Field Tested: Arc’teryx Alpha FL pack review

The Alpha FL packs are the most exciting alpine/ice/mixed packs released this year. They’ve been stripped down to the essentials, constructed of a durable, weather-resistant fabric and feature innovative tool holders and closure mechanisms. Plus, they weigh next to nothing for their size. All good things!

There are two packs in the line, a 30 and a 45. The naming confused me, as the packs didn’t appear to be the stated size, like most other Arc’teryx packs. Turns out, they aren’t, as the Alpha FL packs are named according to their maximum capacity whereas every other Arc’teryx pack uses its unextended size as a naming convention. For example, the NoZone 55 has a capacity of 55L, which extends to 65L. The Khamski 38 clocks in at 37L and expands to 46L, and so on throughout the whole line. The stated capacity of the Alpha FL 30 is 23L, maxing out at 30L.The Alpha FL 45 is listed at 33L, to a maximum of 45L. So it’s a bit at odds with the Arc’teryx ‘standard.’ Curious, I sent the question to Arc’teryx and Jon Rockefeller, Product Line Manager – Ascent, responded:

“Normally packs are measured to the standard use volume and then if there is overflow capacity this is only cited in the specifications. The Alpha FL packs were designed to be used at their max capacity (overflow using the extension collar) and therefore we named them with their intended use volumes.
Climbers tend to put everything they can into their pack for the approach of the route. This is where we anticipate using these packs to their max capacity. Once on-route, much of what is carried inside the pack is now worn on the climber and then the volume of equipment inside the pack is at only 1/3 to 1/2 its max volume. Globally this means that these packs were optimized to carry everything you would normally need for a climb at their max capacity and thus the max capacity became the normal capacity for these packs.”

Arcteryx_Alpha_FL_pack_review_001The Alpha FL packs compared to their Arc’teryx brethren. L to R: Cierzo 25, Alpha FL 30, NoZone 35, Alpha FL 45.

Well, makes sense to me, though I still think the packs should be named by their standard capacity, if only to follow with the convention and avoid a potential for confusion (especially by people ordering online who might not see the pack in person and may not have read all the details). But, regardless of their names, these are two kick-ass packs.

Other than their size difference, the packs share the same features, save one. The pack body is made of a coated nylon that is air impermeable (and thus also waterproof) and incredibly tough. Back panels are made of a high-density foam that just barely gives in under pressure, but seems to alleviate any pressure points while hiking. Shoulder straps have minimal padding yet remain comfortable even with excessively heavy loads. The waistbelt is of the webbing variety, and comes in at 40mm wide. The 30 weighs in at 578g, the 45 comes in at 660g.

Arcteryx_Alpha_FL_pack_review_007The simple shoulder straps and waistbelt carry amazingly well.

There is a laminated pocket on the front of the pack, just underneath the main drawcord closure. It’s really more of a place to stash a small headlamp, some sunscreen or a few gel packets than a full-fledged pocket. Also on the front of the pack are laminated lash points, through which runs a bungee cord with integrated attachments for ice tools. The only difference between the two pack sizes are additional lash-points on the back-panel side of the 45’s pack body. Thread some cord through these and you can create dual compression straps on either side of the pack.

As mentioned, the packs’ main closure method is of the drawcord variety. Pull to close, pull to open. It functions flawlessly. Easy to use with gloves, in the dark, covered in rime, whatever. Underneath, you’ll find the extendable roll-top spindrift collar. Rolled shut, the main packbag becomes an air-tight compartment (I can’t squeeze any air out of it when it’s rolled shut — the Alpha FL essentially becomes a drybag). Stuffed inside, the collar sits tight against the pack, allowing unobstructed packing. Instead of roll-top closing the collar, I tend to ‘stuff’ it on top of the packs’ contents, and then shove my helmet and any quick-access items on top (generally sunglasses & camera in their respective cases), underneath the drawcord closure. This ensures no snow gets onto my gear, and I can quickly get to my most-needed items while on the approach.

Arcteryx_Alpha_FL_pack_review_009The roll-top collar stuffed on top of the gear inside: oft-used items (camera and toque in this case) sit on top for easy access.

Arcteryx_Alpha_FL_pack_review_010Helmet stuffed on top of the roll-top collar, bag cinched tight. So, so quick and so, so easy!

There’s a generously long rope strap over top of all this, which is more than long enough to strap over the maximally-extended spindrift collar. In a nice touch — that shows the incredible attention to detail that went into these packs — the end of the rope cinch strap has a piece of velcro welded to its end so you can bind it all up and prevent any loose ends from flapping around and getting caught in stuff. Useful and functional with a minimum of added weight: nice. Rounding out the top-of-the-pack features are two haul-loops, one on the back, one on the front.

Arcteryx_Alpha_FL_pack_review_008Super-long rope strap with a touch of velcro on the end to keep the leftover strap tidy. Nice touch.

One of my favourite features of the packs is their all-white interior. I’ve lost stuff in other packs, but the brilliant white interior of the Alpha FLs makes finding even pill-size objects (like, say, spilled Tylenols) easy. The somewhat stiff pack bag material resists collapsing on itself, easing packing but at the expense of remaining slightly bulky when empty.

Arcteryx_Alpha_FL_pack_review_005On the left, the bright interior of the Alpha 45 in contrast to a typical pack interior on the right, that of the NoZone 55.

Other than the high-visibility inside, the absolute best thing about the Alpha FLs is attaching ice tools. No matter what I decide to go with — semi-curved Cobras or Quarks, modern-curved Nomics, Fusions or X-Dreams, or even the radically-curved Ergos — the bungee system on the packs accommodates them all. Simply flip the aluminum tab through the tools’ head, stretch the upper bungee over a pommel or handle and Voila, your tools are secure. To eliminate picks snagging on stuff, simply flip them under the crossed bungee strap. I have yet to see a faster or easier to use system that works as well with thick gloves as with bare hands.

Arcteryx_Alpha_FL_pack_review_006The tool attachment system is the fastest and easiest to use I’ve seen, and works as well with gloves as with bare hands.

Arcteryx_Alpha_FL_pack_review_004To secure the handle, just wrap the bungee around a pommel: the grey tabs make pulling the cord over super simple. (Petzl Ergo handle on the left, BD Fusion2 handle on the right.)

Arcteryx_Alpha_FL_pack_review_003The lower tool attachment is a simple aluminum tab passed through the tool’s head. (Petzl Ergo on the left, BD Fusion2 on the right.)

I’ve been using the 30 for a bit now, and other than some dirt it doesn’t show the slightest hint of wear. If you’re the kind of person who likes to pack everything on the inside, rope and helmet included, the 30 might be a touch too small for single-day ice or mixed missions. Conversely, this smaller size combined with its ample load-carrying ability makes this an excellent multi-pitch climbing pack: you can approach with it overloaded and climb with a small, unobtrusive, pack. (Just the way they’ve been designed to be used!)

The 45 arrived barely a couple of weeks ago but instantly became my favourite pack. I favour the 35L-ish size for cragging excursions as I can shove all my gear inside the pack and climb with a only belay jacket clipped to my harness, the pack staying at the base for the day. The slightly bigger pack also takes the guesswork out of ‘packing’ at the end of the day: just throw stuff in and head back to the car. Overstuffed, the 45 has enough space for an overnighter, and once the rack is taken out, the pack will climb just as well as the 30, though it is a bit ‘chunkier.’

Downsides? I honestly can’t think of any. The naming scheme seems a somewhat disingenuous but it has no bearing on the packs’ performance. I love the tool attachments, the all-white inside, the quick and easy drawcord closure, the carrying comfort and the minimalist design. At $200 and $240, these aren’t the cheapest packs around but this is a very specialized realm and these are pretty high-tech packs. I can’t imagine Arc’teryx selling these by the container-load: economics of scale dictates that these low-volume items will inherently be more expensive. Do you get what you pay for? I think so — unlike a couple other items Arc’teryx generously sent me for review, I bought both of these and don’t regret that decision one bit.

Pros: great tool attachments, all-white interior, durable fabrics, comfortable
Cons: none
Overall: My new favourite alpine packs, more so the 45 than the 30. I only wish there were more days in a week so I could use them more!

14 thoughts on “Field Tested: Arc’teryx Alpha FL pack review

  1. Reto says:

    How would you compare this pack to the newly reviewed Ascensionist pack by Patagonia? Especially if you’re looking into a lighter pack for 2-3 day trips (with overnight stay in huts). Which one carries the load better?

    thx a lot for your feedback
    reto

    • Raf says:

      For longer trips, I think the Ascensionist is a bit more comfortable, mostly due to having actual padding on the waistbelt. For overnight hut trips, I’d go with the Ascensionist 45L.

  2. michael says:

    How would you compare these to the Patagonia Ascensionist packs? Curious about a comparison of the lid closures.

    • Raf says:

      Sounds like I’ll have to do a direct comparison soon!

      For the lid closures, it is very similar in that both packs close with one drawstring: pull the cord to close, pull on the cordlock and on the pack’s collar to open. Both are very simple and easy to use.

      Where they differ is the pocket and top-lid configuration. The Alpha FL has a pocket on the front of the pack — though it is very small — while the Ascensionist has a pocket in the ‘top lid’ which, while much larger, cannot be used if the pack is overstuffed. I prefer the solution on the Alpha, as it seems simpler and more direct. I’ll try to do up a video in the next few days to show the differences.

  3. Climber says:

    How would you compare the Nozone with Ascensionist? It seems Alpha Fl would be one or two day light trip. Where Nozone and Ascensionist would be two to three day heavier trip?

  4. Pingback: New Alpha FL packs from Arc'teryx now available » Gear Exposure

  5. Jason says:

    In your comparison photo, are the packs expanded/maxed out? I’m looking for about 30-35 liters as a pack for my motorcycle, but don’t want to overstuff it

    • Raf says:

      In the comparison they are ‘comfortably’ packed. You can see the Alpha 45 fully loaded in one of the photos lower down.

  6. Owen says:

    I’m confused about the capacity of this pack. How would the Alpha 30 and 45 compare to the Black Diamond Speed line? I have the Speed 22 and Speed 40–I’m trying to find something between the two that is more weatherproof than the Speed 30. I find the Speed 22 a confining for an overnight alpine kit, but the Speed 40 ends up kind of floppy and annoying when it’s underpacked.

    Thanks!

  7. Reto says:

    Hi Raf

    Did you have a chance to compare the Alpha to the new Cierzo 28l by Arcteryx?

    regards
    reto

    • Raf says:

      Not yet — but there’ll be a article as soon as I get my hands on the new Cierzo packs.

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