The Gear Wars Trilogy, Episode 1: A New Hope.

A personal peek at some promising new schwag I've been testing.
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A personal peek at some promising new schwag I've been testing.

Hola campers! I'm just pulling my head out of an epic couple months of Gear Guide writing and testing to make this belated post. And since my brain is spinning with specs, making it tough for me to think about anything else, I figured it'd be appropos to give y'all an informal peek at some of the best stuff I've seen for next year. Then one thought led to another and the post got too long, so I'm splitting it into a trilogy and shamelessly wheelsucking off some George Lucas titles.

A little background: I've been testing gear for Backpacker about 18 years now, and I worked in outdoor retails stores for 13 years before that, but I'm not your classic gearhead, the type who goes into the wilderness to commune with their equipment. I only like gear that's comfy, light, works well and doesn't require much attention to use. I don't get too excited about exotic designs or materials unless I see a trail-level benefit. And it long ago got to the point where all the 'free schwag' became as much curse as blessing. Every year, the phoning and testing and writing and shipping is kind of like a huge drunken orgy; Sure it sounds like fun going in, but the morning after, you're stumbling around with a raging hangover and mumbling "never again."

Letter writers and internet board commenters often state their belief that only marketing or ad dollars affect what gets reviewed in Backpacker, but that's bunk. Frankly, us far-flung testers and Field Editors are clueless as to upcoming ads, and the only stricture I ever received over the years is "We don't care what you say, if you're right." The penalty for taking money, endorsing brands, or selling used test gear has always been immediate termination. There is also a very simple reason why you don't see highly negative reviews in the mag: There is simply too much good gear, and too little page space, to waste ink and lifespan hammering on the lame just for bloodthirsty amusement. The stuff we don't like, and lots of solid product we're simply lukewarm on, never sees print.

So, with that in mind, here's a straight-from-the-memory-banks shout out of what I personally think is cool gear for Spring 2009, in no particular order. (Note: It's a far from a complete list, and I haven't been testing stoves, tents or boots.) Episodes to follow will include a list of my current go-to faves, and gear pet peeves, those all-too-common design shortfalls that drive us testers crazy. But first, the good stuff:

--Garmin Oregon 400t GPS. Touch screen menus, long battery life and improved topographic base maps make this palm-sized GPS the best receiver I've ever used - by a long shot. You can thumb through menus one-handed. Marking and naming waypoints takes mere seconds. It uses MicroSD cards for monster memory, and it can take a wireless heart rate monitor and pedal cadence sensor. (That and the touchscreen make it a kick-ass bike GPS.) It transmits data wirelessly to capable computers and other Oregon units. The bad news? It's $600, but we'll see prices drop.

--Deuter ACT Zero 65 + 10 pack. Damn near 80 liters of big, single-compartent packbag surrounded by great mesh pockets. The entire pack weighs just over 3 lbs and costs $169. An ultralighter's pack for big expeditions.

--Gregory Z65 pack. A larger version of the widely loved Z series. It worked great on an 8-day trip through the High Uintas. Plenty of features, organization and stable comfort with two gaping hipbelt pockets. It's kind of a lightweight version of last year's Editor's Choice-winning Baltoro. 3 lbs. 14 oz. $239.

--Osprey Exos 58 pack. A pack with real suspension and good features that weighs just over 2 lbs. thanks to high denier fabric, lightweight fittings, and an innovative rod-stiffened frame. Ruthless ultralighter packs just took a big step up in comfort and support. $219.

--REI Flash 50 pack. An excellent lightweight pack with the capacity for ultralight long trips or trad weekends. Weight's about 3 lbs. Apparently my Boulder compatriots have been testing a 65-liter version. These things just came out of the oven so we don't know prices yet.

--Princeton Tec Scout Headlamp. A 1.6-ounce headlamp with decent brightness and battery life. You can even pull off the headstrap and use the attached hat brim clip to save a half ounce. $20.

--The North Face Elephant's Foot Half-bag. A tough, waterproof, synthetic half-length sleeping bag meant to be used with a parka for climbing bivvies, emergency use, or those chilly snowshoeing lunch breaks. It's sized wide so you can jump in with clothes on. The butt and footbox are reinforced so you can wear boots or park on nasty gravel. Not sure on the price yet, probably around $150. 1 lb. 2 oz.

OK, all for now. Next up: Episode 2: Return of the Jaded

--Steve Howe