If you want a breathable and wind-resistant layer to wear over your T-shirt (or base layer) when you’re confident it won’t rain, then consider a softshell for your outdoor adventures…
The test: At the budget end of the market is the Troggings. For those Rohan fans out there, the name will be familiar: it’s essentially the jacket form of their best-selling trousers.
Made from a tough, breathable and water-repellent fabric, it’s also fleece-backed, meaning that the outside is hard-wearing yet the inside is soft against your skin. As such, it’s a little warmer than some here, but that does mean some versatility; for instance, this can be used effectively in colder conditions as a warming mid-layer under a waterproof.
There are two zipped pockets, which are more about hand-warming and are not mesh-lined. The hem is adjustable via cords, but not the cuffs. Also, as you’d expect with a model at this price point, there’s no draught excluder behind the zip. It’s not too close-fitting and looks less in-your-face sporty than others here. At 240g (UK size 10) it’s the third-lightest on test, but the main drawback (for some) will be the lack of a hood, which – though not necessary on a softshell – can help keep you warm against the biting wind.
The verdict: Well-priced, with a fair amount of features and a smarter look, though the lack of a hood could be a deal-breaker.
Features: ★★★✩ ✩
The test: For a true just-in-case option, you can’t go wrong with Páramo’s well-priced Alize (women) and Ostro (men) jackets.
Made from a robust but super-lightweight fabric, it tips the scales at 155g (size S) – more than 60g lighter than the second-lightest here. It’s also breathable and water-repellent, and if paired with the brand’s fleece of the same name, the two combined make it near-waterproof due to the directional technology in the fabric that moves water away. Its adjustable hood has a stiff peak to help reshape it out of the bag.
This jacket was clearly designed for the active traveller, as it comes with two zipped vents in the front that act as access points to the pockets inside. One pocket comes with a ‘lid’, so is suitable for a phone; the other is deeper, so good for passports, etc.
The jacket can even be packed down into its pocket for ease of travel. It has elasticated cuffs and a cord adjustable hem for a good fit. But there’s no draught-excluding zip, so while it is warm, it wouldn’t stay that way if caught in heavy rain.
The verdict: Tiny, light and with good features at a competitive price, this is perfect as a just-in-case option for the active traveller.
The Test: Pay a little more and you can get an all-singing, all-dancing jacket. Made from a wind-resistant, tough and very breathable fabric, this is water-repellent and has an incredible amount of stretch, meaning a good fit that doesn’t feel restrictive.
It has a hood that’s helmet compatible and fully adjustable, with stiffened peak and a wire for quick re-shaping – there’s even a super-comfortable chinguard. But it can also be rolled away easily and secured, so it doesn’t get in your way.
The zip is two-way, so can be opened to vent easily – even if you’re wearing a rucksack or harness – and features a full-length draught excluder and popper to hold it against the wind. It has two pockets, which are mesh on one side (for ventilation) and lined on the other (for hand warming), and the women’s version has a concealed chest pocket (the men’s has two zipped ones).
The cuffs are velcro-adjusted, the hem cord is adjustable, and the fit is comfortable. The only niggle is that all this comes with a bit more weight – at 397g (UK size 10) it’s the third-heaviest on test.
The verdict: Great features, and all at a good price, with the only downside being a slightly heavier weight. But it’s a small price to pay…
The test: At the same price point as Montane’s offering, the Ranger feels a bit more robust, courtesy of its brush-stretched fabric. It easily sheds water, protects you from wind and allows good freedom of movement due to the panels on its side.
It also features sleeves that don’t ride up too much, either. With a sportier design than others featured here, it does come up a little shorter in the body than some, though not ridiculously so – and some may prefer that.
It has two zipped pockets, both mesh-lined to aid ventilation, and an adjustable hood with a stiffened peak that helps it to keep its shape after being packed. Its cuffs are velcro-adjusted for a good fit and the hem is cord-adjusted, too.
There’s an extra zipped pocket on the arm, and behind the main zip is also a draught excluder. There’s a chinguard, too, though not as soft as the Montane one. Once again, the good features on this jacket come with an increased weight: at 411g (UK size 10) this is the second-heaviest jacket on test.
The verdict: A robust jacket with some good features, but with its slightly heavier weight and fewer finishing touches, the Montane offering pips it to the post.
The test: Pay more and you get softshells designed for specific purposes. For instance, you can see the panels of synthetic insulation immediately on the front and back of the Atom, making this ideal for those heading for colder climates.
But Arc’Teryx hasn’t gone overboard; it’s not too hot inside, allowing this to be a just-in-case jacket as well as an effective mid-layer in cold weather, giving it great versatility. The fabric is water-repellent, wind-resistant and moisture- resistant, and the stretch it offers, combined with clever design touches like articulated elbows and gusseted underarms, means it moves well.
Behind the zip is a slimline draught excluder, and there is a chinguard for comfort. The hem is cord-adjusted, to keep the wind out, and while the cuffs are not, they are stretchy and longer over the front of the hand, offering a great fit.
At the front are two hand-warming pockets, while the hood is adjustable and has a reinforced peak. But most impressive is that this all comes in at just 217g (UK, size 10), making it the second-lightest here.
The verdict: A well-designed option for those heading somewhere colder or who feel the cold more and need to save on weight.
The test: Pushing the limits of a technical softshell, mountaineering brand Mammut uses Gore Windstopper to offer excellent protection – it’s water-resistant, too – and has good ventilation, making it very versatile.
There are underarm ‘pit zips’, to help keep things breathable, and the two front pockets are both mesh-lined, with one designed to allow for a headphones cord. The cuffs aren’t adjustable but have been well thought out, with good stretch and a thumb loop, meaning they fit so close that cold air can’t get in. The hem isn’t adjustable, either, but the stretch of the fabric compensates.
The main zip is two-way and has a draught excluder – as does the collar, which also comes with a chinguard. The hood is adjustable and has been designed with a sectioned-off peak to keep its shape.
The nifty extra touch is that the jacket’s drawstrings (to adjust it) are fitted inside, so you don’t have to fiddle with them in the cold. The only issue – other than the price – is the weight: at 442g (UK, size S) it’s the heaviest on test.
The verdict: All you’d need, complete with some clever touches. Only the higher price and weight mean that it loses out on top spot.
Weight: ★★★✩ ✩
We asked gear manufacturers to submit the softshell jackets that they felt were most suitable for travellers. From the 12 we were sent, our editor, Phoebe Smith, then delved into the top six to see which offered the best balance of weight and protection at a comparatively good price. The jackets covered here are all Wanderlust approved, with a ‘Value Buy’ and overall ‘Best in Test’ being indicated where applicable.
As softshell jackets are not meant to be waterproof, it’s not vital that they have hoods. It’s solely a case of personal choice whether or not you want one, but if you do, an adjustable hood that fits well is a good idea, so that when you turn your head, the hood moves withyou. To use on activities (cycling, kayaking, climbing, horseriding), opt for one that is helmet compatible.
These can be useful for maps, tickets, important documents and phones. Some people like lots; but remember, they will add weight. Mesh ones offer better ventilation, and zips will help keep your things secure.
For flexibility in a multitude of conditions, look for a wind-stopping fabric that is breathable and water-resistant (so it will keep you dry during a short shower). You don’t want anything that will keep you too warm, so avoid very heavy or ‘fleecey’ options. However, underarm vents (aka ‘pit zips’) can help to regulate your temperature.
With ever-decreasing luggage allowances, this is an ever-present concern. Do remember, though, that a light weight might be great, but you will always sacrifice some features, such as a hood, extra pockets or warmth.
Softshells are designed with those who are active in mind: think cycling, walking, scrambling, kayaking, etc. The fabric therefore usually offers a good level of stretch and is normally a closer fit, so that it moves with your body. Do raise your arms up above your head when trying it on, to make sure it doesn’t rise up too high. Consider a mens-or womens-specific fit.
To help with draughts, look for internal stormflaps (strips of fabric) – these will also help keep you dry if you get caught in a sudden rain shower.
You want the cuffs and waist to fit closely to stop the cold air from getting in. Look for adjustable or elasticated hems to help with this.
Main image: Mammut softshell jacket (Mammut)