What the heck is a softshell? It’s a rather elusive, nebulous clothing concept. One that is difficult to define precisely and easy to get confused by. You only have to visit the softshell section of brands’ websites for a taste of this uncertainty and disorder. Often everything from fleecy windproofs, lightweight waterproofs and miscellaneous mid layers are listed under this catch-all category. It’s a mess, in all honesty. Let’s see if we can unpick it.
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Softshell jacket definition
Ultimately, the name softshell has been coined as a counterpoint to the hard shell (a ‘proper’ waterproof outer layer). While a hardshell jacket is stiff, strong and not that breathable, a softshell is the opposite. It’s softer, smoother, comfier, more stretchy and much better ventilated.
In some ways it’d be fair to describe a softshell as a halfway house between a fleece and a waterproof jacket, an attempt to provide the best of both worlds. A softshell is more wind- and water-resistant than a fleece, and more breathable, flexible and comfortable than a hard shell. Alone it won’t be suitable for severe weather, but it will protect against light showers and in heavy rain or cold can be used as an insulating layer underneath a hard shell.
This all-rounder versatility is the softshell modus operandi, it’s good at lots of things, not just one. But the confusion comes from the sheer variety of softshells.
Some products are more fleece-like, others are closer to a waterproof; some focus on being breathable and lightweight, others are warmer and more weatherproof; some are designed as standalone outer layers, others are nothing more than minimalist mid layers. To avoid comparing apples with oranges, here we’ve chosen to focus on jackets that are easily identifiable as ‘real’ softshells. These being higher-grade, heftier, hooded jackets that work well as standalone outer layers.
What to look for in a softshell jacket
Water resistance: Softshells are generally water-resistant or ‘weatherproof’ rather than fully waterproof, relying on densely woven outer fabric and a durable water repellent (DWR) treatment to offer light to moderate water-resistance.
Wind resistance: This is the primary function of a windshirt and the major benefit of softshell over fleece. Wind-resistance is often measured by CC or CFM. The higher the number, the less resistant the fabric is to wind. A lightweight fleece typically measures about 60 CFM, while most softshells are rated between 10 and 5 CFM.
Hood: Although it’s ultimately a matter of personal preference, a hood is generally a useful addition, but think about whether you’ll want it to fit comfortably under a hard shell. Technical softshell jackets often have peaked and/or helmet-compatible hoods, with adjustment so they can be cinched in tight.
Fabrics: A windshirt is made from a lightweight, single weave fabric, offering basic wind protection with minimal bulk and weight. Single layer softshells are more substantial while still remaining breathable thanks to the use of a double-weave wicking fabric. Two-layer softshells offer increased warmth and water-resistance as well as windproofing.
Breathability: This refers to how much moisture vapour can pass through a fabric. Softshells are far more breathable than even the best hard shells, making them ideal for sustained active use in the hills when you need a good level of weather protection but not a full-on waterproof.
Stretch: Many softshell fabrics incorporate elastane (also called spandex or Lycra) for enhanced freedom of movement. Two-way stretch fabrics stretch either vertically or horizontally. Four-way stretch fabrics stretch in both directions.
Weight and packed size: Since windshirts are typically used as ‘on-off’ layers, low weight and packability are vital. Softshells, on the other hand, are often regarded as wear-all-day layers, which makes these factors less important – though overall weight and bulk are still considerations.
Pockets: Large pockets are great for storage. Napoleon-style pockets are placed in the centre of the jacket, next to the main zip, for easy access. Other jackets have side hand pockets, which are usually placed higher than normal so they can be used even if you’re wearing a rucksack.
Ventilation: Even the most breathable jackets can still get warm, so ventilation is vital. Some jackets feature pit zips or mesh-lined pockets, which can be opened to increase airflow. Wide cuffs that can be pushed up the forearm can also aid cooling.
Fit: Windshirts and softshells tend to have a slimmer cut compared to hard shell jackets. But you should still ensure that they don’t feel tight across the shoulders or chest and that sleeves cover your wrists fully.
The best softshell jackets
Salewa Agner Durastretch
Verdict: Verdict A super-stretchy softshell with an athletic cut and minimalist design – but it won’t suit everyone.
Pros: Fantastically comfortable, recycled fabric and PFC-free DWR, well positioned pockets
Cons: No Velcro wrist cuffs, not that warm, fit won’t suit everyone
On first impressions this jacket appears rather simplistic, with a minimalist style and only basic features. But, out on the hill, it transforms into a real gem – super-comfy, ultra-stretchy, wind-resistant, water-resistant, and with an athletic cut ideal for agile movement in the mountains.
Made from a reasonably tough, recycled Durastretch fabric – a stretch-woven softshell fabric with additional elastane – this jacket delivers decent breathability, copes fine in light showers (courtesy of the PFC-free DWR finish), and provides a touch of warmth (but it’s certainly not designed to maximise warmth).
Features include a well-shaped hood, integrated collar, elasticated wrist cuffs, waist hem adjustment, patch pocket on the right sleeve, and two map-sized zippered hand pockets, which are positioned high to enable access while wearing a hipbelt. But the real USP is the stretchy fabric, which delivers first-rate freedom of movement and holds its shape well (the waist hem doesn’t lift, for example) during dynamic mountain antics.
If we’re being fussy
The hood isn’t adjustable and doesn’t have a wired peak, and there’s no Velcro closure on the wrist cuffs. The athletic fit won’t suit all body shapes and it’s not the warmest option. Overall the design is tailored towards scramblers and climbers, rather than hillwalkers.
Sizes Men’s S-XXL, women’s 6-14 | Weight 437g (men’s M)
Montane Krypton Softshell Hoodie
Verdict: A classic-style softshell with impressive features at an affordable price – but it’s a tad heavy.
Pros: Very warm, good bang for buck, adjustable hood with wired peak
Cons: A bit too warm for ascents, a bit heavy and bulky
Montane’s Dyno and Krypton ranges are classic softshells – you’d pick them off the shelf and immediately think “this is a softshell”. There’s none of that identity-crisis confusion you get with some of the hybrid crossover styles.
While the Dyno is slightly tougher and beefier, the Krypton still feels mountain-ready, striking a nice balance between durability, flex, comfort and weather-resistance. But its standout feature is the high-loft, brushed lining – a soft fleecy liner that feels comfy and smooth against the skin. This delivers enhanced warmth, trapping heat when required but also wicking away moisture when you get sweaty.
The jacket, which is made from Montane’s Granite High-Loft softshell material (91% polyester, 9% elastane), is fully featured including an adjustable hood with wired peak, full-length YKK Vislon front zipper, two mesh-lined hand pockets, one chest pocket, adjustable waist hem, low-profile wrist cuffs, and a DWR coating to shed light rain. It’s also available in a hoodless version.
If we’re being fussy
Due to the fleecy lining, you might get too hot during ascents or find you only reach for this jacket on colder days. Some may prefer a lighter, more minimalist design, with the Krypton is arguably a little on the heavy and bulky side. The wrist cuffs aren’t adjustable.
Sizes Men’s S-XXL, women’s 8-16 | Weight 535g (men’s S)
Rab Vapour-Rise Summit
Verdict: A proven ‘put it on, leave it on’ layer combining a Pertex outer with a fleecy inner – but not so great at wind-resistance.
Pros: Highly breathable, lightweight, inventive 2in1 design
Cons: Little wind resistance, less durable than classic softshell
This is a technical, premium, ultralight jacket with a standout design. Unlike classic softshells – which all have that distinctive softshell outer material, made from a stretchy, sturdy and wind-resistant nylon or polyester – the Vapour-Rise Summit does things differently.
The outer is constructed from Pertex Quantum Air, a highly breathable, open woven fabric which prioritises air permeability above wind resistance. This enables you to dump heat and regulate your temperature far more effectively during intense activity, while the inner – a fleecy brushed polyester lining that’s pretty thick and cosy – delivers a noticeable warmth boost when needed.
The overall ethos is to provide a 2-layer system that replaces the need for two separate garments (such as a microfleece and windproof), and to create a micro-climate that works all day – “warm at the peak and comfortable during intense activity”, as Rab puts it. Features include an adjustable hood, waist drawcords, three pockets, Velcro cuffs, and a DWR finish.
If we’re being fussy
It’s too toasty for warmer days (the Vapour-Rise Alpine Light is a less-insulated alternative). The breathable Pertex Quantum Air outer is not particularly good at blocking out the wind, and the Pertex outer feels more delicate/less durable than stronger, classic softshell outers. Little to no stretch.
Sizes Men’s S-XXL, women’s 8-16 | Weight 323g (men’s S)
Arc’teryx Gamma MX Hoody
Verdict: A well-designed, premium quality, very warm softshell with a stylish design – but the price is sky-high.
Pros: Excellent in cold weather, many pockets, very comfortable
Cons: Very expensive, moderate breathability
There’s a trio of options in Arc’teryx’s excellent Gamma family of softshells: the SL Hoody (super-light, 310g), LT Hoody (lightweight, 545g) and MX Hoody (mixed-weather, 555g). For ultralight minimalism yet surprisingly impressive mountain performance, the SL Hoody is an excellent choice (it won the Trail Best In Test award in our October 2020 issue) – but it’s far from the sturdiest or warmest option.
Here we’ve opted to review the MX Hoody version, which is tougher, thicker and better prepared for inclement weather. It performs better than most other softshells in this regard, delivering first-rate warmth, water-resistance and wind protection.
Made from Arc’teryx’s well-proven Fortius 2.0 fabric, the MX Hoody has a strong, DWR-treated outer and a cosy, fleecy liner, as well as great stretch courtesy of the fabric’s high elastane content. Features include an adjustable hood, ample pockets, cinchable waist hem and elasticated cuffs.
If we’re being fussy
It’s very, very expensive – partly because Arc’teryx is such an on-trend brand. The MX version is better-suited to colder weather and will probably prove too hot for most outings in milder climes (alternatively consider the SL or LT versions). Breathability is better in lighter jackets.
Sizes Men’s XS-XXL, women’s 8-18 | Weight 555g (men’s S)
Verdict: A tough, sturdy softshell that inspires confidence in mountain weather – but it can feel too warm.
Pros: Very durable, ideal for cold and wet conditions, feature-rich
Cons: Heavy and bulky, standalone jacket rather than for layering
While some softshells feel a tad delicate, the Keela Hydron is nothing of the sort. Instead it’s strong, muscular, built-to-last and as rugged as they come – a heavily-armoured jacket with loads of features and a bombproof design.
At 589g, it’s the heaviest jacket on test and, consequently, inspires confidence in colder and wetter conditions. The Hydron is windproof and water-resistant, and provides a good warmth boost. Pit zips under both arms help you to dump heat when working hard, while the backer material – a grid of fleecy rectangles known as Air Channel Matrix – is designed to regulate air movement and improve breathability.
The jacket’s fabric is Keela’s AirXtream Fusion softshell material, a 3-layer approach with two-way stretch.
Impressive features include a very protective, adjustable hood with a wired peak, Velcro-adjustable wrist cuffs, four external pockets, waist hem adjustment, and a scooped back for good coverage over your backside.
If we’re being fussy
It’s way too heavy and bulky for warmer mountain days. It works better as a standalone outer than as part of a layering system, and the way the hood rolls up might feel uncomfy and awkward around your neck. It’s expensive, not the most breathable, and ideally should be more stretchy. The fit is also a bit boxy.
Sizes Men’s XS-XXXL, women’s 8-20 | Weight 589g (men’s S)
Verdict: A traditional-style softshell with good features at a sensible price – but it is heavy.
Pros: Affordable, tough, warm, two-way zip
Cons: A tad bulky, breathability could be better
Affordably priced, as you’d expect from Alpkit, the Resolute jacket offers a lot of bang for your buck. It’s a classically-styled, traditional softshell with a reassuringly heavy construction, featuring a thick and hefty 207gsm (grams per square metre) double-weave softshell material (92% nylon, 8% spandex) – in comparison Rab’s ultralight Pertex outer is only 49gsm.
This extra weight provides better insulation and the sturdy, tough build quality should enhance long-term durability. Wind-resistance is pretty good, cutting out the worst of a wind’s chilling effect, and a DWR coating ensures water beads on the jacket and sheds nicely.
The jacket’s inner is ‘sanded’ – almost fluffed up – for improved comfort against the skin. There are ample features too: a helmet-compatible hood with three adjustment points, wired peak and stow-away tab; two handwarmer pockets, one internal zipped chest pocket and one external zipped chest pocket; and a two-way zip that’s useful for venting.
If we’re being fussy
The price has increased since 2020 when we last reviewed this jacket. It’s on the heavy side, and can feel a tad bulky, cumbersome and sweaty. The hood toggles have a tendency to flap around annoyingly and the fit is on the baggy side, which won’t suit everyone.
Sizes Men’s S-XXL, women’s 8-18 | Weight 545g (men’s S)