Hands-on Gear Review
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Pros: Extremely durable, foam inserts keep shell tucked underneath harness, most comfortable hood tested.
Cons: No hand pockets can be a drawback for some people, heavy.
Best Uses: Mountaineering & expeditions.
The Arc'teryx Alpha SV is tried and true body armor for mountain climbers. It’s ideal for winter alpine climbing and long expeditions, but the shell can be used for everything and anything. The Alpha SV is the most comfortable expedition style shell we've tested. It has a near perfect blend of features: two crossover chest pockets provide quick access to abundant storage, ergonomic patterning that provides a spacious and unrestricted fit, the most comfortable hardshell hood we've ever tested, and quick and easy zippers that allow on-the-go ventilation adjustments.
The Alpha SV used to win our Editor’s Choice Award but after another year of testing we moved it to a Top Pick Award because (1) 99% of the time our testers reach for a lighter, more comfortable jacket, and (2) our tests show that some lightweight jackets, like the Arc'teryx Alpha FL, are very durable. Unless you work outdoors as a climbing guide or are going on a super epic multi-month expedition we feel the Alpha SV is overkill. It weighs 18 ounces, an amount that is burdensome to carry in a backpack. However, if you want the peace of mind that comes with one of the toughest jackets available, and have the cash to push the performance envelope, the Alpha SV could be worth considering.
Check out our comprehensive Hardshell Jacket Review to see how this jacket compares to others tested.
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review
When the Alpha SV was introduced in 1998 it was the first hardshell to feature watertight urethane coated zippers, an innovation that has since been adopted throughout the entire outdoor industry. Our extensive side-by-side testing and research show that this is indeed the best waterproof breathable expedition climbing jacket available anywhere in the world. Over the years we have tested three different versions of the Alpha SV. The review below assesses the current model.
The Alpha SV is designed for, and performs best for, winter alpine climbing, where you climb ice, snow, and rock, frequently exposing the jacket to abrasion not found in other activities like backpacking and skiing. 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.
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.
Our men’s medium Fall 2013 Alpha SV weighs 17.9 ounces. This moderately light considering the jacket’s mobility and durability, but by most standards the jacket is heavy. Many other hardshells weigh significantly less and some shells weigh less than half as much. For example, the Patagonia M10 only weighs 8 oz. When we compare this jacket to other types of outdoor gear we see that ultralight sleeping bags and ultralight tents weigh the same or less than the Alpha SV!!
Durability is the primary reason to get the Alpha SV. The jacket uses a three-layer Gore-Tex Pro membrane with a high tech, top-tier face fabric. Gore’s Pro membrane is best for extended trips in severe conditions. It’s slightly less breathable than the company’s Active membrane, Mountain Hardwear’s Dry Q Elite, eVent, and Columbia’s Omni-Dry, but it is extremely durable. 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.
The face fabric is a critical part of a waterproof breathable garment’s performance. When a fabric “wets out,” i.e. absorbs water, its breathability is significantly reduced. The Alpha SV uses a new (in 2012) 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. Arc'teryx’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 more water resistant. See more about this fabric here. Curiously, the face fabric that Arc'teryx stepped away from is still being used on the Patagonia Super Alpine’s reinforced areas.
Answer: On long expeditions and for people that are mountain guides, or NOLS and Outward Bound instructors.
Through testing the Alpha SV for three-years we’ve found that the jacket is overkill for most people, including our testers, in most circumstances. However, we highly recommend it if maximum durability is more important than low weight and comfort.
The Alpha SV could be the most breathable expedition shell available. Its tightly woven face fabric might be more inherently water resistant than thicker fabrics on other shells; we've found that the face fabric wets out slightly less than other shells, such as the Patagonia Super Alpine, and this, in turn, enhances comfort because a jacket is not breathable when its face fabric is wet.
The Alpha SV has ergonomic 3D patterning that provides an expedition cut (tons of room for layering underneath). Critically, it does this without feeling too restrictive. The jacket is surprisingly comfortable despite the tougher, crinkly fabric and the heavy duty Pro membrane. Lightweight shells, such as the Arc'teryx Alpha FL and Patagonia M10, are much more comfortable than the Alpha SV.
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, ultra durable face fabric, and gigantic hood are unnecessary for walking.
$625 gets you a fortress of a jacket that could last for a decade of hard use. Along with all Arc'teryx products, the Alpha SV holds an unlimited lifetime warranty.
— Chris McNamara and Max Neale
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Most recent review: March 26, 2014
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