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Hands-on Gear Review
Arc'teryx Alpha FL Review
Cons: Crinkly and noisy, only one pocket
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
Analysis and Hands-on Test Findings
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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— Andy Wellman
OutdoorGearLab Member Reviews
Most recent review: April 25, 2016
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