Will Renwick explains what to look for when choosing a softshell jacket for hiking and tests out eight options on the market
A waterproof jacket is designed to keep you dry and a fleece is worn to retain warmth. But what should you expect from a softshell?
In many ways, they seem to have been created as a halfway house between the two. Even the best waterproof jackets can cause a degree of clamminess, especially on ascents. A fleece will keep you warm, but the downside is that it will soak up even the lightest rain and often won’t offer much in the way of wind protection. A good softshell finds the middle ground and offers resistance to both wind and rain while also allowing more breathability than a waterproof.
With the right layering, a good softshell can be worn all-year-round and all-day-long as well – potentially removing the irritation of regular stops to add or take off a layer (in all but heavy or prolonged rain). For this reason, a softshell is particularly useful for high tempo or strenuous activities.
For any hike in the UK’s mountains (where rain is nearly always a risk) carrying a waterproof jacket is essential. With this in mind, some hikers – particularly backpackers – might forgo a softshell, choosing to put up with the frustration of regular stops to remove or add a waterproof rather than having to carry the extra grams. For the TGO Challenge this May, for instance, I won’t be packing a softshell and will rely on a simple fleece and waterproof jacket layering, purely to keep weight down.
However, for my next day trip in the Brecon Beacons when weight isn’t too much of a factor, I’d certainly opt for a softshell to keep out the wind.
Softshells vary in the extent to which they balance weather protection, warmth, weight and breathability. Some are thin and lightweight with a moderate level of weather protection but high breathability – these are best suited to strenuous activities. There are also hard-wearing, thick softshells that are much warmer but often less breathable – these are better suited to tougher conditions. The jackets tested cover both of these variations and just about everything in-between. I have reviewed each one with year-round day walking in mind.
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Softshells are normally made from stretchy woven fabric and the amount of weather protection this will afford depends on how tight the weave is. There are also products that use a membrane similar to that found in waterproof jackets – these might offer more weather protection but they can also be less breathable.
I prefer hillwalking softshells to include a hood that offers a level of protection from both wind and rain. Softshells designed primarily for activities like running and cycling might not have hoods. The best hoods will have points of adjustment and a stiffened peak.
A softshell should be comfortable over a baselayer or even a midlayer in winter, and should also fit under a waterproof if necessary.
Ideally a jacket will have handwarmers for extra protection from the wind, and these will be large enough and placed appropriately to access when wearing a hipbelt. A pocket that will fit a map is also useful.
Wide cuffs are useful for ventilation; these will normally have Velcro-style adjustments and can be pulled over a glove. If the cuffs are elasticised, check that they hold closely and comfortably to the wrist.
Note. They all come in different colours… they aren’t just blue and black!