How to Lighten Your (Planetary) Load

We found 17 pioneering products that will cut your carbon cost without sacrificing performance.

No exaggeration: The outdoor industry is on the brink of a revolution. Gear makers have embraced the climate-change warnings and are rushing to develop renewable fabrics. They're taking the first steps toward measuring carbon emissions in manufacturing. And corporate culture is getting green almost overnight, with initiatives that go well beyond simple recycling. We tested several dozen products that have emerged from this burst of innovation. Some missed our final cut because their sustainability claims didn't wash; others didn't meet our exacting performance standards. And in several categories–tents, most notably–we simply didn't find any viable entries. After testing ended, we sent each company our new Green Points Survey, which helped us quantify the impact of the company and its products. The items that survived represent the best of what's new in green gear.

[Shirt] Marmot Moso/Borinda Short Sleeve Crew

Why is bamboo cropping up all over the place in green design? Because bamboo happens to be very good at cropping up. Whereas typical reforestation is a 60-year process, bamboo regenerates in 1 to 6 years. It also wicks moisture and resists odor naturally, so no chemical treatments are needed. This simple crewneck tee is 55 percent bamboo rayon and 45 percent polyester. Our testing showed that it performs on a par with chemically treated polyester tops. During more than 100 miles of trail testing in temps between 30° and 70°F, the (men's) Moso and (women's) Borinda quickly wicked sweat from our skin and dried in a snap. The silky fabric feels "luscious," said one tester, and slides easily under layers. Our samples have shown some pilling on high abrasion areas (such as underneath pack straps), so we'll continue to monitor its long-term durability. $45; men's S–XXL, women's XS–XL (888) 357-3262; marmot.com.

[Pad] Pacific Outdoor Eco Thermo Pad

This 2007 Editors' Choice Green Award winner is made with carbonized bamboo (a plant that naturally replenishes itself faster than any other woody flora on the planet), no dyes, and a recycled-plastic air valve. After 100-plus nights in the field, our test pads have proven as cushy and rugged as any competitor's, and we sleep a lot easier knowing that what's between us and the ground is carbon-neutral (Pacific Outdoor offsets its CO2 from manufacturing and distribution). $150 (men's 72×20"), $145 (women's 66×20"); 1 lb. 9 oz. (men's) (406) 586-5258; pacoutdoor.com.

[Midweight boot] Patagonia Nomad GTX

If you're concerned that an eco-friendly boot won't perform like a traditional one, relax. "The Nomad looks, fits, and functions just like a classic midweight should," reported our tester after a dozen on- and off-trail hikes throughout New England. The recycled plastic midsole is rigid enough for moderate loads (up to 40 pounds), yet flexible at the forefoot for comfortable striding.

The Nomad's smooth, full-grain leather comes from a tannery that meets strict environmental standards (an international rating called ISO 14001), and the grippy Vibram sole is 30 percent recycled rubber. With minimal seams, a Gore-Tex membrane, and full bellows tongue, this boot kept our feet dry through puddles and creek crossings, while the high shaft cradled our ankles on tippy terrain. $160; men's 5–12, 13, 14, 15, women's 5–11, 12; 2 lbs. 2 oz. (per pair women's 8) (800) 638-6464; patagonia.com.

[Pants] NAU Acoustic Pants

Stylewise, these trousers would roll in SoHo or San Fran. But don't let the ultrahip facade fool you: These pants can cut the wind, bead up water, and resist abrasion like the rugged hiking pants they're designed to be. The stretchy fabric (made of 82 percent recycled polyester) has a smooth exterior and a soft brushed interior that feels soft, but not hot, against the skin. "What I love most," one female tester enthused, "is their Zenlike simplicity. No belt loops (on the women's), no puffy cargo pockets, no useless ankle zippers. Just perfect-fitting pants that look as good as they work." And we never realized how lame most pants pockets are until we slid our hands into these. They're low enough not to be blocked by a hipbelt, and roomy enough to accommodate your whole hand and tchotchkes, plus the seams are welded (read: no stitching) so there's no chafing. $118–128; men's 28–38, women's 6–14 (877) 545-5628; nau.com.

[Trail runner] GoLite Sun Dragon

A good rule of thumb, say sustainability experts, is the heavier a piece of gear, the larger its carbon footprint. That's one reason the 1.5-pound Sun Dragon earned a spot on this page. Built by Timberland for GoLite, this low-cut is the epitome of minimalist design. It has a synthetic mesh/EVA upper instead of leather, which reduces the greenhouse gases emitted in production of the shoe by about 40 percent. And instead of heavy rubber toe and heel rands, GoLite opted for a pattern of tiny polyurethane dots for protection. (It's also PVC-free.) Golite uses 60 percent solar power in its California distribution center and offsets 100 percent of the total energy used in production in all of its shoes.

So how do these light-treading trail runners perform? We hiked and ran in them in Wyoming, Massachusetts, and points between, and we loved the springy, cushioned feel of the oversized lugs. "They grip like mad on dry, hard, packed dirt littered with rocks and roots," says one tester. But since the lugs are widely spaced, there's minimal surface area for frictioning, so beware of major slippage on smooth slabs–especially wet ones. The Dragons are best for trail running, but because of a stiffened midsole that can handle up to 20 pounds, they'll also appeal to dayhikers and ultralighters. $95; men's 7–13½, women's 5½–11; 1 lb. 7 oz. (per pair men's 9½) (866) 784-6466; golite.com/footwear.

[Insulation] Patagonia Micro Puff Hooded Jacket

Instant gratification–that's what you get with this fat cocoon. It's filled with Climashield Green, a continuous-filament insulation with 40 percent recycled content, and covered with a 90 percent recycled polyester shell. On blustery snowshoe treks this winter, testers raved about the roomy cut, well-sculpted and adjustable hood, and effective DWR treatment, which repelled light sleet and snow so that the insulation stayed dry. $215; men's XS–XXL, women's XS–L. 1 lb. 2 oz. (women's M) (800) 638-6464; patagonia.com.

BACKPACKS

2 green packs spark a challenge to other manufacturers.

Our search for trailworthy packs with strong eco-credentials yielded only two real contenders: Lafuma's Eco 40 and Osprey's Circuit. So we decided to launch a contest–BACKPACKER's Zero Impact Challenge–to encourage more activity. The call went out to packmakers this spring: Design a midsize pack whose materials and manufacturing come as close to carbon-neutral as possible. Make it durable, user-friendly, and (ideally) recyclable, then send us a finished sample for testing. As this issue goes to press, at least seven manufacturers are toiling away with designs and production techniques that we hope will spur a greener type of pack fabrication. Here are two cutting-edge entries already in stores. Watch for the results of our contest this winter.

Lafuma Eco 40

When we first heard about this hemp pack, we pictured a woven, scratchy satchel from a '70s Dead concert. But the only groovy note here is how high Lafuma raises the bar in enviro pack design. While the 2,440-cubic-inch Eco 40 isn't quite as tricked-out and comfortable as other packs in its size and price range, it's 65 percent hemp and 35 percent recycled polyester with a waterproof coating of thermoplastic elastomer (TPE), which is less toxic to produce than typical polyurethanes. The streamlined packbag requires minimal fabric and assembly, and the only extra is an integrated raincover that tucks into a hidden pocket. The Eco's padded shoulder straps are best for broad chests (they rubbed into the neck and shoulders of our female tester), and the thin hipbelt provides adequate wrap and support for an overnight load. Whereas most suspensions adjust via plastic Fastex buckles, this one uses metal D-rings, which Lafuma claims are greener to produce. One tester humped 25-plus pounds on multiple hikes in New Hampshire's White Mountains, and reports: "The simple design carries just fine and proves that extra design touches are often frills, not necessities." His main beef: The shoulder straps, which tighten via those metal D-rings, constantly slipped, causing the straps to loosen and the pack to sag. $100; one size (16–20" torso); 3 lbs. 2 oz. (303) 527-1460; lafumausa.com.

Osprey Circuit Digging deep into the fabric world, Osprey succeeded in building this 70-percent-recycled, 1,900-cubic-inch daypack–without sacrificing one iota of performance. The Circuit (also pictured on the cover) uses a variety of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) fabrics, which are made from ground-up plastic bottles. The 450-denier body, stretchy shove-it pocket, interior mesh pockets, webbing, and binding tape are all made of PET, and the plastic buckles aand zipper pulls are also recycled. Our testers wore this pack on many extended dayhikes–carrying up to 15 pounds–and found it comfortable and easy to access. The back is well padded against sharp objects like cameras, and the shoulder straps worked well on a variety of body types. We liked the zippered side water-bottle pockets, which shut flat when empty. The long main zipper gives you panellike access to the inside, and there's a padded laptop sleeve that doubles as protection and insulation for a hydration bladder. $99; 2 lbs. 2 oz. (970) 564-5900; ospreypacks.com.

[Bag] Big Agnes Skinny Fish 20

This three-season, semirectangular bag is filled with recycled Climashield Green, and the shell, lining, stuff sack, and storage bag are also recycled polyester. In testing, we felt no performance differences between the Skinny Fish and similarly featured Big Agnes bags. Our broad-chested tester had plenty of roll-around room during an unseasonably warm weekend in Maine, and was able to vent his feet using the smooth-running two-way zipper. The Fish is on the heavy side, but with a compression sack we were able to squash it down to a respectable loaf size. Slip the Pacific Outdoor Eco Thermo into the pad sleeve, and stuff the Patagonia Micro Puff into the pillow pocket, and win on two counts: supreme comfort and the most ecologically-inclined backcountry bed short of a pile of duff. $179 ($189 for long); 3 lbs. 6 oz. (877) 554-8975; bigagnes.com.

[Headlamp] Black Diamond Icon

Cranking through alkalines–which cost both money and carbon–may soon be a headlamp headache of the past. This bright, versatile three-LED light can run on an optional 3.6-volt rechargeable nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery that plugs into an AC outlet like a typical cell-phone charger. In recent years, manufacturers have eliminated mercury from alkaline batteries, making disposal less of a concern. It's the production, packaging, and shipping of billions of single-use alkalines each year that make rechargeable batteries the way of the future. And Black Diamond knows it. The Icon's bluish beam has three modes–spot, proximity, and strobe–and a built-in battery meter shows how much juice remains. In our tests (03/07), the Icon gave off more than 5 hours of usable light in spot mode, and more than 12 in proximity mode. $60 (headlamp), $30 (charger); 7.5 oz. (801) 278-5533; bdel.com.

[Bottle] Guyot Designs 100-Pound Backpacker OK, so Guyot's latest stainless-steel bottle isn't made from recycled battleships, but the company gets props for building carbon offsets into the price. When you buy this 32-ounce widemouth, you're simultaneously buying 100 pounds of credits, which exceeds the amount of carbon emitted in the bottle's production. Verification and tracking of these offsets is provided by Environmental Resources Trust, which lets you choose where your money goes: toward building a specific methane-capture plant, planting trees in a favorite forest, or generating clean energy near your hometown. Each bottle is leakproof, but a bit heavier than a standard Lexan one. $22; 14 oz. guyotdesigns.com.

[Baselayer] Ibex Norgie Crew

Like the other apparel makers in this article, Ibex works only with farms that humanely treat and sustainably raise their sheep. It also manufactures 70 percent of its clothing in the United States, and has been warehousing fabric scraps for 2 years while it develops recycled materials for launch by 2008. And its Vermont warehouse and offices are 100 percent "cow-powered"– that is, Ibex buys its energy from a local methane-capturing facility (experts say methane is 20 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas).

The Norgie Crew–a simple midweight layer–also feels incredibly soft and performs beautifully in a wide range of conditions. One tester wore it next-to-skin on a cool climb up Mt. Washington, where it quickly pulled sweat away from his skin and regulated his body temperature. Another credited it for keeping her warm while skiing on one of the coldest days this winter. Seams are flat-knit and positioned off the shoulder to prevent chafing under a pack. The fit is trim but not tight, and our test shirts still look new despite months of wear and washing. $85; men's S–XXL, women's XS–XL (800) 773-9647; ibexwear.com.

[Camp shoes] Miön Pen Shell Clog

Choices abound when it comes to lightweight foam clogs, but we couldn't find any as green–or as functional–as these. Miön uses wind and sun to power its distribution center, and each shoe comes with a label that specifies the amount of energy used in its creation. Testers found the Pen Shell Clogs supremely comfortable for après-hike lounging, and the grippy soles won't fail when you scramble down to the creek to get water. $90; men's 7–13, women's 6–11; 14 oz. (women's 8, without insoles) (866) 784-6466; mionfootwear.com.

[Snack] Clif Nectar

If there were a poster child for corporate sustainability, Clif would be it. At every level, the company is steeped in leading-edge green efforts, like employing a full-time, four-person Sustainability Team that includes a staff ecologist. Seventy percent of the 30 million pounds of ingredients it buys each year is organic. It's achieved a drastic packaging reduction and uses recycled materials in everything from caddies (display boxes) to shipping pallets. It measures and has significantly reduced the carbon emissions created in every part of its supply chain. And it's planted 13,000 trees since 2003. That this company makes healthy, delicious bars like the new all-organic Nectar ($1.50) is just gravy. (800) 254-3227; clifbar.com.

SOCKS

3 ways to take a lighter step on your next hike

Teko Eco Merino Wool

Boulder-based Teko buys the yarn used in these supremely comfortable, durable socks from a single, sustainably-run family farm in Tasmania that has been raising sheep organically for more than 150 years. It also uses recycled polyester and makes its socks in the United States, thus averting a sidetrip to Asia for knitting–and tons of carbon expended in transportation. The company purchases wind credits to offset its emissions, and it uses only recycled chipboard packaging. With hundreds of miles from the Berkshires to the Cascades under their collective bootsoles, our testers rave about the Eco Merino's warmth (even when wet), fit, and durability. "The trim fit and low-profile toe seams make them feel custom-fit to my feet," said one. "They're perfect for scrambling shoes and other boots where a snug fit boosts performance." $21 (800) 450-5784; tekosocks.com.

SmartWool Hiking Crew

It's fair to credit SmartWool with bringing wool back into vogue. Since 1994, when the company launched with some of the sweetest socks our feet had ever felt, it's been guided by an environmental ethic that has spread throughout the industry. All of its superfine merino comes from New Zealand, where the sheep are free to roam and graze on naturally fertilized grass. Socks are shrink-treated with an enclosed (to prevent leaking) chlorine process that uses a natural neutralizer to eliminate residue. This attention to detail works for the environment, and it works for our feet, too. We gave this sock an Editors' Choice Award back in 1996, and it remains one of our favorites. It has flat toe seams, just enough stretch, and the perfect amount of cushioning for three-season backpacking. $17 (866) 298-9703; smartwool.com.

Fox River Country Crew

It starts with a tall green stalk of corn in rural Nebraska. Thousands of them, actually. The corn is harvested, then sugars are extracted and fermented into a polylactide (PLA), which is a fancy name for a long chain of corn molecules that get extruded into polyester-like fibers. Makers say this part of the process uses about 50 percent less fossil fuel than petroleum-based synthetics. The fibers are then woven into socks just a few states away. Pretty darn good ones, too. Our test crew logged hundreds of miles all over the world in these corn socks, and while we'll still choose wool for long, hard trips where sustained cushioning and moisture management are key, Fox River's Ingeo line offers great comfort and fit for light hikes and everyday use. Our test pairs show pilling and thin spots in high-abrasion areas, so their usable lifespan does not rival wool's, but these socks won't clog up landfills when they're ready for retirement. Fox River claims the corn socks will biodegrade in 47 days, a theory we're testing for a future issue. Is the corn genetically modified? Yes, though as soon as non-GMO corn fibers are available (experts say the demand isn't there yet), Fox River is on board. $13 foxsox.com.

Recycle That Pack

These 17 charities and consignment shops will put old gear to good use–and maybe a few bucks in your pocket.

by Nancy Prichard