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Arc'teryx Alpha FL Review


Hardshell Jacket

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Editors' Choice Award
Price:   $399 List | Sale $398.99 online  —  Compare prices at 4 resellers
Pros:  Lightweight, form fitting, great storm hood, superior construction quality, affordable
Cons:  Crinkly and noisy, only one pocket
Editors' Rating:     
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Manufacturer:   Arc'teryx

Overview

The Arc'teryx Alpha FL is our Editors' Choice Award winning jacket because it perfectly combines everything we want out of a hardshell: light weight, superior weather protection, a perfect fit, fantastic mobility for climbing or skiing, 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 this year, but has been our favorite for the past five years, through four review processes, and literally countless days out in the backcountry. The newest version of the Arc'teryx Alpha FL is virtually unchanged from last year, when it was upgraded from GORE-TEX Active to the more durable GORE-TEX Pro three-layer membrane. This jacket excels at everything from day hikes to multi-month expeditions - it's a backcountry enthusiast's dream come true.

RELATED: Our complete review of hardshell jackets

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Analysis and Hands-on Test Findings

Review by:
Andy Wellman
Senior Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Wednesday
March 2, 2016
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 crossover 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 2015-16 version of this jacket remains unchanged from the previous year's nearly perfect offering (in our opinion), except that the zippers are now the same color as the jacket, instead of black. In an age where products are often radically altered every single year, regardless of success, we applaud Arc'teryx for sticking with what has proven to work extremely well, and not messing up a good thing.

Performance Comparison


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This light and fast jacket is designed for the biggest alpine ascents. Although not the "biggest," this climb (Bird Brain Boulevard) and its technical chimneying on both rock and ice put the Alpha FL to the test. We were happy every minute with our choice.

Weather Protection


Our Editors' Choice winner represents what we believe is the very best in weather protection. We gave it a perfect 10 out of a possible 10 points because we couldn't find a single flaw in this armor coat. While we liked the comfort offered by the neck cuffs on the Arc'teryx Beta AR and Arc'teryx Theta AR a bit better, we thought that the standard collar of the Alpha FL actually kept water out better in our shower test. The jacket is made entirely of 40D Gore-Tex Pro, which offers fantastic protection against rain, wind, and cold.

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Our Editors' Choice Award Winner getting the full downpour inside the shower. Not a drop made it in, and we felt that this jacket was the single most weather protective hardshell in this review.

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. Additionally, the zippers are water-tight and incredibly easy to manipulate. We found that the waistline and the sleeves of the FL are adequately long, offering superior protection when bending over and when swinging arms overhead.

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John Walker about to tie in for another lap down in the Uncompaghre River Gorge of the Ouray Ice Park. Our Editors' Choice winner was our favorite jacket for ice climbing.

For users who appreciate the sleek fit and awesome mobility of Arc'teryx's Alpha series, but are looking for something with more features and greater durability than the Alpha FL, we also recommend the Arc'teryx Alpha SV. The SV is Arc'teryx's top of the line jacket that fits and performs like the FL, but also has all of the features included on the Arc'teryx Theta AR. Although it comes at a much higher price ($679), with the SV you get the best of both worlds, which makes it our favorite jacket for gnarly mountaineering expeditions.

Weight


For our size men's large, this model weighed in at 11.5 ounces. This means that it is about three ounces heavier than the feather light Patagonia M10 but only barely heavier than the Westcomb Shift LT. The low weight is made possible by including only the barest of features - this jacket lacks pit zips and handwarmer pockets as compensation.

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The Alpha FL in its stuff sack on the left and the Patagonia M10 stuffed into its inside out chest pocket on right. They are about the same size, although the M10 weighs about 3 ounces less.

This is the only jacket that we tested that comes with its own independent stuff sack. When stuffed in the sack it is comparably sized to the M10, which stuffs into its own chest pocket. We like that this stuff sack is included because without it the jacket would never stuff down so small, but we are also concerned that a sack is one more thing to carry, and more importantly keep track of. We could easily see it getting lost in the gear closet. We just stored the stuff sack in the breast pocket all the time so it wouldn't get lost, but we wish that Arc'teryx had simply designed the pocket to serve as a stuff sack.

Mobility & Fit


We gave this model 9 out of a possible 10 points for mobility. While it may be the lightest and most mobile hardshell jacket that Arc'teryx makes, the Outdoor Research Axiom (our Top Pick for Skiing) took home top honors in our mobility and fit metric. Like the Westcomb LT, the Axiom is made with softer, more supple fabric that comfortably moves with the body. Despite using only 40 denier face fabric, as compared to the much heavier 80 denier face fabric used in the Arc'teryx Theta AR, the Alpha FL is still crinkly and loud when compared to the jackets that use other non-Gore-Tex fabrics.

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The sleeves and the hem are plenty long in this jacket for any mobile activity, whether it is climbing or skiing that you are into. The articulated fit makes it one of the most mobile that we tested.

Noise aside, this jacket is shaped according to Arc'teryx's Trim Fit, ensuring that it is low volume. In fact, it has one of the best and most practical fits for someone who wants to go climbing or skiing. The sleeve length adequately covers the arms even when raised overhead and the hem is low enough that no snow will work its way up under the jacket. Compared to the very baggy fit associated with size large in many of the other jackets like the REI Shuksan II or even the Arc'teryx Beta AR, we absolutely loved the fit of this jacket.

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This jacket is designed foremost as a lightweight climbing hardshell, and so it is nice that it fits perfectly with a helmet and harness on.

Breathability


Like we mentioned above, the Arc'teryx Alpha FL uses a 40D Gore-Tex Pro membrane. 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, leaving off the pit zips actually allows the jacket to breathe as it should.

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Not shown here was the howling arctic wind, although you can see the evidence in the sastrugi riddled snow. Even while hiking uphill, George Foster is kept warm and dry by our favorite jacket, the Alpha FL.

We awarded this jacket an 8 out of 10 for breathability based on how we felt during our treadmill test. Compared to other jackets we wore, we didn't feel as hot while wearing this one while running, and although there was visible moisture on our arms after finishing, we failed to find evidence of moisture on the inside material anywhere on the jacket. Along with jackets like the Mountain Hardwear Torsun, it ranked up there with the best in this test.

It is worth remembering that 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 over time. For this reason, it's important to wash any hardshell frequently and reapply DWR coating.

Check out our Buying Advice article for more information regarding the different types of waterproof/breathable membranes, as well as information on DWR coatings and reapplication.

Features


Our Editors' Choice winner incorporates basically a perfect set of features for what it was designed to do (fast and light alpine climbing), but compared to the quantity and quality of features found on other jackets like the Patagonia Refugitive, it is a bit lacking. It has only one napoleon-style chest pocket; while some may consider this a drawback, 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.

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The storm hood on this jacket was the best that we tested. Although it did not feature the same high collar as the other Arc'teryx jackets, we found that in the shower test it actually protected us better.

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 embedded into the waistline drawcord. Basically, it provides a little bulk that keeps the jacket in place. However, we did find the drawstring buckles to be a bit small compared to other models, and not as awesome as those found on the Mountain Hardwear Torsun jacket. 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, and received 6 out of 10 points.

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The hem draw cord and buckle shown. Also notice the bulge in the grey material next to the buckle. This is the harness lock system, essentially foam sewn into the draw cord tube, that acts to keep the bottom of the jacket from riding up past the harness belt. It works quite well and weighs almost nothing.

Best Applications


The FL attached to the name means Fast and Light, and that is where this hardshell jacket will excel the most. It is designed for alpine and ice climbing, and for these purposes you cannot find a better jacket. But in reality this is a do-everything jacket that is also great for backcountry skiing and backpacking, and we have used it for both of these purposes as well.

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The storm hood on this jacket offered the best weather protection of any jacket in our test, and it was needed on this pitch as John Walker battles in the snow.

Value


The MSRP for this shell is $399. What a steal! This is an 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. In this review, we did not give out a Best Buy Award, because we think that the Editors' Choice winner IS the best buy. Win-win.

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Everyone who tested the Alpha FL thought that the fit and mobility were just great. Considering how its the best performer for an affordable price, and does everything well, why look any farther?

Conclusion


The Arc'teryx Alpha FL is a top quality, high-performing hardshell with exceptional engineering and design. It is the quintessential hardshell: lightweight, durable, offering incredible weather protection, and fits pretty much perfectly. For five 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.

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Peter Dever drops a knee in the trees while wearing the Alpha FL jacket in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

Other Versions


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Arc'teryx Alpha SV
  • Cost- $675.00 ($276 more than the FL)
  • Weight- 1lb 3.2 oz (7.7oz more than the FL)
  • "SV" = severe weather, their most durable and waterproof jacket
  • Athletic fit, designed to fit over more layers than the FL

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Arc'teryx Alpha Comp Hoody
  • Cost- $375.00 ($24 less than the FL)
  • Weight- 14.3oz (2.8oz more than the FL)
  • Waterproof fabric on the hood, shoulders and forearms
  • Stretchy woven fabric on the core and underarms to better regulate heat

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Arc'teryx Beta LT
  • Cost- $499.00 ($100 more than the Alpha FL)
  • Weight- 12.5oz (1oz more than the Alpha FL)
  • Two high hand warmer pockets
  • Windproof

NU Water Repellant Treatment - $14.00
  • spray on DWR treatment
Andy Wellman

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OutdoorGearLab Member Reviews


Most recent review: April 25, 2016
Summary of All Ratings

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Rating:   
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 (5.0)
Average Customer Rating:   
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 (5.0)

100% of 2 reviewers recommend it
Rating Distribution
3 Total Ratings
5 star: 100%  (3)
4 star: 0%  (0)
3 star: 0%  (0)
2 star: 0%  (0)
1 star: 0%  (0)
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   Apr 25, 2016 - 11:24am
NatD · Climber · WA
Not a lot to add except I love this jacket. 2 years of heavy use and its still going strong, DWR is still beading, and aside from a little dirtyness around the cuffs, looks quite fresh still.

Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this product to a friend.
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   Apr 22, 2016 - 01:18pm
Smoz · Skier · Durham, NC
Best shell I've ever owned. The fit and length of the jacket in both the body and arms is superb. It allows for tremendous range of motion for both climbing and skiing. It's a decent price to boot. Also, while slim and form fitting I've had no problem fitting a range of midlayers underneath. This ranges from a thin jacket like an atom lt up to a fairly thick down jacket like a Thorium AR. I've even fit both under the Alpha FL, though it's a bit tight and you would be better served just adding another wool layer under the atom lt or Thorium AR. My only gripe with the jacket is the zipper. When pulling the zipper all the way up it tends to stick at the neck before finishing the run. You have to pull the collar together to get it past this point. Which can be a bit of pain when climbing or a belaying.

Lastly, can you review the Arc'teryx alpha comp pants? I believe those are the pants being worn during the review based on the pics.

Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this product to a friend.
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Unbiased.