So what's softshell and what's it for? As far as these seven lightweight versions go, we'd say that they're ideally suited for those spring and summer mountain days when you need a little more weather protection than you get from a fleece, but more breathability than you'd get with a full waterproof jacket or a windshell.
They should be able to take the edge off the wind and cope with light to medium rain, but still be breathable enough to cope with you going hard and fast in milder conditions. Team with a lighweight base layer and throw one of the new generation of lightweight waterproof jackets in your pack and you're good to go.
Softshell is confusing because the term has been applied to so many different types of fabric from barely wind-resistant stuff right through to material that's near enough waterproof. But for our money the best options are non-membrane, densely woven fabrics with a water resistant treatment that retain a lot of breathability but still keep the worst of the weather out.
Again there's a lot of choice here from simple smocks through to fully-featured mountain jackets. It's all down to personal choice and what you're doing. Do you need a helmet hood? Are you a runner who'll carry next to nothing and can make do with a single small pocket? Do you like your fit to be snug, loose or somewhere in between - stretch fabrics give a lot of lassitude in fit, so that too might be a consideration.
We've picked out seven - yes, we know there are only six in the image above - of the best softshells from well-known outdoors brands ranging from the minimal and simple through to more complex designs and outlined the pros and cons of each along with an idea of what each jacket is best for. Just scroll down the page on jump straight to your favourite brands using the links below.
Arc'teryx Gamma SL Hybrid Hoody - £170 / 370g
You can't beat Arc'teryx for cut and detailing and the Gamma SL Hybrid Hoody is predictably beautifully cut, made and designed. The fabric is light and stretchy, which makes it unrestrictive in climbing situations and it's zoned so there are tougher panels on shoulders, sleeves and hips. They've even added removable foam tubes in the hem prevent it from riding up under a harness.
We've also found it to be brilliantly breathable, albeit at the expense of a little wind protection making it a good choice on warm, breezy days and while it's intended as a fast-moving alpine jacket, we've also used it for biking and general basing around the hills - the pronounced drop-tail works well on a bike too.
Last but not least, for climbing use, the Storm Hood and stretch fabric work really well with a helmet and the laminated brim is just stiff enough, but it also has enough adjustment to cope with a bare head.
Yes it's expensive, but both fit, construction and performance are excellent.
Great cut and design, proper mountain hood, nice balance of protection and breathability and a decent weight for what it is. Stretch helps with overall mobility and while it's early days, it seems tough for a lightweight.
Technical mountain use in 70% conditions and below, but versatile enough for more general outdoor wear.
Brand Product Page www.arcteryx.com.
Haglöfs Boa Hood - £130 / 460g
The Boa's made from the same tough-feeling and breathable fabric as the Lizard Top, but is a much more comprehensively featured package with a full-length front zip with backing flap, a head-hugging hood, pockets and thumb-loops.
Not surprisingly the fabric works the same as the Lizard with decent wind and rain resistance - it shrugs off sleet and snow too -adn great mobility from the stretch, but the design makes it more suitable for all-round mountain use and it also has a great, slimmer cut in the body, which makes it a better bet for layering under close-fitting shells. The thumb-loops we can take or leave, but the good thing is that when they're not in use, they're completely unobtrusive.
Finally, the close-fitting hood works well on a bare head - no peak though - and sits easily under a helmet, though it's also stretchy enough to go over the top of one if you choose.
Great, close-fitting cut, good balance of weather protection and breathability, tough fabric.
DWR needs occasional renewal to maintain water resistance, not as windproof as membrane-type soft shells and heavier than more minimal designs.
All-round mountain and outdoors use from cold condition running and biking through to walking and climbing. Proper jack of all trades and good at them too.
Brand Product Page www.haglofs.com.
Haglöfs Lizard Top - £100 / 350g
Another old favourite, the Lizard Top is a simple, stretchy pull-on that's surprisingly wind resistant and reasonably breathable too helped by panels under the arms. The four-way stretch makes it great for climbing or scrambling use - no restriction to movement here - and the fabric, the same as the Lizard Shorts, is surprising durable with it.
The stretch also means you can layer it over a microfleece if you want a little more warmth, or just over a base-layer top in summer. The only down is that the 10% elastane content, which gives the fabric stretch, also means it doesn't wick quite as fast as, say, pure Polyester and it gets a little sweaty if you really hammer things.
Simple design with tough fabric and reasonable weather protection. Stretch gives good mobility too.
No head protection, just one pocket and elastane content limits wicking slightly when the going gets fierce.
Ideal for those days when you might wear a thin fleece but want a little more wind protection and perhaps the ability to laugh at light drizzle...
Brand Product Page www.haglofs.com.
Marmot Vapor Trail Hoody - £130 / 400g
Another stretchy, hooded all-rounder, the Vapor Trail Hody stands out here by its use of different zoned fabrics. The side and back - dark blue in the picture - are a very thin, very breathable stretch fabric, the front and hood and outer sleeves are pretty much completely windproof and the front is lined with Marmot's DriClime tricot for a bit of extra warmth.
Cut is medium, nowhere near as close as the ME one, but good if you want a little extra space and the scope to layer underneath. What we've found with this and similar jackets is that they work pretty well as long as you're churning out the heat and conditions are reasonably still. Where they become slightly less comfortable is in cooler climes with strong winds which cut straight through those side panels and cool you down fast, sometimes too fast. That means occasionally adding a waterproof/windproof layer to stay comfortable, particularly if you're not moving fast.
If you are staying aerobic and active though, we found the jacket works pretty well. Pockets clear pack belts and harnesses, the floppy peak isn't ideal but the hood fits well enough without a helmet and can stretch ovber one too if needed. One last point, like the ME jacket, the Marmot is mostly polyester, so while it feels soft andd wicks well, it may be less durable than a Nylon equivalent in the longer term.
Nice feeling fabrics, porous side panels dump heat well, front gives good wind protection, good balance of wicking, breathability and performance.
Icy winds cut straight through the side panels which can be an issue if you're really churning out the heat. Small question markk over polyester durability in the long term.
All-round, hot-running folk in still to medium conditions.
Brand Product Page www.marmot.com.
Mountain Equipment Javelin Jacket - £120 / 340g
Mountain Equipment really upped its soft shell game when it introduced the Javelin last year. It's a soft-feeling, stretchy and really closely cut - closer cut than anything else here in fact - design with a proper helmet hood that gives great fit and mobility for efficient layering, enough weather protection for most conditions and really good wicking and breathability.
Some of that, we think, is because it uses polyester with a denier gradient structure to move moisture outwards and polyester tends to wick better than the Polyamide or Nylon that most soft shell uses. The pay-off over really long term use may be reduced durability, but so far, ours has been fine, gives decent wind resistance and, as long as you keep the DWR topped up, shrugs off light rain and snow as well.
In short it's a cracking, close-fitting, technical mountain soft shell that works really well most of the time. If you want even more protection, take a look at ME's Orbital Jacket, which is slightly heavier, but uses more protective fabric in a similarly slick design.
Brilliant fit, excellent helmet hood and a nice blend of wicking, breathability and mid-range weather protection and it's really nicely made too.
A slight question mark against the long-term durability of polyester compared to Nylon. Close fit may put off some buyers.
Climby-types who run hot and want a close-fitting, unrestrictive, slick, technical soft shell. It can do double duty for running and biking if needed too.
Brand Product Page www.mountain-equipment.co.uk.
Rab Boreas Pull-on - £45 / 310g
The Boreas has been around since 2011 now and it's oddly brilliant. Rab see it as a sort of sun protection shell for summer use with a bit of added wind protection, but we've found it works brilliantly from spring through to autumn on those days when you want just a little more than a base-layer top, but not very much more. Climbing in a sea-breeze, running on a fresh spring evening, that sort of thing.
It's super stretchy, super simple, the hood sits under a helmet if that's the way you roll and it's decently breathable too. It's not the fastest wicking thing around, probably thanks to the 14% Spandex, but its not a deal-breaker either. If it were, it wouldn't be one of our most-used mild-weather shells, which it is.
The one weak pointon the original was a tendency to develop a bit of a whiff with prolonged use, but that's been tackled for this spring with a new Polygiene® STAY FRESH odour control treatment.
Light, comfortable, breathable, stretchy and with an uncanny ability to offer 'just enough' extra protection and amazing value even at the full £45 RRP.
Not the most windproof option or the fastest wicking, but oddly that doesn't seem to matter.
Mild weather, 'just enough' all-round protection when you need a little more than a base-layer top to be comfortable.
Brand Product Page rab.uk.com.
Rab Vapour-rise Lite Alpine Jacket - £120 / 310g
VR Lite is Rab's excellent Vapour-rise clothing system on a diet, with lightened up inner and outer fabrics, but the same brillant balance between awesome breathing and wicking and seven-tenths levels of weather protection. We've used ours for everything - it's great for fast-moving stuff in really cold conditions or pottering about on breezy days when it's milder. The fit is excellent if you like slim and close and everything from hood to cuffs is adjustable, there's a wired peak too.
It's even surprisingly good in light rain as long as you keep reproofing the outer occasionally. It's not 100% windproof, but if you run hot and prioritise heat loss, then thats not a huge issue and most of the time it's more than enough protection.
One of our favourite softshells ever and totally recommended.
Light, comfortable with insanely good wicking and breathability in a fully adjustable package, the hood just about takes a helmet but will also sit underneath one if you prefer. Roomy chest pockets too.
Slim fit won't suit everyone and the pay-off for the breathability is that Pertex Equilibrium isn't 100% windproof, you also need to reproof the outside occasionally to maintain performance in light rain.
People who want a cracking balance between breathability, wicking and drying performance and don't mind the slight reduction in weather resistance that's the pay-off for that.
Brand Product Page rab.uk.com.
There can only be one winner, right?
There Can Be Only One?
In reality all seven of these shells are pretty damn good. What they share, once you've got your head round owning one, is an ability to surprise you with their balance between protection, breathability and lightness.
They all have slightly different designs and qualities though, which we've tried to bring out in the individual summaries, and there honestly - and this isn't just journalistic fence-sitting - no losers here, they all work.
That said, if we were forced to choose just one of these for an all-round gig, Rab's unusual Vapour-rise Lite Alpine - above - would be high on the list. It wicks and dries with demonic speed, works well layered under a shell or on its own and is incredibly versatile - we've used it for everything from winter running through to big mountain days in summer conditions.
But, come to think of it, the Arc'teryx Gamma SL ticks a whole lot of boxes too, while ME's Javelin is a cracking technical mountain top and the Haglöfs Boa Hood does a great all-round job, as does the Marmot.
In short, they all work with slightly different strengths and weaknesses, which means the good news is that you can't go far wrong with any of them.