For all your fast-and-light pursuits.
Black Diamond Helio
Best For: Going fast and light.
The Test: Even if it remains stashed in your pack all day, a lightweight shell to shed squalls and seal in critical warmth should be part of every backcountry adventurer’s kit. And the Helio is a top-shelf choice. Cut from Gore’s supple three-layer C-Knit fabric, it’s softer, lighter, and quieter than most hard shells on the market but still totally waterproof. The sharp design suffers no excess: zippers and cuff tabs are light and lean, and the cordlocks are embedded in the fabric. Yet the pit zips and twin chest pockets are large, and the cut is roomy enough for the broad of shoulder.
The Verdict: Don’t venture past the trailhead without it. 13 oz
Outdoor Research Skyward
Best For: Resort comfort on the other side of the ropes.
The Test: The Skyward has all the premium features you’d expect in a resort cruiser, including a fleece-lined collar and a drop hood that stays clear when pushed back. It’s also got six pockets, including one for skins. But at heart, it’s a true backcountry piece. Chalk that versatility up to Outdoor Research’s impressively stretchy waterproof-breathable AscentShell fabric, which vents almost as well as a classic soft-shell material and shakes off brushes with rocks and branches. Thanks to pit zips that extend clear to the hem, we wore it on the skin track on cold days.
The Verdict: The understated workhorse of the bunch. 1.6 lbs
Mammut Ultimate Alpine So Hooded
Best For: Minimal shvitzing.
The Test: Don this soft shell on cloudless days or when you’re working up a real sweat. The Ultimate Alpine So—cut from Gore’s newest Windstopper fabric—sits in the weatherproofing sweet spot between the Black Diamond and a traditional stretchy soft shell: it won’t keep you dry in a storm, but it sheds light precipitation with aplomb. We loved it on Jackson Hole’s notorious Mount Glory bootpack, where it fended off gale-force wind and snow while breathing beautifully, especially with the pit zips and mesh-backed pockets cracked.
The Verdict: A superlight soft shell for aggressive athletes. 15 oz