One of the best aspects of working in the outdoor industry is living the life: climbing, hiking, and adventure travel through some of the most fascinating landscapes on earth. Staff members here at GreatOutdoors.com (and our parent company, Altrec.com) spend as much time as possible pursuing outdoor adventure, so they take their outdoor equipment seriously. As we roll into the busy holiday season, a great time to pick up deals on the best in outdoor gear, here are some favorite pieces of equipment we found especially useful in 2009.
Come along with editor Peter Potterfield, copy writer Gordy Skoog, and other staff members as they share what they discovered using all sorts of outdoor gear in the best laboratory of all: the backcountry. We traveled from the Beartooths of Montana to New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, from the Black Hills of South Dakota to the Sawtooth Range in Idaho, from the North Cascades to the Canadian Rockies to try out the latest in boots, solo tents, climbing gear, outerwear and stoves.
Some of Our Favorite Gear for 2009
After five days living out of this innovative pack in the Canadian Rockies, I was a believer. Its lightweight and comfort impressed me as much as its technical innovations, even though I was at the upper limit of its recommended weight range. I love the simplicity of this top-loader even after carrying 30-plus pounds over 40 miles. There are no mid-panel zippers or other unnecessary gee gaws to add weight, but there are nine exterior pockets, a unique “stow on the go” system for carrying your trekking poles, and double tool attachments. At just two and a quarter pounds, and with an innovative tension mesh back panel, it was the comfort and ventilation of this pack that stood out. The waist belt tightens with an easy to use “Ergo Pull” system, and unique compression straps keep your gear securely lashed in the mesh side pockets. We’re accustomed by now to high-performing packs from Osprey, but this one exceeds even those high expectations. People tend view this as a weekend bag, but with backcountry gear getting lighter each year, the 58-liter capacity and 35-pound load limit for the Exos can easily give you almost a week in the wilderness, and do so in unparalleled comfort.--PP
When you’re hiking the wild coasts of the Olympic Peninsula in winter, you need serious protection, and that’s what we found with the Furio Jacket from OR. Better known for it’s performance in the alpine zone, this high end, bombproof shell manages to be virtually impervious to any kind of storm despite it’s light weight. The 70 dernier Gore Tex Packlite fabric keeps the weight down and rain and snow out, but also manages to expel internal moisture (with the help of some of the longest pit zips we’ve seen). In fact, the ventilation is critical as this is one of the warmest uninsulated shells we’ve tested. A roomy, adjustable hood accommodates helmets or closes snugly around a hat. Climbing into this jacket inspires confidence when venturing in to nasty conditions. --PP
Draped over the scale in our office this half-zip pull-over weighed in consistently less than our favorite fleece pull-overs, but during a four day hike along Wyoming’s Teton Crest Trail this comfortable, stretchy synthetic second layer proved it’s mettle. It fit well with sufficient roominess but no bagging or sagging (size large for our 6-foot, 170 lb tester) and remained comfortable whether we we’re working up out of Alaska Basin or lounging around camp as the sun set on the Grand. Some people think of this as a winter garment, but for us it works all year: it wicks moisture like you wouldln't believe even under full power uphill. The Polartec Power Dry fabric breathed remarkable well, and dried quickly after we got hosed by the predictable afternoon thunderstorm. A breast pocket held the gps within easy reach. We sort of missed hand warmer pockets, but then it wouldn’t be so light. Cloudveil has crafted out of this versatile fabric what’s become our favorite light insulation layer for backcountry trips. --PP
I don't know how I managed rambling the mountain landscape for so many years without trekking poles, but when side-winding a heather slope or traversing uneven terrain these poles are indispensible. Helping to hold a foot-edge and maintaining equilibrium, this three section pole compresses down to a practical pack slinging size for more technical hands-free terrain, and adjusts with a twist to match the angle of the slope. Keeping me upright while balancing a creek crossing log or bracing while stepping down off an awkward boulder, these sticks are knees savers on a relentless down hill. Weighing-in amazingly at under a pound, they're more and more a welcomed companion, especially when considering the dual purpose as a tarp tent pole. --GS
New this year, High Sierra's
top of the line ski and snowboard transporter (S6026) was up to the task. On a gear test ski trip into Lake Louise in February, we could easily fit three pairs of x-c skis, with poles. This is a robust bag that can accommodate snowboards, downhill skis or various combinations thereof in thickly padded safety. The bag can be extended (with zippered expanders), to accommodate 205 centimeter Nordic skis, whereas mcuh shorter alpine skis are no brainer. Equipped with in-line skate style wheels and plastic molded rub rails at the bottom to protect it from airline baggage handlers, this is a very impressive all around ski bag into which we crammed a bunch of other stuff to keep our duffle bags below max weight. This thing rocks if you travel with skis or snowboards.--PP
Combined with a butane jet stove I've really come to rely on this titanium pot set up. With a cup, lighter, spoon, handle, canister and stove nested inside I have yet to find a more lightweight, compact and versatile cooking set up. For efficiency what is really cool is that the larger pot is designed to stack on top of the smaller one, and with its close fitting lid the double boiling vertical nature of the set optimizes cooking. If I've planned hot meals or want an emergency water melt back-up in the winter, this pot system is my go to. --GS
On a February cross country ski trip to the Canadian Rockies we used a variety of skis, mostly lightweight edgeless, waxless nordic skis. But my favorites turned out to be the Karhu Solstice XT widetracks. The partial edges made it easier for a bad skier like me to climb and turn on the trails, and the XTs were wide enought to fit skins for the long uphill backcountry sections. With good performance on both good track-set trails, and on untracked backcountry sections of moderate terrain, these skis impressed us for their versatility.--PP
At just over 16oz., the ultralight Fraction Hoody from Outdoor Research is actually lighter than most fleece pullovers but provides superior insulation in cold weather. We like this jacket for its utter simplicity and lightweight, yet high performance. This is a minimalist synthetic insulated jacket, comparable to the famous Coal jacket from GoLite, a lightweight classic designed by Ray Jardine 10 years ago when that company launched. The hoody is a worthy successor. You can stuff this thing in your pack without noticing it and be ready when the temperature drops, and the PrimaLoft ECO insulation and weather resistant shell fabric means you don’t have to worry if the weather turns damp. The details seal the deal: the simple hood is not detachable, so no snaps or zips to add weight, the handwarmer pockets are big and soft, the napoleon pocket keeps gps or cell within reach, and the hem drawcord makes it easy to keep in the warmth. --PP
Sleeping pad technology has accelerated in the last few years, so we wanted to test designs that were less conventional than what’s become the standard. We tried a dozen models, but were impressed most by two pads from Pacific Outdoor that push the envelope in new ways. For climbing on the Cascade volcanoes, where camping on snow is part of the game, the conventional choice is a closed cell foam (the fail-safe element) paired with a thin conventional inflatable pad (the comfort element). But Pacific Outdoor’s unique Hyperlite
series combines the best of both elements in a lightweight, extremely packable design. Essentially a closed cell foam pad—and therefore safe for snow camping—this pad is improved by an open cell inflatable insert and a massive slab of what Pacific Outdoor calls Aspen Aerogel under the torso. With an R value of 5.0and up, this may be the warmest pad on the market, and even the Hyper Elite, the top of the line, weighs in at only 19 ounces. If we liked the unconventional approach to this pad, we really liked the Ether Thermo
, which looks like something your kid might be floating around in at the neighborhood pool. With an astonishing 2.5 inches of air space, combined with an additional insulated layer, the men’s three season, three quarter length weighs in at only 13 ounces, and rolls into the size of a beer can. I was a little concerned about puncturing this indulgent pad in hard use near Sun Valley, but the 70 dernier bottom is way beefier than you’d think. This pad is a game changer. In a typical backpacking situation the Ether Thermo could be the first pad you reach for. User tip: if you don’t fully inflate it, it’s even more comfortable. --PP
It’s rare when you try a dozen boots in a season and can recommend four of them. Boot technology has come a long way, and 2009 was a banner year for comfort and technical innovation. We focused our tests on lightweight hikers, where the really agressive progress has been made.
Every now and then the universe aligns in a way that gives you exactly what you want, and need. That happened to me when I tried on a pair of Oboz Sawtooths last spring. Once I got beyond my surprise at the cushion, and the comfort, of this low cut light hiker, I could focus on the fit: these boots were made with my foot—wide in the toes, narrow in the heel—in mind. I first tested these on day hikes in South Dakota's Black Hills, and found I forgot to take them off at the end of the day. They actually evolved into my favorite around town shoes of choice, but I longed for a little beefier model for lightweight backpacking. By the end of summer, Oboz had come out with the Sawtooth Mid, the mid-ankle version that offers more support when hiking with a pack, and features Oboz's proprietary membrane for water proofing. Both models sport a double density EVA midsole, which accounts for the robust cushion, and rounded, aggressively lugged outsoles to ensure traction and provide stability and support. These are outrageously comfortable boots, true to Bozeman-based Oboz's commitment to innovation and quality. The fact the company plants a tree for every pair of shoes sold (through Trees of the Future) is an added bonus.--PP
Mid-height cut combined with flex control gives running-shoe feel and performance to this lightweight hiking boot from La Sportiva. I really pushed the envelope for this concept with some serious off trail travel in the Canadian Rockies’ rugged Slate Range, but the FC3s passed with flying colors, and proved a perfect combination of support and comfort. Dual-density midsole provides cushion in the heel and the ball of the foot while the Vibram outer sole with Impact Brake System increase traction and reduces impact. The soft sidewalls increase control but don’t compromise support. In a word, these boots feel like creampuffs when you put them on, but they perform like much heavier boots when under a load on the trail. Built on the popular Trango 2 last, La Sportiva has demonstrated innovative thinking and brilliant execution in the construction of these lightweight hikers.--PP
Shoe or boot? That was the question as we tested the latest iteration of Vasque’s popular Breeze line. Lighter and more agile than the original boots, these new offerings fill a specialized niche. The Breeze Low GTX was a pleasant surprise, a compromise between go light speed and sufficient support. Light yet sturdy, this boot was comfortable and supportive on both long day hikes when speed was essential, and quick overnights with go-light loads. The Breeze Low GTX make perfect trekking boots for those who prefer a low cut, when the miles are long but yaks are carrying the bulk of your load. This Breeze Low is best described as a cross-over product, a proven Vasque Breeze hiking boot slimmed down for speed and efficiency but still retaining the features you need, like a Gore-Tex fabric to keep your feet dry, and dual density EVA footbeds for cushion, and a gnarly Vibram Contact Lite sole that grips well in all terrain.--PP
How much boot is enough? Or too much! Like many, I traversed the mountains for years in a traditional medium weight leather boot, and climbed everything in them. In time I added plastic shell boots and specialized climbing boots to my quiver. Hating the suffer-fest of those ridge boots on a relentless approach, I often treaded in tennies to altitude, carrying the technical footwear. Something was definitely wrong with that picture, and it wasn't until I soloed the Ptarmigan Traverse that I saw the light. Coaxing my Hardrock Mids with a sticky sole across the spine of the North Cascades I found that with a little help of a ten point strap-on Kahtoola crampon that there was virtually no place that I couldn't ramble. Lightweight and super comfy over the long haul, I've tested the edges with these scramblers on the summits of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Blanc. I had to chuckle as I passed climbers stumbling their way along in their heavy mountaineering boots as I flowed fleet-footed in my super lightweight footwear. --GS
Laken aluminum waterbottle
Sales of reusable, aluminum water bottles have seen a notable spike with the public's increased awareness around the harmful effects of Bisphenol A or BPA, which is linked to cancer causing agents and developmental disorders. But inexpensive off-shore bottles labeled BPA free, and even some from trusted brands, have been shown to leach BPA. But Laken has taken on the challenge. Its quality-control tests for BPA, at a third-party laboratory in Spain, ensures their bottles are certified BPA free. Laken's proprietary liner, similar chemically to nylon, is safe, and 100% BPA-free. Laken examines each bottle optically after manufacturing, taking the worry out of it for the consumer. An upside is there’s no metal after-taste, so now there is no excuse for continuing to use plastic disposable bottles.--PP
GreatOutdoors.com is based in Seattle, where we take coffee pretty seriously. So we had to try the new JavaKit which is basically a one liter Jetboil camping stove, using the company’s unique “flux ring” burner, with the addition of a fully integrated French press style coffee plunger. Its a variation of the Flash, an all-in-one design, combining burner and cooking vessel in one compact unit. Everything, including a nifty little tripod base, stores inside Flash’s one-liter vessel (which can also be used as a drinking mug). This stove was irresistible on backpacking trips from the Black Hills to the Canadian Rockies. The fast but fuel-efficient (you get 12 liters of boiling water per 100 g canister) stove boiled two cups of water in just two minutes, perfect for a freeze dried dinner. But it really showed it’s stuff in the morning, when you could roll out of your sleeping bag, fire up the stove with the touch of a button for the improved igniter, and have two cups of coffee-house quality brew in minutes. Even our hard-core caffeine heads admitted the French press style coffee maker was superior to the usual filter and drip method most of us had been using.--PP
One of my favorite packs of all time was the Kelty Phantom, a spectra-cord marvel of lightweight durability and unsurpassed versatility, capable of changing its configuration to fit any need, that appeared in the late '90s. But at more than $600, it was an expensive indulgence, yet proved how successfully Kelty builds backpacks of unusual capability. Testing Kelty's new Pawnee (3300 cubic inches) on an overnight on Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail, and again in Strathcona National Park, this summer, I was reminded of this hereitage. I came away impressed by the comfort and performance of this trim basic overnight pack, one small enough to also be used for day trips. But what really stands out is the value of Kelty's latest, at about $130 it’s one of the best buys we've seen. So many good packs are simple, top loaders, like this one, but Kelty has managed a big U-shaped zipper for mid-point access to the interior while keeping the weight at a reasonable 3 and half pounds. This is a great basic pack at an unbeatable price, notable for its wide, heavily padded shoulder straps and waist belt connected to a capable suspension system that keeps the Pawnee steady and where you want it on your back. For weekend backpacks or long go-fast day hikes, we were surprised at how much the Pawnee delivered, for so little.--PP
We focused our testing this year on lightweight solo shelters, as going “solo together” is gaining advocates. With new designs, there is no longer much of a weight penalty for tenting alone. It also simplifies logistics: each hiker comes with his or her own abode, a smaller patch of level ground will suffice, and you don’t have to listen to your tent mate snore. We focused on conventional double wall tents, with body and fly, because we were looking for comfortable solo shelters, not glorified bivvy bags. Some of our favorites are below, and most of these come (or will shortly) in two person models:
For the past two years, the three pound MSR Hubba was the gold standards for go alone tents: free-standing, stable, roomy, and dry, and with the introduction of the HP model, usable for (almost) four seasons. MSR has taken that basic design and shaved off about three quarters of a pound to produce the Carbon Reflex 1. It feels much the same inside, the weight reductions come from the revised, non-free-standing structure, lighter fabric, and carbon fiber poles. We like this version a lot for the 20 per cent weight reduction, but you’ve got to guy it out well to retain the stability we liked so much in the Hubba, and we wonder how the lighter materials will hold up to frequent use. But in oiur tests this tent performed well, and gave us a roomy shelter for significantly less weight. For go-light backpackers, having a trusted design and yet saving an honest 12 ounces over the Hubba, are persuasive arguments. The Carbon Reflex is as advertised: comfortable and familiar, and worth the expense.--PP
Big Agnes stormed the Bastille this year with a couple of very impressive tents. I took the Copper Spur UL1 onto the airy Teton Crest Trail where it performed flawlessly in varied conditions. Just 2 pounds, 13 ounces all in, it’s in the game for go-light, double wall solo shelters, and was comfortably secure in breezy conditions with the fly zipped up. Ventilation was excellent and there’s enough fabric at the head to keep out the wind. This is a well thought out tent that offers some nice amenities, like a junior rear vestibule for boots and such accessible from inside via a zippered opening. The Copper Spur is a hit. Big Agnes pushed the envelope farther with the release this fall of the Fly Creek UL1, a pared down freestanding design with a mostly mesh tent body and access to the rear vestibule, which is a Big Agnes feature we grew to love. Our tent weighed 2 pounds 4 ounces, all in. It has a pronounced narrowing toward the foot and is open and breezy at the head. It’s a bit of work to get into when the fly is on, but the Fly Creek has good ventilation for such a small tent. It’s a few inches shorter than the Copper Spur so it’s less appealing for those over six feet. Another innovative design from Big Agnes, we liked the Fly Creek for specific applications, like fair-weather trips in summer. But for backpackers looking for the most versatile lightweight solo, both these Big Agnes offerings will be hard to resist.--PP
For years a jumar was the only practical way of self-balaying. Faster than a prussik and more secure, it however presented the unnerving potential for stripping the kern-mantle right off a rope in the event of a sudden impact or fall. More than just a convenient gym tool, aid speed climber Ammon McNeeley pointed out to me the rope friendly efficiency and 'big catch' self-braking capability of the Grigri system. When the rope suddenly comes under tension, or leveraging advantages of aid trickery, or single rope descending I've come to recognize the Grigri as a must have tool. Smoother and easier when soloing, I have to admit when on repel I still fall back to the old comforts with my AT/Reverso. --GS
As a versatile, virtually four-season next to skin layer, this new top from SmartWool stole the show last year. Made from 100 percent merino wool jersey, a fabric so soft and comfortable it’s frankly hard to believe it’s wool, the Microweight wicks moisture as well as any first layer we’ve tried, and ventilates so well with the one-third zip it remains comfortable over a wide temperature range. One of the best features of this fabric is that it doesn’t trap funky odors like a lot of synthetics. Typical of SmartWool products, the attention to detail here is impressive, right down to the flatlock seams to prevent chafing. I wore this as my first (and often only) layer on a hike in the Canadian Rockies last summer, and it kept me comfortable from dawn til dusk, when I found that combining it with the NTS Lightweight Zip T creating the perfect complement: two layers of Merino wool wick moisture as well as one, with no loss in breathability. These versatile shirts are all about comfort and performance. PP
These U.S. made light hiking socks proved their mettle on repeated hikes last summer, from the Tetons to the Olympics. Comfortable on all day jaunts with light loads, we loved the fact this sock comes in two flavors. The Coolmax version is synthetic, a four-channel extreme wicking polyester perfect for those hot days in canyon country. Our testers liked the lightweight padding at the heel and the ball of the food, and the lace pad on top of the foot to protect from boot-lace pressure. These are socks that won’t let you down even after a long day. And for those who prefer natural fiber, Thorlo makes this same sock in a wool/silk blend: The wool/silk light hikers have a softer feel and more cushioning, perfect for cooler days on the trail.
Love your Keen Newports
? Then get the pack made to tag along with them, the unique Newport Pack. Actually looking a bit like the footwear, this pack proves itself as an around town bag and laptop carrier, and as a utilitarian pack suitable to short dayhikes or that picnic in the local park. With a built in computer sleeve, and hydration bladder pocket, robustly padded shoulder straps and zippered exterior pockets, this little number came as a pleasant surprise to our testers. The frame is made from 100 percent recycled aluminum, and the bottom is 100 percent recycle rubber, so you can use this versatile pack guilt free in both the nearby out of doors and the urban jungle.
Always thinking light and simple, I pondered the Tibloc as a mechanical advantage to my stead fast prussiks for a number of years. I was pleased when I finally took the leap after a stint at Red Rocks. This ultra light, versatile ascender pairs with an oval-stock carabiner for numerous self-rescue situations, creates a self-locking pulley for bag hauling, is ideal for crevasse rescue, and can help a partner up a difficult pitch. It can also be used as an emergency ascender. At a mere 1.4-ounce the Tibloc is compact and easy to justify for any gear bag. --GS