For diehard gear geeks, there’s no more exciting category right now than jackets. Experimentation is the name of the game, with companies trying out new cuts, materials, and construction techniques. Weights are in free fall—the lightest shell in our test came in under three ounces—while just about everything has built-in stretch, boosting freedom of movement and comfort. Designers are mixing and matching fabrics in novel ways, using bio-mapping to create jackets that are thicker where they need to be and thinner where they don’t. Even bedrock concepts of how waterproof-breathable shells should be pieced together are being upended. (Exhibit A: our Gear of the Year winner.) The result is a drier, warmer, happier you. We tested dozens of new jackets over five months. These ten were our favorites.
Columbia OutDry Ex Diamond
Gear of the Year
Outdoor brands have been making rainjackets the same way, more or less, since Bob Gore discovered ePTFE in 1969: sandwich a waterproof-breathable membrane between two layers of fabric. Since then it’s been a long process of micro-refinements. Columbia thought it could do better. Its new OutDry Ex Diamond eliminates the outer fabric layer entirely, putting the membrane directly on the outside of the jacket. Don’t let the shiny rain-slicker look fool you: it dumped heat better than most soft shells. And unlike three-layer shells, it didn’t wet out in heavy downpours. The OutDry Ex Diamond is also supremely durable: testers raked it over rocks and branches up and down Canada’s west coast but couldn’t tear it. For those who run, climb, and bike in wet climes, there’s suddenly a new paradigm to consider.
Price $400 Weight 15 oz
Best For: Style points.
The Test: This is a standout piece in a number of ways. Cotopaxi sources the light, wind-resistant fabric from other companies’ waste, collecting scraps from the cutting-room floors of Chinese factories. For that reason, almost every shell is unique, with six colors—blue, orange, white, brown, gray, and red—that change depending on current supply. With its three-quarter zipper and giant kangaroo pouch, the Aguateca is great for throwing over a few layers at camp or cruising to the café. Warning: the big pocket carries everything from your phone to snacks, but it’s easy to overstuff.
The Verdict: “A fun, casual windbreaker,” said one tester. “It’s more weatherproof than it looks.”
Price $80 Weight 7 oz
Montane Dynamo Via
Best For: High-intensity workouts.
The Test: On dry days, the Dynamo Via is a stellar workout companion. The secret sauce: a lightweight, stretchy fabric that wicks on the inside while deflecting breezes. In cool weather, we closed the full-length front zipper, huddled in the high collar, and used the thumb loops to pull the cuffs over our fingers. As the temperatures climbed, we cracked open the mesh-backed side pockets to vent excess body heat. The clever little things won us over, too, including the dead-quiet fabric, articulated arms, and darts in back, which kept the sleeves and drop hem from riding up.
The Verdict: A svelte soft shell that likes to play.
Price $139 Weight 9.9 oz
Best For: Vanishing in your pocket.
The Test: Patagonia calls the Houdini a running jacket, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Our testers packed it every time the weather looked iffy—whether they were biking, paddling, hiking, or running. It stuffs into its chest pocket, balling down to about the size of an orange, and weighs under four ounces. “It basically disappears in a pack and even fits in my bike jersey,” noted one tester. Unfurled on a windy ridge in preparation for an afternoon shower, the 15-denier ripstop nylon (treated with a water-repellant coating) provided just enough protection without adding too much warmth. The cut is athletic but will accommodate a layer or two underneath.
The Verdict: A classic, now with a deeper hood and bigger chest pocket.
Price $99 Weight 3.6 oz
Stio Crester Soft Shell
Best For: Your daily go-to.
The Test: A stretchy soft shell like the Crester is the workhorse of your closet. It’s neither exceptionally light nor breathable, and it doesn’t boast an impressive tech résumé. It just gets the job done, be it bike commuting (a generous dose of spandex keeps things from feeling confined), running (the face fabric is plenty breathable), or hiking (no need to worry about short showers, thanks to the DWR coating). It’s also perfect for a little extra warmth when you’re doing yard work or walking the dog. And it emerged from months of heavy use looking brand-new.
The Verdict: A jacket you’ll wear around for years.
Price $139 Weight 13 oz
Best For: Ultralight rain protection.
The Test: The Hyper kept testers dry four hours into a pounding rainstorm. The crazy part? It weighs just 3.5 ounces and stuffs into the hip pocket of a backpack. On mountain-bike rides, the shell deflected precipitation without getting greenhouse humid, while a bushwhack to a waterfall in Quebec didn’t puncture the translucent fabric. The minimal bungee wrists do a decent job keeping water from running into the sleeves, and the bare-bones hood stayed cinched tight in a gale. The fit is trim, but we were able to squeeze two layers under it without feeling bloated.
The Verdict: No pockets here, but when weight matters most, this is your shell.
Price: $155 Weight: 3.5 oz
The North Face FuseForm Dot Matrix
Best For: Rain-soaked adventures.
The Test: It may look like your average waterproof-breathable, but the Dot Matrix is a brilliant example of smart engineering. It’s made from a fabric that’s strategically woven with different properties: high-wear areas (the shoulders and upper back) utilize tough nylon for durability, while the body gets thinner polyester to boost breathability. The technique allows for fewer seams, resulting in a superlight shell. Some pined for a chest pocket, but otherwise the features are spot-on, including a well-sized hood and hidden hem cinches.
The Verdict: “My new number one for rain and wind,” said one tester.
Price $200 Weight 13 oz
Millet Dual Generation
Best For: Ultimate versatility.
The Test: We can’t decide whether the Dual Generation is a super-protective midlayer or a minimalist jacket, but we do know that it works brilliantly for a huge range of activities. One tester took it mountaineering on Saturday, then wore it on his bike commute Monday through Friday. “It literally changed how I dress every day,” he raved. The fleece-windbreaker hybrid uses a wind-shell-like fabric on the chest to keep you warm even in a headwind. Meanwhile the lightweight synthetic on the arms and back dumps body heat. The cut is athletic, allowing the piece to fit snugly over a base layer or slide under a tailored shell.
The Verdict: Part fleece, part windbreaker. Bring it instead of both.
Price $130 Weight 9.9 oz
Outdoor Research Ferrosi Summit
Best For: Gear abusers.
The Test: One intrepid tester didn’t think twice about wearing the Ferrosi on a three-day sufferfest through Vancouver Island’s brutally thick forest. The body is made from a stretchy fabric stitched with Cordura—the same stuff used in the cuffs of ski pants and motorcycle race suits. “I bashed through devil’s club and alder, and then body-smeared up a chimney on a rock climb,” our tester reported. When he got home, a quick wash returned the jacket to bar-ready apparel. The trim cut is offset by lots of stretch, making it an attractive shell that fits as well as it moves.
The Verdict: Not nearly as light as other soft shells, but it’ll last forever, and the fit is superb.
Price $165 Weight 18.6 oz
Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody
Best For: Adding a bit of heat.
The Test: This is one utilitarian layer.
We wore it while climbing, hiking, and hanging around camp, and on chilly runs and bike rides throughout the summer. Credit the extreme versatility to the nearly transparent Coreloft synthetic insulation swaddled in a windproof shell, making the top both breathable and plenty warm for cool morn-ings in the high alpine. The details are spot on, too, from the helmet-compatible hood and massive front pockets (which play nicely with hipbelts and harnesses) to the stretchy fleece panels under the arms and well-tailored cuffs.
The Verdict: Does everything you need—unless it’s raining.
Price $229 Weight 17.5 oz