Hands-on Gear Review
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Pros: Lightweight and compact, proven durability, exceptionally comfortable, near perfect features, attractive styling.
Cons: No handwarmer pockets could be a drawback for some people.
Best Uses: Hiking, climbing, skiing, all-purpose use.
The Arcteryx Alpha FL has proven itself as our testers' favorite and most used hardshell jacket. Trip after trip we reach for this jacket more than any other because of its lightweight, compact design, exceptionally ergonomic fit, astonishing durability, near perfect features, and stylish aesthetics. Despite its mere 10.7 oz. weight, the jacket has held up to two years of backpacking, alpine climbing, bushwhacking, backcountry skiing, and globe trotting. It’s both light enough to join you on a day hike and tough enough to handle serious long-term thrashing on extended trips in remote areas, where reliability is critical. If we were to own one waterproof jacket it would be the Alpha FL.
Check out our complete Hardshell Jacket Review to compare all of the jackets tested.
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review
The Alpha FL has one external zippered chest pocket, a helmet compatible hood, and velcro wrist closures. The jacket is simple and these features are exceptionally well designed. This jacket is one of only two tested that receive 10 out of 10 points for features.
The full-length zipper and highly breathable membrane eliminate the need for pit zips. The velcro wrist closures are thin yet grippy; we found that they remained stickier longer than other closures in snowy and ice conditions- great benefit for ice and alpine climbing.
The Alpha FL’s expansive hood is very comfortable whether it’s worn with or without a helmet. This is the only lightweight hardshell we’ve tested that has three hood drawcords, a significant advantage that dramatically increases comfort compared to the light shells that only have one cord (like the Patagonia M10).
The zipper is also worth discussing because its operation is nearly effortless. Unlike many other hardshells that use urethane coated "water tight" zippers, opening the Alpha FL to ventilate is super fast and super easy. Just the way it should be.
ice climbing traverse of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, where he “hiked a bunch of 4000 footers and did three long alpine ice climbs.” This tester chose the Alpha FL because of its extra large chest pocket that “held a map, compass, and [energy] bars better than other shells.”
Indeed, the Alpha FL has the largest single chest pocket of any jacket we’ve tested. Its extra space compared to other hardshells is wonderful for stashing things on the go. The single chest pocket is our testers' favorite pocket configuration for hardshell jackets because it is easy to open--just reach across the chest and pull down-- even while on the move and while wearing a pack or harness, or both.
There are three reasons why our testers prefer chest pockets to handwarmer pockets.
(1) Handwarmer pockets are rarely effective at warming your hands in the backcountry.
In warm weather we've found that our hands often get wet regardless of a jacket’s pocket design. Then, the challenge is keeping our hands warm when wet. In cold conditions the challenge is keeping our hands warm, and the large gloves and mittens we all wear rarely fit inside of hardshell handwarmer pockets. Even when they do, there's often little benefit because the pockets are uninsulated. Further, when we are walking at a reasonable pace our hands will either be swinging at our sides, gripping trekking poles, or firmly attached to ice tools.
(2) Chest pockets are easier to access. Handwarmer pockets are difficult to access when compared to chest pockets that have a zipper in the center of the chest. Lifting your right hand up and in, to your right armpit, to reach a zipper is a lot harder than reaching it across to the center of your chest. Try it.
(3) Chest pockets provide more storage space. In order to make a handwarmer pocket accessible while wearing a pack the zipper needs to be relatively near the center of your chest, away from a pack's shoulder strap. Unfortunately, this dramatically reduces the width of the pocket; you have little storage space for your hands and other things. In contrast, chest pockets with zippers in the center, near the jacket's main zipper, can create a voluminous pocket.
For these reasons we prefer chest pockets and have found that handwarmer pockets are best for urban environments when we are caught out in the rain without gloves. However, we acknowledge that some people love handwarmer pockets. If you're one of them consider the Arcteryx Beta FL, which is described more below, or the Patagonia Super Pluma.
For a more detailed discussion of hardshell jacket features see our Hardshell Jacket Buying Advice.
The Alpha FL has best-in-class fit, feel, and ergonomics. After two years of testing we’ve revised our scoring to reflect feedback from numerous testers. This is the only hardshell tested that receives 10 out of 10 points for mobility.
One tester used the jacket for the Isolation Traverse, a 33-mile ski mountaineering tour though North Cascades high peaks and glaciers with 24,000 ft. of elevation gain. He came back raving about the Alpha FL’s ergonomic arm design and said that this was the most comfortable hardshell he’s used. (He’s tested at least 10 top-tier shells). He also spoke eloquently about the Alpha FL’s attractive looks, which are considerably more stylish than the boxy Patagonia M10.
The Alpha FL uses Gore-Tex Active membrane, which is Gore’s most breathable membrane. Several other ultralight hardshells with thinner face fabrics, such as the Mountain Hardwear Blazar and Haglofs Gram Comp Pull score slightly higher in our breathability tests, but difference is slight. More importantly, unlike those two jackets, the Alpha FL has a full-length zipper that allows fast and easy ventilation. Our testers consistently find that the ability to ventilate is more important that a small difference in fabric breathability.
The breathability of any waterproof breathable jacket is limited by the condition of its durable water resistant (DWR) chemical coating. When the DWR wears off the face fabric will “wet out” and breathability will drop dramatically. This totally sucks, but it unavoidable. DWR is the Achilles heel of waterproof breathable jackets. No DWR coating is as durable as we wish it was; all wear off relatively quickly. For this reason, it’s important to wash any hardshell frequently and reapply DWR coating. See the video at the bottom of this page for wash instructions.
Though we sympathize with the user review below that describes dissatisfaction with the Alpha FL's DWR coating, we have not found that the jacket's DWR coating is any less durable than other hardshell jackets. All DWR coatings wear off relatively quickly and need to be reapplied. Improving DWR coatings is the best way to improve the comfort of waterproof breathable jackets. C'mon chemists, we are waiting!!
The Alpha FL uses two different face fabrics. a 30 denier plain weave covers the torso and a more durable 40 denier fabric reinforces the shoulders, hood, elbows, and wrist. This is one of the main reasons the jacket scores so well in this category; it’s nearly as durable as some shells that weigh 4-6 oz. more.
Our testing shows that once weight drops below a certain level hardshell durability declines dramatically. The Alpha FL is right at the tipping point. It’s much more durable than jackets that weigh 2-3 oz. less. For example, we've tested other $450 jackets that weigh less, such as the Mountain Hardwear Blazar, but get shredded within one week of hard use. The Alpha FL replaces Arc’teryx’s Alpha SV as our Editor’s Choice winner partly due to its stellar performance in our long-term tests. We feel that it's ideal sweet spot between low weight and expedition level longevity. However, if you want an expedition style jacket for a multi-month foray into Siberia, are a full-time mountain guide, or just want the security of body armor, consider the Alpha SV.
Our medium Alpha FL weighs 10.7 ounces. The jacket is lightweight, but not superlight. If saving weight is your #1 concern we suggest either the 8 oz. Patagonia M10 or, if you want to go really light, consider the ZPacks Waterproof Breathable Cuben Fiber Rain Jacket, which only weighs 4.9 oz.
The Alpha FL packs into its own small included stuff sack, see below.
The combination of low weight, high breathability, fantastic features, and a great fit make this jacket one of the most versatile we’ve tested. If you prefer two handwarmer pockets for around town consider the Arcteryx Beta FL (see blow), or Patagonia Super Pluma.
Like most hardshells the Alpha FL is cut for active use. There's enough room to wear a lightweight fleece jacket, such as the Patagonia R1 Hoody AND a midweight insulated jacket such as the Rab Xenon or Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer underneath, but there is not enough space to wear a massive puffy jacket like the Patagonia DAS or Feathered Friends Volant. We've found that this fit is ideal for 99% of applications. However, if you do a lot of standing around in cold, rainy environments and need to put a big puffy jacket (again, think Patagonia DAS size) underneath your shell then we suggest a jacket with an expedition fit, such as the Arcteryx Alpha SV.
We have heard that Arcteryx's larger sizes work well for generously sized people. If for some reason you find the opposite consider the Patagonia M10, which has a slightly boxier cut than the Alpha FL.
The Alpha FL is best suited to ice and alpine climbing. It is also our testers favorite jacket for backcountry skiing and works very well for many other activities.
The Alpha FL is our testers' go-to hardshell for everything from backpacking to climbing, to general use around town. When presented with a box full of 21 jackets and asked to choose one jacket to keep, the vast majority of testers jumped right for the Alpha FL.
The women's version of this jacket is the Arcteryx Alpha FL - Women's.
The Arcteryx Beta FL is slightly heavier and more expensive than the Alpha FL and adds two high handwarmer pockets.
Hardshell Wash Tutorial Video
— Max Neale
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Most recent review: September 19, 2013
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