Not sure what you want from Santa this season? Upgrade your basics. From a 3-person tent to a pair of puffies, we pick ten new backpacking essentials that anyone would be happy to find under the tree.
Shell: Arc’teryx Zeta SL Rainshell
Arc’teryx shed unnecessary ounces without compromising our favorite components of this shell—the durability and the waterproofing. The lightweight material— a combination of GoreTex and PacLite—made this a tester-favorite for three-season backpacking. “This is the jacket I’ll pack for Mother Nature’s temper tantrums,” one tester stated after a beautiful fall out-and-back in southwest Maine turned nasty. “If it’s miserable out there, I’m a lot happier in here.” Bonus: The jacket breathed well enough that our testers stayed dry inside and out on drizzly days. “I was never clammy, even if I only wore a t-shirt underneath,” said one Pacific Northwest-based tester. “And I never felt constricted, as I tend to feel with other rain jackets; I almost forgot I was wearing it.” Downside: You can’t fit a helmet under the hood.
$299; 11 oz; m’s S-XXL, w’s XS-XL
Synthetic Midlayer: The North Face Thermoball Hoody
This reliable midlayer earned its (minimal) weight by warming us up when we needed it but breathing well enough to keep our testers out of the swamp. “I kept it on for four straight days ski touring through western Vermont,” bragged one tester, “in sunny and brisk conditions, to when the snow fell heavy and thick. My mom, brother, and best friend are all getting this jacket from me for Christmas now.” DWR finish kept our testers warm and dry in snow and drizzle; one commenter did say that “it felt a little wet after an hour digging out cook tent in heavy snow.” Still, it kept them warm thanks to the unique quilting pattern baffles, which help negate cold spots by evenly spreading PrimaLoft insulation throughout the garment: “It dried in less than an hour from my body heat once we were out of the snow.”
$220; 1 lb; m’s S-XXL, w’s XS-XXL
Down Midlayer: REI Co-op Magma 850 Down Hoody
Being cold in the backcountry isn’t an option, especially when you’re wandering through the Yukon wilderness. After an excursion to the Donjek Glacier in Kluane National Park that included thick fog, early-season snow, and single-degree mornings, our testers returned singing the praises of this down hoody: “This was my first off-trail trek, and I was nervous about the cold, among other things. I was never chilly in the Magma, even when temperatures plummeted and moisture dampened all our other layers.” Made with water-resistant rip-stop nylon that sheds moisture, on top of 850 fill down, we were as cozy as if we curled up next to a woodstove. Bonus: Varied-width baffles direct warmth to where it’s needed most.
$219; 14 oz; m’s S-XXL, w’s XS-XL
Two-Person Tent: REI Co-op Passage 2p Tent
With its latest update, REI has pushed the Passage into must-buy territory with more headroom, more ventilation, and an easy pitch. The top two-thirds of the tent are now mesh, providing excellent airflow and eliminating condensation. Pop the rainfly on, and you cut the majority of wind chill, as one of our testers found out on a breezy weekend in Joe’s Valley, Utah: “Even with the dog and my partner breathing heavily all night, there was enough airflow to keep us cool and zap any moisture, without allowing the wind to steal all our warmth away.” Note: Footprint sold separately.
$159; 3 lbs. 8 oz
Three-Person Tent: MSR Elixir 3p Tent w/footprint
Three’s company, but the roomy Elixir ensures you’ll stay good neighbors. Nearly 40 square feet gives sleepers enough elbow room to lounge, snooze, and or even wait out a rainstorm with a game of cards. At nearly 3.5 feet high, there was enough headspace for all but our tallest testers—one 6’2” hiker brushed his head against the gear net every morning. The pitch was easy enough for one person to handle on their own, and color-coordinated clips and poles make setup a snap, even in dim conditions, and glow-in-the-dark zippers mean you don’t have to wake your neighbors with a headlamp to escape for a midnight bathroom break. Caveat: while the tent shrugged off light rain and wind, truly extreme conditions strained it, as our testers found during a freezing storm in southern Maine: “After a few hours, we had to shake the icy rain off the roof, or else risk a collapsed shelter.”
$300; 7 lbs.
Daypack: Osprey Stratos (m)/Sirrus (w) 24L Pack
Organization geeks, this is the pack for you: 10 pockets, pouches and partitions keep gear, snacks, camera equipment, and wet layers completely separate from each other. For everyone else, a mesh-webbed back combined with an arcing, lightweight alloy frame eliminates moisture buildup, while an integrated pack cover keeps precip on the outside. The adjustable torso size saved one tester’s bum shoulder: “I’ve had surgery that makes typical packs unbearable to wear: Between the suspension and the adjustability of the Stratos, I never felt the weight.” Bonus: Didn’t jostle around on a hustle down from a summit-bid when a thunderstorm moved in.
$130; 2 lbs. 12 oz
Trail Runners: Hoka One-One Challenger ATR 5 Shoes
Thru-hiking, trail running, racing to the AYCE: we dare you to find a time you won’t want to rock the Challengers. Four-millimeter lugs provided maximum grip on rugged, muddy trails outside Golden, Colorado, where our tester charged over rocks, through mud and around downed trees with confidence. “Best balance of cushion, grip, and lightweight in any shoe I’ve run in,” he boasted. “I thought they’d feel bulky, but I felt nimble instead.” The two-layer mesh proved breathable and durable, surviving even the grabbiest brambles along the trail. The Challengers were not the fastest drying shoe we’ve tried; it took them just under two hours after our last puddle-jump to lose their squish.
$130; 9.4 oz; m’s 7-15, w’s 5-12
Headlamp: Black Diamond Spot Headlight 325 lumen
User-friendly, minimalist, and bright, the Spot has everything you’d need in a headlamp. With three different lights—the main bulb, a “natural light” bulb, and a red light—it can handle almost anything. Those 325 lumens made it easy to see trail markers hundreds of feet ahead, and the adjustable headband proved durable enough to withstand the sweatiest and snowiest noggins on early morning skins in the backcountry, while a touch-pad on the side made dimming the beam easy. Bonus: The Spot is waterproof up to a meter underwater, which had some unexpected uses: “I dropped my wedding band in the creek,” admitted one tester. “My wife was brilliant enough to think to search through glacial runoff in the Yukon using the Spot below the surface.”
$40; 3 oz; o/s
Stove: Jetboil Flash Cooking System
Morning coffee in two minutes? That was enough to sell us on this fast and light stove. The Flash boiled 16 fl. oz of water in just over a minute and a half (at 7,000’), which made even our late-rising testers happy to get out of bed. To help save fuel, color-changing sensors on the side of the cup flash red when water boils. A 100g fuel container fits inside of the mug, as will a few other accessories. (Some testers kept their dishwashing tidbits inside their stove). “My only gripe is that it can be difficult to balance on uneven ground,” said one tester. “The tripod works well in most cases, but with extended boiling at an angle, you risk tipping the stove.”
$100; 13 oz
Camp Chair: REI Co-op Flexlite Chair
Give your rear a treat: With a deep seat, broad back and low-to-the-ground profile, this bum bucket is the best kind of extra weight you can carry. (And at under two pounds, it’s justified luxury.) “It set up almost as quickly as a metal folding chair” said one tester. A mesh side pocket came in handy when we had too many utensils to balance in our lap, or as a stash for headlamp when we settled in for the sunset. Even our wobbliest testers found the Flexlite stable: “I tried to tip this chair over, rocking back and forth over uneven desert floor in Joe’s Valley, Utah. My campmates enjoyed the attempts, but I stayed put.”
$80; 1 lb. 10 oz
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