The Arc'teryx Zeta SL is the winner of our OutdoorGearLab Editors' Choice. It scored the absolute highest, or very near the highest, in all of our comparison categories and provides the best overall blend of performance and versatility. Perfect for nearly any activity, the Zeta is light and compact, practically disappearing in the bottom of your pack. This just-in-case layer is durable and stormworthy, and is ideal for a soggy week-long backpacking trip where you might find yourself wearing it all day, every day. If we could only choose one model for anything from rainy trips to the farmers market to stormy alpine climbing or backpacking trips, this piece of rough weather protection would be it.
Arc'teryx Zeta SL Review
Compare prices at 3 resellers Pros: Top-tier storm-worthiness, mobility and range of motion, hood design, long-lasting DWR, exceptional breathability, harness and hip-belt friendly pockets
Cons: No ventilation options, expensive, no easy way to clip to a harness
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Our Analysis and Test Results
You can buy other models that might perform better for a specific application, but simply put, the Zeta stands out as the cream of the crop. It strikes an excellent balance of storm-worthiness and durability and has a compact size and low weight; with this in mind, no model could equal the Arc'teryx Zeta SL's across-the-board performance.
The Zeta uses Gore's newest lightweight waterproof material in Paclite Plus, which improves and replaces the older Gore-Tex with Paclite technology material. The Gore-Tex Paclite Plus has a true 2-layer design. Its 2-layer design isn't like older 2-layer garments, which had a loose hanging mesh liner. Having two layers means that the garment is more breathable, as the moisture has to travel through less fabric and is lighter in weight due to the decrease in the material.
The new Zeta SL proved to be one of the best in the fleet, providing top-tier weather protection and a long-lasting DWR. In our direct side-by-side comparisons, the Zeta SL excelled in our shower and garden hose tests, keeping us comfortable and dry. During real-world testing, including two dozen days backpacking, climbing, and ski touring over a very damp spring in the Pacific Northwest, the Zeta SL exceeded our expectations and was one of the most stormworthy products we tested.
The Zeta SL offers an array of well-designed features, which rank highly for their functionality in keeping our reviewers dry. We appreciated this model's sleek, low profile Velcro wrist closures, which minimized the amount of water that ran down our arms, if we were using our hands were above our head. The main front zipper is watertight, sporting a minimal but effective internal storm flap which keeps the water out in even the wettest of storms. The Durable Water Repellency (DWR) held up incredibly well on this jacket and is one of the best in our fleet.
The Zeta SL features one of the best hood designs in the fleet, complete with top-tier peripheral vision, a deep shape, and a brim that keeps the rain off your face. What we found unique and cool about this model's design is how it cinched down. Unlike some that feature three cinch points (one in the back and two in the front), this model cinches all three places simultaneously from the same rear cinch. This basic but incredibly effective hood design performs fantastically and was easy to tighten with one hand (or two to loosen). This single cinch design also accommodates most headwear or head sizes. Most importantly, the hood moves with you more than the majority of products we tested, maintaining exceptional peripheral vision.
One slight downside is that the hood isn't big enough to fit over the majority of climbing or bike helmets. It could fit but doesn't lend itself to a high level of comfort. Instead, the low profile design enabled us to wear it underneath the helmet, and it didn't feel too bulky or cumbersome.
Breathability and Venting
The Zeta SL's Paclite Plus material is one of the more breathable in our fleet. Gore markets their 3-layer Gore-Tex Active, which is used in the REI Drypoint GTX to be ever-so-slightly more breathable. In our tests, we found them comparable with a slight edge to the REI Drypoint.
Directly comparing the Zeta with its Gore Paclite Plus fabric to air-permeable models isn't as easy as it sounds, but here goes. Air-permeable models have a lower but more static level of breathability. In contrast, this model, as well as other Gore materials level of breathability, fluctuated more depending on internal heat build-up and, to a lesser extent, environmental factors. When we are working hard (such as hiking), both Gore Paclite Plus and Gore Active breathed better than any model featuring an air-permeable fabric such as the Outdoor Research Interstellar and the Rab Kinetic Plus (the two best). However, these models performed better if it was exceptionally hot and humid out, or once we had cooled off (say while setting up camp).
One potential drawback is the Zeta SL doesn't feature any additional ventilation. As we talk more in-depth about in our main review, ventilation isn't as crucial as breathability; for example, if it's pouring rain, but you happen to find yourself on an overgrown trail, you won't be able to open your vents up much (if at all) because water will start coming in through the vents. All jackets have breathability maximums than can easily be exceeded if you are overdressed for a given level of exclusion.
Comfort & Mobility
All of our testers loved the feel of the internal fabric of the Zeta. It was significantly less clammy and sticky feeling than the majority of competitors and felt great directly against our skin, even if we only had a T-shirt on under it.
The Zeta SL boasts some of the better overall mobility and range of motion, with only the mega stretchy Rab Kinetic Plus scoring better. We loved this jacket's slightly longer arm length and exceptionally well-designed, articulated sleeves. Even folks who don't have long arms benefitted from this combination of features, as the ends of the sleeves didn't pull back, even when reaching directly above our heads.
While the sleeves were slightly longer than average, all of our testers agreed they never felt bulky or too long, and most folks commented that this aspect made the jacket more comfortable overall.
The Zeta SL is a relatively minimalist jacket that offers several small nods to comfort, like a micro-fleece lining on the top of the inside of the zipper, which protects the wearer's chin. A similar fabric on the back of the neck can also be found; it adds comfort and increases longevity by absorbing oil and sweat, reducing the chance of the interior fabric delaminating. We love the athletic fit, which still allows for effective layering — without bunching in the underarm areas.
The Zeta SL has an incredibly functional pocket design, with pockets that are slightly elevated to remaining accessible, even while wearing an overnight pack or climbing harness. Not only are they accessible with a backpack on, but because the pockets are out of the way, the zippers didn't pinch our hips under the pressure of a backpacking pack's hip belt. While slightly elevated, the pockets are still low enough to provide a pleasant place to keep our hands warm and tucked away.
The SL in Zeta SL stands for Super Light. At 11 ounces, the Zeta SL is on the lighter end of the spectrum and nearly the lightest Gore-Tex model in our review. It's lighter than most full-featured hardshells, yet it doesn't forego much in the way of performance or overall weather protection. Arc'teryx reduces the weight of this model in several ways: there's no additional ventilation besides simply unzipping the primary front zipper. Thirteen mm seam tape is used, which is the smallest in our review, and the watertight zippers have minimally sized storm flaps to complete the package. Even the Velcro wrist straps are lower-profile than most, minimizing weight. This jacket is plenty light enough to satisfy the majority of outdoor enthusiasts.
The Zeta is durable and offers resistance to tearing or scuffing. The longevity of the DWR also impressed us; even after a full winter in spring, it's still going strong. Besides the Zeta SL's outer face fabric, it offers several features that increase this model's overall durability. There aren't any seams on the shoulders, which is typically the first place seam tape will pull back, due to the pressure of shoulder straps and abrasion. Additionally, the seam tape used on this product is the thinnest in the review; this not only saves weight but makes it less prone to peeling after extended use.
The inside of the chin area has an additional layer of nylon to combat the wearer's sweat from clogging the pores of the membrane, which can cause it to break down or delaminate prematurely. The Zeta is one of the most robust jackets we tested, which is particularly impressive, considering it weighs only 11 ounces. The Outdoor Research Foray and Marmot Minimalist edged out the Zeta in the durability metric (mostly due to their slightly thicker face fabric), but both of these models are heavier.
For the amount of weather protection this model provides, we were impressed with how small it compresses down. It's roughly 25 percent more packable than most three-layer Gore-Tex jackets and offers nearly all the performance benefits.
It compresses smaller than the Outdoor Research Foray and The North Face Dryzzle, which both use Gore-tex Paclite fabric and are still smaller than the Marmot PreCip, yet still offer superior stormworthiness. If you are truly shopping for a "just-in-case" model to live at the bottom of your pack, it's nearly double the size of the two most compact models: the Black Diamond Fineline and Outdoor Research Helium Rain. While those models were significantly more compressible, neither offered the versatility or stormworthiness of the Zeta SL.
With its price tag, it's easy to find a less expensive rain coat. However, it's arguably more versatile and lighter than many 400-700 dollar jackets, making it an excellent value. Expensive hardshells might be slightly more durable or heavily featured and could offer better performance for specific applications like downhill skiing. For most hikers, climbers, mountaineers, and backpackers, this model provides more than enough toughness.
From a value standpoint, several other Gore-Tex Paclite models cost less and score similarly in our tests. In some cases, they might even offer a particular advantage, like the Outdoor Research Foray, which provides better ventilation, or the Marmot Minimalist, which is slightly more durable, though both are also 50 percent heavier. As a whole, you can buy less expensive models, but few, if any, offer the all-around performance that you'll find with the Zeta SL.
The Arc'teryx Zeta SL is a versatile do-everything three-season model that offered the best overall balance of performance and versatility. No model can match the Zeta's across the board performance, scoring at or near the top in nearly every comparison category. It's on the more expensive side, but its performance attributes and versatility more than make up for its cost. Few models can disappear in your pack for a day hike or an afternoon trail run but still keep you dry on a stormy week-long trip. This model's small features will keep you comfortable and dry, and its mobility and freedom of movement mean you won't be bothered by having to wear it the whole time. If we could only have one rain jacket for a wide range of applications, this would be it.
Other Versions and Accessories
Arc'teryx makes the Zeta LT, which is similar in overall design but uses a 3L Gore-Tex fabric instead of the lighter 2L Gore-Tex Paclite Plus used in the Zeta SL.
— Ian Nicholson