Image courtesy of The North Face Image courtesy of The North Face

The Best Aerobic Softshells

The soft shell category isn’t defined clearly. Original designs prioritized breathability and quick drying over weatherproofing, but currently, the category can span garments that functionally act as hard shells to single layer, highly breathable wind shells. The items chosen for this test were not primarily insulators, nor were they hard shells. Compared to prior tests (where the jackets were truly just shells), the category has widened drastically in functionality. Some provide the same weather protection as classic hard shells, but offer more breathability, softer hand, and better drape. Others add warmth and can act as both the outer shell and a light insulating layer.

Softshell jackets are tested across a broad range of activities and weather conditions to represent the widest combination of breathability and weatherproofing requirements, durability, compressibility needs and featured usage. Aerobic training, hiking, backpacking and all forms of climbing can all be utilized to test these garments, subjecting them to a wide array of stressors.

Breathability was the original primary design goal of the first soft shells and is still a leading consideration, as getting wet from the inside can be just as serious a problem as getting wet from the outside. Durability is extremely important; in certain situations, failure of a layer can be catastrophic and a large part of perceived value centers around how long a garment lasts. Weatherproofing can be at odds with breathability, but in dire situations, this is the only factor that may matter. Until the miracle fabric exists, breathability and weatherproofing will have an inverse relationship; as one goes up, the other will go down. Fit/Comfort is highly personal, different body proportions and preferences steering evaluations of this department. Fit/Comfort will always be notated with the general dimensions of the tester along with any obvious anomalies to fit or comfort. Compressibility’s importance depends on the packing situation, but more compressibility will never be negative. A jacket’s features can alter the effectiveness of the garment for each specific use; aerobic training demands a vastly different feature set than an alpine climber. Having too many features when not required affects factors such as compressibility, while not having a required feature when needed can be frustrating at best and dangerous at worst.

Review Year
Best in Class
Overall Rating
Price
Name Overall Rating Ratings The Good The Bad Price
Arcteryx Atom AR Jacket
89
Quality 9
Comfort/Fit 7
Warmth 10
Features 6
Packablity 7

Warmest jacket in this test set

Basic water resistance

Zippered interior chest pocket

One of the heavier jackets in the test set

Most expensive jacket in the test

No large pockets

MSRP
$279.00
BEST DEAL
Montbell Thermawrap
89
Quality 8
Comfort/Fit 7
Warmth 9
Features 7
Packablity 8

Lightest jacket in this test set

One of the warmest jackets we tested

Entry-level price point

No interior pockets

Very limited water resistance

Minor insulation leakage

MSRP
$139.00
BEST DEAL
Montane Alpine Stretch Jacket
87
Best in Class
2015
Weather Resistance 7
Breathability 8
Mobility & Movement 9
Comfort 6
Attention to Detail 9
Value 8

Superb hood

Sophisticated design, thoughtful layout

Four gigantic pockets

Unmatched flexibility in the face of changing conditions

Some details were over-thought and over-complicated

Slightly heavier than needs to be due to extra features

MSRP
BEST DEAL
Black Diamond Induction Shell
86
Weather Resistance 10
Breathability 5
Mobility & Movement 9
Comfort 8
Attention to Detail 10
Value 4

Impeccable design/engineering

Hard-shell-like weather-proofness

Fantastic hood Remarkable mobility for a full-GWS hoody

Poor water-repellency – face-fabric absorbed significan t moisture in wet conditions

Expensive

MSRP
BEST DEAL
Outdoor Research Cathode
85
Quality 7
Comfort/Fit 8
Warmth 6
Features 7
Packablity 7

Good breathability

Entry-level price point

Large interior pockets

Side panel sacrifices warmth

Basic cuff

Sizes slender

MSRP
$100.00
BEST DEAL
Cotopaxi Kusa Jacket
84
Quality 7
Comfort/Fit 7
Warmth 5
Features 8
Packablity 7

Back buttons for versatility

Comfortable cuff

Reversible

Back buttons are bulky

Small interior pockets

Zippered chest pocket on only one side

MSRP
$100.00
BEST DEAL
Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hoody
82
Weather Resistance 7
Breathability 7
Mobility & Movement 7
Comfort 7
Attention to Detail 6
Value 8

Strong weather protection for its breathability

Excellent balance between durability and low weight

Layered nicely, comfy whether worn as a shell or as a mid-layer

Supremely packable

Hood worked well both over and under a helmet

Hood adjustments required both hands

Collar was low and loose

Handwarmer pockets were useless while wearing a harness or large pack

MSRP
BEST DEAL
Rab Ventus Jacket
82
Weather Resistance 3
Breathability 10
Mobility & Movement 8
Comfort 6
Attention to Detail 9
Value 6

Hood and thumb-looped cuffs provided good sun protection

Enormous vents/pockets for extra cooling

Just-right hood fit well with any combination of other headwear

Super-soft fabric felt wonderful against the skin

Zero water repellency

So stretchy that zips could be hard to operate with one hand

Poor defense against alpine abrasives

MSRP
BEST DEAL
Helly Hansen Odin Flow Jacket
82
Quality 6
Comfort/Fit 5
Warmth 8
Features 8
Packablity 5

Stiff collar keeps the user’s neck protected

Dual chest ventilation

Comfortable cuffs

Better water resistance than other jackets in this set

Heaviest jacket in this test set

High price tag

No interior or chest pockets

MSRP
$250.00
BEST DEAL
NW Alpine Fast/Light Jacket
81
Weather Resistance 7
Breathability 6
Mobility & Movement 9
Comfort 6
Attention to Detail 6
Value 7

Trim alpine fit, long arms

Fantastic stretch and mobility for its durability

Perfect under a harness and/or backpack

Craft-built in Portland, OR

Adjustments were not glove-friendly

Hood was clumsy-feeling, both with and without a helmet

On the heavy side for such a simple garment

One single pocket

MSRP
BEST DEAL
N/A
The North Face Thermoball Full Zip
81
Quality 7
Comfort/Fit 5
Warmth 5
Features 6
Packablity 8

Lightweight

Comfortable layering

No insulation breaks

No chest or interior pockets

Body of jacket sizes large

Expensive warmth-to-weight ratio

MSRP
$199.00
BEST DEAL

Last Updated:

What Is A Softshell Jacket?

Softshell jackets have morphed into numerous functional variations in the short lifespan of the category. The original designs accepted that waterproofing and breathability were opposing sides of an equation that had no real solution; the softshell gave up on waterproofing to provide a windproof, insulating and water resistant “shell” that was superior at preserving the microclimate next to the body in conditions that didn’t involve heavy rain. A windproof, yet air permeable shell material was combined with a wicking and insulating fleece type inner material. Avoiding moisture from the inside became the priority over avoiding moisture from the outside, and even light precipitation wasn’t an issue as wicking materials and high vapor transfer rates allowed body heat and convection to dry the garment in short order. Even when wet, these original designs felt dry as the inner liners were designed to have little contact with the body.

The softshell category has evolved in several directions, and the primary function of the category is hard to define. It seems as any jacket that can be worn as an outer layer that isn’t a classic, non-insulating, waterproof nylon shell is tagged as a softshell. Modern versions of the original designs remain, some adding additional waterproofness. Some have stripped down to a soft handed windproof and water resistant single layer shell. Some have jumped the gap to have the same waterproofness as a hard shell, but promise better breathability and softer, quieter and more pliable fabric.

The original opposing factors of waterproofness and breathability still exist. The manufacturers still have to choose a position along the spectrum to occupy. This test involved jackets that are on the far ends of the spectrum as well as innovative attempts at being the happy medium. The main factor in the decision of which softshell jacket is best involves figuring out what part of the waterproofness vs. breathability range your conditions and activity demand.

Pricing varies widely; fabric technology drove much of the pricing. The newer fabrics that claimed a high degree or total waterproofness while still being somewhat breathable were the most expensive, while the simpler fabrics that relied on only a DWR coating to resist water but were more breathable tended to be less expensive.