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Arc'teryx Alpha FL Review

The 2017 Alpha FL
Editors' Choice Award
Price:   $425 List | $399.00 at Amazon
Compare prices at 5 resellers
Pros:  Lightweight, form fitting, great storm hood, superior construction quality, affordable.
Cons:  Crinkly and noisy, no pit zips.
Bottom line:  The best hardshell jacket on the market remains unchanged, finishing on top once again.
Editors' Rating:     
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Manufacturer:   Arc'teryx

Our Verdict

The Arc'teryx Alpha FL takes home our Editors' Choice Award. It combines all our hardshell desires into one quality jacket: low weight, supreme 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 $425, it is one of the more 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.

Product Update — May 2017
The latest iteration of the Alpha FL is out, which includes fewer seams, a vertical realignment of the chest pocket, a new zipper design, Cohaesive cord locks, three new colors, and a $25 price hike. We updated the photo above and price-check links to the new version. Check out the details on this new version below.


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Score Product Price Our Take
84
$425
Editors' Choice Award
The best hardshell jacket on the market remains unchanged, finishing on top once again.
82
$389
Best Buy Award
An affordable all-around jacket with stretchy breathability, but fewer venting options.
80
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An above average jacket in almost every way, while staying true to a traditional feature set.
78
$499
A full featured hardshell at a very light weight makes this one of the highest performing jackets we have tested.
76
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Top Pick Award
An innovative hardshell design that works great to ditch heat and moisture while traveling uphill.
75
$575
A fantastic hardshell that has a perfect set of features and an amazing collar, but comes at a hefty price.
73
$375
Top Pick Award
A great mountaineering, skiing, or alpine climbing jacket for rainy ranges like the Cascades where protection and breathability are needed at the same time.
73
$499
Our favorite hardshell from Patagonia is a great choice no matter what the winter activity.
58
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Top Pick Award
Our Top Pick for Resort Skiing is not practical for alpine climbing or primarily backcountry use.
57
$599
A downhill skiing specific hardshell that we did not enjoy as much as the similar Fuseform Brigandine 3L.
56
$399
A versatile hardshell equipped for any mountain sport, but unfortunately not refined enough to offer top-of-the-line performance.

Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results

Review by:
Andy Wellman
Senior Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Tuesday
May 2, 2017

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The Latest Alpha FL vs. the 2016 Version


Since the publication of our Hardshell review in February 2017, Arc'teryx updated the Alpha FL with a handful of design changes, aiming to improve on an already excellent product. The zippers were updated to reduce stitching and seams and increase water resistance, along with incorporating Arc'teryx's relatively new RS Zipper design. The cord locks on the hem and hood were revamped to be more streamlined and easier to use, according to the manufacturer. Also, the diagonal chest pocket is now vertically aligned, there are three new colors (red, green, and grey), and the current list price is $425, which is $25 more than the previous model. There's a new internal security pocket as well. Check out the side-by-side photo comparison, with the latest version on the left and the older version on the right.

The 2017 Alpha FL
 

After contacting Arc'teryx and thoroughly researching this new model, here's a list of the key differences in the latest version.
  • Removed Top Stitching on Zipper — Arc'teryx removed the top stitching on the central front zipper. As stitches are prone to becoming leakage points over time, reducing them should increase this jacket's long term water resistance.
  • New RS Zipper — The 2017 Alpha FL features the proprietary RS Zipper Slider design, which self-seals when fully closed. This makes the zipper garage no longer necessary and so it was removed. Dropping the zipper garage also reduced the number of seams.
  • Secondary Laminate Layer — In an effort to reduce oil buildup around the neck, a secondary layer was added in this area intended to absorb oil/contaminants and protect the exterior laminate.
  • Cohaesive Cord Locks — New locking mechanism for the hem cord is designed to be easier to use and more streamlined for better compatibility with a harness. The hood now also incorporates Cohaesive cord locks in its adjustment system.
  • Internal Pocket — Arc'teryx added an internal laminated security pocket in the new jacket.
  • New Colors — The color options are Magma (bright red), Rohdei (bright green), and Stingrey (grey).
  • Weight Loss — Arc'teryx claims that the previous version weighed 11.5 oz in Medium, and lists the new iteration at 11.1 oz in Medium. We have yet to weigh them on our scales.
  • Price — The latest Alpha FL costs $425. This is an increase of $25 from the 2016 version of this jacket.

As we have yet to test this new rendition of the Alpha FL, the text and analysis below reflect the 2016 version, which is very similar in many aspects.

Hands-On Review of the 2016 Alpha FL


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.

Performance Comparison


Skiing doesn't get any better than this. Perfect fresh snow with no wind effect enabled skiing some great alpine runs mid-season  a rare treat.
Skiing doesn't get any better than this. Perfect fresh snow with no wind effect enabled skiing some great alpine runs mid-season, a rare treat.

Weather Protection


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.

While the Alpha FL is designed primarily with alpine climbing in mind  we think its GORE-TEX Pro membrane also protects us well during stormy backcountry skiing.
While the Alpha FL is designed primarily with alpine climbing in mind, we think its GORE-TEX Pro membrane also protects us well during stormy backcountry skiing.

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.

We stood in the shower with these jackets on for at least three minutes to test how well they protected from a severe rain. Notice the wetting out that is occurring on the shoulders of this jacket  requiring a reapplication of new DWR coating.
We stood in the shower with these jackets on for at least three minutes to test how well they protected from a severe rain. Notice the wetting out that is occurring on the shoulders of this jacket, requiring a reapplication of new DWR coating.

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.


A select sample of the differences in packable size between jackets. On the bottom is the Arc'teryx Alpha FL in its stuff sack. In the middle  almost as small  is the Black Diamond Helio Alpine Shell rolled into its hood -- again  very small. On the top is the heavy and bulky TNF Free Thinker jacket  more than double the size and weight of the one on the bottom.
A select sample of the differences in packable size between jackets. On the bottom is the Arc'teryx Alpha FL in its stuff sack. In the middle, almost as small, is the Black Diamond Helio Alpine Shell rolled into its hood -- again, very small. On the top is the heavy and bulky TNF Free Thinker jacket, more than double the size and weight of the one on the bottom.

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.


A close up of the very thin interior layer of the GORE-TEX Pro membrane found in this jacket. We can attest that this jacket is thin  light  and breathable  but also remains crinkly and loud.
A close up of the very thin interior layer of the GORE-TEX Pro membrane found in this jacket. We can attest that this jacket is thin, light, and breathable, but also remains crinkly and loud.

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.

Not shown here was the howling arctic wind  although you can see the evidence in the sastrugi riddled snow. Even while hiking uphill  George Foster is kept warm and dry by our favorite jacket  the Alpha FL.
Not shown here was the howling arctic wind, although you can see the evidence in the sastrugi riddled snow. Even while hiking uphill, George Foster is kept warm and dry by our favorite jacket, the Alpha FL.

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.


Andrew showing how skiing is really just surfing on the mountain  sending up this classic wave of fresh powder.
Andrew showing how skiing is really just surfing on the mountain, sending up this classic wave of fresh powder.

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.

Features


Black is Peter Dever's favorite color  shown here as he drops into the top of the Granddaddy couloir on Red Mountain Pass. We like bright colors better as they increase the ability to spot a person in debris should they be caught in an avalanche.
Black is Peter Dever's favorite color, shown here as he drops into the top of the Granddaddy couloir on Red Mountain Pass. We like bright colors better as they increase the ability to spot a person in debris should they be caught in an avalanche.

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.


Two front pull cords easily tighten up this hood so that it protects as well as any we tested.
Two front pull cords easily tighten up this hood so that it protects as well as any we tested.

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.

A unique feature is the Harness Hem Lock feature. This round bulge inside the hem is a peice of foam that prevents the hem from riding up underneath a harness or pack waist belt.
A unique feature is the Harness Hem Lock feature. This round bulge inside the hem is a peice of foam that prevents the hem from riding up underneath a harness or pack waist belt.

Best Applications


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.

This light and fast jacket is designed for the biggest alpine ascents. Although not the "biggest " this climb (Bird Brain Boulevard) and its technical chimneying on both rock and ice put the Alpha FL to the test. We were happy every minute with our choice.
This light and fast jacket is designed for the biggest alpine ascents. Although not the "biggest," this climb (Bird Brain Boulevard) and its technical chimneying on both rock and ice put the Alpha FL to the test. We were happy every minute with our choice.

Value


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.

While it doesn't have pit zips to help with venting  this jacket is still a great choice for anything alpine  as these early season turns can attest.
While it doesn't have pit zips to help with venting, this jacket is still a great choice for anything alpine, as these early season turns can attest.

Conclusion


Peter Dever drops a knee in the trees while wearing the Alpha FL jacket in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.
Peter Dever drops a knee in the trees while wearing the Alpha FL jacket in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

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.

On a sidecountry tour in low visibility outside of Telluride ski resort  a mountain rises out of the cloud. Bad weather days like there are when a hardshell is the best outer layer option.
On a sidecountry tour in low visibility outside of Telluride ski resort, a mountain rises out of the cloud. Bad weather days like there are when a hardshell is the best outer layer option.
Andy Wellman

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Most recent review: May 2, 2017
Summary of All Ratings

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Rating:   
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