Best Soft Shells of 2017
Soft shell jackets have morphed into numerous functional variations in the short life span of the category. The original designs accepted that waterproofing and breathability were opposing sides of an equation that had no real solution; the softshell gave up on waterproofing to provide a windproof, insulating and water resistant “shell” that was superior at preserving the microclimate next to the body in conditions that didn’t involve heavy rain. A windproof, yet air permeable shell material was combined with a wicking and insulating fleece type inner material. Avoiding moisture from the inside became the priority over avoiding moisture from the outside, and even light precipitation wasn’t posed as an issue as wicking materials and high vapor transfer rates allowed body heat and convection to dry the garment in short order. Even when wet, these original designs felt dry as the inner liners were designed to have little contact with the body.
The soft shell category has evolved in several directions and the primary function of the category is hard to define. It seems as any jacket that can be worn as an outer layer that isn’t a classic, non-insulating, waterproof nylon shell is tagged as soft shell. Modern versions of the original designs still remain, some adding additional waterproofness. Some have stripped down to a soft handed windproof and water resistant single layer shell. Some have really jumped the gap to have the same waterproofness as a hard shell but promise better breathability and softer, quieter and more pliable fabric.
The original opposing factors of waterproofness and breathability still exist. The manufacturers still have to choose which side of the spectrum to lay on. This test involved jackets that are on the far ends of the spectrum as well as innovative attempts at being the happy medium. A main factor in the decision of which soft shell jacket is best involves figuring out what part of the waterproofness vs breathability range your conditions and activity demand.
There is not a bad jacket in this test, but unfortunately the “miracle” fabric that is waterproof yet highly breathable has yet to be invented. Proclaiming a category winner is problematic as manufacturers target specific points on the waterproofness/breathability scale, producing garments that are specific to conditions and activity levels. The category no longer mimics the original designs that heavily favored the breathability side of the spectrum and many “soft shells” share only category designation with the predecessors. The reality may be that the outdoor enthusiast that partakes in several activities in all conditions will desire a quiver of jackets to truly be comfortable at all times.
The Patagonia KnifeRidge Jacket was proclaimed the winner of this test; it didn’t display a single superior characteristic, but it performed well over the range of attributes evaluated. Highly waterproof, windproof and compressible, yet retaining some breathability and possessing the right number of features, it checked the most boxes. A winner had to be chosen but read each report carefully as your particular demands may clearly favor a jacket that wasn’t necessarily the category winner.