Editors' Choice 2013: The Best Backpacking Gear of the Year

From a bomber ultralight tent to the best GPS watch we've seen, here are the 15 products that passed the ultimate field test.
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Asolo Reston/Athena

The 2013 Editors’ Choice winning Reston (Athena is the women’s model) has a unique low-profile midsole construction that gave our testers goat-like agility and support in a lightweight, midcut, waterproof boot. $189; 2 lbs. 6 oz.; m’s 7-14, w’s 6-11; asolo-usa.com

The 2013 Editors’ Choice winning Reston (Athena is the women’s model) has a unique low-profile midsole construction that gave our testers goat-like agility and support in a lightweight, midcut, waterproof boot. 

Yes, we know a pair of shoes can’t make you more coordinated. But one tester swears these midcut fabric-and-suede boots helped her become a more confident scrambler and rock-hopper. “The heel is superstable because it’s low to the ground and not squishy,” she said after a Tasmanian coastal hike that included rainforest scrambles up hillsides covered with slick boulders, stone staircases, and deep mud.

“The outsole and midsole have rounded edges and a uniquely low profile, so I didn’t inadvertently trip on roots, rocks, and other obstacles. I felt notably more balanced and secure in these shoes.” Asolo designed its new line of “natural motion” boots for hikers who want low weight without sacrificing support, and who crave stability in their footwear but don’t want clunky, wide outsoles or stiff structures buttressing the heel and ankle. The Restons (the Athena is the women’s version) have a unique construction: They’re slip-lasted in the rear (the upper is formed by wrapping materials around a mannequin-like foot form or “last”) for maximum flexibility, and they’re board-lasted in the front (the uppers are stretched around an insole-shaped piece of fiberboard that remains in the boot) for optimum forefoot protection from rocky terrain.

“The Athenas are ideal for dayhiking,” reports one tester. “But they also provide the underfoot shielding to keep my feet from feeling bludgeoned after two 12-mile days with a 35-pound pack.” The EVA midsole incorporates an injected full-length TPU insert that gives the sole firmness. “When you plant your foot it feels solid, not squirrelly,” says one tester. Downsides: The rubber compound on the sole isn’t supersticky, so traction on slick roots and slimy rocks is good, not great. And one tester wished for more cushioning under the heel; some hikers might need an aftermarket insole. $189; 2 lbs. 6 oz. (m’s 11); m’s 7-14, w’s 6-11; asolo-usa.com

NEMO Nocturne 15 and 30 Spoon Sleeping Bags

In between rusted-out prison buildings and farmhouses, you’re still going to need to sleep. The NEMO Nocturne will have you sleeping like the dead before the crash: An innovative “spoon” cut means the bag accommodates kneehuggers, sidesleepers, and anyone twisting and turning all night from undead nightmares. Individual down feathers are treated with DownTek to resist moisture from night sweats and downpours alike. Nocturnes can also zip together—something fragile couples like Glen and Maggie will appreciate.  Nocturne 15: $400; 2 lbs. 11 oz.; 15°F. Nocturne 30: $350; 2 lbs.; 30°F.

In between rusted-out prison buildings and farmhouses, you’re still going to need to sleep. 

“The best night of sleep I’ve ever had in the backcountry,” says our deputy editor, who couldn’t believe so much comfort could come in such a small package. He’s never had a good night’s rest in a traditional mummy bag, which enforces a straight-leg position that hog-ties knee-huggers, side-sleepers, and other restless bodies (about 50 percent of the population).

But the down-filled Nocturne uses an innovative hourglass design (NEMO calls it the “Spoon”) that’s tapered at the waist and feet—making it lighter than comparable rectangular bags, but wider at the knees than conventional mummies. “The ability to roll over and slide my legs up inside the bag gave me unfettered, home-like comfort,” our gear editor reports after a week in Tasmania. But shape is only one innovation. At the neck, an extra flap of insulation called the “blanket fold” acts like a mini down comforter: Unfold it outside of the bag for more neck venting, or pull it inside for a cozy seal. A pillow pocket inside the base of the hood is perfectly positioned to stuff a down jacket.

Waterproof/breathable fabric on the footbox repels tent condensation, and the bag is stuffed with water-repellent, 700-fill DownTek. Individual feathers are treated to resist moisture, giving it an extra layer of insurance in wet weather. From the arid canyons of Zion National Park to the soggy lakeshores along Maine’s Appalachian Trail, the Nocturne’s vertical baffles provided even warmth right down to the bag’s 30°F rating. Even our coldest-bodied camper called the Nocturne’s comforts “pioneering.” Says one tester, “If you crave more space than a mummy provides, this is your ticket to dreamland.” Couples bonus: the Nocturnes can be zipped together. Nocturne 15: $400; 2 lbs. 11 oz.; 15°F. Nocturne 30: $350; 2 lbs.; 30°F; nemosleepingbags.com

Sierra Designs Flash 2

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Sierra Designs Flash 2 (Ben Fullerton)

Tent designers have long used single-wall designs to cut weight, but the tradeoff has often been steam-room-style condensation. The Flash 2 solves the problem with a hybrid single/double-wall construction that maximizes ventilation and provides surprisingly livable features for a sub-four-pound tent. Since there’s no separate fly to attach, setup is particularly fast, using one hubbed pole that clips to the outside. “I had to pitch it in a hurry during a thunderstorm in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness, and the integrated fly kept the interior dry,” says one tester, noting that it proved stable in sustained 30-mph wind. “It’s very airy and well-ventilated for warm nights, too,” reports another. Even dripping-damp conditions in Mt. Rainier National Park failed to create condensation (mesh side doors and covered vents on the ends allow cross breezes).

An 8-inch gap between the fly and ground enhances ventilation as well, and it only allowed some minor mist to penetrate during Superstorm Sandy, when AT-hiking testers were camped near Manchester, Vermont. At 85 inches long, it’s not for the tallest hikers (our 6’6” tester’s head and feet touched the ends), but the 30-square-foot floor is reasonable for two adults, who can sit up without smooching mesh thanks to steep walls and a 39-inch peak height. The two 8-square-foot vestibules offer lavish space for gear storage and cooking. And compared to the expensive, 10-denier materials used by many of the lightest double-wall models, the Flash uses 20- and 40-denier nylon, which increases durability and keeps the price reasonable. $340; 3 lbs. 15 oz.; sierradesigns.com

LifeProof iPhone Case

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LifeProof Case (Jonathan Dorn)

Everyone wants to pack their iPhone. But no one wants to see it ruined by the elements. Water, snow, sand, and fumbles can be fatal for the devices, which have become standard backcountry mapping and video- or photo-shooting equipment for many hikers. These cases, which are currently available to fit the 4/4S and 5 versions and will soon be available for some Android models, are the sleekest waterproof cases we’ve found (less than 70 mm wide, they’re only slightly larger than the phone itself). The press-together, O-ring-sealed covering forms a hard shell that slides into pockets. A rubberized band around the perimeter helps prevent fumbles and adds additional protection to the screen.

In Big Bend National Park, while boulder hopping for a good photo angle, one tester and her phone took an accidental dip in the Rio Grande—and her phone remained bone-dry. Our testers snapped photos, shot video, made calls, and texted friends in snow, dust, and rain from Texas to Tennessee to Tasmania, with no reported failures after more than 500 collective days of testing. LifeProof guarantees the case will protect your phone in up to 6.5 feet of water and withstand a drop from the same height. Our only complaints? To use headphones, you need to remove a small screw, which is easy to misplace. And sound quality suffers a bit, especially in speakerphone mode. Tip: Pop open the bottom charger cover to boost volume. $70 (4/4S), $80 (5); 1.1 oz.; lifeproof.com

Snow Peak Mini Hozuki

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Snow Peak Mini Hozuki (Ben Fullerton)

“This is the Mighty Mouse of camping lanterns,” says one tester. The Mini Hozuki constantly surprised our staff with its ability to fully illuminate everything from four-person tents to backcountry kitchens, despite its diminutive size. “I strung this up from the rafters in the Stone Hut on Vermont’s Mt. Mansfield, and we had enough light to easily cover a 50-square-foot table full of fondue and fixings,” says one tester. Credit the silicone rubber shade, which disperses 60 lumens of warm light from two LED bulbs.

Thanks to a dimmer switch, you can adjust the brightness down to a pleasant romantic glow, which is great for the obvious reasons, but is also convenient when there are multiple people in a tent and some would like to sleep. The single beam also provides sufficient light for midnight trips to the loo. Three AAA batteries provide enough burn time for a week of camping—about 40 hours on high. “The lantern was impervious to rough packing and made the long nights much cozier on our three-day ski through the Three Sisters backcountry,” says one Oregon tester. Smart: The magnetic loop attachment makes it easy to hang the lantern almost anywhere. $40; 2.4 oz. (with batteries); snowpeak.com

Zamberlan 230 SH Crosser Plus GTX RR

Protective and waterproof, light and breathable, these 2013 Editors’ Choice winners aced it with testers from Oregon to Colorado to Tasmania. A nylon shank supports hikers carrying up to 45 pounds. $170; 2 lbs. 6 oz.; m’s 8-14, w’s6-11; zamberlanusa.com

Protective and waterproof, light and breathable, these 2013 Editors’ Choice winners aced it with testers from Oregon to Colorado to Tasmania. 

“These aren’t the lightest high-cut boots I’ve worn,” reports an editor with almost 20 years of testing experience, “but they strike the best balance of weight savings, ankle support, and heavy-duty load-worthiness.” Many lightweight high-cuts trim grams by subtly lowering the ankle cuff, employing less-stiff upper materials, dropping a deeper Achilles notch, or minimizing midsole structure. “Just a half-inch less height on the cuff can make a huge difference for chronic ankle rollers like me,” he says. And a flexible trail runner-style midsole can leave your feet mighty sore when carrying a real backpacking load for 10 to 15 miles.

The Crosser keeps the key features that make a traditional midweight boot the best choice for multiday trips with up to 45 pounds, but saves weight with lighter synthetic materials, adroitly placed structural supports (like a deep heel cup), a TPU plate under the arch, and a minimalist outsole (no heavy rubber lugs). The result is a sturdy, all-purpose backcountry boot that’s light enough for speedy dayhikes yet tough enough for strap-on crampons and light mountaineering.

A rockered profile helps keep the pace up by easing the toe-off phase of the stride while you’re hiking and climbing, and the low-profile Vibram sole gripped well on slick Oregon rocks and steep Utah sandstone. Despite the trimmed-down outsole, the Crosser doesn’t skimp on protection, thanks to a Gore-Tex lining, plus Kevlar and Cordura wrapping the sides like a rand. Footbed cushioning is minimal; add an aftermarket insole for more spring and to adjust fit, which runs a bit wide in the forefoot. $170; 2 lbs. 6 oz. (m’s 11); m’s 8-14, w’s 6-11; zamberlan.com

Eddie Bauer First Ascent Accelerant Jacket

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Eddie Bauer First Ascent Accelerant Jacket (Jonathan Dorn)

The only way to make this jacket more useful? Teach it to wash itself. “This is the closest thing to the perfect all-season layer I’ve ever used,” says one tester, and everyone who wore it agreed. “It morphed into whatever I needed it to be,” says our gear editor, who wore it Nordic skiing in Vermont, hiking on blustery spring days in Tasmania, and under a puffy jacket on cold nights in camp. Low weight and light insulation also make it effective as a summer camp jacket. Testers praised its water repellency and ventilation in windy spring conditions. “It functions just as well on the outside as it does under a shell or a puffy,” says one tester. The key design elements?

The core and arms are covered in a DWR-treated nylon, which fends off light precipitation, while PrimaLoft One insulation underneath seals in warmth in critical areas. Stretchy fleece side panels provided breathability even during high-output fall climbs in Colorado. The same soft fleece is used to construct the helmet-compatible hood, which subbed for a hat on more than one occasion. “For a sweaty body like mine, this jacket is best for cool, windy conditions when you’re working hard and want a touch of insulation and a balance between excellent venting and core wind protection,” says one editor. Another tester loved the Accelerant’s all-day comfort while he was ice climbing in the Rockies. Bonus: Long cuffs and thumbholes keep the wrists covered and warm in the coldest conditions. $180; 14.2 oz. (m’s L); eddiebauer.com

Big Agnes Scout UL2

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Big Agnes Scout UL2 (Ben Fullerton)

During years of testing, we’ve learned that the absolute lightest shelters usually come with the biggest caveats. No bug protection. No floor. No headroom. Can’t handle wind. Too much condensation. Too much money. The Scout is the only two-person tent we’ve ever seen that weighs less than two pounds—a lot less, actually—and avoids all of these drawbacks. “I had room to spare, and that never happens, even with tents twice the weight,” says a 6’7” tester who praised the Scout’s 90-inch-long floor and 43-inch peak height after using it in Tasmania’s Tasman National Park. Our crew camped on the park’s exposed Cape Pillar that night, where wind and rain rolled in off the sea. The Scout’s old-school pup tent design—which initially drew skepticism—didn’t even shake.

The keys to success: trekking-pole support, well-placed guylines that secure “eaves” along each side, and effective ventilation (under the eaves and at the rear) that eliminates the condensation problems that plague so many single-walls. As with other trekking-pole shelters, you need secure staking for a taut pitch (it’s not freestanding), but we secured it in sand, on rocky soil, and in duff-covered forest without trouble. One tester, who used the Scout for eight days in New Mexico, says, “I set it up first try, fast, with no instructions.” Tradeoffs? You get a cavernous interior in lieu of a vestibule, which should only be a deal killer for hikers who expect extended wet weather. And the trekking poles sit in the middle of the single doorway and the 34-square-foot sleeping area; our biggest tester found the former made exits awkward, and the latter prevents couples from zipping bags together. $280; 1 lb. 10 oz.; bigagnes.com

Black Diamond Equipment ReVolt

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Black Diamond Equipment ReVolt (Ben Fullerton)

Here’s a win-win proposition: This eco-friendly light saves you money and keeps batteries out of landfills, but won’t leave you lightless when you’re deep in the backcountry, far from a power supply. The well-priced, extremely bright, rechargeable ReVolt runs on disposable cells as well as the included NiMH rechargeable batteries. We used its rechargeable option for short trips, but packed AAA alkalines on trips longer than a weekend (beyond a single charge). The headlamp powers up via an included USB cord. “I loved that I could top off the rechargeables at home or by plugging it into the USB port on my laptop (while traveling) or in my car (on the way to the trailhead), so I always had full power when I started out, rather than half-drained batteries, as often happens,” says one tester, who says she never had to use disposables in six months of testing.

“The 110-lumen beam was powerful enough for hiking through canyon country in the dark when we had to cover 48 miles on an overnight stage during the Grand to Grand Ultra stage race in Utah,” says one editor. And when the moon was bright enough for walking, he used the red setting to check the map without losing night vision. Another tester, who depended on the ReVolt during two back-to-back bushwalking trips in Tasmania, used the dimmer setting to read after her tentmate went to sleep. According to our tests, you can expect about 50 hours of usable burn time on the brightest setting with fresh alkaline batteries, and about 10 hours when the ReVolt’s cells are fully charged. The housing also serves as a dock for other NiMH rechargeable batteries, so you can use the headlamp to juice up all of your rechargeable AAAs. $60; 3.4 oz. (with batteries); blackdiamondequipment.com

Olympus Tough TG-1 iHS

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Olympus Tough TG-1 (Genny Fullerton)

Want a waterproof, rugged digicam? There are dozens to choose from. How about an all-conditions model that also takes great shots in all light conditions? There’s one: the GPS-enabled Tough TG-1. It wowed our testers with its 12-megapixel sensor and f/2.0 aperture lens—a first in this category—which helps it shine in low-light situations. “It produced vibrant, sharp shots that make other pocket-cam photos look amateur,” says one tester, who used it to capture camp scenes in Walls of Jerusalem National Park in Tasmania and snap action shots during the Grand to Grand Ultra stage race.

Strategically placed buttons put everything you need at your fingertips, menus are clear and intuitive, and a very cool feature called Tap Control makes the TG-1 great for gloved hands. “I could just tap the top, bottom, left, and right sides of the camera to navigate through a quick menu, giving me access to all the necessary controls without having to expose my hands to the cold,” says a tester. A removable ring around the lens allows you to screw on a telephoto lens, fisheye lens, or a filter adapter, which opens up possibilities typically reserved for DSLRs. $400; 8.2 oz.; getolympus.com

Pentax K-30

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Pentax K-30 (Genny Fullerton)

With the chops to nail a cover shot for this magazine and the armor to do it in a driving monsoon, this camera raises the bar for adventurers who want to shoot pro-quality pics wherever the trail leads. With a snappy autofocus, it can capture six high-quality, 16-megapixel images per second and full 1080-pixel HD video. But while many pro-amateur crossover cameras stop after sealing the battery and memory card doors, the K-30 goes the distance with seals for every single button, portal, and seam on the entire camera.

One of our testers even took the K-30 on a whitewater rafting trip down Colorado’s Arkansas River: “After a few sideways glances from the guides, we launched off for half a day of rapids. Many buckets of water later, the K-30 was still taking vivid shots of the splashy action.” To complete the package, pair the K-30 with one of Pentax’s budget-friendly WR lenses (weather resistant; starting at $199) or the O-GPS1, a geotagging unit that attaches to the flash mount ($249). Bonus: The K-30 comes in black, white, and bright blue. $799 (with 18-55mm lens); 2 lbs. 1 oz. (with lens); pentaximaging.com

Garmin fenix

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Garmin fenix (Ben Fullerton)

Finally, a GPS watch that really nails performance and ease-of-use for backcountry navigation, elevation, and fitness tracking. The heart-rate-strap-compatible fenix wowed our testers with accurate readings, reliable posthike data, and intuitive interfaces—all with more personalization and better data integration than other watches in the category. One editor purposely skipped the manual, yet in less than 10 minutes determined how to drop waypoints, save tracks, and set up custom display fields. Another says, “Mapping is as easy as one click—no multiple menus to scroll—you just push the big red button to mark a POI. During a ride or run, the easy-browse screen makes it simple to track calories, heart rate, and other stats.”

After a hike, uploading data is a no-fuss process via Bluetooth or with the included USB cable. Garmin’s free BaseCamp software features standard editing and exporting tools that make saving and sharing trips a snap. Compared side-by-side with standalone GPS units and smartphone apps, the fenix’s accuracy was often more precise, with fewer track dropouts or misplaced waypoints—pretty amazing for a watch. A few tips: Exploit the battery-saving options on overnights. We averaged eight hours of battery life during hardcore navigation use, but stretched it to a full weekend by turning off the HR monitor and recording limited tracks. Fits large wrists best. Extras: HR monitor ($60) and an external temperature/barometer sensor ($30). $450; 3 oz.; garmin.com

Sweetwood Cattle Company Beef Jerky

This moist, spicy jerky is head and shoulders above the standard stuff because it’s baked, not dehydrated, which gives it a tender—not chewy—texture that we couldn’t get enough of.

This moist, spicy jerky is head and shoulders above the standard stuff because it’s baked, not dehydrated, which gives it a tender—not chewy—texture that we couldn’t get enough of.

Even the best bars and trail mix get mighty monotonous during a long trek. Get out of the snack-food rut with tender jerky from this Steamboat Springs-based cattle ranch. “It’s the perfect pick-me-up on the trail—not dry or chewy like gas-station jerky—and packed full of flavor,” says one tester, a food snob who polished off three bags in two days of hiking in Tasmania. What makes it different? Sweetwood uses fresh, whole-muscle pieces from Angus cows raised right on its premises (not ground-up scrap meat imported from South America, like most major jerky brands). Plus, Sweetwood jerky is baked, not dehydrated, which explains its moistness. The perfect blend of tender, hormone-free beef, brown sugar, salt, and bold (MSG-free) spices elicits a consistently smoky flavor that even had infrequent beef-eaters polishing off entire bags in one trailside break. The only problem? We couldn’t agree on a favorite flavor. Regular, peppered, hot, and teriyaki all scored high marks. (Chefs: The ranch also sells premium steaks.) $7; 2 oz.; sweetwoodjerky.com

Adventure Appetites Reindeer Gouda Scramble Wrap

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Adventure Appetites Reindeer Gouda Scramble Wrap (Andrew Bydlon)

After a few days afield, sodium-packed meals with bland textures can curb appetites and curtail a hiker’s much-needed calorie intake. That’s when a fresh-tasting meal like this egg, cheese, and reindeer sausage breakfast wrap shines. “The cheesiness and the peppery meat elevated this meal to one of the best on-trail breakfasts I’ve ever eaten,” says one tester. Food this good isn’t instant: Prep requires 20 minutes and a couple of bowls for rehydrating hash browns and eggs. Chop the vacuum-sealed sausage (Alaska made, it’s tangy and chewy) and Gouda cheese (creamy and smoky), and heat the meat alongside the eggs before melting the cheese atop a pile centered on an included 8-inch tortilla (tip: BYO extra tortillas, as you’ll likely have filling left over).

“It’s a bit of a production to make, so save this tasty, filling meal for a lazy morning,” suggests one tester who enjoyed the hearty breakfast wrap between double-digit mileage days in Tasmania’s Walls of Jerusalem National Park. Some Adventure Appetites meals, like this one, have semi-fresh ingredients, so they’re not long-term shelf-stable (use it or freeze within two weeks of production); order them immediately pretrip, or freeze them to extend freshness. $15 (2 servings); 10 oz. (mfr. weight); adventureappetites.com

Editors' Choice Gold Award

Snow Peak Titanium Double Wall 450 Mug

Snow Peak Titanium Double Wall 450 Mug

For the second straight year, we’re raving about the Cadillac of camp mugs

It’s big enough (14 fluid ounces) for a serving of pasta, and the rounded bottom edge makes for easy cleaning. Another editor loves it for aesthetic reasons: “Some of my favorite moments on any backcountry trip involve an early-morning cup of coffee, when no one else is awake, or maybe a hot brandy by a campfire after a long, hard day,” he says. “I think of this mug like fine crystal: The proper vessel to toast a special occasion.” Note: Like any double-walled container, you can’t use it to heat liquid over a stove without risk of injury or damaging the vacuum seal between the two walls. Must get: the optional sipper lid ($5). $50 ($60 for colored versions); 4.2 oz. (including lid); snowpeak.com

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