Softshell jackets often are misunderstood as being warm, insulating pieces (at most they offer modest warmth) or fully waterproof (they're usually not), so we've detailed the major considerations in this article. And don't be deterred by what softshells are "not." Their balanced design makes them a go-to jacket for a wide range of activities all year round.
First and foremost, softshell jackets are intended for high-output activities where you're working hard. They are made with woven nylon or polyester that is stretchy, highly breathable, and decently weather resistant. These characteristics make them ideal for climbing, biking, backcountry skiing, cross-country skiing, hiking, and the list goes on. Essentially, if it's cool outside, not too wet, and you're working hard, a softshell is a terrific outerlayer. The jackets allow enough air in and out to regulate your body heat, giving them a significant leg up on the other two shell options: hardshell jackets and rain jackets. But they offer more protection from the elements than standard insulating midlayers like fleeces, synthetic jackets, or down jackets. Falling in that middle ground makes them a highly versatile piece that is usable in all four seasons.
As we've touched on above, softshell jackets are great for a wide range of outdoor activities where you're likely to work up a good sweat. The most common type of softshell is a pant or jacket used as an outerlayer for climbing, backcountry skiing in mild conditions, biking, and plenty of other cool weather sports. Softshell materials are also commonly found in hiking pants, too. Their stretchiness, breathability, and decent weather resistance work well in anything from a spring hike to peak bagging in the summer months.
One really nice use for a softshell jacket doesn't involve rock climbing or backcountry skiing as we've discussed above. Because of the water and wind resistance, they make great fall and spring daily pieces for simple activities like walking your dog and taking your daily stroll around the neighborhood. There are many times when it's chilly, a bit windy, or drizzling, but you don't want to carry a separate rain jacket with you just in case. At the same, your sweatshirt or fleece will soak up water pretty quickly and won't block the wind. So if you have room in your closet, we bet you'll get more everyday wear out of a softshell than you might expect. They are great all-in-one pieces for the shoulder seasons, and of course, the extra weight doesn't matter much for these types of uses.
Softshells are among the most versatile pieces of outdoor apparel, but they do have their limitations. The most obvious instance is when the weather is severe. The air permeable construction is a detriment in high winds, particularly if you'll be stopped and hunkered down for an extended period of time. And the same goes for rain downpours: softshell jackets just can't compete with the waterproofing of a rain jacket.
Weight is another important consideration, and for those that put a premium on going ultralight (backpackers come to mind), a softshell may not be your ideal outerlayer. Softshell jackets will weigh more than a rain jacket and still not give you complete waterproof protection, so you'd then have to bring two outerlayers. Outside of these specific scenarios, softshells are fantastic. We've found ourselves reaching for our favorites in more and more instances as we've become comfortable with their abilities. For more on softshells and to see which models we recommend, check out our best softshell jackets.