The Best Softshell Jackets for Backpackers | 2018 Softshell Jackets - Backpacker

The Best Softshell Jackets for Backpackers

With a perfect mix of breathability and protection, these shells are reliable trail buddies.
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If you're looking for a shell that can keep cold and moderate precip out without keeping your sweat in, the shells below—the best softshell jackets on the market—might be for you. Stay comfy through snow, rain, and everything in between with one of these.

Rab Borealis Jacket

best softshell jackets

The best softies become like a second skin. “After wearing the Borealis for cooler start-time temps, I’d often end up leaving it on for the rest of my climb, hike, or run,” one tester says. The 85 percent nylon/15 percent elastane fabric is flexy and supple enough to wear next to skin or use as a midlayer. Single-weave construction means it lacks an inner layer, enhancing breathability on everything from strenuous slogs up New Zealand’s Mt. Taranaki to ice climbs in Rocky Mountain National Park.

As with most DWR-treated softshells, anything more than moderate precip will soak through (the grace period is about 20 minutes), but the single-layer design also means the Borealis dries swiftly. Its nonadjustable hood can stretch over a climbing helmet, and a pair of 8.5-inch, mesh-backed Napoleon pockets provide extra venting. Although it’s light, this shell was tough enough for crack climbing and an off-trail hike in the Gore Range that ripped one tester’s pants. Should you happen to take it off, the Borealis packs down to grapefruit size.

Trail cred “This shell kept my core temp stable while fending off snow-laden branches when my approach to the Vail Amphitheater turned into a bushwhack,” one Colorado tester says.

$115; 10.5 oz. (m’s L); m’s S-XXL, w’s XS-XL; Buy Rab Borealis Jacket Now

Ortovox Pala Jacket

best softshell jackets

The Pala is just as comfy as your favorite old hoodie, but unlike your sweats it can handle iffy weather and rock faces. The key elements: a cozy merino liner and tough materials with above-average abrasion resistance. The liner, which gives the Pala a fleece-like feel, aids wicking and kept one Vermont tester toasty on trail runs where the temp dipped into the 20s. The sturdy Cordura face fabric is a blend of nylon and elastane, reinforced with heavier-weight Cordura in the shoulders and sides. We shimmied up rock cracks in the Pala and wore it bushwhacking through alder thickets in Alaska, and it emerged with nary a scratch. Breathability proved itself on tough approaches from the 20s to the 50s (though it’s too warm for anything balmier than that).

The cut and features suit climbing particularly well: An elastic hood stretches over a helmet or fits under one, the trim shape never gets in the way of gear, and the sleeves are long enough for high reaches. One small chest pocket fits a slim wallet or phone, but the Pala lacks hand pockets.

“It’s much stretchier than other jackets this bomber,” an Alaska tester says. “When I was scrambling on a ridgeline around Knoya Peak, I appreciated the mobility while balancing on rocks.”

$230; 12.7 oz.; m’s S-XXL, w’s XS-XL; Buy Ortovox Pala Jacket Now

Salewa Agner Engineered DST Jacket

best softshell jackets

We test a lot of shells, so we notice when one gets grabbed more often than the others. We chose the light-yet-comfy Agner (women’s version pictured) for snowy days in the 30s to windy ones in the 60s, thanks to a design that body-maps mobility, breathability, and durability. Breathable, four-way stretch panels on the back and under the arms let us reach overhead without restriction, and the underarm sections vented excess heat on uphill pushes in Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness in the 40s. High-wear zones across the shoulders, arms, and lower back use tough Cordura Durastretch fabric, a two-way stretch nylon weave that kept the Agner scuff-free after scraping against slickrock during hikes outside Lander, Wyoming.

Spare but useful features—an elastic hood that fits under a helmet, elastic cuffs, and two chest pockets—keep packability down to softball size. The Agner has a snug fit, but tops a baselayer or light midlayer comfortably. Bonus: The DWR is PFC-free (made of hydrophobic polymers, it’s supposed to last between 20 and 30 washes), and one tester stayed dry through 30 minutes of light rain.

“On a fall trip in Colorado’s Mt. Zirkel Wilderness, I’d put the Agner on as soon as I woke up and wear it all through the day’s temp swings, even as afternoon drizzles rolled in,” our tester says.

$200; 12.2 oz.; m’s 44-56, w’s 38-50; Buy Salewa Agner Engineered DST Jacket Now

The North Face Apex Flex GTX Shell Jacket

The North Face Apex Flex GTX Shell Jacket

This superstretchy jacket has the feel of a traditional softshell, but with all the weatherproofing chops of a hardshell. Standard three-layer Gore-Tex provides protection, while a stretch-woven face fabric and a soft knit backer give it a cushy feel. The Apex Flex’s sweet spot is cold, wet, or windy weather, as it’s too hefty and warm for active use above the mid-30s: We reached for it nearly daily for a winter’s worth of Cascade Range hikes and soggy Seattle bike commutes.

An extended hem, easily adjustable hood (but you’ll have to wear it under, not over, a helmet), and a cut that layers well over winter insulation boost its protection against nasty weather. Breathability, aided by pit zips, is good but not exceptional, and you also get two hand pockets and a chest pocket (women’s version has a lower sleeve pocket instead). Tradeoff: It's bulky to pack, but the Apex Flex is also the most affordable jacket here.

“Given its feel, I was surprised at how weatherproof this jacket is,” says a tester. “I could hike through heavy rain in cool temps and still stay dry without getting super-sweaty.” 

$199; 1 lbs, 8 oz; Buy The North Face Apex Flex GTX Now

Rab Vapour-Rise Alpine Jacket

Rab Vapour-Rise  Alpine Jacket

Softshells are designed to be breathable, but the Vapour-Rise does it better than most. The secret? A polyester fleece liner that’s so thin you can see through to the Pertex Equilibrium shell, which has a loose weave to let more moisture escape.

“I kept it fully zipped over a baselayer while hiking hard in sunny, 20°F weather around the Alaska Range’s Pika Glacier and never overheated,” our tester says. He also praised the feel of the Vapour-Rise’s interior, saying: “It’s so soft next to skin that I could wear it over bare arms without any scratchiness.” Drawback: Although the fabric is stretchy enough that we could sleep in it, some testers found this jacket just a bit too delicate for bushwhacking.

$200; 13 oz; Buy Rab Vapour-Rise Alpine Jacket Now

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