Top Gear Innovations
Outdoor gear doesn't just improve, it keeps getting dramatically better. For our biannual Gear of the Year awards, we celebrate the insights, breakthroughs, and leaps forward in new products that make our time in the outdoors safer, more comfortable, and more fun. Here are our picks for spring/summer 2015. —Steve Casimiro
Photograph courtesy Osprey
Osprey Atmos AG and Aura AG
Osprey’s new pack, the Atmos AG (men’s) and Aura AG (women’s), radically reinvents the backpacking experience. This “antigravity” backpack has one of the most unconventional and comfortable suspensions ever made. Starting at the top near the grab handle, the AG has a perforated mesh panel that runs the length and width of your back, all the way down to your hips and around the front of the waist via the hip belt. This creates smooth, even pressure against your shoulder blades down to the lumbar region—it’s more like a gentle caress than the poking and prodding of a typical pack.
That suspension alone is worthy of an award, but to this achievement Osprey adds an über-belt (my term, not theirs): Rather than flip-floppy webbing, the AG belt consists of two seemingly spring-loaded, pre-curved wings that wrap around your hipbones with a meaty but soft embrace. Combined with the webbed suspension, these wings make the most comfortable hip belt I’ve ever used.
The Osprey packs come in two sizes, 50-liter and 65-liter, and are designed to carry up to 40 and 50 pounds, respectively. Until there’s a true antigravity system, you won’t find a more comfy way to carry your kit.
Get It: $230 ; ospreypacks.com
Photograph by David MorcombeSea to Summit X-Pot
Pots and pans have never played nicely within the confined and limited space of a backpack, until now. The X-Pot from Sea to Summit is a collapsible, silicone-sided pasta/soup/dinner cooker that measures just an inch and a half high when flattened. It slips into your pack with all the aplomb of a light-up Frisbee. That is, quite nicely.
The base of the X-Pot is aluminum, so heat is dispersed quickly. The pot has two folding handles and a strainer top, so you’re less likely to dump the marinara in the dirt, as I did with a camp pot last summer in the Arizona Strip. The X-Pot comes in three sizes, 1.4-liter, 2.8-liter, and 4-liter, as well as nesting cook set kits, like the X-Pot 31 we tested, which has two collapsible bowls and two mugs.
Get It: $100; seatosummit.com
Backpack for Drones
Photograph courtesy Think Tank Photo
Think Tank Airport Helipak
Camera copters like the ultra-popular DJI Phantom pretty much take the cake for being awkward to carry and not fitting neatly into packs. Luckily, if it’s one thing Think Tank does, it’s find ways to carry awkward, sensitive gear neatly in packs.
The Airport Helipak was built with the Phantom in mind. The quadcopter slides nicely into the bottom of the 14-by-20-by-9-inch pack without having to remove the landing skids (though the propellers, not surprisingly, must come off), and there are dedicated compartments for hardware, extra batteries, remote control, charger, and more. The dividers are deeper and more rigid than in a typical camera pack, a nod to all the accessories that drones require (and the teeny tiny camera), but are serviceable if you want to slip your DSLR in there, too.
Get It: $240; thinktankphoto.com
Photograph courtesy LeathermanLeatherman Signal
Leatherman's new Signal multitool is positioned for survival situations with its ferrocerium fire starter and whistle. But from a purely practical perspective, what we like is that it packs much of the appeal of the tactically oriented Leatherman MUT, but costs a whole lot less. One end is shaped like a hammer, which offers no end of utility, and there’s a diamond-coated file, too. The pliers are large and strong enough to wrestle uncooperative bolts, cables, and zippers into submission, and two hex slots can handle moderate twisting of nuts. As for the fire starter and whistle? Some might see these features as gimmicks, but if your life is on the line and the only gear you have with you is the Signal, they are worth a lot.
Get It: $120; leatherman.com
Photograph courtesy BioliteBioLite NanoGrid
Known best for its electricity-producing twig stove, BioLite has just transformed the camp lantern. Pictures don’t begin to capture how radically the brand's NanoGrid transforms your campsite with a soft, romantic glow. After about ten minutes of mood lighting in camp, you’ll be hooked.
Like almost all of today’s camp lighting, the NanoGrid contains a rechargeable battery (4400 mAh lithium-ion) that will top off your devices (iPhone three times, GoPro three and a half), but it diverges with its new edge-lighting design. This construction wraps the LED around the battery to create gentle, ambient illumination with no hot spots. It’s absolutely lovely—just be sure to get the three-light kit, so you can spread that warm love around camp.
Get It: $99; biolitestove.com
Photograph courtesy Mountain HardwareMountain Hardwear HyperLamina Spark
No sleeping bag maker will claim that synthetic insulation offers the same loft or insulating properties of down—it doesn’t—but with each season it gets a little closer. Mountain Hardwear's HyperLamina Spark uses the brand’s Thermal.Q insulation, which mixes long and short fibers to maximize trapping heat; at just one pound, 12 ounces, the bag is comfort rated to 41ºF and usable to 32º. It compresses to a little smaller than a football (6-by-13-inches, roughly) and nests easily inside the pack.
The HyperLamina’s center zipper configuration is the most comfortable I've found, especially for reading, journaling, and leaning out of the tent to make the first cup of joe in the morning. Just note that the shape is what Mountain Hardwear calls “performance mummy,” meaning claustrophobes might think twice. If being snug as a bug is your thing, though, you won’t find a lighter, smaller, warmer synthetic bag for the money.
Get It: $220; mountainhardwear.com
Photograph courtesy ThermacellThermacell Repellent Camp Lantern
If you live in a place with bugs—meaning, if you live on Earth—you might want to pay attention. Thermacell’s Repellent Camp Lantern creates a mosquito-, black fly-, and other pest-free zone approximately 15 feet by 15 feet. Powered by D-cell batteries, the device holds a small butane cartridge that heats up allethrin, a synthesized version of the naturally repellent chemical found in chrysanthemum flowers. Turn it on and skeeters be gone—at least they were during testing in the Lower 48. If anyone wants to send me to test it in Alaska, where the bugs are hard-core, I’m game.
Get It: $60; thermacell.com
Photograph courtesy SonySony Alpha 7 II
You get to the top of a climb or the end of a run or a hike, heart pounding, and there in front of you is a family of jackalopes, grazing in perfect light. With most cameras, the shaking of your hands would capture little more than an indistinguishable blur, and your friends would mock you on social media and in person. With the Sony Alpha 7 II, though, your pictures are practically ready for the front page of the New York Times.
The reason is less magical than the mythical jackalope: The Alpha 7 II contains an in-camera sensor stabilizer that cuts vibrations in five axes—X and Y, as well as pitch, yaw, and roll. What does that really mean? It means that you can shoot in much lower light, at lower shutter speeds, without pulling out the tripod—anywhere from two and a half to three f-stops. It’s effective in video mode, too.
All that internal juju had to go somewhere, so the Sony is larger than most full-frame mirrorless cameras. Whether this bothers you depends on your reference point. If you’re coming from other mirrorless models, it might seem bulky. If you’re accustomed to DSLRs, it’s as cute and tiny as a wee little button. A button that can capture jackalopes.
Get It: $1,700 (body only); sony.net
Photograph courtesy PatagoniaPatagonia Nano Puffs
Remember pants? They’re the things that keep you warm and dry from the waist down. The vast majority of apparel makers (and retailers, too) focus their insulating efforts on the upper body, and jacket models outnumber trousers by about 20 to 1. But a well-designed pair of insulating pants, like the Patagonia Nano Puffs, is just as important for comfort as the coziest hoody.
The Nano Puffs are insulated with 60-gram PrimaLoft Silver synthetic insulation and are similar to the ultrapopular Nano Puff jackets and pullovers in thickness and loft. Designed to be worn under fishing waders, they probably make a better camp pant, as the silhouette feels more like that of casual trousers (pockets and a loose-ish cut in the legs) than a body-hugging base layer. Their polyester shell is treated for water resistance, and the seat is reinforced with nylon Taslan to allow for sitting on rocks or in the dirt without tearing up the fabric. And at 11.7 ounces, the Nano Puffs are light enough to throw in the pack for end-of-the-day coziness or even for sleeping when the nights test the limits of your sleeping bag’s warmth.
Get It: $179; patagonia.com
The New Base Layer
Photograph courtesy Kitsbow
Polartec’s Power Wool
With hopes of striking a serendipitous pairing as perfect as peanut butter and chocolate, apparel manufacturers have been combining two separate materials in one garment for eons, but what makes Polartec’s version of these two-component fabrics, Power Wool, so successful is where and how it's placed. The fabric, which we tested in base layers by QOR and Kitsbow, puts soft merino wool next to your skin and a synthetic fiber on the outer layer.
The wool helps keep you warm even when it gets damp and is protected from abrasion and wear by the face fabric. It’s constructed in a tiny micro-grid pattern that aids comfort (the QOR Baselayer Crew feels clingy but not too tight), and the synthetic threads mechanically pull moisture away from the merino to the surface, where it can spread and evaporate. It’s so effective that Power Wool has great promise for skiing, running, mountain biking—as base layer or jersey—across three seasons. You’ll no doubt be hearing a lot more about it.
Photograph courtesy Black Diamond Equipment
Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ
Trekking poles have a lot of uses. They help with stability and balance and give your hands something to do when you’re walking down the trail. Perhaps our favorite use, though, is when they serve as supports for ultralight tents like the MSR FlyLite.
Black Diamond's Distance Carbon FLZ poles strike the perfect balance between performance and adjustability. They’re carbon fiber, as the name suggests, and weigh just 13.8 ounces per pair. Their three-section length collapses to 15 inches if you want to stash them in your pack, and the sections easily lock for stability. And each of the three available sizes offers 20 centimeters of adjustment, so you can dial in your tent setup perfectly.
Get It: $180; blackdiamondequipment.com
Seeking lightweight gear always comes at a cost, and with tents that usually means tighter confines and less comfort. Not so with MSR’s FlyLite, which is positively capacious. It weighs just 1 pound, 9 ounces and is billed as a two-person shelter. But with 29 square feet of floor area and 44 inches of headspace, it feels more like two-plus-dog. For a soloist accustomed to tents barely larger than a bivvy, the FlyLite feels like a racquetball court. Lots of room to roam.
MSR achieves this rare combination of low weight and vast acreage through several steps. First, the FlyLite is a single-wall tent, eliminating the weight of a rain fly. Single-wall shelters are notoriously poor at venting moisture, so the FlyLight has mesh on all four sides, protected from storms by an overhang. This creates an alcove in front of the door—it’s nice that it prevents rain from dripping in the tent, but it’s a bit too short to serve as vestibule (another six inches or so would help and more than justify this small bit of extra weight).
Second, the MSR comes without poles; it's set up instead with trekking poles, the Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ. And yes, that means the stated weight is artificially low. And yes, that means it’s probably going to appeal to gram counters and those already hiking with poles. But if that’s you, you won’t find a more livable, lighter tent.
Get It: $349; cascadedesigns.com
Photograph courtesy Ibis
Ibis Mojo HD3
Mountain bikers are riding faster and harder and going bigger than ever. And bike designs are going bigger, too; sometimes following, sometimes leading, as their suspensions get longer and their abilities more robust. Terms such as enduro and downhill might be lost on your average singletrack junkie, but regardless of what it’s called the broad trend in bikes is toward frames that are more stable at high speeds and more capable of huge bumps and jumps. If you haven’t thrown a leg over a new model lately, what you’ll see at the shop are slacker head angles, longer top tubes, and lower bottom brackets—all of which are great for stability at speed but not so much for nimbleness, climbing, and tight twisty trails.
Here’s a small but telling detail about the Ibis Mojo HD3, our pick for 2015—you can mount a water bottle on the top of the down tube, where it’s actually usable, unlike so many enduro bikes, where the bottle cage is stuck out of reach on the bottom. It’s a little thing, yes, but it tells you that Ibis is bringing a more versatile, real-world riding approach to its six-inch, do-everything HD3.
Although based on the DW-Link suspension design that Ibis has been using for years, this bike was built all new from the ground up (and utilizes the latest generation of DW-Link), with the goal of being a better all-rounder than so many of today’s hottest enduro bikes. Ibis stretched out the top tube a little bit and went with a 67-degree head angle (65 is more common)—the 27.5-inch wheels drive quickly from one corner to the next, the front end rarely wanders when climbing, and it’s excellent in small bumps, thanks to the Cane Creek DBinline shock, which offers a sweet, predictable, linear feel, with a little bit of ramp at the end for the biggest hits.
Mountain bike design is all about tradeoffs, so where does the HD3 barter and swap? That all-trail, all-mountain versatility comes at the expense of highest-speed handling. If you’re looking to run downhills, you might be happier with a slacker, longer, more bomb-oriented machine. But that’s, like, 6 percent of riders. Odds are you’re in the other 94 percent, which will be thrilled with the go-anywhere, well-balanced mentality of the HD3. And that easily reached water bottle.
Get It: $2,900 (frame only, nine builds available); ibiscycles.com
Photograph courtesy Nixon
With tide and surf reports readily at hand via laptop, desktop, and smartphone, why in the world would you want them on your watch? Here’s why: The Nixon Ultratide, which pairs with your phone to deliver real-time conditions on 2,700 spots via Surfline, is always on, always up-to-date, always reminding you that the surf is there, even if you aren’t.
Right now, for example, the Ultratide is telling me that my local break, Salt Creek, is two to three feet and conditions are fair, making it a heck of a lot easier to buckle down and finish my work. Should things change, I’ve set up alerts that will tell me when the swell hits four to six feet, and/or when conditions improve to good. There’s no need to fire up the laptop, open a browser, navigate to Surfline.
Setting up the Ultratide is as simple as pairing it with its companion app—you bookmark your favorite breaks and set up alerts in the app (which is a good thing, because some of the info shown on the watch screen, like high and low tides, is awfully small). Within seconds, your info shows up on the watch face. And here’s the great thing about the display: The surf report takes up slightly more space than the time, reminding you, 24/7, what’s really important.
Get It: $300; nixon.com
Hike and Bike Shoe
Photograph courtesy AdidasAdidas Terrex Trail Cross
Adidas bought Five Ten back in 2011, and these days it’s very smartly bringing the climbing brand’s Stealth sticky rubber to the very cool Terrex Trail Cross. A highly unconventional mash-up between an approach shoe and a flat pedal sneaker, the Terrex Trail Cross is aimed at adventure cycling, when adventure means enduro-style riding and hike-a-bikes up or down unrideable trails, but it’s by no means limited to two-wheeled explorations.
It all starts with the Stealth rubber, which has a tenacious grip on rock. A typical mountain biking shoe, with pedal cleat and hard sole, is about as safe and effective for scrambling as an ice skate. The Terrex Trail Cross is more like a skateboarding shoe merged with a light hike and a little climbing credibility thrown in. The low profile tread has climbing lugs at the toe, braking lugs at the heel, and a long section in the middle perfect for gripping flat pedals. There’s extra EVA cushioning in the heel, as well as a mid-foot shank that adds a little stiffness for pedaling and protection from rocks when hiking.
Get It: $140; adidas.com
Photograph courtesy Alpacka Rafts
Over the last decade and a half, pack rafts made by Alpacka have transformed the exploration of rivers in remote and difficult terrain. Just five pounds, durable as heck, and easily inflated, the rafts can be carried into places where a hard-shell boat would be impractical, if not impossible. And while Alpacka’s existing models have run white water, even in the Grand Canyon, now comes a boat that changes everything.
The Alpackalypse is the first pack raft designed specifically to handle big, wild white water. Six years in development, the boat is faster, more controllable, and more rapids-ready than other Alpackas, with a hull shape much closer to that of a kayak than to the bulbous style of other rafts. Where other rafts meander, the Alpackalypse vectors. It has a much more comfortable, body-hugging rigging system, with inflatable back and leg supports, as well as knee and foot braces that let you feel at one with the boat, enabling far better control.
The tubes are lower volume and are used as a place to stash your gear inside, which lowers the boat’s center of gravity and stabilizes it, too. And more stabilization is key—by design, the Alpackalypse handles more like a kayak than a raft. It’s tippier and far more sensitive to paddler input than the wider existing rafts. This, of course, is part of the game: With much more maneuverability comes much less stability, which is why the company says it’s for experienced white-water kayakers.
At double the price of Alpacka’s traditional boats, economics will narrow sales to those who want the more specialized boat. The Alpackalypse is double the weight, too, at just more than ten pounds, and it’s naturally bulkier and less packable. These should not be deterrents to those who want to tackle big water in far-flung locales, but they will give the more casual boater pause. The cockpit rigging is dramatically more comfortable for paddling—is that reason enough to switch? In most pack rafts, you feel like you’re just along for the ride, but with the Alpackalypse, thanks to the rigging and hull design, you feel like you are the ride. What people will do with that is pretty awesome to consider.
Get It: $2,000; alpackarafts.com
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