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Hands-on Gear Review
Arc'teryx Alpha FL Review
Cons: Crinkly and noisy, only one pocket, no pit zips.
Bottom line: The best hardshell jacket on the market remains unchanged, finishing on top once again.
The Arc'teryx Alpha FL is our Editors' Choice Award-winning jacket. 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 the 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 six years, through five 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, and it continues to use a GORE-TEX Pro three-layer membrane paired with a thin and light 40 denier face fabric. This jacket excels at everything from day hikes to multi-month expeditions — it's a backcountry enthusiast's dream come true.
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Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
The Arc'teryx Alpha FL is the simplest, best 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 delivers 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, and remains our Best Overall award winner for the fifth straight year.
The 2016-17 version of this jacket remains unchanged from the previous year's nearly perfect offering (in our opinion), except that it comes in four new colors and the chest zipper is now an accent color. 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.
While the Alpha FL is without doubt our favorite hardshell jacket, it cuts out a number of features, such as underarm ventilation and hand or chest pockets, in the name of saving weight. Users who are interested in this jacket but prefer more features are encouraged to check out the Arc'teryx Alpha AR, which has the same design but uses 80 denier fabric on the high abrasion zones, and includes double cross-over chest pockets and pit zips. Alternatively, the Arc'teryx Alpha SL is an even thinner and lighter version of the jacket that uses GORE-TEX Paclite as its membrane and is ideal for occasional, emergency use.
Our Editors' Choice winner represents what we believe is the very best in weather protection. We gave it 9 out of a possible 10 points, tied with a number of other jackets, because we couldn't find any flaws in this suit of armor. While we liked the comfort offered by the neck cuff on the Arc'teryx Beta AR a bit better, we thought that the standard collar of the Alpha FL still did a great job of keeping water out 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 great with a helmet on as well. Additionally, the zippers are watertight and incredibly easy to manipulate. The waistline and the sleeves of the FL were adequately long for our tester, offering superior protection when bending over and when swinging arms overhead.
Over the years, we have noticed that the DWR coating on Arc'teryx jackets, while functionally awesome, does tend to wear off rather quickly with abrasion. In the shower test after a season of wear, we noticed wetting out of the fabric on the shoulders, back, and where the pack straps rest against our body. The wetting out was a bit more prevalent than we found on the Outdoor Research Furio or the Marmot Cerro Torre. To keep this jacket functioning optimally, frequent washing and re-application of DWR treatment is necessary.
Weight and Packability
For our size men's large, this model weighed in at 11.4 ounces. The low weight is made possible by including only the barest of features - this jacket lacks pit zips and handwarmer pockets as compensation. By comparison, the second lightest jacket, the Black Diamond Helio Alpine Shell, weighed only a couple ounces more, but did include pit zips for ventilation. The Outdoor Research Axiom was the only other jacket to not include pit zips, but it weighed in at over three ounces heavier.
This is the only jacket that we tested that comes with its own independent stuff sack. When stuffed in the sack, it is by far the smallest and most compact jacket in this test. 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. As the lightest jacket in the review, we awarded it a perfect 10 for weight.
Mobility and Fit
We gave this model 9 out of a possible 10 points for mobility and fit. While it may be the lightest and most mobile hardshell jacket that Arc'teryx makes, the Outdoor Research Axiom, our Best Bang for the Buck winner, took home top honors in our mobility and fit metric. 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 Beta AR, the Alpha FL is still crinkly and loud when compared to the jackets that use other non-Gore-Tex fabrics, or those with C-knit backer.
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 baggy fit associated with size large in many of the other jackets like the Marmot Cerro Torre, we absolutely loved the fit of this jacket.
Venting and 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. 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.
Without pit zips or other methods of ventilating except for the front zipper, we scored this jacket relatively low for venting and breathability, giving it only 6 out of 10 points. Due to its thin materials and light weight, we didn't immediately get as hot while exerting ourselves as other, heavier jackets like The North Face Fuseform Brigandine 3L or The North Face Free Thinker Jacket, even though both of those did incorporate pit zips.
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 is 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 Black Diamond Helio Alpine Shell. 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 a good job of marrying features and design to a specific purpose, but still received only 5 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, we believe that you will not find a better jacket. 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.
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.
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 six years running it has been our Editors' Choice Award winner, and for good reason. With a box full of 11 of the best jackets and the option to wear whichever one they liked, nearly every tester chose the Alpha FL. We think you should too.
Other Versions and Accesories
Arc'teryx Alpha SV
Arc'teryx Alpha Comp Hoody
Arc'teryx Beta LT
NU Water Repellant Treatment - $14.00
— Andy Wellman
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