Updated November 2017
Softshell jackets have exploded in popularity in recent years, with well-known outdoor clothing manufacturers now making many different models to choose from. We've included 11 models this year, and the majority are new to our fleet. The Arc'teryx Psiphon FL is the winner of our coveted Editors' Choice Award, while the Rab Torque takes the cake as our Top Pick for Climbing. Remaining the most wallet-friendly for the second year in a row, the Outdoor Research Ferrosi rings in at a refreshing $99.
Arc'teryx Psiphon FL Hoody
Mobile, stretchy fabric
Excellent all-weather shield
Quality, detailed construction
Pricier than others
We awarded the Editors' Choice Award this year to a jacket that we just couldn't seem to put back on the hanger. The Arcteryx Psiphon FL
is a high-quality garment; a versatile outer layer, it provides excellent performance in all four seasons. It is also the second lightest jacket in our review, and it offers unparalleled weather protection. One of the best fitting jackets we tested, it has a tailored fit and is both fashionable and highly functional. Part of the Arcteryx Fast & Light line, the Psiphon FL is a perfect piece for adventurers who value top-notch performance combined with light weight.
Read review: Arcteryx Psiphon FL
Best Bang for the Buck
Outdoor Research Ferrosi
Breathes very well
Does not restrict movement
Hand pockets not accessible when wearing harness
Below-average wet weather protection
The Outdoor Research Ferrosi Jacket
has long been a favorite jacket of active recreationalists. The Ferrosi is best for those that favor an outer layer that allows them to move unrestricted, with little bulk, while providing adequate protection from the elements. The Ferrosi Hoody has won this review in previous years, and this year we included its hood-less counterpart, the Ferrosi Jacket. This was our lead reviewer's most worn jacket when mountain biking, cross-country skiing, and trail running. The light fabric keeps the wind and light drizzle at bay, and the thumb loops keep the cuffs from exposing the arms. At $99, this is not only one of the least expensive jackets we tested, but it is also a top performer.
Read review: Outdoor Research Ferrosi
Top Pick Award for Climbing
Combines exceptional breathability with water resistance
Abrasion resistant patches
Harness-friendly Napolean pocket layout
Specialized for alpine use
The Rab Torque
is an ideal all-around softshell jacket that is best suited to activities like rock and alpine climbing where durability, as well as weather protection, is of value. With a unique abrasion resistant fabric (called Matrix SWS) located on the hood and elbows, prime areas of wear for the scrappy summer or wintertime climber, and lighter weight Matrix DWS material used for the rest of the body, Rab has designed this jacket with mountain activities in mind. Napolean style pockets don't interfere with a climbing harness and the hood readily accepts all types of helmets. The zipper is also one of only two belay-loop friendly, 2-way zippers we reviewed.
Read review: Rab Torque
Analysis and Test Results
For two months, our expert testers wore these jackets across a range of outdoor recreation. We trekked and climbed, hiked and biked, ran and skied in the mountains that we live and work on. We defined how and why these jackets performed the way they did and experienced their shortcomings. We also used standardized tests such as the water submersion and cuff slip test to see how they compared side-by-side. Above you can see how each model stacked up overall, and you can continue reading on below to learn what metrics we used and how each one is defined.
Our lead tester while out on a fast-paced jaunt, testing breathability.
In this metric, we evaluate how well these jackets keep you comfortable in windy and wet conditions. During our testing period, we used these softshells on windy alpine ridges, stuck our arms out the window while going 60mpg, and endured soaking waterfalls to test the water resistance of the jackets. Some of our test jackets, such as the Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody
are lightly insulated, though we did not factor warmth into our scoring since most softshell jackets are meant to be worn on top of base layers in colder climates.
Although we tested these jackets to the limit of water resistance, these jackets are by no means waterproof and are not suited for conditions that demand that attribute. If liquid water is falling on you, it's a matter of time before these jackets go from being comfy and cozy to being heavy, waterlogged messes that are neither warm nor comfortable. The weather resistance of the softshells we tested varies
some models are almost fully waterproof while others are barely wind resistant.
The Terretex and Fortius fabrics do a great job of repelling water and snow, without soaking the fabric at all.
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, late-season conditions, climbing rock and ice routes in the High Sierra, and skiing during the sold beginnings of winter.
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 did not inspire confidence in inclement conditions. Luckily, several of our reviewed jackets, such as the Arc'teryx Gamma MX
are available with hoods as well.
Heavier duty jackets like the Dragon are better for days with wetter 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 only feature jackets which use typical, DWR treated stretch softshell materials. Some jackets, like the Mountain Hardwear Dragon
, excelled at keeping even heavy precipitation at bay, while the Adze
fell behind as water leaked through the untaped seams. Keep in mind, however, that neither of these jackets breathes very well. On the other end of the spectrum, the Outdoor Research Ascendant
and the Outdoor Research Ferrosi Jacket
defended against the torrent poorly; however, both of these jackets are very breathable, and therefore allowed us to dry out quickly. These pieces are best for winter running, cross-country skiing, and spring/summer alpine, rock climbing.
When the storm clouds start building, you want to make sure that your softshell can handle light snow and rain.
Breathability is the calling card of a softshell jacket and one of the most important benefits of a softshell jacket. In fact, we think that that breathability is the main reason to choose this type of layer over a waterproof jacket. The term breathability describes the ability of a material to transport moisture. Even if a waterproof jacket helps you stay dry from the rain, during high activity our bodies can perspire two liters per hour! If you sweat that much while wearing a hardshell rain jacket, you probably feel wet and clammy. If you sweat that much in a lightweight softshell, you feel much drier and much happier. When being active in marginal conditions, you often need to choose whether you want to be wet on the inside or wet on the outside.
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.
Light enough to breathe well but with moderate wind protection, we liked the Ferrosi for cool fall morning rides
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. Breathability is primarily determined by the presence or absence of a laminated membrane and/or a fleece liner, both of which 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.
During aerobic activity, our softshell layer needs to be able to adequately breathe. Shown here is the lead tester making the rounds through the models.
After every outing, we gathered breathability feedback from each tester. These scores are subjective and reflect our testers' personal opinions about the level of breathability of each jacket. The Outdoor Research Ferrosi Jacket received a score of 10 and is the most breathable jacket
that we tested. It also, however, earned a weather resistance rating of 3. The Rab Torque
received a score of 9 but did much better at providing some protection from the wind and falling snow. The Mountain Hardwear Dragon
and Patagonia Adze
were much less breathable, but in turn, offer more weather protection.
Wearing light layers lets this jacket breathe well while climbing quickly on alpine routes.
The right shell for you largely depends on the amount of sweat you generate while playing in the mountains. Our bodies vary, which means that some of us need more breathable jackets than others. If you sweat a lot or frequently engage in highly aerobic activities, you'll love the excellent breathability of a jacket like the OR Ferrosi
or Rab Torque
. If you're not planning to wear your shell during high output activities, then consider a more weather resistant shell like The North Face Apex Bionic 2 Jacket
Day hikes like this one can handle a heavier weave with less breathability.
Mobility & Fit
If you enjoy the restrictive feeling of wearing formal clothing, disregard our comments on mobility. But if you're like most people, then mobility is a key factor to consider when buying technical clothing. Most outdoor apparel is moderately mobile and is comfortable if you're walking around. However, many outdoor sports involve things like stretching your arms above your head to reach an out-of-reach climbing hold, twisting your hips into a joyous powder turn, or looking up with a hood on to see a magnificent mountain peak. Because we are searching for the highest performing gear for outdoor activities, we rank mobility as a high priority for our needs.
Our mobility metric assesses each product's overall comfort during aerobic activities. We took into consideration whether it rode up when lifting our arms if the shoulders allow for full rotation and whether we could layer underneath it 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.
Jackets designed for technical pursuits should stretch with the wearer. The Dragon, pictured here, scored a 7 out of 10.
Some jackets were mobile enough in the body for activities like skiing, but when we took them ice climbing, the jackets either pulled out of our harnesses when reaching up, or our cuff fell below our gloves exposing our wrists to the cold and snow. Longer wrists and underarm gussets are both designed to help counter this problem.
The articulated elbows of the Torque feature a durable Matrix SWS fabric that resists abrasion but are still very mobile.
If a jacket fits you perfectly, the wrist cuffs should not fall when you reach up, and the hem should stay below your waist.
Another factor that has a significant influence on mobility is stretch. A stretch body reduces the influence of a poor fit and makes the jacket feel like it's moving with you. Stretch allows a model to fit snugly without impairing mobility. A great example is the Arcteryx Gamma MX
which fit nearly as snug as the Columbia Ascender
but was far more mobile because of the exceptional stretch. Another benefit to stretch materials is that they are less noisy than windproof fabrics.
Overall, the Outdoor Research Ferrosi
was the most mobile contender. It was the only model that allowed full mobility without the cuffs falling or hem rising. Surprisingly, it even beat out models made with stretchier materials. The Marmot ROM
, Outdoor Research Ascendant
, and Arc'teryx Gamma MX
all performed admirably as well. The North Face Apex Bionic 2
scored lowest in this category.
Often, product manufacturers will describe the intended fit of the garment in question, labeling it with descriptors such as "standard", "trim" or "athletic". This can help you in selecting the right product, since an athletic fitting jacket is probably going to be form-fitting, and not allow for lots of layering underneath if that is what you are looking for.
Weight and packed size can be essential attributes especially on long trips or anytime you have to put the jacket in your pack. 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 these products are designed to be breathable enough that they can be worn all day without having to throw them into your pack.
Fast and Light alpine pursuits require clothing that will not slow you down. The Psiphon FL is our Editors' Choice for overall outstanding softshell jacket.
Weight carried on your body isn't as noticeable as weight in a backpack. For this reason, we do not think that weight and packed sizes are the most important factors when choosing a softshell jacket.
The Ferrosi is lightweight and packable, making it an easy choice to bring along just in case. Here it is, stuffed into its own hand pocket, but it can compress to about half this size in your pack.
Our scores range from one to ten and reflect the full range of the lightest jacket tested, the Outdoor Research Ferrosi
and the heaviest jacket tested, the Mountain Hardwear Dragon
. The two ends of this spectrum are almost a full pound in difference.
When traveling deep into the backcountry, weight will be more of a concern to you than if you were only using your jacket for hikes close to a trailhead.
Here we assessed the quality and quantity of each jacket's features as they contribute to its specific end use. We looked at the design of hand warmer 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.
The Torque's hood snugly fits around a climbing helmet and kept the cold out.
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. The Arcteryx Gamma MX is a fantastic hoodless option
. For cross-country skiing, we rarely put on our hood and instead prefer a toque or balaclava. Finally, if you're simply cruising around town, we think that hoodless models are more stylish.
The two-way zipper allows the Dragon to be used as a belay jacket, without having to tuck in under the harness.
Pocket design is also essential. For climbing and backpacking, Napolean style chest pockets are best, like the Rab Torque, since they won't get in the way of your harness or hip belt
. Meanwhile, hand warmer pockets are best for around town and general use, like found on the sweatshirt styled pockets of the Patagonia Adze
. Fleece-lined pockets can add extra comfort and coziness for your hands, 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.
The Mountain Hardwear Dragon
earned the highest scores in this category because nearly every component is designed with the utmost attention to detail and balances function with ergonomics and style. With its super easy to use drawcords, this jacket was also easy to adjust.
The easy to use thumb loops are a great improvement in this year's model of the OR Ferrosi.
We feel that it's important that you look good in a jacket you spend a lot of money on, especially one that works so well around town. Therefore we scored each jacket based on our testers' perception of its aesthetic appeal. We recognize that our assessment is subjective and, consequently, we make it a mere five percent of each jacket's total score.
In our opinion, simple exteriors look better than complex multi-color patterns. For around town, our testers prefer basic, handsome jackets like the Arcteryx Gamma MX
and The North Face Apex Bionic 2
over models like the Rab Torque
or Mountain Hardwear Dragon
, which have offset colored zippers and duo color fabric designs. It's also important here to consider the fit of your jacket.
Subtle styling and simple pocket layout make the Ascender a jacket for casual occasions.
If good looks and around town use are a top priority, consider the Arcteryx Gamma MX or another classic non-hooded model that offers high technical performance as well.
The tailored fit and stretchy panels allowed this shell to move effortlessly on a hidden Yosemite scramble
Softshells, especially uninsulated models, are great to pair with other layers, such as a fleece, to increase the warmth. Most softshells pair well with our fleece jacket Top Pick Award winner, the Patagonia R1 Hoody
. As we've mentioned multiple times in our review, we recommend purchasing a hardshell or rain jacket and an insulated jacket before you invest in a softshell.
Best for Specific Applications
Arcteryx Gamma MX
Summer alpine climbing:
Winter alpine climbing
: Mountain Hardwear Dragon
Black Diamond Dawn Patrol
Black Diamond Dawn Patrol
Arcteryx Psiphon FL
Outdoor Research Ferrosi
Here's a perfect day for a softshell: cold temps, a cool breeze, and lots of activity.
For those of you adventure junkies doing high energy activities in the cold weather, a softshell might be just what you are seeking. Combining weather protection with breathability, these jackets work best when you are working hard. Depending on your intended use, the best model for you may differ. Some materials work better on cold, wet, and windy days, while others specialize in breathability and work well for laying. By using our in-depth research, testing, and analyses, we hope you find the right jacket to fit your lifestyle. Take a look at our Buying Advice
article for further help in making your decision.