The Season's Best New Gear
Slip into a new hiking boot, and you can feel the freedom of the trail even miles from the trailhead. Grip new handlebars, and the wind practically whistles in your ear right there in the bike shop. Stuff isn’t going to make you happy, but it’s going to make the activities that make you happy safer, more comfortable, and more fun—and you won’t find a more advanced, better-designed, or more delightful mix of stuff than this season’s gear of the year. —Steve Casimiro
Photograph courtesy REI
REI Flash 65
There’s a saying that what you don’t know you carry on your back, but this sentiment is a bit masochistic. We’ll take our sleeping pad, thanks. And our granola. And our tent and toothbrush, too. And we’ll carry them in the new REI Flash 65, which leads an overhaul of the co-op giant’s pack line and offers some smart new ideas for carrying a week’s or weekend’s worth of gear.
The first new feature, and maybe our favorite, is how REI’s designers have reengineered the compression straps to cinch diagonally from the outside bottom of the back to the inside top. This tucks the load closer to your center of gravity, right in the small of your back, instead of flattening the contents the way most packs do, which makes the Flash feel more like a part of your body and enables far more dynamic use than plodding down the trail. You probably wouldn’t boulder-hop with 35 pounds on your back, but this pack fits so well you might be tempted. The angle of the straps still allows access to side water bottle pockets, too—an oversight we’ve seen on competing packs.
The pack suspension is what REI calls a hybrid trampoline, which brings the weight closer to the back while still allowing ventilation. Combined with a hip belt that uses body-mapped foam, the Flash is a pack that fits better, hugs the body closer, lets you carry more weight comfortably, and keeps your spine cool. Winner!
Photograph courtesy Hyperlite Mountain Gear
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Daybreak
This might sound contradictory, but daypacks are both simple and sophisticated. Whether a college book bag or a summit-worthy alpine klettersack, daypacks are basically a bag with straps. But the magic comes in the synergy of the parts, as with the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Daybreak, which has a zipper and closure system that works smoothly and provides easy access, even in a windstorm on a narrow ledge. The pouch pocket is big enough to hold a long-sleeved fleece, and the ice axe loops are removable. It’s a pack where everything seems considered just right.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear has built the Daybreak out of Dyneema cloth, which is known for its extremely light weight, durability, and natural water resistance. Although it holds 17 liters, enough for a full day on the trail, it weighs just 19 ounces. But it isn’t flimsy: The Dyneema has a structure that helps hold its shape, which lets it sit upright on its own and makes it easier to organize or find your gear. Like we said, sophisticated.
Photograph courtesy Snow Peak
Snow Peak BiPod
Here’s hoping you haven’t learned the hard way how unstable a compact canister stove can be by accidentally dumping your dinner in the dirt one night near the Grand Canyon like, ahem, some people we know. But if you have, the Snow Peak BiPod is the stove for you. It packs all the convenience of a canister (fast lighting, no priming, no maintenance) in a novel two-legged design that uses the fuel container as the third leg of a tripod. It’s not as light as one of those feathery backpacking stoves (7.8 ounces versus 3), but it’s rock-solid on the ground, even if you bump it. And the length of the legs is adjustable, so it will accept either of the two common canister sizes. What’s carrying a few more ounces compared to going hungry?
Photograph courtesy Nemo
Who actually wants to suffer? The idea that you have to be 10 miles from a trailhead to enjoy yourself is fortunately fading, which means that now it’s more than okay to reach out with both arms and embrace the comfort of a big, cozy sleeping bag like Nemo’s DownTek Concerto 20. This thing is a B&B unto itself, with a shoulder girth of 76 inches and waist girth of 72; there’s nearly enough room for you and a (very close) friend to snuggle in the comfort of its 700-fill DownTek warmth.
Beyond feeling like you’re snug as a bug in a king-size comforter, the charm of the Concerto is its adaptability. On cold nights down to 20°F, you snap the insulated blanket top, tuck your pillow into its sewn-in sleeve so it doesn’t escape in the dark, and hunker under the massive hood. And if summer comes early to your neck of the woods? Unsnap the coverlet and let the soft zip-in sheet keep the air off your skin. Camping is about being outside, not proving your ability to survive a sleepless night.
Photograph courtesy Therm-a-Rest
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite MAX SV
That big breath you just took to fill your camping mattress? Let’s use it instead to blow the dust off Bernoulli’s principle of fluid dynamics. When you do exhale a lungful into the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite MAX SV’s SpeedValve opening, a stream of fast-moving air pulls the air outside the mattress with it, thanks to the pressure differential between the inside and outside of the pad. The result: The NeoAir fully inflates with two to three times fewer breaths. No more dizziness, no more burning lungs, and much less time until you’re prone.
There are three SpeedValve models, designed for car camping, backpacking, and ultralight backpacking. The ultralight version weighs 21 ounces and measures 72 inches by 20 inches by 2.5 inches.
Photograph courtesy Alite
Alite Sierra Shack
Pop-up tents like Alite’s Sierra Shack are the instant coffee of camping. Slide the Sierra Shack out of its storage bag, twist the flexible poles a little, and, whoomph, they snap into place and you have a tent. Expeditioners might sniff at the ease with which you can set it up and take it down, but the Sierra Shack isn’t designed for Everest. It’s for the beach, music festivals, a state park campground, or a backyard, where you can zip together a series of them and let the kids have a camping caterpillar.
Photograph courtesy Mountain Hardware
Mountain Hardwear Ghost UL2
With all due respect to ultralight tarp camping, sometimes you need a good old-fashioned tent like Mountain Hardwear’s Ghost UL2. Manufacturers have gotten so savvy about materials and designs that a bombproof three-season shelter can weigh as little as one pound per person, which seems worth it for the 360-degree waterproofing and mesh that keeps the no-see-ums away.
There are always trade-offs, so the question with the Ghost—or any other ultralight backpacking tent—is how much comfort you sacrifice for trimming away the weight. In this case, you get excellent headroom by the door of the tent (37 inches) and a medium-size vestibule with a large overhang to keep rain off your gear. There’s 27 square feet of floor space, and with the fly off the large mesh walls provide unmatched ventilation and stargazing, as well as an excellent sense of openness.
Where the Ghost starts to constrain is toward the hips and feet. It narrows from 54 inches wide at the door to 34 at the back of the tent, so it might not be the best tent to ride out a weeklong Cascades storm. On the other hand, it makes a pretty darn huge solo shelter that weighs just two pounds, two ounces. Bring on the tempest!
Waterproof, Breathable Shell
Photograph courtesy the North Face
The North Face HyperAir GTX
GORE-TEX, arguably the best known brand in the outdoor world, never stands still: This season it launched a dramatically redesigned fabric that’s intended for high-intensity aerobic pursuits, called Active. The North Face HyperAir GTX is one of the first garments to adopt it.
Traditional three-layer waterproof and breathable fabrics are built with an inner lining, a waterproof membrane, and an outer protective shell. Active, on the other hand, dispenses with the outer layer and bonds the membrane right to the lining. It also eliminates the durable water-repellant coating on the exterior and gives the outer fabric what it calls a “permanent beading surface,” which helps water run off, preventing the garment from absorbing water.
All together, the HyperAir GTX is indeed representative of a new way of thinking about waterproofing and lightweight. The jacket is feathery and soft to the touch, extremely comfortable to wear, and easy to compress into a tiny space. On a hike in cool weather, it breathed extremely well—better than any traditional GORE jacket. It did, however, get overwhelmed on a long mountain bike climb, which is a reminder that while the HyperAir GTX has few rivals, there will always be limits to any fabric. At least until GORE invents a new one.
Photograph courtesy Patagonia
Which is more likely: a little sun, wind, and rain, or a drenching downpour that lasts for hours? The answer depends on where you live and play, of course, and will determine the best choice of jacket. If you’re right in the crosshairs of the Pacific storm track, say between Portland and Vancouver, a waterproof and breathable jacket like the North Face HyperAir GTX is mandatory. For everywhere else, though, when rain isn’t a big part of the forecast, the versatile Patagonia Houdini is our choice for a one-piece quiver.
Today, the Houdini might be called a technical shell for aerobic pursuits, but in the old days we’d know it as a windbreaker. Blocking breezes and gusts is what it does best, but it also breathes well during high-intensity hikes, cool-weather runs, and chilly paddling sessions. If there’s a cold edge to the wind, you hunker down inside the form-fitting hood (it would go under, not over, a helmet). Light rain rolls right off (though heavier stuff isn’t its forte). At just 3.6 ounces, it’s so gossamer you could even use it as a sun blocker.
Trail Running Shoe
Photograph courtesy Topo Athletics
Topo Athletic Hydroventure
Does shoving your foot into a plastic baggie, sealing the top, and going for a run sound like a good idea? No, it sounds like a recipe for swamp foot. But that’s how most waterproof breathable shoes have been designed—with a membrane booty that wraps all the way around the foot. Topo Athletic’s Hydroventure trail runners, however, use a new technology developed by eVent in which the membrane is part of the upper alone. This DVdryLT makes the shoe lighter (just over nine ounces for a men’s size 9.5) and more breathable. Given that many find eVent better at venting than archrival GORE-TEX, the Hydroventure looks to be just the ticket for sloppy spring running and even light hiking.
Photograph courtesy Bogs Footwear
Bogs Rio Diamond
Sandals were the footwear of choice in Southwest canyon country for thousands of years, until Europeans arrived with the nutty idea that the whole foot should be protected. River sandals like the Bogs Rio, fortunately, reinvigorate the sentiment that when you’re constantly in and out of water, you don’t need much more than protection underfoot and a very grippy sole.
And that’s exactly what the Rio Diamond has. Its H2O grip clings to rock like Velcro, even when water is splashing past. When put to the test in Pacific tide pools, only the slimy, kelp-covered boulders were beyond its capabilities. The sole is thick enough to wear all day, and the straps are comfy (though the plastic buckle lies directly against the foot and may feel awkward to some).
Photograph courtesy Benchmade
Benchmade Griptilian 551-1
The blade is everything to a knife, and Benchmade, never a brand for pumping out budget-oriented metal, has upped the ante with its ultrapopular Griptilian 551-1 design by using a high-end steel from Crucible Industries called CPM-20CV. This steel rates among the best at wear resistance, corrosion resistance, edge retention, and hardness.
The Griptilian design, too, is among the most user-friendly. Pull down on the locking thumb stud with either hand, flick the wrist, and the drop-point blade snaps into place as fast and smoothly as any spring-assisted; same goes for blade retention. The balance is neutral, and the handle is comfortable in regular or reverse grip (though a little plasticky). For everyday carry or general outdoor, you won’t find a more versatile, longer-lasting knife.
Photograph courtesy XeO
Led Lenser XEO19R
The twin lenses on the Led Lenser XEO19R might look like the eyes of an unblinking robot, but when you flick the switch they’re more like football stadium lights—the XEO19R pumps out an astounding 2,000 lumens, enough to mountain bike or ski at high speed at midnight under a new moon in Germany’s Black Forest. Yep, they cleave the night.
But the Led Lenser is more than just a big gun. It’s smart, too. The twin beams are independent of one another, so you can give each a different brightness. You can turn one off or you can focus them separately. You can click to 100 percent power, 25 percent power, or select any level you like. There’s even an optimized mode, where the light reads the surroundings and adjusts itself automatically.
It isn’t a featherweight—the large, rechargeable battery pack can grow tiresome if you’re using it as a headlamp rather than on a bike mount—and this kind of power doesn’t come cheap. But for big jobs and fast pursuits, where seeing a long way is critical, the XEO19R is unmatched.
Photograph courtesy Filson
Filson Dutch Harbor
With a history of making quality work wear for more than a hundred years, Filson has very carefully begun expanding its product lines, taking advantage of the outdoor zeitgeist where heritage, durability, and classics are in and trendy, cheap, and throwaway are out. The Dutch Harbor watch is emblematic of Filson at its best. The style is based on a time-tested design, the 1950s-era scuba diving watch, while the function is impeccable, with a water-resistance rating to 990 feet, an über-tough stainless steel case, and fingerprint-phobic crystal.
Photograph courtesy Garmin
Garmin fēnix 3 HR
Garmin has created the holy grail of sports watches. The new fēnix 3 HR combines the best features of heart monitors, fitness trainers, and altimeter-barometer-compass models, all in a package that has GPS navigation and smartwatch functions to boot. It’s the first watch that seamlessly and effortlessly provides high-level training metrics, point-by-point navigation, and text messages.
In a typical day, we used the fēnix to measure hours slept and quality of sleep, resting heart rate, a weight training session at the gym, a mountain bike ride, and an evening pool swim. Connected to iPhone via Bluetooth, the fēnix tracked more metrics than most of us will ever use (displayed in the Garmin Connect app) and synced with My Fitness Pal to compare calories in versus calories out. It also shared data with Strava to show that no personal records were made that day.
It tracks steps. It has customizable faces. It measures heart rate at the wrist rather than with a chest strap. It lets you create hiking or biking routes and download them to the watch. It connects quickly to GPS satellites. The only glitch is that it sometimes won’t connect to the phone, but whether that’s an issue with the phone, the fēnix, or the Bluetooth is impossible to say. Is the fēnix the best sports watch yet? Well, we don’t know one that’s better.
Photograph courtesy Specialized
Specialized S-Works Stumpjumper FSR Carbon 6Fattie
The most dynamic product category in the outdoor sports culture might very well be mountain bikes. Every few years, it seems, there’s a new style of suspension, a new wheel size, a new philosophy about getting up and down the hills. And while some complain about planned obsolescence, what we see is innovation. The Specialized S-Works Stumpjumper FSR Carbon 6Fattie, a flagship for the 27.5-plus category, is a perfect example. The 27.5-inch wheels split the difference between traditional 26 and 29ers, and the three-inch tires are a compromise between old-school 2.3s and fatbike 4s or 5s. The result is something completely different that’s a whole lot of fun.
It’s easy to get lost in bike terminology and spec numbers, so here’s what you need to know about the 6Fattie: Those three-inch tires provide so much traction you could climb the side of the Empire State Building, but they’re so comfortable you could bomb down a boulder field. They provide more grip than traditional tires, are nimbler than those on a fatbike, and let you run lower air pressure, which means fewer flats. While they’re slower on level terrain because of that extra rubber on the ground, they will roll through ruts and over roots like nobody’s business. You’ll find yourself taking straighter, rougher lines down the trail than you ever imagined and probably going faster, too.
The carbon-fiber 6Fattie is built to support the needs of those tires. Front and rear hubs are wider, as are the 30 millimeters Roval Traverse carbon rims. The front derailleur is gone, replaced by a single chainring driving SRAM’s XX1 11-speed rear cog. There’s 150 millimeters of suspension travel in the front thanks to the Fox 34 Plus fork, 135 millimeters in the back, and Specialized’s own Command Post IRcc dropper seatpost for lowering the saddle on the fly. It’s a beautiful, high-end spec befitting a bike of this price, and it even comes with a compartment inside the downtube for stashing gear, kind of like a glove compartment.
The knock on 27.5-plus bikes is that they’re for beginner or intermediate riders because they make handling so much easier. But the same was said of mid-fat skis when they first hit the market, and now they’re embraced by experts. The 6Fattie offers a different kind of ride—testing on our local loop, we found it to be a little slower on the flats and a lot faster on the downs. You cede a bit of agility but get back traction and roll-through-it-ness. We loved this bike. Whether it’s right for you is something only you can decide, but we highly recommend a test ride.
Photograph courtesy Spurcycle
Two species will appreciate your use of the Spurcycle bell: the fellow humans that you’re approaching and any large furry mammals who don’t like sudden surprises, aka bears. The Spurcycle has a loud, clear peal that lingers in the air long after you’ve thumbed the clapper, a much more civilized alert than shouting, "On your left!" And the design is both modern and kind of boss, so it looks good on mountain bikes and townies alike, whether you opt for the brushed silver or the black.
Photograph courtesy Bontrager
Trek Bontrager Flare R
Last year, Wyoming considered a bill requiring cyclists to wear neon clothing, and other municipalities are looking at forcing riders to be more visible, too. Most cycling groups oppose legislative options, but that doesn’t mean drawing attention to yourself is a bad idea—especially with so many people still driving and texting. One very small and affordable solution is to put a light like the Bontrager Flare R on your bike. The Flare is designed to be seen day or night; its 65-lumen bulb rivals car taillights and can be seen over a mile away in daylight and up to three miles away at night. It has a flashing mode, USB-chargeable battery, and up to 23 hours of run time.
Photograph courtesy Magellan
Magellan Cyclo 505hc
As tempting as it is to mount your smartphone on your handlebars and use it for navigation or training, it’s probably not a good idea. One crash, bump, or mount failure and your whole digital platform is at risk. A cycling computer like the Magellan Cyclo 505hc is a far better choice when you’re seeking advanced metrics in a small package. It’s built to handle a spill, the bright, three-inch display is easily visible in daylight, and the touch screen works even with sweaty fingertips.
The 505hc is constructed with a wireless standard called Ant+ (think of it as Bluetooth for sports gear), which allows the device to connect to heart monitor straps, power meters, and cadence loggers. No matter what you’re training for, the Cyclo can guide you, including through predetermined workouts. It has a new version of Bluetooth called Smart, which enables you to control music, read texts, and even see incoming calls.
U.S. road maps are preloaded, along with cycling-related waypoints and a fun feature called Surprise Me, which lets the GPS direct you where to go based on distance, time, or hunger/thirst levels. The only downside is that all this information can be so absorbing that you may forget to watch where you’re going.
Photograph courtesy Vasque
Vasque Skywalk GTX
Retro styling is all well and good, but nostalgic enthusiasm has nothing on the comfort and performance of Vasque’s Skywalker GTX boot. This backpacking model—which was originally introduced in the 1980s, sold for two decades, and then shelved—is back to ride the wave of all things cool and old. But it is in fact a remarkably steady and refined bit of footwear, with a very supportive outsole to handle long days on the trail and durable leather-and-fabric upper.
The rubber outsole is Vasque’s own, a pattern called Pyrenees, layered from above with a TPU shank for added protection. Elements are kept are bay with a GORE-TEX Extended Comfort waterproof, breathable membrane, which is the best GORE footwear product for warmer conditions. And unlike so many big-trail boots, the Skywalker feels like a slipper as you pull it on: thin socks, thick socks, no socks, it’s a delight, especially if you have a narrow- to medium-width foot. As with all sturdy boots, there’s some break-in, but the way it wraps the foot … ahhhh.
Top National Geographic Adventures Trips
A coast-to-coast bicycle ride is just one of our favorite 10 classic adventures.