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Softshell Jacket Buyer's Guide

Ask most people to define a softshell, and they usually give you vague answer like "well, it's almost a hardshell but it's more than just a fleece. I dunno." That leaves a lot of open ground. Softshell jackets range from completely waterproof jackets that can take on pretty much any storm to ultralight stretch shells that provide maximum breathability for highly aerobic activities. This guide tries to help you find one that works best for you.

Why Get a Softshell Jacket? Is it waterproof? What kind should I get? What do I use it for?
  • Bridge the gap between waterproof hardshells and highly breathable fleeces
  • More breathable than a hardshell
  • More wind- and water-resistant than a fleece
  • Makes for a lighter system as you often don't need any additional insulation
  • Softshells with membranes are waterproof in everything but a full-on monsoon (at the expense of breathability)
  • Stretch-woven softshells are water resistant and highly breathable

Get a membrane-equipped softshell:

  • For greater protection from cold and wet conditions

Get a stretch-woven softshell:

  • For more breathability during highly aerobic activities

How do you tell them apart?

  • Look at the chart below and compare it to the "Material" in the Tech Specs of every jacket
  • Buzz words like membrane, laminate, waterproof probably mean a membrane softshell
  • Buzz words like water-resistant, stretchy often mean a stretch-woven softshell

Anything! Softshell have seen use for everything from ultralight backpacking to high-altitude mountaineering.

  • Hiking and backpacking
  • Ice climbing and mountaineering
  • Skiing and snowboarding
  • Casual wear
  • Trail running
  • Cross country skiing
  • Winter trail running and snowshoeing
Stretch-Woven Membrane


  • Schoeller
  • Nylon or polyester
  • Polartec Power Shield
  • Apex Aerobic & Apex ClimateBlock (The North Face)
  • M2, & M3 (Marmot)
  • TufStretch (Mountain Hardwear)


  • Gore-Tex Soft Shell
  • WindStopper
  • Ventia (Outdoor Research)
  • Conduit (Mountain Hardwear)
  • Omni-Tech (Columbia)
  • Polartec Windbloc
  • Marmot M1

Get one of these softshell jackets if ...

  • You do a lot of highly aerobic activities like trail running or backcountry touring
  • Get out on very cold days with lots of fluffy snow but minimal slush or rain
  • Want to use your softshell in place of a fleece to layer under a waterproof shell

Get one of these softshell jackets if ...

  • You are more concerned with weather protection than breathability or aerobic comfort
  • You get out on days where slushy snow and rain are likely
  • Tend to spend blocks of time sitting still (such as on a ski lift or belaying an ice climb)

The Lowdown:

These jackets shed wind and water thanks to the tightness of the fabric's weave. Most stretch-woven jackets keep you dry in pretty brutal snow or moderate rain, but eventually moisture will win out and you'll start to get a bit wet. However, if you're working hard, your body heat drives out the moisture, so you probably won't get totally soaked as long as you're moving.

The Lowdown:

Just like hardshells, these jackets feature a waterproof breathable membrane for weather protection. The difference is that membrane softshells use a slightly looser weave for increased breathability. Keep in mind that "looser" is measured in this case on a microscopic level. These jackets will hold off hours of horrendous downpour. It has to be a full-on monsoon to soak through a softshell with a membrane.


  • Highest breathability for aerobic activities
  • Generally very lightweight
  • Good weather resistance with excellent wicking
  • Can be used as a mid layer under your hardshell


  • More waterproof than stretch-woven softshells
  • More breathable than hardshell jackets
  • Versatility to take on nearly any condition


  • Not completely waterproof
  • Sometimes not completely windproof
  • Not as lightweight as comparable fleece


  • Not as breathable as stretch-woven softshells
  • Generally heavier than stretch-woven softshells
  • Not quite as waterproof as a full-on hardshell
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Shop For Your Softshell

Check out our entire selection of Men's and Women's softshells. Why stop there? We have what it takes to outfit you for the backcountry: shop backpacks, layers, rain shells, and more.