This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of our print edition.
Not as warm as a fleece and not as protective as a hard shell, it can be difficult for some climbers to figure out the best use for a softshell. One tester even asked, “When am I gonna wear this?” after we handed him his test jacket. But once he took the lightweight, packable, inexpensive, breathable, and durable layer out, he quickly realized the answer to his question—“Everywhere.” From adding a touch of warmth on early-morning Teton approaches to cutting gales on granite spires in the Bugaboos to shedding surprise squalls in Mexico, our testers tried out 10 of the absolute lightest jackets we could find to pick these five top-performing models.
Review: Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody
With a full-zip design, hood, super-stretchy fabric, great breathability, excellent durability, and wind and water resistance, there’s nothing to dislike about the Alpine Start Hoody. Read the full review.
Ultra-Light on a Budget
Review: Outdoor Research Whirlwind Hoody
If you like to put a piece on and forget about it, this extremely airy half-zip cuts wind, sheds light precipitation, and provides a smidge of warmth. Read the full review.
Sweat regulation is one of the hardest things for a fabric to do successfully, and modern softshell materials are designed specifically with high-level aerobic output in mind. Sweat and heat need to escape through the fabric without letting cold or moisture back in—all while being durable, stretchy, and comfortable. Softshell fabrics can be grouped into two categories: stretch-woven and membranes. Stretch-woven fabrics (like all the jackets in this test) regulate heat better because of their porous nature, allowing sweat to evaporate through a loosely woven and highly elastic material. Membrane fabrics (like that on heavier softshells) are structurally closer to a 2.5- or 3-layer hard shell and are typically warmer and more weatherproof—great for belaying on a cold day—but they don’t breathe as well. —Max Ritter