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What is a softshell jacket, and why do you need one?

A softshell jacket is a lightweight and breathable jacket made from stretchy, woven material that offers some protection from cold, wind and rain but doesn’t inhibit your movement when you’re adventuring (Image credit: Getty)

As you start to winterize your outdoor kit in preparation for the colder months ahead, you might be wondering what on earth a softshell jacket is. You’ve already got your base layer to keep you warm and a good outer layer to keep the elements at bay, so what is a softshell jacket and how do the best softshells come into play in your layering system? 

What is a softshell jacket? 

A softshell jacket is a lightweight and breathable jacket made from stretchy, woven material that offers some protection from cold, wind and rain but doesn’t inhibit your movement when you’re adventuring the way a heavy winter coat might.

In the cold weather layering system, they’re considered a mid-layer, so you’d wear yours over your base layer for a little extra warmth, and then layer a waterproof jacket or hardshell on top to keep the wind and rain out.

That said, if you’re adventuring someplace where the weather tends to be fair year-round – say, Colorado or Utah – for a lot of the year your softshell jacket might be your outer layer. If you’re wearing it as part of three or more layers, you may well remove your outer layer on the uphill and just wear your softshell, then insulate with a down jacket or hardshell for the descent.

Alpkit Resolute Jacket

There are two different types of softshell jacket: stretch woven softshells and membrane softshells (Image credit: Alpkit)

There are two different types of softshell jacket. A stretch woven softshell is very lightweight and breathable and ideal for energetic activities like trail running and cross country skiing where you’re likely to sweat a lot, even on a cold day. 

Membrane softshells are a little more heavy duty and provide a bit more protection for activities where you’re not moving quite as fast, like hiking and snowshoeing, and where you might encounter wind, rain and snow. 

Do softshell jackets keep you warm? 

Föhn

When it comes to insulation, a softshell jacket will rank in between your rain jacket or hardshell, which provide little warmth, and your down jacket, which keeps you extra toasty (Image credit: Föhn)

When it comes to insulation, a softshell jacket will rank in between your rain jacket or hardshell, which provide little warmth, and your down jacket, which keeps you extra toasty. Softshell jackets can be comparable to your fleece in terms of warmth, and because they are so breathable, they make a better choice than a hardshell if you’re working up a sweat. If you try to go trail running in a hardshell, you might find that you become too warm even on a cold day.

Softshell jackets offer wind resistance, so again in fair-weather conditions with a breeze, they might provide all the shelter you need, but in very gusty conditions and at high altitude, you’ll still want a windproof layer on top.

If you’re camping in cold temperatures where you’re more likely to be sitting still, a properly insulated down jacket is still your best bet. 

Are softshell jackets waterproof? 

A hiker walking along a trail in the rain

Softshell jackets are typically treated to be water resistant, and they usually do not have taped seams meaning they are not fully waterproof (Image credit: Nicolas Holtzmeyer / EyeEm)

Softshell jackets are typically treated to be water resistant, and they usually do not have taped seams meaning they are not fully waterproof. So, most of them are not a replacement for a rain jacket in a deluge, but for blustery days and fair weather conditions, they will provide ample protection. 

That said, softshells do weigh more than a rain jacket, so once again you need to look at the climate where you’re likely to be exploring if you’re trying to decide between the two. Make sure you read our article on softshell vs hardshell jackets if you’re trying to make up your mind which is best for your outdoor pursuits.

Are softshell jackets worth it? 

Two hikers have a seat to look at the view of the sea

Softshell jackets are definitely worth the money, primarily because they are so versatile (Image credit: Getty)

Softshell jackets are definitely worth the money, primarily because they are so versatile. Not only do they serve as either a mid-layer or an outer layer when you’re bagging peaks, but they usually make a pretty acceptable jacket for wearing around town in the spring or the fall. If you don’t live in the Arctic Circle, you’ll most likely get more use out of your softshell than any other jacket in your outdoor kit.

Again, the stretchiness of a softshell jacket is really one of the key selling points. Made using four-way stretch fabric, softshell jackets allow great freedom of movement when you’re exerting yourself in the winter during activities like scrambling, rock climbing and skiing that require dynamic movements both in performance and adjusting your gear. 

Julia Clarke

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Adventure.com. She is an author, mountain enthusiast and yoga teacher who loves heading uphill on foot, ski, bike and belay. She recently returned to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland after 20 years living in the USA, 11 of which were spent in the rocky mountains of Vail, Colorado where she owned a boutique yoga studio and explored the west's famous peaks and rivers. She is a champion for enjoying the outdoors sustainably as well as maintaining balance through rest and meditation, which she explores in her book Restorative Yoga for Beginners, a beginner's path to healing with deep relaxation. She enjoys writing about the outdoors, yoga, wellness and travel. In her previous lives, she has also been a radio presenter, music promoter, university teacher and winemaker.