathability, and mobility. Despite having all these attributes, there is still a huge spectrum out there for you to choose from. Whether you plan on using yours for trail running and mountain biking and favor a lightweight wind-resistant material, or you are more of a hardcore alpinist and want something to shed the snow while letting you work hard on the difficult pitches, there is a softshell out there for you. Many of us have a closet full of them for all the intended applications they might be useful for. We hope that this article has educated you on all the nuances of this unique piece of outdoor apparel and that it helps you choose the right jacket for the adventures you have planned.