Must-Have Gear: Spring/Summer
Sometimes good ol' human ingenuity trumps the power of high technology. Take, for example, an avalanche backpack that uses a simple fan to inflate its airbag, eliminating the need for heavy and complex gas canisters. Or a stove that gets better cold-weather performance by turning its fuel upside down. Or a headlamp that better illuminates by letting its lens float. To be sure, this season's best gear has plenty of gee-whiz technology behind it, but its great ideas are leading the way. —Steve Casimiro
Reimagined Mountain Bike Helmet
Photograph courtesy Smith
The first thing that catches your eye about the Smith Optics Forefront mountain bike helmet is that it catches your eye. The inaugural cycling lid from the Idaho eyewear brand is designed with a bold, dramatic silhouette, strikingly different from the traditional head protection you've come to expect. There's a method to the flashy look, though. Those big vents channel lots of air to keep you cool, while exposing a honeycombed inner structure that Smith says is safer than a typical helmet. Called Aerocore, the honeycomb is designed to be crushed on impact more readily than the EPS foam used in most helmets, which means better absorption of impacts and, in theory, lower risk of injury.
Get It: $220; smithoptics.com
Magical Shock Protection
Photograph courtesy G Form
G-Form PRO-X Knee Pads
G-Form's knee pads are made from a material that will blow your mind—Poron XRD. Under normal conditions, the foam is soft and flexible, but when it's hit by a hard force, such as a bike or ski crash, it hardens in a split second, blocking up to 90 percent of the impact. It seems like magic, but it's just the fibers in the microcellular urethane undergoing a phase change when a sudden shock hits them. G-Form is being used extensively to protect consumer electronics, as in iPad cases (which have been dropped from airplanes and survived) but the potential for athletes seems unlimited: The knee pads can lurk unobtrusively under your pants, then harden into action when needed.
Get It: $69; g-form.com
Retro Lighting With Modern Tech
Photograph courtesy Barebones
Barebones Forest Lantern
Anyone remember the days of hunting for a mantle for your kerosene lantern, then struggling to install it, then having to listen to the hiss of burning fuel? The Forest Lantern from Barebones Living has all the evocative style of a classic Coleman, but with fully modern (and silent) technologies. The lantern is lit by LEDs, has its own rechargeable-by-USB battery, and throws out 325 warm lumens of light. You can dim the light for reading, take it into the tent without fear of starting a fire, and—let's see a kerosene lantern do this—give your phone or camera a charge off its USB port.
Get It: $80; barebonesliving.com
Unconventional But Comfortable Sleeping
Photograph courtesy Sierra Designs
Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed 800 3-Season
Humans aren't mummies and we weren't designed to sleep in cocoons, so it's no wonder slumbering in a sleeping bag can be an exercise in wiggling and discomfort. The unconventional, zipperless Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed 800 3-Season, though, shoves tossing and turning out the door. It's built with a large opening and a sewn-in down blanket, giving you tremendous flexibility to cover up when it's colder or peel the blanket back when it's warmer. You can stick any or all limbs out, for either comfort or cooling, and if you roll from side to side you won't get wrapped up like a twist of spaghetti. The three-season model is filled with 800-fill DriDown, weighs 2.5 pounds, and has a comfort temp rating of 31°F.
Get It: $400; sierradesigns.com
Photograph courtesy Snow Peak
Snow Peak Mola
Have you ever noticed how often you fiddle with your headlamp to get the beam lined up just right? So did the designers of Snow Peak's Mola. The eyes, as it turns out, move at a greater angle than your noggin when you tilt it, which means that a beam that's perfect when you're looking ahead will be too high when you look down, say, to chop garlic for your pasta. The solution is simple and ingenious: Mola's counterweighted lens tilts when you lift or drop your head, allowing a perfectly centered spot of light at all times.
Get It: $60; snowpeak.com
Photograph courtesy Gobe
Light and Motion GoBe
The prices of effective, durable lights for cycling, running, and camping have fallen dramatically, but still, the tally adds up if you stock up on sport-specific illumination. Light and Motion, which makes world-class bike and diving lights, has merged the two in the modular, immensely adaptable GoBe. The 500-lumen version weighs 5.6 ounces, fits nicely in the hand, is submersible to nearly 400 feet, and has several beam levels—plus, you can affix it to your bike or helmet with optional mounts or stick on a 700-lumen lens for a brighter beam.
Get It: $200; lightandmotion.com
Ultimate Action Earbuds
Photograph courtesy Sol Republic
Sol Republic Relays
Portable audio makers have come up with all sorts of MacGyver solutions to keep headphones or earbuds from falling off when you run, most of which look like strange orthodontic devices. Sol Republic took a simpler, smarter, and far more effective approach with its Relay earbuds. The bud part that slips into the ear canal is offset on a rubbery circular base, which allows the unit to rest snugly against your ear cartilage. It's unobtrusive, sounds great, sheds sweat, and won't come out until you take it out.
Get It: $80; solrepublic.com
Revolutionary Avalanche Pack
Photograph by Revolution
Black Diamond Jetforce
Avalanche airbags are the hottest new product in the snow world, but the Black Diamond Jetforce pack is about to make all existing bags irrelevant. The reason is that it uses a fan and ambient air to fill itself. Unlike with other packs, there are no canisters, no refills, nothing that can't be carried on an airplane or that has to be filled when you arrive at your mountain destination. A battery charges the fan, which can be used up to six times in the field without a recharge. Jetforce even holds its pressure if the bag tears.
Get It: $1,100; blackdiamondequipment.com
Sleeping Bag With Built-in Mattress
Photograph courtesy Eddie Bauer
Eddie Bauer Airbender +20º Sleeping Bag
At night, rolling off your sleeping pad usually leads to dreams of cold, hard places, followed by groggily waking up to scootch back on. With Eddie Bauer's Airbender +20º, that misery is over, because the Climashield-insulated pad is welded right into the bottom of the sleeping bag. Weight is a competitive three pounds, one ounce and the fill is top-shelf 850-fill water-resistant down. It's warm and comfy and, while it certainly doesn't pack small, you can easily ditch the included hand pump and fill it the old-fashioned way—with your lungs—keeping things simpler and lighter.
Get It: $799; eddiebauer.com
Photograph courtesy Eagle Creek
Eagle Creek 2-in-1
The Eagle Creek 2-in-1 Ultralight Convertible Day Traveler is a simple idea brilliantly executed: For fast-moving excursions, it's a 14-ounce backpack, but when you need more space just tug a few zippers and it converts to a 2,000-cubic-inch duffel. The whole thing stuffs into its own pocket, has lots of compartments, and can serve as a daypack or ride along in a bigger duffle in case you plan on bringing home heaps of souvenirs.
Get It: $80; eaglecreek.com
Affordable Rain Jacket
Photograph courtesy Helly Hansen
Helly Hansen Loke Jacket
Just a few years ago, if you wanted to stay dry and had a hundred bucks, your best bet was to buy a lifetime of Hefty bags, but prices have plummeted while fabric technology has leaped forward. Helly Hansen's Loke jacket is a full-featured rain shell, waterproof and (somewhat) breathable, with two zippered pockets plus two interior stash pockets, yet it sets you back just the aforementioned hundred. Add to that pit zips for when the breathability gets overwhelmed and a solid (but not helmet-compatible) hood and it's kind of incredible how much Helly has packed into a light, comfortable rainproof garment.
Get It: $100; hellyhansen.com
Watertight and Light Shell
Photograph courtesy Patagonia
Patagonia Alpine Houdini Jacket
Climbing strips gear to its essential components. Every ounce counts, but so does performance. The Patagonia Alpine Houdini balances these often conflicting goals flawlessly, delivering a laminated, taped-seam, water-resistant jacket that weighs just 6.6 ounces. The cut of the jacket is athletic—it's body hugging, but not constricting—and there's just enough hood to fit over a helmet. The tiny zippered pocket serves best as a place to stuff the Houdini, then clip it to your harness. Fighting gravity is tough enough without adding more weight.
Get It: $199; patagonia.com
Photograph courtesy Mountain Hardwear
Mountain Hardwear South Col 70 OutDry
A backpack rain cover is nice to have, except when it really pours, and that's when you discover just how insidious water can be against even the best cover. With Mountain Hardwear's South Col 70, though, there's no way for moisture to creep into your precious stuff—the entire pack is made of 100 percent waterproof OutDry fabric. As the name suggests, the capacity is 70 liters, more than enough for a week's worth of tromping around Mount Rainier or the Olympic Peninsula. The aluminum and plastic frame sheet can handle loads to 50 pounds easily, but can also be removed if you want to go light.
Get It: $300; mountainhardwear.com
Photograph courtesy Mile High Mountaineering
MHM Salute 34
There are top-loading packs, side-loading packs, and now there are … snake-loading packs? That's what MHM calls its Salute 34—the largish, 34-liter daypack features a zipper that snakes from the top near the suspension around the front of the pack to the side, giving terrifically easy access to your kit, whether it's at the top or the bottom. Organization is excellent, with a large zippered top pocket and a laminated zippered pocket inside the front. At 3.5 pounds, it isn't light, but you can easily remove the aluminum/plastic suspension and rain fly, shedding ounces without major compromise for most loads.
Get It: $229; mhmgear.com
All-Season Camp Stove
Photograph courtesy Jetboil
Canister stoves are the bee's knees. They're lightweight, require little maintenance, and perform flawlessly—except in very cold weather, when the aerosol fuel can falter. Jetboil, which has revolutionized the featherweight kitchen, tackles the subzero blues with its new Joule, designed for group cooking. The Joule turns the gas canister on its head, feeding liquid fuel into the system, routes the fuel line through the stove's flame to warm it, then vaporizes it at the cooking surface. It's clever and very, very efficient. Now we'd just like to see it in a solo setup—with a two-quart pot and 25-ounce weight, the Joule is definitely a base camp stove.
Get It: $200; jetboil.com
Refreshed Running Tights
Photograph courtesy Without Walls
Say goodbye to your boring black leggings. Without Walls, the new outdoor adventure brand from Urban Outfitters, updates the classic running tights with virbant, colorful patterns that could invigorate your stride enough to cut at least a few seconds off your time. They are made of moisture-wicking, quick-dry fabric with adjustable interior drawstring and storage pocket for cards or keys. Their flattering fit also works for around town.
Get It: $64; www.withoutwalls.com
Photograph courtesy Sperry Top-Sider
Sperry H2O Escape Bungee
The style of water shoes used to scream, "Hey, I'm a water shoe," but designers have caught on to the fact that people want performance, comfort, and good looks, all of which reach a peak in the Sperry H2O Escape Bungee. With a weight just 5.6 ounces per shoe, you won't even know they're on until you go scrambling over wet, greasy river rocks and find out you're as sure-footed as a cat. The soft rubber outsole features Wave Siping—wiggly channels cut into the surface—that funnel water to the sides and flex to grip the surface.
Get It: $90; sperrytopsider.com
Light Hiker/Approach Shoe
Photograph courtesy Salewa
Salewa Firetail EVO
The venerable approach shoe is being asked to do a lot more than when it was first conceived. No longer is it supposed to be stout footwear to support a climber carrying heavy loads to the crag, then scramble up lower pitches. Now shoes like Salewa's Firetail EVO are more commonly used by hikers and backpackers wanting something lighter than a boot but sturdier than a trail runner. The Wildfire is still very much a creature of climbing, with a snug fit and sticky Vibram rubber outsole that will let you tackle 5.7s and 5.8s, but it's also been lightened and streamlined. Gone is the typically clunky approach shoe feel, replaced with a svelte, nimbler sensation, thanks to a crosshatched exoskeleton that supports the forefoot, a heel wrap to snug the fit, and breathable mesh upper.
Get It: $129; salewa.us
Fat Running Shoe
Photograph courtesy Vasque
Vasque Ultra SST
Fat running shoes are all the rage these days, just as "barefoot" running shoes were just a few years ago, and manufacturers are scrambling to catch up to pioneering innovator Hoka One One. The best of the competition is the Vasque Ultra SST, which offers similar über-padding without being quite so extreme as the Hoka. The effect is one of "fat shoe light": The Ultra provides more cushioning than a traditional shoe, but has a more flexible outsole than the Hoka, giving you a lot better feel for the trail. The stack height, your distance from the ground, is a little lower, too. It's still a much different running experience (some will love it, some hate it), but not quite so radical as the market leader.
Get It: $170; vasque.com
Photograph courtesy Shimano
Shimano Sport Camera
It seems like GoPro has a lock on the hands-free camera market, but given its booming success, competitors are lining up to try to shove it off the hill. With entries from the likes of Sony and JVC, this might be the biggest surprise: Cycling giant Shimano is making a fantastically good effort with its new Sport Camera, its first entry into photography. The tiny device weighs just 86 grams, about half that of the GoPro, has a larger or equivalent sensor, and a faster, f/2.0 lens. Just as intriguing, the camera has wireless connectivity to pair with other sensors and record metrics like heart rate and GPS data. How cool would it be to relive your pulse spiking when you get massive air in the terrain park?
Get It: $300; shimano.com
Photograph courtesy Oru
Paddlers, are you sitting down? Oh, right, you're paddlers, of course you are. Well, this is the travel boat of your wildest dreams. The Oru Kayak folds up, origami style, and becomes its own carrying case, which you can take on a plane, toss in the back of your Subaru, carry on the subway, or tow on a little trailer behind your bike. It weighs just 26 pounds(!). It's made of two layers of corrugated plastic and is 12 feet long, 25 inches wide, and 13 inches deep. It builds or stows in minutes, and while it isn't designed for expeditions, it certainly will serve up fun day trips in the ocean or lakes, with an absolute minimum of cost and fuss.
Get It: $1,095; orukayak.com
Full-Frame Mirrorless Camera
Photograph courtesy Sony
These are good times to be a photographer. Not only are there great, affordable cameras everywhere, technology is squeezing ever more power into smaller space. Sony a7R, the coolest little shooter we've seen in a long time, fits in the palm of your hand but has a sensor the size of a DSLR's. That translates to incredible high-resolution images, with low noise and natural color rendition even in low light, in a device small enough to throw in any pack. And, with adapters, it will accept just about any 35mm camera lens made, so you can use lenses you already own.
Get It: $2,300; sony.com
Belt-Drive Commuter Bike
Photograph courtesy BMC
BMC Alpenchallenge AC01
Here's the thing about "commuter bikes": A commuter bike is any bike you use for commuting. It doesn't have to have racks or a chain guard or a light. In fact, it can be drop-dead sexy, like BMC's Alpenchallenge AC01. Wearing a slinky matte black coat of paint, the AC01 looks as sleek as a stealth fighter and feels as nimble. The rigid aluminum/carbon frame snaps into turns and jumps off the line when you stomp on the Gates Carbon belt drive. You won't get oil on your pants because it never needs lubing. And if you want to cruise slowly up hills so as not to arrive at work a sweaty mess, just engage the silent 11-speed Shimano Alfine gearbox tucked into the rear hub.
Get It: $1,899; bmc-racing.com
Ultimate Hiking and Camping Gear Guide
From sleeping bags and backpacks to tents and boots, our Hiking and Camping Gear Guide will help you enjoy the great outdoors with maximum comfort, functionality, and style.
Top National Geographic Adventures Trips
A coast-to-coast bicycle ride is just one of our favorite 10 classic adventures.