A softshell can make or break your day, but choosing one from the myriad available is daunting. We researched 65 models, choosing 11 best to test in an effort to zero in on the best. Our selection includes a variety of designs, from fleece lined to stretch woven, and our experts rallied in all of them for three nonstop months. Whether ice or rock climbing, skiing, hiking, or walking around town, our team evaluated how well the contenders protected from a variety of weather conditions, while also rating the breathability of each. Our testers compiled stats on the models' various features and assigned style points. Armed with data, we were able to pick out the best for specific applications and the best overall, helping reduce the stress of choosing a new softshell jacket.
Updated July 2017
Summer squalls are on the horizon, so we dove into the softshell market to keep this review up-to-date. Our Best Buy Award winner, the Outdoor Research Ferrosi, received an update this year, so we bought and tested the newest version. The design and materials we love remain the same, while the new, durable thumb loops are a welcome feature addition. More details on the update are included in the individual review. We also caught wind that our overall favorite, the Patagonia KnifeRidge, is slated to be discontinued this coming Fall. As this excellent product sets sail into the sunset, online retailers are discounting this model's price tag in a big way. See our links to online retailers for the best deals!
Due to their specialized nature, it's tough to call any single jacket the best. With that said, the Patagonia KnifeRidge Jacket comes the closest to covering all of the bases, performing very well for a variety of activities. Earning our Editors' Choice Award, it was the highest overall scoring jacket tested, as well as the most weather resistant. Surprisingly mobile, it's not quite as breathable as lighter models, but for moderate exertion, it served our testers well. It brings a high level of water resistance to the table as well, and its features are meticulously crafted. The KnifeRidge is a favorite for activities like ice climbing, alpine climbing, and backcountry skiing. If you want this jacket, buy it now. Patagonia will discontinue this jacket in the Fall of 2017. Fortunately, this means the once super expensive KnifeRidge is now discounted up to $200 off the original price! Use our retailer links to get the best deal on the best softshell, but act fast.
Outdoor Research continues to impress with the Ferrosi Hoody. It remains a stand-out product for several years running, even snagging our prestigious Editors' Choice Award in the past. While the KnifeRidge is a superior jacket overall, we love getting high-quality performance out of the Ferrosi without having to face a staggering price tag. The fit, feel, and high breathability of this model are the most noticeable attributes. It moves with your body as you move quickly through all types of terrain, horizontally or vertically. Its minimal design aligns well with the "less is more" adage. The update in this model's 2017 design includes new, robust thumb loops, various color options, and a minor change to the elastic cuff. Versatile, accommodating, and priced right, many of our testers purchased this model following the conclusion of the review. Do note, though, that this jacket doesn't provide as much weather protection as other contenders in this review.
The Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Shell is ideal for backcountry skiing because of its combination of weather resistance and breathability. In late 2016, Black Diamond updated this contender's fabric, which contributed to an $80 price drop from the older model to the latest version. The pocket location also changed. We confirmed that despite these changes, the jacket is still designed with backcountry skiing and ice and rock climbing in mind. With a mobile cut, it's a versatile jacket that competes head-to-head with the other top performers in this review. This Top Pick Award winner is also an excellent choice if you are eyeing the technical performance of the Patagonia KnifeRidge, but can't carve out $450 for a softshell.
For three months, our expert testers wore these jackets across a range of outdoor recreation. The lead author also designed tests to tease out the differences between the jackets, such as checking water resistance with the aid of a wintery waterfall. Through field use and intentional testing, we discovered differences in performance across several key areas. The table above displays the combined weighted scores overall. Below, we describe how we scored the models in each metric, as well as highlighting the best performers in each area.
Eight contenders queued up for the waterfall test.
In this metric, we evaluate how well these jackets keep you comfortable in windy and wet conditions. During our testing period, we used each softshell on windy alpine ridges, stuck our arms out the window while going 60mpg, and even jumped in a waterfall with each jacket. Warmth didn't factor into our evaluation of this metric since we don't think that warmth is one of the primary reasons for buying a softshell. If you're looking for a warm, water resistant jacket, check out the Rab Xenon X Hoodie.
Although we tested each softshell jacket in a waterfall, 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.
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 ice climbed and skied throughout Colorado's Front Range and combined our field-testing with a series of controlled tests, including our now-infamous waterfall test. In the weeks before ice season in Colorado, one tester jumped on the opportunity to test these jackets in a frigid soon-to-be-ice climb. Jackets with hoods fared better than those without and allowed our tester to further submerge in the torrent than those without hoods. Because mountain weather is fickle, we think that hoods are a mandatory feature for activities above treeline.
In our tests, the most weather resistant softshell jackets have a laminated membrane (see description above and in the specifications table). The membrane-lined Patagonia KnifeRidge was the most water resistant softshell we tested followed by the Patagonia Adze Hybrid Hoody. 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 Rab Vapour-Rise Lite Alpine and the Black Diamond Alpine Start defended against the torrent poorly; however, both 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.
The Start was the least weather resistant product we tested. Almost as quickly as our reviewer entered the waterfall, he was soaked as you can see.
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. If you have ever worn a cheap, plastic poncho from the dollar store you understand why breathability is important. 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 cheap, plastic rain layer, you feel soaked and gross. If you sweat that much in a lightweight softshell you feel much drier and much happier. 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), breathability 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 largely 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 membranes 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.
On this early season day of backcountry skiing, this was the last shot we were able to get of this tester before he zoomed into the distance. He loved the breathability of the Top Pick winning Dawn Patrol LT.
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 Black Diamond Alpine Start received a score of 10 and is the most breathable jacket that we tested. It also, however, earned a weather resistance rating of 2. The Outdoor Research Ferrosi and Rab Vapour-Rise Lite Alpine both received a score of 9 but did a little better at providing some protection from the wind and falling snow. These uninsulated non-windproof jackets were the only ones that we could wear when charging hard uphill without unzipping or taking them off. The Patagonia KnifeRidge and Adze Hybrid were much less breathable, but in turn, offer more weather protection.
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 Ferrosi or Alpine Start. 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.
The Editors' Choice Kniferidge (blue) was nearly as breathable as the Top Pick winning Dawn Patrol (green). When his sleeves were rolled up, the tester was quite happy wearing the Kniferidge.
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.
Phil reaches for a good hold and poses for the camera. The Gamma MX was quite mobile and you can see that the cuff remained at his wrist. But, it bunched up at his harness a bit. For this reason this piece scored lower than the Adze Hybrid.
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.
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 large 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 jacket to fit quite snug without impairing mobility. A great example is the Outdoor Research Ferrosi which fit nearly as snug as the Marmot Gravity but was far more mobile because of the great stretch. Another benefit to stretch materials is that they are less noisy than windproof fabrics.
Overall, the most mobile piece tested here was the Patagonia Adze Hybrid. Despite its bulky fabric, it was the only jacket that allowed full mobility without the cuffs falling or hem rising. Surprisingly it even beat out jackets made with stretchier materials. When we handed the Adze to one tester for the first time, he was less than excited to use this jacket based on the weight and bulk, but after putting it on and raising his arms, his first comment was, "Wow, this thing is mobile!" The Patagonia KnifeRidge, Black Diamond Dawn Patrol, and Arc'teryx Gamma MX all performed admirably as well. The Columbia Ascender Jacket scored lowest in this category.
All jackets pictured are size Medium with the exception of the Kniferidge on the right. When reaching upward, the cuff shouldn't fall from your wrist, and the hem shouldn't rise.
Weight & Packed Size
The ability to clip the Alpine Start to your harness combined with its low weight make it ideal for fast and light climbing.
Weight and packed size can be very important 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. 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. Our scores range from one to ten and reflect the full range between the lightest jacket tested (the 7.4 oz. Black Diamond Alpine Start) and the heaviest jacket tested (the 25.2 oz. Patagonia Adze Hybrid Hoody).
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 hood of the Ferrosi fits well over the climbing helmet of this tester. It's stretchy, staying in place without being too tight.
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 perfectly comfortable without a hood. The Mountain Hardwear Fairing Jacket is a fantastic hoodless option. For cross-country skiing, we rarely put on our hood and instead prefer a balaclava. Finally, if you're cruising around town, we think that hoodless models are more stylish.
Pocket design is also important. For climbing and backpacking, cross-over chest pockets are best (see the Rab Vapour-Rise Lite Alpine) 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 (See the Marmot Gravity). 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 Patagonia KnifeRidge 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 draw cords, this jacket was also easy to adjust.
The Editors' Choice winning Kniferidge has excellent adjustments on the hood and hem that are easier to manipulate than those found on other jackets.
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 Mountain Hardwear Fairing and The North Face Apex Bionic 2 over models like the Rab Vapour-Rise or Patagonia KnifeRidge, which have offset colored zippers and duo-chrome fabric designs. It's also important here to consider the fit of your jacket. Our scores in this category ranged from 9 to 4 and multiple products received our top score.
In the grey color that we tested, the Fairing looks great around town or at the crag.
If good looks and around town use are a top priority, consider the Mountain Hardwear Fairing or another classic non-hooded model that offers decent technical performance as well.
From left to right: Dawn Patrol LT, Fairing, Gamma MX. Three very different jackets that all worked quite well for climbing on this fall day.
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.
Cross-country skiing: Black Diamond Alpine Start Around town: Mountain Hardwear Fairing Winter day hikes: Patagonia Adze Hybrid Hoody Rock climbing: Arc'Teryx Gamma MX Hoody Summer alpine climbing: Outdoor Research Ferrosi Winter alpine climbing Patagonia KnifeRidge Ice climbing: Patagonia KnifeRidge Resort skiing: Patagonia KnifeRidge Backcountry skiing: Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Backpacking: Rab Vapour-Rise Lite Alpine Most versatile: Outdoor Research Ferrosi
The Patagonia Adze was a favorite for cold weather climbing. The stretchy side panels under the arms made this jacket a pleasure to climb in.
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.