Softshell, hardshell...what’s a shell?! Tech lingo can be super complicated in the outdoor world, but it doesn’t have to be. In general, a shell is an outer layer that protects you from the elements. While most people are familiar with hardshells (made famous by outdoor giant Gore-Tex), I still have a soft spot for the softshell, especially in the summer. Why? Two reasons: First of all, I’m a sweaty beast and need an outer layer that will legitimately breathe so I don’t drown in a pool of my own sweat. Secondly, we still see some questionable weather in the alpine of Colorado, so I always need an outer layer, regardless of the season. Softshells meet both of these needs well: They’re breathable, and they protect me from light-to-moderate rain.
But which ones are the best? Read on, friends.
Note: If you live in the Pacific Northwest and enjoy frolicking in frequent moisture dumps, none of this is for you. While softshells are water resistant, they will wet out during heavy rains.
The Gamma was my first-ever softshell, and she is still going strong (which is good because ouch! That pricetag). Arc’Teryx is always on the pricier end, but you get what you pay for. And the durability and high-quality of this softshell speak volumes. A helmet-compatible hood and hip length mean you’re covered in nastier squalls.
Marmot has ventured away from über-technical apparel in recent years, favoring more of a mass appeal. But, the Gravity softshell does well in terms of providing what it promises: windproof water resistance. It doesn’t have a hood which may be a deal breaker for some, but it has a nice, stylish fit. Depending on where you live, you may be able to get away with using the Gravity as your around-town jacket too.
For some reason, Eddie Bauer’s First Ascent series of outdoor apparel doesn’t get the ink that other brands do, and I think that’s a bummer. They make some legit gear! In particular, I love the Sand Stone Softshell jacket. Like the others on this list, it’s windproof and water resistant, but it stands out for its insane price (sub $100!) and great breathability. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles on this jacket (again, no hood), but its streamlined design makes it a solid option for trail running.
If you’re looking for versatility, look no further than the Dawn Patrol. This softshell can handle anything but the most horrendous of conditions (in which case, maybe stay home?), but still breathes well and looks good. The longer length makes it an easy fit while wearing a harness, and the four-way stretch fabric allows for wiggle room while skiing or climbing.
It’s a bird, it’s a plane....it’s a pullover! Dramatic? Maybe. But a pullover softshell is a fun oddity that you don’t see too often. The ultralight nylon stretches as you move and stretch knit cuffs keep moisture out. At less than four ounces, it’s easily the lightest item on this list, making it the perfect option for trail runners or mountain bikers who want ample protection for minimal weight penalty.