Once again, the Arc'teryx Alpha FL takes home our Editors' Choice Award as the best overall hardshell jacket. It combines all of 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 seven years, through six review processes, and literally countless days out in the backcountry. For the first time in many years, Arc'teryx chose to update the Alpha FL for the winter of 2017/18, and the changes only make it better.
Arc'teryx Alpha FL Review
Compare prices at 3 resellers Pros: Lightweight, form fitting, great storm hood, superior construction quality, affordable
Cons: Crinkly and noisy, very little ventilation
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Our Analysis and Test Results
The Arc'teryx Alpha FL is the most straightforward, best-constructed hardshell jacket that we have ever used. 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 a maximum weight-to-durability ratio. The FL refers to Fast and Light, which the company translates to mean minimalist garments with a focus 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 seventh straight year.
The Latest Alpha FL vs. the 2016 Version
For the first time in many seasons, 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 are now Cohaesive cordlocks, which are lower profile and easier to release with gloves on. Also, the diagonal chest pocket is now vertically aligned, and there's a new internal security pocket as well.
One of the color choices for the newest version of the Alpha FL is grey (sure looks white to us). We Do Not Recommend Buying a White Jacket for Mountain Use. Climbing and backcountry skiing are inherently dangerous activities that take place upon the backdrop of a white mountain landscape. If you fall, are hurt, or are caught in an avalanche, your life may end up depending on the ability of your friends or other rescuers to be able to see and locate you quickly. Wearing white against white makes this far more difficult, and it is not impossible to envision a scenario where this choice could cost you your life. While white may be a trendy color for strolling the shops of Aspen or Whistler, bright colors are your friend on true mountain adventures.
While the Alpha FL is, without doubt, our favorite hardshell jacket, it cuts out some 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 a perfect 10 points, tied with our Top Pick for Extreme Weather Protection, The North Face Summit L5 FuseForm GTX 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 the best job of keeping water out in our shower test. The jacket is made entirely of 40D face fabric and 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.
Weight and Packability
For our size, men's large, this model weighed in at 12.2 ounces. This was a bit heavier than the advertised weight and also close to an ounce heavier than the size large model that we reviewed last year. With the inclusion of four new Cohaesive cord lock buckles and an added internal pocket, perhaps it isn't surprising that the weight has gone up slightly. It was no longer the very lightest in this review, an honor which now belongs to the Outdoor Research Interstellar, but was still lighter than the Outdoor Research Axiom.
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 second lightest jacket in this review, we awarded it 9 out of 10 points for weight.
Mobility and Fit
Our head tester for this review is 6'0" tall and weighs around 160 lbs. He has fairly broad shoulders, but an otherwise skinny frame, and we ordered him a size large jacket for this review.
The fit was excellent but was also quite a bit more spacious than any of the mediums that we reviewed, such as the Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker.
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, such as the Arc'teryx Beta AR, we loved the fit of this jacket. As is typical with jackets that use a Gore-Tex Pro membrane, the jacket is crinkly and noisy when moving about, and was not as quiet as the Gore Active membrane found on the OR Axiom. With a more spacious fit, but better overall mobility, we thought this jacket was comparable to the Patagonia Pluma, and gave them both 7 out of 10 for this metric.
Venting and Breathability
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 corresponding 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 not to breathe as well. To save weight, this product does not have pit zips; however, leaving off the pit zips allow 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 4 out of 10 points. We found it to be much hotter and sweatier during our stationary bike test than either the OR Interstellar or OR Axiom, both of which also forego the inclusion of pit zips for ventilation but have air-permeable membranes. Honestly, this is the one drawback of this jacket, but it didn't affect us at all on cold days where we only worked hard intermittently. On warm days in the sun, this presents a much more significant problem, which we typically fixed by taking the jacket off.
Our Editors' Choice winner incorporates 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 Pluma or Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker, 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 superfluous. The storm hood is enormous 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 also helps keep the snow out when skiing. The two cord lock buckles on the side of the hood, as well as the dual buckles on the hem, have been changed this year to Cohaesive cord locks, a huge plus because they are lower profile (sewn inside the layers of the jacket), and very easy to release with gloves on. While we found the feature set nearly perfect for alpine climbing, it still works well for skiing also. The most prominent caveat is that it doesn't include the vents common in most ski specific jackets, but in Colorado, we just took it off if the going got too hot, and when we needed it for storm protection, this was never a factor. We gave it 7 out of 10 points for features.
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 with success.
The MSRP for this shell is $425. 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 seven years running it has been our Editors' Choice Award winner, and for good reason. With a box full of 10 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.
— Andy Wellman