A remote desert trail meandering through a cold, dark canyon. Long, ghostly shadows cast by the setting winter sun. An exposed campsite on the rocky lip of a place known as Death Hollow. When winds of biblical proportions tore through the canyon and hurled pellets of hail and snow at our meager shelters, we finally made the connection: We'd walked into the valley in the shadow of Death Hollow.
Okay, so most of our Editors' Choice testing trips aren't so dramatic, but they're never pretty. To earn one of our annual awards, new and supposedly "best of the best" gear has to run a gauntlet unmatched in the outdoor world. No green pastures here, no warm-and-fuzzy backyard testing; we're talking about hundreds of days and nights on mountains, in the desert, and along rainforest trails. If the gear doesn't deliver comfort, convenience, and ground-breaking performance in honest-to-badness backcountry conditions, it's out of contention. This year, two hopefuls, including one of the industry's most hyped new product lines, fell by the wayside during that bruising night on Utah's Boulder Mail Trail. On the other hand, several new products weathered this storm—plus hundreds of wet, snowy, gusty, and blazing hot trail days from the Grand Canyon to the Rockies to Mt. Rainier's Wonderland Trail and routes in the Catskills, Absarokas, and Swiss Alps—to secure spots on the finalists list.
Which bring us to this year's winners: six innovative products guaranteed to improve your camping experience. Our picks include two twenty-first-century shelters that pleasingly blur the line between tent and tarp; the lightest, warmest, most packable fleece we've worn; a mountain jacket you may never take off; backpacking food that's healthy, easy, and tasty; and a lantern that keeps on glowing. Our second annual Editors' Choice Gold Awards, for tried-and-true, long-term excellence, go to Gregory's Pro Series packs and Nalgene's Lexan Wide-Mouth bottle. Learn why below.
So by now you're probably wondering: Where's the year's hot new pair of boots or sleeping bag or pack or tent? You know, the core trail gear everyone needs?
New models in those categories are resting on the sidelines in one of the strongest runner-up groups we've ever compiled. When the dust settled, there were a dozen or so pieces of gear that started out on the long list, but testing revealed a few minor flaws that kept them from being proclaimed the year's absolute best. Now that doesn't mean these near-winners are junk. On the contrary, they are all noteworthy and scheduled for reviews in upcoming issues of Outfitting.
So that said, here are the Editors' Choice recipients for 2000, all of which survived Death Hollow and, no doubt, will protect and comfort you when the shadows grow long and cold and the sky darkens with impending storms.
Mountain Hardwear Bat Ray 4
A big shelter that won't weigh you down
I always figured the downsides to tarp camping outweighed the benefits. You know, bugs, slithering invaders, blowing rain. But then I had the pleasure of sleeping under the Bat Ray 4 on our group test hike in southern Utah. Offering a cavernous 77 square feet of space, the Bat Ray 4 comfortably accommodates four adults but weighs only 5 pounds and stuffs down smaller than the average four-person-tent fly. That means one person can easily pack the whole enchilada, lightening the load considerably for three slackers. Or leave two slackers home, shoulder the still-reasonable load, and enjoy the sprawling compound with just one partner.
The Bat Ray 4 feels more like a tent than a tarp. The entire perimeter is flush to the ground, with taffeta and mesh skirts hanging from the "wings" for extra protection against creepy-crawly intruders. A hoop pole at the rear of the shelter, along with a pole support (a trekking pole or dead branch will do) in the front creates enough headroom for four people to sit and play cards. The enclosed back end, combined with the sloping, aerodynamic design, helps the Bat Ray shed angry weather without becoming airborne. Thanks to that rear hoop pole, there's no tarp in your face, even under snow or heavy wind.
Ventilation comes from the mesh skirts along the side and the large front entrance, which is top-to-bottom mesh with a zipper down the middle. The screen doors can be rolled up and tied back for better views or enhanced ventilation in bug-free environments. And just to ensure that hard-core tarp types don't get claustrophobic, there's a window at the rear that's ideal for star gazing. I awoke every morning on the Utah test trip admiring the sunrise out the window and thinking I was in a tent.
Bottom line: The Bat Ray 4 is a tarp that acts likes a big tent, minus the weight. —Annette McGivney
Weight: 5 lbs.
Contact: Mountain Hardwear, (800) 579-9093. Reader service #122. Note: The smaller Bat Ray 2 costs $165. An optional clip-in floor is available for both models.
Patagonia Regulator Fleece
The most comfortable, functional, packable syn-fuzz yet.
For years, I worshipped fleece in all its fuzzy permutations: midweight, micro, windproof, stretch, polarweight, bipolar, recycled, and pile so thick it looks like it was sheared from a synthetic sheep. Warm, soft, nonabsorbent, and virtually indestructible, this fabric was perfect for my backcountry adventures.
But lately my affections had begun to waver. New, all-purpose jackets like the hybrid Ibex Icefall deliver warmth, wind protection, moisture management, and breathability in a wide range of conditions. Lined windshirts (reviewed in “Jackets With An Edge,” September 1999) and synthetic-fill parkas (“Synfully Warm Jackets,” September 1997) pack incredible warmth into tiny stuff sacks. Suddenly my fleece seemed bulky and one-dimensional.
Then came Regulator, the lightest, warmest, most compressible, most versatile fleece any Backpacker editor has ever worn. Made by Patagonia in conjunction with Malden Mills, the folks who brought you Polartec, Regulator comes in three weights: R1, R2, and R3, each bearing unique design and performance characteristics. After having logged more than 200 trail days in these garments (no durability problems noticed yet), we like Regulator; here’s why you will, too (below). —Jonathan Dorn
Contact: Patagonia, (800) 638-6464. Reader service #117.
R1 Flash Pullover
Knit in a wafflelike grid with alternating “pillars” for heat retention and open spaces for breathability and compressibility, the lightest R1 fleece serves double-duty as a warm, wicking base layer and thin, body-hugging sweater. Such versatility lets you trade two garments for one dawn-to-dusk shirt. Deftly-placed stretch panels and a deep front zip that curves around, rather than over, the Adam’s apple helped make the Flash Pullover our favorite Regulator piece.
Midweight Regulator features a “high loft/low density” pile construction that’s remarkably effective at trapping and releasing body heat. Chill winds blowing? Pull a shell over the R2 Jacket to conserve heat snared by the long, shaggy fibers. Calm but cold? Ditch the shell so moisture and excess warmth can escape through the many channels between fibers. The breathability prevents overheating, which makes the R2 Jacket a stellar choice for moving fast in cold weather.
R3 Radiant Jacket
Similar in its grid construction to R1, but thicker and denser, R3 offers the luxurious warmth of heavyweight fleece for the weight and bulk of midweight. My size large Radiant Jacket consumed less pack space than my winter shell, plus it layers cleanly under my ultralight summer shell. And get this: The Radiant stuffs into its own side pocket. Try that with your heavyweight fleece! Together with the Flash Pullover, this jacket may be all the insulation you need for three-and-a-half seasons of mountain travel.
Walrus Trekker Tarp
The “awning” of a new day
My first night under a tarp was a revelation. I’d always snoozed in the stoutest tents I could find, hermetically sealed from the sights, sounds, and smells of the forest night, breathing my own stink from dusk to dawn. But here was a little flysheet that weighed half as much as a tent and kept the rain off while giving me back my eyes, ears, and nose, not to mention a whiff of fresh air. A tarp fan was born.
Of the dozen models I’ve tested since, my favorite is Walrus’s hybrid Trekker Tarp. In testing last fall and winter, it even won over a few skeptics, like tarp-shy Northwest Editor John Harlin, who calls it “the most versatile shelter I’ve ever slept in.” Indeed, this 10' x 9'8" A-frame is three homes in one. In light rain and gentle wind, guy out the broad door-cum-awning and enjoy the view as you cook or play cards. When the rain, wind, or snow get serious, zip the door closed and the rugged nylon/polyester fly provides tentlike weatherproofing. Don’t like the bugs or wet ground? Bring along the mesh inner tent, which clips into buckles in the ceiling.
The Trekker easily sleeps three, with ample gear storage in the twin vestibule spaces, but weighs only 2 pounds 10 ounces (the inner tent adds 2 pounds). With the aid of two trekking poles (or sticks) and six guylines, setup is quick and remarkably secure. The secret lies in the hook-and-loop fasteners that hold your pole handles. While camped on slickrock in Utah, we endured winds that battered the Trekker so viciously that sparks flew from metal pole tips as the whole structure bucked and jumped. Amazingly, the Trekker stayed upright, the pole handles locked in a death grip.
Bottom line: This multifunctional “tarp” is the “tent” of the future, and also the deal of the century at only $139. —J. Dorn
Ibex Icefall and Cirque Jackets
A form-fitting windbusting sweater jacket you may never take off
That guy with the 2-foot-tall horns chewing his cud looked familiar, so I checked the embroidered logo on my jacket. Yup, a match: Ibex ahead and on the jacket. Okay, so I wouldn’t buy this jacket as a field guide to Alpine mammals. But that blustery day at 8,000 feet on a French mountain pass was, in fact, the ideal testing locale, as was the 14,692-foot summit of the Matterhorn, which came a couple of weeks later. Besides a name, what my jacket and the wild Alpine goat shared was natural insulation. Ibex (the brand, not the animal) uses a new Schoeller fabric called Skifans, which blends wool and nylon for better performance than either could deliver alone. (Schoeller also makes Dryskin, an Editors’ Choice Award-winning fabric last year; see April 1999.) You’d never guess that such a thin, soft, comfortable garment could shed so much wind. It even repels rain remarkably well (for a while), and dries almost as soon as the sky brightens. To top it off, the tough outside finish wears more like rhinoceros hide than sheep fleece, even after half a year of brush bashing, pack strapping, and machine washing. These traits, along with the full-frontal zipper and zippered pockets, clearly establish this piece as a rugged jacket, right?
Well, yes and no. I’ve worn it in every way I can imagine: over a T-shirt, over a long-sleeve shirt, under a rainshell, under a pile jacket, under a down jacket, and inside a sleeping bag. It’s really a heavy shirt. No, it’s a light sweater. See my pleasant confusion? It’s all these things at once and helps usher in a new category of inner-outerwear (a category shared by Cloudveil’s Serendipity jacket, a no-wool Schoeller Dryskin Extreme fabric with similar characteristics; see Outfitting, December 1998). The Ibex breathes so well that you can wear it while huffing and puffing up the steepest switchbacks. And it retains so little moisture and sheds so much wind that when you reach Windy Pass, you probably won’t bother to pull out your rainwear. Not even a long-horned cud-chewer can do better than that.
Bottom line: The most versatile garment in a wilderness wardrobe.
Epilogue: Ibex released matching pants too late for extensive field testing. Preliminary reactions suggest that these are some of the best-detailed pants around. —John Harlin
Mountain Safety Research Gourmet
Great tasting, easy prep, very filling… this can’t be camp food.
Between rappelling off cliffs, hauling a 40-pound pack across steep slickrock, and fording snow-fed streams, I’d had a busy morning. That’s to be expected in the outdoors, but still, something was different, something was missing. Then it dawned on me: My stomach wasn’t rumbling. In fact, my watch said 11 a.m. and I wasn’t even a tad hungry.
The reason: I’d feasted that morning on a scrumptious stack of Organic Griddle Cakes from MSR’s new Gourmet line of dehydrated foods (formerly known as EcoCuisine). The flapjacks filled my innards better than any instant oatmeal I’d ever eaten and promised to power me through several canyons still to come. Dinner and dessert proved equally energizing and delicious. Selections like Pasta Primavera, Garlic Fry Bread, and Curried Lentil Bisque, to name a few of the 30 offerings, had my fellow campers begging to lick the bowl.
What separates MSR’s Gourmet line from other camp food is the tantalizing juxtaposition of unusual ingredients. For instance, there are sunflower seeds in the oatmeal, cilantro flecks in the couscous, and tomatoes and jalapeños in the Fiesta Pasta.
Besides incredible flavor, the MSR meals are also vegetarian, almost entirely organic, and stocked with vitamins but not chemicals (no MSG or preservatives). They’re great comfort food when a hard day turns cold and wet. “At a moment like this, what could taste better than garlic mashed potatoes?” purred one tester as fat snowflakes landed on her cheeks.
The clincher is that every meal comes in a paper bag for easy burning or recycling, which is a vast improvement over the eco-nasty plastic and tin foil pouches of most dehydrated foods.
Bottom Line: The best-tasting instant camp food we’ve sampled, plus it’s nutritious, organic, vegetarian, and widely available. —Susan Newquist
Peak 1 Powermax Xcursion Lantern
A light, affordable way to brighten dark, dreary evenings
In the summer, days are long, nights are short, and if you’re like me, you sleep little and marvel at your surroundings a lot. Winter camping is another matter. The sun sets in late afternoon and night lasts for an eternity. You’re tent-bound much of the time, so you read until your headlamp batteries die, then lie there wondering whether you can sleep 12 hours again tonight. The same holds for those dreaded days when rain has you stuck in that gloomy, poorly lit trail shelter.
Here’s an option: Hang the Peak 1 Powermax Xcursion Lantern in your shelter (with plenty of ventilation if you use it in a tent), then sit around playing cards, warming yourself with flame and conversation.
The Xcursion puts out more light and shines longer than any other lantern we’ve used, especially in cold conditions that sap other canister-fueled lights. And it does it with an ingenious fuel system that lets you power your stove and lantern off the same cartridge. Just plug your Powermax cartridge into the nozzle at the bottom of the lantern, listen to the lantern refill (about 20 seconds), then plug the cartridge back into your stove. Clever, eh? The hair in the soup is that you have to own one of Peak 1’s Powermax X-series stoves to pull this off. (Not exactly a raw deal, considering that the X-series stoves won an Editors’ Choice Award in April 1998.)
Even if you don’t own the stove and just want the lantern, these ultralight and recyclable aluminum cartridges are easy to pack. If you’re going out for fewer than 3 nights, one pretrip lantern fill-up will probably do, so you can leave the cartridge home. The 6-hour burn time is amazing in its own right, though not surprising, considering that Powermax fuel (a 60 percent butane/40 percent propane blend) is the hottest and longest-lasting canister fuel we’ve tested.
Other bright details: A rugged built-on plastic case; super-tough mantles (plus several spares in a secret storage space); and a spotlighting option.
Bottom line: This is the toughest, longest-lasting lantern we’ve seen. —J. Harlin
Now that you know all about the latest, most up-to-date gear, it’s time to honor some old faithfuls that have been through the trenches. Here are this year’s Gold Award winners: two pieces of gear that have delivered reliable service for years, performing at a consistently high level while flashier but less functional competitors have come and gone. You won’t go wrong with this stuff. We know, because it’s what we carry when we aren’t testing new equipment. — The Editors
Gregory Professional Series Packs
The standard in comfort when hauling way-too-heavy loads
On trips from Alaska to New Zealand to Baffin Island, Gregory’s Denali, Robson, Petit Dru, and Makalu Pro Series packs have done us right, managing grueling loads that crippled other packs and their unfortunate wearers. During these many overladen miles, we’ve identified a staggering array of smart details that combine to deliver unequaled comfort, stability, and versatility.
The most important are Gregory’s Flo-Form II harnesses and hipbelts. External plastic stiffeners on the hipbelts bolt directly to the framesheets and backstays, transferring weight to the hips better than any other internal frames we’ve used. The hipbelt wings adjust easily for the conical slope or angle of your hips, so they readily adapt to men and women.
On the harness side, Gregory’s Auto-cant shoulder yokes swivel independently to match shoulder slope, and the shoulder straps themselves can be customized easily. Adjusting the padding’s position on the straps lets you direct stress to the inside, outside, or center of the straps. No more straps that roll outward, cutting into your pectoral muscles.
A full-length plastic framesheet protects your back from protruding cargo and gives the Pro Series bomber side-to-side stability for scrambling or skiing. Twin aluminum stays flex just enough, or shape by hand to match your back profile. Since each model comes in several frame sizes with interchangeable components for men and women, you’re almost guaranteed to find the perfect fit.
Superlatives aren’t limited to the suspension, though. The lid pocket adjusts while the pack is cinched closed, so you can easily stash or retrieve your jacket, plus zippers on the top and bottom make for easy access, anytime. The pocket also turns into a fanny pack with no hipbelt conversion required.
The four Pro Series packbags vary in capacity and configuration (see below), but all share these useful features: an “occipital cutout” for head clearance; multiple compression straps, some with pulley systems and side-release buckles for easier loading and cinching; stretch mesh wand pockets that can hold water bottles; and abrasion-resistant rubberized bottoms that are flat-cut, rather than canted, so the packs stand when you prop them trailside.
Bottom Line: If these packs made breakfast tea, Sherpas would be out of business. —S. Howe
Gregory Pro Series Packs
(specs for medium frame and harness)
Denali: This flagship of the Pro Series is a combination panel- and top-loader with maximum cargo capacity and pocket options; 6,588 cu. in., 7 lbs. 8 oz., $450.
Robson: Narrower and simpler, this slim yet high-volume pack sports a compression flap for clothes, a shovel, or rope; 5,577 cu. in., 7 lbs. 9 oz., $425.
Petit Dru: Designed to fit women, this is a scaled-down version of the Denali, with similar features and pockets on a smaller packbag; 5,300 cu. in., 7 lbs. 8 oz., $425.
Makalu: Stripped lean for minimal weight and sporting a more flexible framesheet, the Spectra-cloth Makalu is suited to the balance- and weight-conscious demands of go-light mountaineers and off-trail scramblers; 4,563 cu. in., 4 lbs. 14 oz., $325.
Contact: Gregory Mountain Products, (800) 477-3420. Reader service #123.
Nalgene Lexan Wide-Mouth Bottles
Easily cleaned, impossible to break, and the high-water mark of hydration technology
Milky plastic bottles can get brittle with age or collapse when filled with hot drinks. Bladders and feeding tubes can freeze and dribble all over you. But the virtually indestructible Nalgene Lexan bottles just keep on chugging.
If the lid freezes, you can bang it loose without cracking the bottle. Stuff a hot one into the foot of your bag to thaw cold toes—it won’t leak. The chemically inert Lexan handles everything from brandy to baby formula with no residual taste. Water filters and accessories screw readily onto the standard-size threads. The top won’t get lost because it’s attached. Look through the smoked finish to view the level and condition of your beverage, the bugs swimming around in it, or the mold you really should wash out one of these days. Measure up recipes or divvy the last sips between survivors, using either the ounce or milliliter markings (no translation required).
And in the unlikely case you outlive your bottle, it’s recyclable. Available in round or rectangular shape.
Bottom Line: The simplest, toughest, most neutral-tasting way to carry any liquid, hot or cold. —S. Howe
With some gear, the details make all the difference.
Perhaps a sticky zipper once trapped you in a sleeping bag at an urgent moment. Or loose seam tape let freezing water trickle down your neck. One way or another, you’ve no doubt seen how fast the devil shows when details don’t work.
In the course of field testing gear, we’ve also noticed our share of chinks in the armor, so to speak. Lately, however, we’ve encountered a slew of small but smart new features that boost comfort and convenience. Over 6 months in the field, the details profiled below have kept blisters, stiff necks, and other demons at bay. (Watch upcoming issues in Outfitting for full-length reviews.)
Several years ago Kelty introduced reflective tent cord to keep night-roaming clods from tripping in the dark. Now The North Face takes night vision one step further with glow-in-the-dark zipper toggles. Available on most of The North Face tents (or separately in packets of 10 for $8), these luminescent tabs reduce nocturnal fumbling by exit-seeking tentmates. We’d love to see them on sleeping bags, too. Contact: The North Face, (800) 447-2333.
Vasque didn’t invent the double tongue, but it’s the first boot maker to use this feature extensively since the heyday of stitch-down waffle stompers. Four editors tested the redesigned Super Hiker and Alpine models last fall and winter and reported that the double tongue—a gusseted outer flap over a thickly-padded, adjustable inner flap—not only eliminates bruising across ankles and shins, but also reduces blisters by helping lock heels in place. We’ve seen a few double tongues elsewhere; look for other boot manufacturers to follow suit. Contact: Vasque, (800) 224-4453. Reader service #125.
If your wadded-up fleece jacket becomes your pillow at night, you’ve noticed that it tends to slip off your sleeping pad. That’s why you’ll appreciate the mesh pillow pocket in Mountain Hardwear’s new Trail Head sleeping pads. This nifty sleeve adds negligible weight and bulk while eliminating the cold cheeks, stiff necks, and interrupted sleep you get when your pillow migrates. Contact: Mountain Hardwear, (800) 579-9093. Reader service #126.
With Moss’s ingeniously simple new Headlamp Hole, you’ll never need to jury-rig another reading light. A slotted pocket sewn into every Moss gear attic, the Hole holds your headlamp upside down to create a steady, secure lantern. Contact: Moss Tents, (800) 550-8368. Reader service #127.
Sierra Designs just strengthened its classic Clip Flashlight CD and Clip 3 CD tents with the Cam-Loc, a pole clip that twists tight to increase stability in high winds. We found that Cam-Locs, which clip in pairs at the apex of the front and back poles, also ease setup of these nonfreestanding hoop tents, because they don’t slip around like standard clips. Contact: Sierra Designs, (800) 635-0461. Reader service #128. —J. Dorn