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Review: Our Top 5 Ultralight Shells

5 minimalist softshells with maximum protection

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This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of our print edition.

Ultralight Shell Jacket Rock Climbing Outdoors

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.

Best Ventilation 

bergans solund shell

Review: Bergans Solund
The most breathable jacket we tested. If you run hot or need a piece for sweatier activities, the Solund is for you. Read the full review.

Best All-Around

black diamond alpine start
black diamond alpine start

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.

Burliest Windproof


Review: Patagonia All Free Shell Jacket
Take this when you need maximum wind protection and will be groveling up wide cracks; the thicker fabric is super-tough. Read the full review. 

Wicking Warmth


Review: Rab Vapour-Rise Flex
The Vapour-Rise Flex performs best next to skin or over a tight baselayer. Increased warmth makes it ideal for high output in cold environments. 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.

Breathe Easier

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

Film: How Matt Cornell Free Soloed One of America’s Classic Hard Mixed Routes

"The Nutcracker" explores the mental challenges of solo climbing and the tactics Cornell used to help him send the route.