Arc’teryx Atom SL (Review): 3 Years On
Still the best day hiking all-rounder
If you’re okay with investing in an item to last multiple seasons, you won’t be disappointed. The Atom SL comes out on top against pretty much any other light, technical, water-resistant jacket out there
Why you should trust my opinion
Being in Vancouver BC, I’m lucky to have access to a bunch of world-class trails and hikes. Like the rest of the Pacific Northwest, not only is it there a lot of rain, but the summers are hot and it can be incredibly humid, especially when at lower altitudes in the forest.
Combine that with coastal winds, and some of the best trails on the west coast, and you get a hikers playground — plus one hell of a test for any piece of gear that wants to do it all. So when it comes to heat shedding, mobility, and water resistance, BC is the perfect place to test active clothing.
I’ve put my Atom SL through the wringer for the past three years. It’s been up mountains (and down slopes), through forests, and around the city. I’ve used it as a running jacket during winter, an insulating layer during summer hikes, and even as a general day-to-day piece for milder weather. See how the Atom SL measured up below.
1. How much are you looking to spend?
Cost is always a question when considering a non-essential layer (the Atom is not strictly an insulating or waterproof piece). At 229USD for the current version, the SL will save you $20 on Patagonia’s Nano-Air ($249) which is probably the closest alternative. But, it’s more expensive than many other light jacket contenders, such as the Patagonia Houdini Air ($169), as well as Arcteryx’s own non-insulated Incendo ($139).
Right out of the gate, this establishes the SL as more of a nice to have rather than a must by. With Arcteryx, however, you can feel confident in separating cost from the value you’ll get from the jacket. Over three years, I definitely haven’t been kind to my SL, stuffing into packs and drawers, using it on long runs then letting it sit in a laundry pile, etc. As an estimate, I’d say I’ve washed this thing an average of twice per month, which totals nearly 70 washes. Without exaggerating, my SL still looks literally brand new. This is a claim you hear about a lot of Arcteryx gear, especially around Vancouver — home of Arcteryx’s design house (and it’s biggest fan club).
As the kind of person who runs pretty hot, I definitely notice if a hiking jacket is not performing. A good technical jacket should provide insulation when you’re up at dawn on a particularly long day, then dump that heat as soon as you reach a critical temperature.
Shedding heat is something the Arcteryx SL excels at. It far outperforms any shell I’ve tried and easily beats other lightly insulated jackets. It will keep you warm over the first few miles, maintain a good temperature for the next ten, and only lose effectiveness when you’re really pushing for camp as the sun goes down.
It’s not exactly clear how the SL manages this magical combination of warmth and breathability, but the strategically placed Coreloft insulation, the stretch fleece side panels, and the cinch hem and hood are all key components.
3. Weather Resistance
Though not a shell, the SL does come with the standard Arcteryx DWR coating. If you’ve never seen a really good DWR finish before, this is bound to impress. The first time I took the Atom SL out in Vancouver’s favourite weather, I couldn’t get over how the water just beaded off the surface. Like any DWR product, this coating fades over time, and I have noticed the jacket become more absorbent in the past year or so. On the plus side, it might be the fastest-drying insulated jacket available. After rain or a good sweat, the SL will be wearable — if not bone dry — within 20 minutes to half an hour.
For hiking in more serious weather, you could always use the SL with a shell layer over the top. This combination will see you through a surprising range of conditions — including snow if you run hot and keep moving — and definitely anything within 3-season territory. In summer, Acteryx’s Coreloft insulation makes the jacket perfect to have in the pack for summiting, running ridges, or anywhere a breeze might pick up.
4. Comfort and Mobility
Here, the Atom SL can cash in on its hybrid design. Because it combines the mobility of a shell with the comfort of a fleece layer, it ranks among the best of both jacket categories. Over the hundreds (thousands?) of miles I’ve logged in it, the SL has never irritated me or caused me to consider taking it out of my rotation. In fact, I’ve rarely thought about — which is always the surest test of a good piece of gear!
The Atom SL’s adjustable hem and stretch side panels (see picture above) are both key parts of the recipe. The cut across the chest, shoulders and hips are also best-in-class. Like many Arcteryx jackets, it feels tailored to you, and I’m left wondering how the brand manages to achieve this kind of super individual fit across all its users.
At 8.6 oz, the Atom SL is light enough to make it a contender every time you pack a bag (the current model is negligibly heavier at 9.2 oz). The synthetic fabric and lightly insulated build also make it one of the fast-drying jackets I’ve ever come across, so you won’t have to wait long before you can pack it after rain.
However, the jacket has no stuff option (pocket or sack). This seems to be a design choice across the Arcteryx range, so it’s something to consider if you’re a fan of keeping things super organized.
In terms of the portability within the jacket, there are two large zip side pockets. These are basic, but sizeable, and will work for carrying essentials or even a map/guide. Personally, I’d also prefer an option for locking items down while moving at speed — a stretch pocket to fit a phone would be nice.
As the home of Arcteryx, testing the Atom SL in BC’s North Shore might be considered a little biased. But the truth is, there’s really no better environment in which to design and test a light technical jacket. That’s what makes the SL such a versatile piece — one that stacks up favorably against the majority of two-season hiking jackets on the market.