Hands-on Gear Review
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Street Price: Varies from $199 - $399 | Compare prices at 5 resellers
Pros: Lightweight, form fitting, great storm hood, superior construction quality, affordable
Cons: Crinkly and noisy, very few pockets (only one)
Best Uses: Hiking, climbing, expeditions, backcountry skiing
The Arc'teryx Alpha FL is our Editors' Choice Award winning jacket because it perfectly combines everything we want out of a harshell: light weight, a perfect fit, incredible features, and long-term durability. It received the highest scores of any hardshell in our side-by-side review. Not only that, but for a price of $399 it is one of the most affordable jackets we tested. Simply put, we don't think you can find a better product for the money out there on the market today.
Not only is it our favorite jacket in 2014, but has been our favorite for the past four years, through three review processes, and literally countless days out in the backcountry. The newest version of the Arc'teryx Alpha FL has been upgraded from GORE-TEX Active to the more durable GORE-TEX Pro three-layer membrane and yet retains its lightness and supple fit. This jacket excels at everything from day hikes to multi-month expeditions - it's a backcountry enthusiast's dream come true.
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review
Simply put, the Arc'teryx Alpha FL is the simplest, most well constructed hardshell jacket that we have tried. In Arc'teryx's terminology, the Alpha line is climbing and alpinism focused. This includes a lower waistline for harness compatibility, a chest pocket that is accessible while wearing a pack or harness, maximum articulation, and an emphasis on maximum weight-to-durability ratio. The FL refers to Fast and Light, which the company translates to mean minimalist garments with an emphasis on high performance. In the case of the Alpha FL, Arc'teryx delivered exactly what they say they do, as this jacket shows a remarkable amount of refinement and even restraint to provide only what is needed - and nothing more. It received the highest score of all the jackets we tested.
The 2014 version of this jacket is even more fine-tuned than those released in 2013 and earlier. You can tell the difference between the two versions in several ways: (1) the new version uses Gore Pro membrane, which has a grid pattern on the inside; and (2) the new version has the same color face fabric throughout, whereas the old version had a different fabric on the shoulders.
Along with the other Arc'teryx jackets that we tested, our Editors' Choice winner represents the very best in weather protection. We gave it a 9 out of a possible 10 points simply because we liked the additional protection offered by the neck cuff on the Arc'teryx Beta AR Jacket better and we needed to get picky. The jacket is made entirely of 40D Gore-Tex Pro, which is an upgrade from the Gore-Tex Active used in previous versions. It offers fantastic protection against rain, wind, and cold.
The storm hood was the best one that we tried, with three pull-cord adjustment points, one in the back and two in the front. It fits extremely well with a helmet on as well. The zippers are water-tight and incredibly easy to manipulate. The Arc'teryx Beta LT Jacket is incredibly similar to the Arc'teryx Alpha FL, but we found that the waistline and the sleeves of the FL were longer, offering better protection when bending over and swinging our arms overhead.
Weight & Compression
For our size men's large this model weighed in at exactly 12 ounces. This meant that it was about three ounces heavier than the Patagonia M10 or the Mountain Hardwear Quasar and similarly light to the other lightweight jackets in the review. The low weight is made possible by including only the barest of features - this jacket lacks pit zips and handwarmer pockets as compensation.
Mobility & Fit
We gave this model 8 out of a possible 10 points for mobility. While it may be the lightest and most mobile jacket that Arc'teryx makes, there is really no comparison when it's side-by-side with the Westcomb Shift LT. Mobility is a drawback to incorporating Gore-Tex Pro fabric as its membrane. Despite using only 40 denier face fabric, as compared to the much heavier 80 denier face fabric used in the Arc'teryx Alpha SV, it is still crinkly, loud, and relatively inflexible when compared to the jackets that use other non-Gore-Tex fabrics. That said, the jacket is shaped according to Arc'teryx's Trim Fit, ensuring that it is low volume. Don't get us wrong, this jacket fits extremely well.
Breathability & Venting
Like we mentioned above, the Arc'teryx Alpha FL uses a 40D Gore-Tex Pro membrane. Check out our Buying Advice article for more information regarding the different types of waterproof/breathable membranes. In order to breathe, the Pro membrane uses diffusion to allow the water trapped within the coat to pass through it to the outside world. In order for this to happen the relative humidity within the jacket must be higher than the relative humidity outside of it, which is a bit of a drawback. That is why many Gore-Tex jackets incorporate pit-zips for extra ventilation, although ironically adding ventilation and air flow would lower the relative humidity inside the jacket and cause it to not breathe as well. In order to save weight, this product does not have pit zips, however, this allows the jacket to breathe as it should. Our testers found that among the expedition worthy jackets, the Arc'teryx Alpha FL did the best job of breathing, but at the same time it probably does not breathe quite as well as an air permeable jacket like the Mountain Hardwear Quasar.
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 is not ideal, but it's unavoidable. DWR is the Achilles heel of waterproof breathable jackets. No DWR coating is as durable as we wish it was and all wear off. For this reason, it's important to wash any hardshell frequently and reapply DWR coating.
This hardshell uses a 40 denier plain weave face fabric that has proven to be highly durable for its weight. Combined with the Gore-Pro membrane, this jacket is undoubtedly the most durable hardshell for its weight - it is expedition worthy AND lightweight!! Although the Arc'teryx Alpha FL is very durable, it is not the most durable we tested. If you want a jacket for a multi-month foray into Siberia, or are a full-time mountain guide, consider the Arc'teryx Alpha SV.
Our Editors' Choice winner incorporates basically a perfect set of features for what it was designed to do (fast and light alpine climbing) and thus received a 10 out of 10. It has only one napoleon-style chest pocket, which some may consider a drawback, but we have found that for alpine climbing, handwarmer pockets are difficult to use and at times totally superfluous. The storm hood is huge and works pretty much perfectly with or without a helmet. The zippers are durable and super easy to pull with gloves on - a huge plus.
Additionally, the waistline cut is low to allow for wearing a harness, and this jacket also features Arc'teryx's Harness Hemlock Insert. Designed to prevent the jacket from riding up under the harness while climbing, this small, removable piece of foam imbedded into the waistline drawcord. Basically, it provides a little bulk that keeps the jacket in place. The wrist enclosures are made of adjustable Velcro, like most of the jackets we reviewed. While some jackets may have more features included, we thought the Alpha FL did the very best job of marrying features and design to a specific purpose.
None of the hardshell jackets we reviewed will do everything perfectly. But the Arc'teryx Alpha FL comes pretty close. One could say that a heavier duty jacket like the Arc'teryx Beta AR would be a better choice for outdoor professionals who need greater durability. Likewise, if the only use of this jacket is for highly aerobic activities in dry conditions, then it won't perform as well as the Westcomb Shift LT. However, it will do everything you ask of it pretty darn well!
This product is designed for alpine and ice climbing, and this is where it will excel the most. But in reality this is a do everything jacket that is also great for backcountry skiing, backpacking, and most any other outdoor activity.
The MSRP for this shell is $399. What a steal! This is incredible value for the money as this is the best jacket we reviewed for one of the lowest prices! You will not be disappointed for a moment at the money you spent.
The Arc'teryx Alpha FL is a top quality piece of engineering and design, and performs better than one could expect. It is the quintessential hardshell: lightweight, durable, offering incredible weather protection, and fits pretty much perfectly. For four years running, it has been our Editors' Choice Award winner, and for good reason. With a box full of over twenty jackets and the option to keep whichever one they liked, nearly every tester chose the Alpha FL. We think you should too.
The women's version of this jacket is the Arc'teryx Alpha FL - Women's.
The Arc'teryx Beta LT is slightly heavier and more expensive than the Alpha FL and adds two high handwarmer pockets.
— Andy Wellman and Max Neale
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Most recent review: December 21, 2014
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