The Denali Test: Gear for America's Highest, Coldest Peak

Our tester spent 18 days climbing, camping, and evaluating gear on America's highest, coldest peak. If his picks made it there, they can make it anywhere.

Baselayer | Midlayer | Headwear | Puffy Jacket | Pants | Stove | Tent | Snowshoes | Sunglasses | Sleeping Bag

Baselayer

Patagonia R1 Flash Pullover


From the sun-baked Kahiltna Glacier to frigid nights at high camp, this fleece shirt was a standout thanks to its quick-dry performance and unmatched toastiness under a shell. Credit the polyester fabric's signature grid construction, which enhances wicking and warmth. Thinner material at the waistband and sleeve cuffs minimize bulk in those key spots, and the neck design seals well against drafts without being strangle-tight. The chest zip is long enough for good venting, and it's slightly offset so multiple zippers don't stack up against your Adam's apple. A Napoleon-style zip chest pocket holds sunscreen or iPod. Bonus: The Polartec fabric is made from recycled pop bottles. $115; 11.4 oz. (men's M); men's S-XL, women's XS-XL. patagonia.com. Reader service #107

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Midlayer

Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man Zip T


This pullover's plush, high-loft, double-faced fleece (think Elmo for the alpine crowd) is the best insulation we've used when working hard in cold weather. It's warm, yet transmits sweat quickly and vents well if exposed to a breeze. Smartly placed Powerstretch panels in the underarms, wrists, and lower back reduce bulk and weight. There's a deep front chest zip, a drawcord-adjustable neck that effectively seals out drafts, thumb loops for preventing cuff creep, and a stretchy chest pocket. Choose the Monkey Man as a frigid-weather midlayer or three-season insulation in wet climates. $120; 14.9 oz. (men's M); men's S-XXL; women's (full-zip only, $140) XS-XL. mountainhardwear.com. Reader service #108

Baselayer | Midlayer | Headwear | Puffy Jacket | Pants | Stove | Tent | Snowshoes | Sunglasses | Sleeping Bag

Headwear

Outdoor Research WS Gorilla


When the mercury plunges and winds howl on McKinley, you need a full-coverage, windproof face mask. This Windstopper balaclava closes with an easily adjustable Velcro neck wrap, and the nose/cheek mask is removable. The versatility was welcome on summit day–when temperatures swung radically depending on sun and wind exposure. Tip: Cut out the mesh mouth cover for better gasping. $50; 3.1 oz. (M); unisex S-L. outdoorresearch.com. Reader service #109

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Puffy Jacket

Feathered Friends Frontpoint Jacket


If you're going to spend quality time in subzero temps, don't skimp on your parka. Thanks to 13 ounces of 850-plus-fill down, this lightweight jacket was easily warm enough for -20°F strolls around high camp. And in truly nasty conditions, the waterproof/breathable eVent shell is like having an extra jacket on top: It kills wind dead and protects the down feathers even in wet snowstorms. Two huge interior zip pockets each hold one-liter water bottles to keep your agua from freezing. The insulated handwarmer pockets and roomy neck collar are fleece-lined for comfort and warmth. Smart detail: The front closure employs twin overlapping zippers rather than a flap alone, which prevents cold spots in a headwind. The hood is removable, and it's big enough for helmets (but a little too big without one; with a normal hat underneath, the hood flops over your eyes). $459 (also available in Epic by Nextec shell fabric, $385); 2 lbs. 1 oz. (M); unisex XS-XXL. featheredfriends.com. Reader service #110

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Pants

Mountain Hardwear Compressor Pants


Insulated side-zip pants are one of those things that most hikers only infrequently need–but when you do, nothing else cuts it. The Compressors are best of class because of both material and design. The ThermicMicro synthetic insulation resists compression and soaking so you can sit in a snowbank, and a flexy, non-restrictive cut and feel makes them more comfortable than most insulated pants. The lightweight, 15-denier shell fabric is reinforced in the seat and knees for durability. With full side-zips and a loose fit, the pants slide over undies and shell pants alike. A hook-and-loop ankle adjustment adapts length for the short-legged, and a fly zipper makes pit stops quick, even with a climbing harness (a must up high). The adjustable elastic waist stays put under a weighty backpack. Quibble: The side-zips can be sticky to start. $140; 1 lb. 5 oz. (M); unisex S-XXL; mountainhardwear.com. Reader service #111

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Stove

MSR XGK EX


When your only source of water is your stove, it has to be reliable and rock out enough BTUs to melt pot after pot of snow daily. This updated version of the venerable XGK is still king, and it performed flawlessly on Denali during two and a half weeks of hard use. The wide pot supports and foldout legs are much more stable than older models; the redesigned pump is easier to maintain; and the flexible fuel line is more durable than the old rigid one (and also packs easily into circular pots). It'll burn anything from unleaded to diesel to jet fuel. And it sips white gas, considering the output; on Denali, cooking and melting for two, it averaged 10 ounces of fuel a day. Traditionalists will appreciate the two things that haven't changed: The XGK is still loud, and it's still too hot for simmering. $150; 13.2 oz (burner and pump). msrgear.com. Reader service #112

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Tent

Hilleberg Nammatj3 GT


This tunnel-shaped tent has but one purpose: to get you through the worst weather with the least amount of fuss and weight. It's not freestanding, but pitches in a snap, thanks to an integrated design that lets you erect fly and canopy together (poles run through the fly). The siliconized nylon fly stayed bombproof taut, while the 10mm aluminum poles provided total stability in 50-mph gales. The tent didn't sag even when half-buried by drifts. For even more bunkerlike strength in hurricane winds, the pole sleeves are extra roomy to accommodate two poles each (polar explorers pack an extra set). The 36-square-foot interior is plenty big for two people and all of their puffy clothes, while the cavernous 30-square-foot vestibule holds everything else. Six-footers can sit up straight with the 42-inch interior height. Two large vents at each end provide excellent ventilation. Bottom line: It ain't cheap, but you won't care when the wind and snow are blowing. $695; 7 lbs. 4 oz. hilleberg.com. Reader service #113

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Snowshoes

MSR Lightning Ascent 30


These high-flotation snowshoes have better traction than the competition, yet they weigh less. A grippy metal frame, underfoot spikes, and non-slip neoprene decking deliver the first-class traction–which came in handy when we hauled an 80-pound gear sled up steep, icy hills and across tippy traverses. A pivot point under the ball of your foot offers lateral stiffness, yet doesn't flip snow onto your back with every step, like many "racing" snowshoes. This new 30-inch length–combined with the oval shape–let us float down mushy slopes while other teams floundered up to their knees. The binding's three stretchy, quick-release urethane straps are fast and secure (and easy to operate with gloves), and they proved impervious to -20°F temperatures. Also available in 22" and 25" lengths. $290; 4 lbs. 4 oz. (pair). msrgear.com. Reader service #114

Baselayer | Midlayer | Headwear | Puffy Jacket | Pants | Stove | Tent | Snowshoes | Sunglasses | Sleeping Bag

Sunglasses

Oakley Hijinx Iridium


Without eye protection in high-altitude sunshine, you can go snowblind in less than 30 minutes. These stylish, large-frame glasses offer plenty of coverage to avoid the glare from reflective snow and water, yet excellent ventilation prevents fogging on the sweatiest days. The wide nylon temple pieces eliminate the need for the ugly add-ons common to many glacier glasses. Even better: The polycarbonate optics are super sharp, so you can appreciate all the staggering scenery. When other climbers tried the Hijinx, they said "ahhh" as if they were seeing the mountain for the first time. Despite endless lens polishing and several careless mishaps, the frames, hinges, and lenses are still flawless. Available in a variety of lens (and frame) colors. Best choice for high-altitude snow: Black Iridium ($100) and Dark Bronze polarized ($145). oakley.com. Reader service #115

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Sleeping Bag

REI Kilo Expedition -20°F


It goes without saying that on a high-mountain trip, a warm bag is the difference between sleeping and shivering. Yet many climbers continue to lose precious zzzzs because they want to save weight or money–or both–on a cold-weather bag. If that's you, get the Kilo Expedition and say goodnight. The 800-fill down bag is conservatively rated, and has a cut that's efficient but roomy enough for layering clothes. The nylon shell's DWR coating easily repelled tent-floor condensation and canopy frost. The Kilo closes with dual parallel zippers rather than a standard zipper and flap. The design eliminates cold spots, and also allows you to mircomanage fit and warmth (open or close the inner zipper). There was minor down leakage, and the zippers occasionally stuck, but neither problem is unusual in ultra-poofy winter bags. Bonus: It comes with a silnylon compression stuffsack. $359; 3 lbs. 12 oz. (regular); 3 sizes (short, regular, long). rei.com. Reader service #116