March 2008 Perfect System: Southwest

Insulation

Isis Whisper Hoodie


Cold-blooded female testers swear by this lightweight, 700-fill down vest. It has a snug-fitting insulated hood–an unusual feature for a vest that boosts warmth significantly. It's ideal for shoulder-season hikes and cool desert nights. $139; 11 oz. (M); women's sizes only; isisforwomen.com. Men: Check Cloudveil's Inversion Vest, a 700-fill toaster that packs down to orange-size and has a fleece chin guard and hand warmer pockets (sorry, no hood). $170; 13 oz. (M); cloudveil.com

Base layer

Brooks HVAC T


The polyester HVAC sucks sweat like a sponge and disperses it over the shirt's exterior for fast evaporation. Mesh panels on the sides allow air circulation. Only complaint: The light fabric snags on brush, which compromised aesthetics but not performance. $54; brooksrunning.com

Bargain!

Pack


Deuter Aircontact Zero 60+10

Lightweight, air-conditioned, and abrasion-resistant, this pack easily handles 40-pound loads in hot, rugged country. A large hydration sleeve inside the packbag, along with two generous water-bottle pockets on the outside, provide plenty of liquid-carrying capacity for dry trails. It also comes in a women's model. $145; 4,250 cu. in.; 3 lbs. 14 oz. (M); deuterusa.com

Pants

Outdoor Research Venture


These nylon Supplex pants are as durable as denim jeans but a fraction of the weight. Not even a bushwhack through thickets of cat's claw fazed them. The men's version is called the Equinox. $65; 10 oz. (women's L); orgear.com

Sleeping Bag

Western Mountaineering Summerlite


Desert nights can be surprisingly cold, making this ultralight sack the perfect choice: It's surprisingly warm. Lofty 850-fill down and a featherweight nylon shell make the pound-plus bag extremely packable–and true to its 32°F rating. A full-length two-way zipper offers adequate venting for milder nights. $300; 1 lb. 3 oz.; westernmountaineering.com

Tent

Big Agnes Parkview 2


It's hard to beat a dark night in the Southwest for stargazing. Get an expansive view of the sky with this tent's huge, mostly mesh canopy. During a five-day trip in the Grand Canyon, testers pitched the freestanding Parkview on slickrock and watched it hold firm in wind gusts that rattled less stable tents. It's heavier than the leading lightweights, but the spacious interior, 48-inch peak height, and two large vestibules make it an all-purpose (and big guy) favorite. For a lighter, pricier option, check Big Agnes's Copper Spur series (page 54). $290; 5 lbs. 13 oz.; bigagnes.com

Boots

Five Ten Camp Four


Low-cut and low on the clunk factor, the Camp Four offers good support for moderate loads and agility for tricky canyon terrain. A polyurethane exoskeleton wraps the heel, providing exceptional lateral stability, and the sticky tread clings spiderlike to sandstone. The nubuk leather upper and rubber toe cap protect against cactus and rocks. The absence of a waterproof membrane increases breathability; one tester reported total comfort on 10-mile, 90°F days in Arizona's Superstition Wilderness. $100; 2 lbs. (men's 9); fiveten.com

Shell

Rab Latok Alpine Jacket


The Southwest may seem dry, but for sand storms, snow, and summer monsoons, a shell is a smart buy. Choose this year-round model, made with highly breathable eVent. The Latok is light enough for three-season use, yet weatherproof and durable enough for winter. $275; 1 lb. (women's L); men's and women's sizes; rab.uk.com

Pad

Therm-a-Rest Toughskin


This is the only self-inflating pad we've found that can survive prolonged use in cactus country. It endured 30 nights of camping in northern Arizona and southern Utah–including being strapped to the outside of a pack–without a puncture. Credit construction that incorporates a closed-cell foam bottom and dense-weave fabric on the exterior. The tradeoff is a little more weight and bulk. $120; 2 lbs. 7 oz. (reg.); thermarest.com

Hydration Reservoir

Nalgene CXC 3L Big Bore Tanker

The wide-mouth opening with a handle makes it easy to fill this 3-liter reservoir in shallow potholes. $27; nalgene-outdoor.com

Bargain!

Water Storage

MSR Dromedary


There are other ways to store water for dry camping in the desert, but none are as packable and reliable as this proven canvas bladder (available in 2-, 4-, 6- and 10-liter models). The 1,000-denier Cordura fabric is virtually puncture-proof, and the plastic cap and pour spout never leak. $33; 7 oz. (4-liter); msrgear.com