Hands-on Gear Review
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Street Price: $625 | Compare prices at 4 resellers
Pros: Simple and refined design, excellent construciton quality, very durable,best durability to weight ratio of all shells tested, Hemloc hems (foam inserts) keep shell from lifting out from underneath harness, storm hood provides amazing protection and is eas
Cons: No hand pockets can be a drawback for some people.
Best Uses: Alpine climbing, mountaineering, expeditions of all types.
The Arcteryx Alpha SV is tried and true body armor for mountain climbers. The shell represents the ultimate in simplicity and function, and boasts a slew of climbing specific features that have been refined time after time until…perfection? Of the twenty-one shells tested this is the only to receive five stars.
The Alpha SV is intended for ice and alpine climbing, and mountaineering. It’s ideal for climbing mountains that cross multiple climates: start low by bushwhacking through dense, wet forests and finish up high on technical ice and snow. But the shell can be used for everything and anything. It has the latest and greatest face fabric that claims to be very durable for its weight and more inherently water resistant than the competition. It also has a near perfect blend of features: two crossover chest pockets provide quick access to storage without throwing you off balance, ergonomic patterning provides a spacious and unrestricted fit, and quick and easy zippers and pull cords allow on-the-go ventilation adjustments. All of this in a jacket that weighs just a touch over a pound!!
Check our our comprehensive Hardshell Jacket Review to see how this jacket compares to others tested.
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review
Note: Hardshells with Gore-Tex's updated "Pro" waterproof breathable membrane will start shipping in the Fall of 2013. According to Gore the new membrane is between 10% and 28% more breathable than the current version available now and reviewed below.
When the Arcteryx Alpha SV was introduced in 1998 it was the first hardshell to feature waterproof zippers. Years later, after many revisions, tweaks, and redesigns, the shell continues its legacy as one of the best and most bombproof pieces of outerwear money can buy.
The Alpha SV uses a three layer Gore-Tex Pro Shell membrane with a brand new top-tier face fabric. Pro Shell is best for extended trips in severe conditions. It’s less breathable than the company’s Active Shell, Mountain Hardwear’s Dry Q Elite, eVent, and Columbia’s Omni-Dry, but its non-porous membrane makes it warmer than the latter three, which in turn makes it better suited to trips that encounter high winds and longer periods of low exertion. Pro Shell is backed by Gore’s unconditional lifetime warranty: if you aren’t fully satisfied with its durability, water resistance, or breathability you can return it.
Face fabric is a critical part of a waterproof breathable garments performance. When a fabric “wets out,” i.e. absorbs water, its breathability is significantly reduced. The Alpha SV uses a new N80p-X face fabric, developed in partnership with Gore, that’s woven from an 80 denier, false twist textured, high tenacity nylon 6.6 yarn. This is very durable and inherently more water resistant and snow shedding than most other fabrics. We started our hardhshell testing in the fall of 2011 with an Alpha SV built with a 4.9oz., 150-denier face fabric and then switched, in the spring of 2012, to the fall 2012 version that has N80p-X. The new fabric is softer and smoother to the touch, and it weighs 4.3 oz/ sq. yard as opposed to the previous fabric’s 4.8 oz./ sq. yard. Arcteryx’s Design Manager in Ascent/ Snowsports says that N80p-X has the same ratio of abrasion resistance and durability as the previous fabric, but the new one has a higher quality yarn and higher density weave, making it lighter and supposedly more water resistant. See more about this fabric here.
The Fall 2012 Alpha SV’s redesign runs deeper than its face fabric. The jacket has been redone with a new ergonomic 3D patterning that increases the interior volume and reduces the total amount of fabric used. This reduces the weight of a men’s medium Alpha SV from 19.2 oz. to 16.9 oz. (mesured on our scale). The jacket has a better fit, more interior space, is more durable, and weighs less!
The Alpha SV is designed for ice and alpine climbing, but it’s frequently and successfully used in many other applications. The shell’s most significant climbing-specific feature is the pocket design: two expansive bellowed pockets lie high up on the chest. The pocket zippers hug the jacket’s main zipper – the right hand crosses over the chest to open the left pocket, and vice-versa. This design is frequently employed in climbing shells (see the Patagonia Northwall and Rab Stretch Neo) because it provides access to the pockets without throwing the climber off balance. For example, imagine that you’re high up on a mountain on a steep snow slope. You need to get something out of your left pocket so you put your right ice tool over your shoulder and reach with your right arm across your chest into the left pocket. This is more stable than a traditional handwarmer pocket design – where the right pocket’s zipper is on the right side of the wearer’s right chest – because your right arm needs to move up high and right, which moves your center of gravity away from the snow/rock/ice and away from the center of your chest. Although most people who use this shell, including our testers, only spend a small amount of time using the pockets in the environment they’re designed for, the pocket design is better for climbing and easier to use in general. Crossing your right hand over your chest and unzipping the left pocket is easier and faster than reaching it high and right, where you heave less leverage to open the zipper. The drawback, of course, is that you don’t have any place to hide your hands from the elements.
And finally, the Alpha SV’s zippers, drawcords, and wrist closures are as good as it gets. The zippers are noticeably better than our other award winning hardshells because they’re faster and easier to use. For example, the Patagonia Super Pluma generally requires two hands to open the main zip, but the Alpha SV slides open quickly with just one hand. This makes it easier to vent the jacket on the go and to access the interior zippered pockets with a single hand.
People accustomed to handwarmer pockets may not like that the Alpha SV doesn't have them. The reality of backcountry living, however, is that on extended trips in warm weather your hands get wet regardless of a jacket’s pocket design. In such conditions the crux is keeping your hands warm when wet. In cold conditions the challenge is keeping your 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: the pockets are uninsulated. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when you're walking at a reasonable pace your hands will either be swinging at your sides, gripping trekking poles, or firmly attached to ice tools. Hardshell handwarmer pockets, therefore, are best for urban environments when you're caught out in the rain without gloves.
All of the Alpha SV’s other features, from its cut to face fabric, and zipper pulls to drawcords, are top-notch. Truly top-of-the-line.
The Alpha SV is designed for technical ice and alpine climbing and for extended trips in remote areas. It’s best for climbing large mountains that cross multiple climates. The jacket thrives in areas with dense vegetation, off trail approaches, and technical terrain because it’s durable enough to withstand bushwhacking through heinous forests, light enough not to be burdensome, and is equipped with features for technical climbing found at higher elevations. The Alpha SV combines an excellent feature set with the best abrasion-to-weight ratio of any shell tested.
The Alpha SV, however, is not an ideal “backpacking” jacket. It’s too heavy, the crossover pockets and ultra durable face fabric are unnecessary for walking on trails, and its helmet compatible hood is unwarranted for walking without a helmet on.
$625 gets you a fortress of a jacket that could last for a decade of hard use. Along with all Arcteryx products, the Alpha SV holds an unlimited lifetime warranty.
Comparison to Arcteryx hardshells we didn't test
The Theta SV is longer, more durable, and has handwarmer pockets. It weighs 19.4 oz. in the new version, which has n150p-X face fabric. We recommend the Theta SV to hardcore mountaineers who spend tons of time in places like Patagonia, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and on long expeditions in other remote locales. Being longer and heavier, the Theta is less versatile than the Alpha SV, but it could be a good option for people who want the Alpha SV's excellent features and prefer handwarmer pockets.
The Beta and Theta AR are both good shells that also have handwarmer pockets. These are geared toward all-purpose use, but lack the Alpha SV’s top-tier face fabric and Storm Hood. They use a Drop Hood, which is slightly more comfortable when skiing with a helmet, but offers less protection from the elements, especially around the chin area. We prefer the Patagonia Super Pluma to the Beta series because it’s lighter and has a hood that closely resembles the Alpha SV’s Storm Hood.
— Max Neale
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Most recent review: April 12, 2013
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