When softshells first gained popularity over ten years ago, they struck a chord with those who work up a sweat in cold weather. The flexible, breathable material shelters you from mild water and wind all while breathing better than their closest competition: the hardshell. The fabric — which falls somewhere between a hard shell and a fleece — fills a large hole; it offers breathable weather protection for high-exertion activities in cold weather like alpine skiing, ice climbing and even, snowshoeing.
Today, softshells are starting to take a backseat as brands push to take waterproof membranes (the kind found in hardshells) to new levels of breathability. New technologies, like The North Face’s Futurelight, coming next fall, are promising advancements in breathable waterproof outerwear.
But, until then, we’re still batting for the softshell. Their tightly woven fabric is inherently stretchy and easier on the skin than the crunchy tinfoil-like hardshell material. They offer uninhibited movement and they manage temperature more effectively; ultimately, they’re better at allowing heat to escape while offering some level of warmth and protection. Insulation, such as fleece lining, beefs up warmth while a DWR (durable water repellant) coating, the water-resistance treatment found on most softshells, handles moisture. Plus, softshells tend to be easier on the wallet than Gore-Tex jackets, with most ranging from $150 to $200.
Unless you’re battling heavy precipitation, a softshell will get the job done. Here are our favorites.
UK-based brand Rab may not carry the same mainstream name recognition as other brands, but don’t let that deter you from thinking this burly softshell isn’t on par with the competition you see on outdoor gear shelves. This is one of the heavier weight softshells on the list, but the slim fitting Integrity jacket holds its own in frigid temps. Its warm and protective stretchy fabric, Matrix Integrity Weave, is tough yet breathable and it has an interior with an oh-so-comfortable fleece and pit zips — a rare offering for softshells — for quick venting when things heat up.
Weight: 28.4 ounces
Shell Material: Stretch nylon
While this jacket was the thinnest of the bunch due to no insulating layer, it shelters from the biting wind beautifully. Of the six we tested, it’s the only windproof jacket. Gore Windstopper fabric lines the upper arms, chest, shoulders and hood, protecting against all but the strongest gusts. An unrestricted range of motion means this softshell feels natural, almost second skin-like and the slim-fitted arms contrast with ample room in the long-hemmed torso — ideal for layering. Add to that an adjustable hood, cuffs, waist and four pockets.
Weight: 17.9 ounces
Fill Material: Gore Windstopper (92% Nylon, 8% Elastane Plain Weave) and Softshell Double Weave (90% Polyester, 10% Elastane Stretch)
Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Shell
For all-around versatility in varying alpine (high altitude) conditions, the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol leads the pack. It’s a mid-weight, four-season shell that’s remarkably simple, yet incredibly effective at venting. Two internal stash pockets come in handy when you need a quick warm place to store your gloves. The looser fit allows ample room for extra layers while still maintaining a technical mountain look.
Weight: 19.1 ounces
Shell Material: Four-way stretch woven (63% nylon, 26% polyester, 11% elastane) with DWR coating
Lining: Brushed back
Outdoor Research San Juan
For a predictable layer of defense for backcountry laps, it’s hard to beat the competitively-priced San Juan. The smooth-skinned polyester fabric fends off mild precipitation. Outdoor Research skipped on an insulation layer for better breathability. The San Juan is truly built for ski touring: internal “Shove-It” pockets keep skins clean and readily accessible while an oversized helmet-compatible hood cinches down tight.
Weight: 19.1 ounces
Shell Material: 100% polyester 75D double weave
Mountain Hardwear Keele Hoodie
Take your softest, most comfortable fleece, add a durable thick-skinned DWR exterior and you get one heck of a comfortable softshell. Made with a proprietary doubleweave brushback woven with DWR, the Keele Hoody favors feel over weather protection, as wind cuts right through its outer fabric. However, despite its lack of weather protection, it makes a perfect outer layer on warm bluebird days or doubles as a warm mid-layer under a hardshell. Plus, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself wearing it around the house.
Weight: 17 ounces
Shell Material: Polartec Hardface (90% Polyester, 10% Elastane) with DWR coating
Arc’teryx Gamma MX Hoody
The Arc’teryx logo has become somewhat of a status symbol, representing detailed craftsmanship and unmatched performance at a premium price point. The athletically cut Gamma MX Hoody continues Arc’teryx’s elite status heritage. The combo of light insulation from fleece and a weather resistant outer from the thick DWR treated fabric makes it exceptionally durable and warm. Anatomically cut to work with your every move, no other brand puts more emphasis on how a piece fits than Arc’teryx. No detail was spared, including articulated elbows and gusseted armpits and the waistline never lifted even when we tested it by working overhead.
Weight: 19.9 ounces
Shell Material: Fortius 2.0 textile (85% nylon, 15% elastane) with DWR coating
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