Filed under:Backpacks, Gear reviews, Arc'teryx Alpha FL45
An innovative technical pack from Arc'teryx that's also waterproof – we test out the Alpha FL45...
Designing a technical sack for mountaineers must be one of the most challenging and (when they get it right) satisfying jobs for pack designers, and it’s certainly an area where plenty of great ideas and innovations come from. The Arc’teryx Alpha FL30 and FL45 packs are good examples of this, for not only do they come with the usual great build quality and attention to detail we expect from the brand, they are also clearly the result of some ‘out of the box’ thinking when it comes to catering for the particular demands of climbers, mountaineers and skiers. In the crowded sector of the pack market that the FLs reside in, points of difference are important in making the product stand out.
The first notable feature to mention is that the FL45 is about as waterproof as is possible, with the main material being a durable, coated nylon ripstop that will cope with rock abrasion as well as repel water. All seams of the FL are taped internally, and the pack features a roll-top closure at the top instead of a conventional lid, which essentially turns it into a big drybag.
The second notable feature is the low weight of the packs – just 650g for the FL45 and 575g for the FL30 – and this is down to the minimalist design of the packs (no extraneous pockets or features) and the use of hi-tech, lightweight materials. Despite the relative thinness of the main fabric, the pack feels solid, with the outer material fairly stiff which means it maintains its structure quite well, rather than collapsing on itself. The back system is a simple panel of high-density polyethylene foam, while the main straps and hipbelt are also very light – just webbing for the hipbelt, in fact.
The final stand-out feature of the FL45 (and the FL30) is the pack’s closure system, which eschews the traditional lid in favour of an innovative arrangement consisting of a roll-top closure and extending collar. When using the full capacity of the pack (45L) the long collar extends out of the main opening and ends with the roll-top closure, giving you the waterproof performance the pack promises. However, when the full capacity is not required, the collar can be tucked inside the main body of the pack and a cinch cord pulled tight to close the top of the sack. Because there’s no lid, you miss out on the usual internal/external pockets that are so useful for keeping small items close to hand, but Arc’teryx have added a small pocket onto the front of the pack that partially offsets that issue.
PACK IT IN
The whole concept of the Alpha FL45 is that you will start the day using its full capacity – when you’re carrying your helmet, harness, crampons and climbing rack on the walk-in – and then once you’re at the start of your climb (whether that’s rock, ice, alpine etc) you’ll take out most of that gear to use, and the pack then compresses down to its un-extended size (33L) or smaller. It sounds on paper to be a sound concept, and we took it out on a few alpine missions to see if it worked in practice.
First up, loading the pack: your ice axe (or axes) are attached to the FL45 via two metal retainers that thread through the head of the axes, and are then tightened by the web of bungee cord through which the shaft of your axe is also fixed. This is a tried-and-tested system and we had no problems with it. Crampons could be attached on the outside too, secured to the bungee cord web, but we’d prefer to pack them inside rather than having them dangling off the back of the pack. To get all the kit you need for a day’s climbing inside the FL45 – waterproofs, belay jacket, harness, rack, water and so on – you’ll need to make use of the full capacity enabled by the extendable collar, and we packed our helmet last to make securing the rolltop closure easy.
With the FL45 also being suitable for ski mountaineering, we initially couldn’t work out how skis could be attached to the pack; however, we then noticed the two attachment points on either side of the pack, which you can thread bungee cord through and attach to the main attachment points on the front – these will allow you to fix a ski on either side of the pack. Unfortunately the cord needed for this wasn’t supplied with the FL45, and considering that this is also needed to compress the volume down once you’ve taken out your climbing gear, that’s a bit of an oversight we feel. The last thing to pack is the rope, and this just sits on top of the pack (whether extended or not) and is retained by a strap that clips over the top which also has a little Velcro fastener to deal with any excess length.
Once we’d packed the FL ready for a day’s climbing, it was time to see how it carried with all that (not-inconsiderable) weight. Hauling the loaded pack onto my back, I was slightly concerned that the shoulder straps and hipbelt might not be substantial enough to make a long walk-in comfortable. However, the straps do a surprising good job, despite being so thin; their contoured shape and the fact that the edges are softened mean that we didn’t experience any problems with comfort. The hipbelt, as already mentioned, consists merely of webbing and therefore doesn’t give too much in the way of support. It isn’t removable either, but if you want it out of your way when climbing you can just clip it around the front of the pack. The back panel weighs very little yet gave enough support for our load carried for a reasonable time. If it was removable it could have come in handy as a bivi mat at a push, but clearly Arc’teryx considered the weight saving made by bonding it to the pack’s outer fabric to be more important than functionality in this case.
When I first started using the FL45, I thought I would miss not having the two pockets you get from a standard lid arrangement, but soon I found that by using a combination of the small front pocket, and stowing some other items in the gap between the roll-top and
the outer opening, I could deal with most situations. This latter trick only works when not using the full volume of the pack of course, so when walking in to your route you will have to find alternative places to carry things like hats, glasses, suncream and whatever else you normally keep in the lid. The other minor issue with the ‘dual opening’ design is that no matter how tight you pull the outer entrance together, there’s still a gap into which driving rain, and possibly snow, could enter. It won’t enter the pack’s main compartment due to the roll-top, but in simulated conditions (10 minutes under a power shower!) a pool of water formed between the outer entrance and the rolltop enclosure. It’s possible that a simple design tweak could remedy this but for now, this – and the lack of pockets – seem to be the main disadvantages of the pack.
As we spent more time with the FL45, we noticed more and more little details that make using it more pleasurable: the white-coated interior of the pack, which makes finding items in its deepest recesses easier; the dual (front and back) haul loops for stable hauling up a rockface or clipping into an anchor; and the grabtags on the bungee cord and zip which make operation easier when wearing gloves. And although Arc’teryx stop short of calling the pack ‘waterproof’ (they call it ‘highly weather resistant’), to all intents and purposes it is.
The concept of the FL45 (and FL30) is hard to fault, and aside from the minor niggles with
the lid/opening arrangement – Arc’teryx’s execution of that concept is pretty damn