What Are Softshell Jackets Good for?

Jul. 27, 2023

We break down this often misunderstood apparel category, including wind and water resistance, stretchiness, and best uses.


Softshell jackets fill a much-needed void between lightweight insulating pieces and waterproof hardshells. They stretch for movement and breathe well, yet still offer better protection from the elements than a standard fleece or synthetic jacket. Below we break down what characteristics define a softshell, from their woven construction to the amount of weather resistance to expect.  Finally, for our top picks and buying advice be sure to check out our best softshell jackets.

Softshell Jacket

1. Softshells are Water Resistant (or Even Waterproof)


Most softshell jackets offer decent water resistance that can keep you dry in light to moderate precipitation. It starts with a durable water repellent (DWR) coating on the exterior, which beads up and sheds raindrops, and the jacket's hard-faced shell does a good job keeping moisture at bay. Softshells usually are not waterproof, however, and sustained rainfall will absorb and eventually soak through the woven fabric. This is one of the primary compromises in a softshell, but it doesn't deter us from bringing it along on most outdoor adventures, and you can always bring along a packable rain shell as backup.


2. Softshells are Wind Resistant


The smooth face fabric on a softshell typically is wind resistant but still porous enough to allow some airflow. It's enough where you may not feel a light breeze, but a strong gust definitely will be noticeable. This partial wind resistance is intentional because it allows you to stay cool when you're working hard. There are, however, softshell jackets and pants that are either fully or partially windproof.


3. They're Stretchy and Great for Movement


Along with breathability, our favorite softshell characteristic is the stretchy feel. By definition, the outer fabric of a performance softshell has 4-way stretch (stretching horizontally and vertically) for fantastic range of motion. This stretchiness and unparalleled mobility makes softshells popular for climbing, scrambling while hiking or mountaineering, and backcountry skiing where you'll be reaching, bending, and otherwise contorting your body. It also means that you can select a softshell with a slightly snugger fit, which is great for moving fast. All told, for active pursuits we much prefer the quiet and mobile nature of a softshell over a rigid and bulky hardshell.

Functional Softshell Jacket


4. Softshells are Warmer than a Rain Jacket or Hardshell


The amount of warmth will vary based on the thickness and construction of the jacket, but softshells offer more insulation than a rain jacket or hardshell. While rain jackets and hardshells are just that—thin shells designed to keep moisture out—a softshell is thicker and often includes a light interior lining. The warmest softshell jackets bond fleece to the inside of the jacket, offering almost as much warmth as a thin fleece jacket or synthetic jacket. The boost in warmth over a hardshell is nice if you want to only wear a baselayer beneath in cool temperatures.


However, because some softshells are very air permeable, they may not retain as much heat as a completely waterproof jacket. This is where a rain jacket or hardshell's lack of breathability can come into play. If you're working hard in a hardshell, you may actually get warmer (and often too warm) than doing the same activity in a softshell. But for pure insulation, a softshell still is the warmest outerlayer.


5. They're Heavier, Too (Usually)


With a thick construction, standard softshell jackets are the heaviest of the three outerlayer options. Rain jackets can weigh as little as 5 ounces, and just about every major outdoor gear manufacturer makes a waterproof shell that weighs less than 10 ounces. And while hardshells usually are a little heavier, the majority of designs clock in at well under a pound.


Softshells, on the other hand, are noticeably heavier, with most standard models ranging from a pound to a pound and a half. Further, they generally are bulky and not packable. While this can be an issue for backpacking and weight-conscious activities like running, climbing, and backcountry skiing, casual users will find that the extra ounces don't make much of a difference.


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