Hands-on Gear Review
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Street Price: Varies from $501 - $679 | Compare prices at 8 resellers
Pros: Extremely durable, superior weather protection, great hood, easy to manipulate zippers
Cons: Heavy, bulky, overkill for many, no handwarmer pockets, expensive
Best Uses: Alpine and ice climbing, expeditions, arctic exploration
While we believe that lighter weight jackets are the ideal choice for the vast majority of outdoor activities, there is still at least one circumstance where something a little more is best - long expeditions to remote places with severe weather. Enter the Arc'teryx Alpha SV, which is hands down the best and most durable heavy duty hardshell jacket we reviewed. As it so perfectly fits a need that other jackets do not, we decided to give it our Top Pick for Mountain Expeditions in our most recent update of this review.
The Arc'teryx Alpha SV is tried and true body armor for mountain climbers; it's the most comfortable expedition-style shell we tested. It has a near perfect blend of features: two crossover chest pockets provide quick access to abundant storage, ergonomic patterning 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.
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review
In earlier versions of our men's hardshell review, the Arc'teryx Alpha SV won our Editors' Choice Award; however, we eventually decided to award it a Top Pick for Mountain Expeditions 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 indeed 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 18.4 ounces for a size large, 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, our Top Pick winner could be worth considering.
When it comes to weather protection, you can't really get any better than the Arc'teryx Alpha SV unless you just stay indoors. We gave it a 9 out of 10 simply because we had to get really nitpicky to differentiate between so many awesome jackets, and we liked the chin guard on the Arc'teryx Beta AR Jacket better. That said, the protection afforded by the Alpha SV is nearly perfect. It features 80D GORE-TEX Pro throughout, the most protective and durable membrane in the review. The storm hood is exceptional, offering the most customization capabilities, with or without a helmet. It has four draw cord adjustment points - two in the back and two on either side of the neck. If you need to hunker down in a storm, this hardshell will protect you as well as a jacket can.
Weight & Compression
This shell weighs in at 18.4 ounces for a size large, making it the second heaviest jacket in our current review behind only the massive Rab Latok. Weight is a pretty serious consideration and the primary reason why this jacket is not for everyone. But another consideration is compression. While its 80 denier Gore-Tex Pro face fabric is indeed burly and durable, it is bulky, and doesn't compress down well at all. In short, this is not a jacket you want to be carrying around. If you do not need to be living in this thing, you probably don't want it with you.
Mobility & Fit
This model is shaped according to Arc'teryx's "athletic fit," which is their standard cut and means that it has more room inside for layering compared to their "trim" fitting Alpha FL or Arc'teryx Beta LT Jacket. While the fit of this jacket is generally good throughout, it is not terribly mobile. The Gore-Tex Pro membrane is stiff and crinkly, sort of like a paper bag. One nice feature that we like is the added lower back draw-cord, adjustable within either of the chest pockets, which helps snug the back of the jacket in tighter. This feature is especially nice if it's a warm day and you're not wearing tons of layers beneath it. Again, mobility is a factor that suffers when manufacturers use the burliest materials available.
Breathability & Venting
Unlike the lighter weight Alpha FL jacket, the Arc'teryx Alpha SV includes dual zippered pit zips under each arm. These are very useful in this heavy jacket if you're working hard and building up a sweat. Check out our Buying Advice article for a full explanation of how Gore-Tex Pro actually functions, but suffice to say that you need to build up quite a lot of sweat and heat within the jacket in order for it to begin "breathing" and diffusing water to the outside. Some people find this process uncomfortable, which is why vents are incorporated to add air flow and aid in direct evaporative cooling. For a jacket this heavy, the venting is much appreciated. We liked how easy the zippers on the pit zips (and the front of the jacket) are to manipulate - even with gloves on they are as slippery as butter.
Outside its stellar weather protection, durability is the primary reason to get the Arc'teryx Alpha SV. The jacket uses a three-layer Gore-Tex Pro membrane with an 80 denier, 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 Polartec NeoShell, 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 an 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 fabric is softer and smoother to the touch than older iterations of the piece, but is still not as comfortable or mobile as other products we tested. That said, we highly recommend our Top Pick for Mountain Expeditions if maximum durability is more important than low weight and comfort.
This product 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 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.
The Alpha SV comes equipped with Arc'teryx's Storm Hood, a huge, supremely comfortable helmet-compatible hood with four adjustment points. Most hardshells have three hood drawcords but the Storm Hood adds a rear, neck-level adjustment that pulls the hood tight around your neck. We found that this sealed out the elements better than other hoods when we were not wearing a helmet. Its hood is large enough to comfortably wear a helmet (you can look up, down, and to the sides without being pinched or restricted) and its adjustments make it comfortable for use without a helmet.
Swinging your arms about above your head and doing gymnastic moves can be frustrating if a jacket isn't long enough, or rides up beneath your harness. Arc'teryx addresses this problem by adding two Harness HemLock foam inserts to the right and left of the bottom hem. These removable 1 cm tubes provide a lightweight and comfortable way to prevent the jacket from riding up beneath a harness or a backpack's waistbelt - a unique feature among the jackets tested. Finally, the zippers, draw cords, 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 M10 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.
We couldn't really rate the Arc'teryx Alpha SV anything lower than an 8 for versatility because it has all the technology and features to get you through any kind of outdoor experience. But would you want to use it on all of your outdoor ninja-strikes? Probably not
This product is best for long expeditions to cold places or working for months at a time outside in wet places. Think prolonged severe weather.
This jacket is really, really expensive, and like we mentioned above, unless you have a specific need, you will be much happier with the myriad of options which cost less. That said, this is a fortress of a jacket will likely withstand years of use and abuse.
The Arc'teryx Alpha SV wins our Top Pick Award for Mountain Expeditions because it is the best heavy duty hardshell, hands down. However, we don't really recommend this jacket for the vast majority of outdoor enthusiasts. Chances are you will already know if this is the type of jacket you need, and if so, then enjoy! It's a high quality piece of engineering. For the rest of you, check out our other favorites like the Alpha FL, Westcomb Shift LT or the Patagonia M10.
Arc'teryx Alpha SV - Women's, $650, is the women's version of this jacket.
— Andy Wellman and Max Neale
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OutdoorGearLab Member Reviews
Most recent review: January 20, 2015
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