Editors’ Choice 2003: The Best Backpacking Gear of the Year

Ten years into BACKPACKER's Editors' Choice awards, the gear has changed, but the goal hasn't.
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It’s been a decade since we established BACKPACKER’s annual Editors’ Choice Awards to bring you the year’s best, most innovative, most value-packed gear. What have we learned? That hard-core testing is the only way to separate the great stuff from the good stuff from the products that look hot in photos but don’t last 10 seconds in real backcountry conditions. This year, our search ended at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where we put our favorites through a final round of head-to-head testing. An early winter storm served up just the right conditions: slick trail, freezing rain, a few inches of snow. We came away with a dozen winners, plus Editors’ Choice Gold Awards for two time-tested top performers. We’re also inaugurating a new honor, the Editors’ Choice Green Award, for cutting-edge equipment made in an eco-friendly way.

editors choice 2003 hiking boots

Montrail Excelerace XCR

These ultralight, all-weather hikers are the best thing to happen to backpacking boots in a decade.

With everything on our backs getting lighter, we need a shoe that keeps pace. The Excelerace pairs a sleek, fast-stepping design with the support and weatherproofing backpackers need. Here’s why we love them.

Light weight, forefoot flex, and sleek trail-running profile make them faster and more nimble—with a better feel for the ground—than traditional light hikers. Ditto for comfort and versatility; we’ve used them for scrambling, dayhiking, and trail running.

The springy midsole provided ample cushion for a week of 15-mile days on the Pacific Crest Trail and adequate stiffness to support loads up to 35 pounds.

The thin synthetic/leather upper and Gore-Tex XCR lining produce “the most breathable waterproof shoes I’ve ever worn,” says our executive editor. Break-in time is zilch.

Midheight collars with hook-and-loop closures repel water and debris better than traditional lace-ups, and provide a touch more ankle support than low-cut shoes. Downside: The cuffs stretch a little, but not enough to slip your feet in easily.

The shallow lugs ace pebbly trails, hold fast to dry granite, and clear mud quickly, but slip on wet rock and packed snow.

The running-shoe last produces a snug, no-blister fit. The wide forefoot eliminates toe crunch. Best for low-volume feet.

The weight, comfort, and speed of a trail runner with the weatherproofing and breathability of Gore-Tex XCR for only $120? This shoe’s a steal.

2 lbs. 2 oz. (men’s size 9) • sizes: men’s 7–111/2, 12, 13, 14, 15; women’s 5–91/2, 10, 11 • $120

Contact: Montrail. Reader service #108.

editors choice 2003 marmot jacket

Marmot Oracle

This well-appointed jacket raises the bar for lightweight, three-season rainwear: It delivers the performance you need at a price you’ll love.

You gotta love a company that makes a killer product, gets great press, then goes out and makes that thing twice as good without doubling the price. Three years ago, Marmot’s PreCip trounced a field of more expensive jackets in our annual raingear review (September 2000). The $99 entry became an instant favorite for three-season backpacking.

But Marmot didn’t rest on its laurels, as we discovered last fall and winter while testing the new Oracle. This $149 jacket retains the superb waterproofing of the original PreCip, but it fits and breathes better, and it boasts detailing that usually drives a shell to more than $200.

We tested the Oracle’s breathability in the worst conditions imaginable: high humidity, near-freezing temps, rain alternating with sleet and snow. In the first minutes of a shower, the jacket’s inner surface felt damp, but then our body heat began pushing perspiration vapor through the proprietary coating. We felt dry inside the jacket on all but the steepest uphill sections of trail, where we unzipped the long, venting side pockets (hikers seeking maximum ventilation can get the Meteor model, with pit zips, for $20 more).

The fit remains relatively snug—we think that enhances mobility and breathability—with a forgiving cut in the hood and arms. But both the tail and sleeves are longer, which keeps out blowing rain and prevents the sleeves from riding up when reaching overhead. Feature upgrades include: stretch cuffs that cinch supertight without discomfort; a fleecy lining around the chin and neck; streamlined zipper flaps; stretch fabric across the shoulders; and a one-handed, two-way hood adjustment.

Bottom line: You won’t find a better all-purpose shell for $149.

15 oz. (men’s medium) • sizes: S–XL (men’s and women’s) • $149

Contact: Marmot. Reader service #112.

editors choice 2003 mapcard

MapCard

The best one-stop map shop we’ve seen is as close as your home computer.

Cheap, fast, easy. Not everyone would want to be described that way, but we’re confident the folks at MapCard won’t take offense. The online mapping service is a terrific new source of Web-based custom maps that will save you fistfuls of cash, put millions of acres of wilderness at your fingertips, and let you quickly annotate your maps with the best online tools we’ve seen. Pony up the $35 annual fee, and MapCard will:

Print an unlimited number of topos for any hiking destination in the United States. Money saved: $7 to $15 for each map you would have bought this year. Use your own color printer and waterproof map paper (Outfitting, February 2003).

Store an unlimited number of maps in your “favorites” file on MapCard’s Web site, saving space on your hard drive.

Customize your maps onscreen by choosing size and scale, color-coding your route, adding notes, marking waypoints, or using symbols to identify campsites and water sources.

Find your destination in seconds by keyword, region, country, and even latitude and longitude. Dial-up modem users have found the service surprisingly quick, especially since printing doesn’t require downloading. If you’re blessed with a broadband line, expect lightning-fast service.

Estimate the length of a trail using the measure tool. Or get a closer look at the landscape with satellite photos (quality depends on images available).

Order a waterproof or laminated printout of any customized topo or aerial photo through MyTopo.com (up to 44 inches wide; $10 to $15 extra) if you want a higher-quality or larger map than your printer can make.

$35 per year

Contact: MapCard.

editors choice 2003 garmin navigation

Garmin Rino 110

The backcountry’s ultimate navigation/communication/safety tool means you’ll never lose yourself or your companion.

“Where are you?” It’s the first question most two-way radio users ask each other, and Garmin’s new Rino answers that query in detail. The GPS-cum-radio transmits your precise position, within a matter of feet, to a partner unit every time you release the “talk” or “call” buttons. The technology means hikers who split up can spend time looking for great views and campsites, rather than each other.

These compact, waterproof units impressed us with their accuracy, transmission range, user-friendly features, and tough construction. When used as two-way radios, the Rinos easily transmitted 5 miles in straight line-of-sight conditions. In GPS mode, positions come up almost instantly, with awesome accuracy. We love the way you can customize the screen, zoom in and out, and easily upload a route to desktop mapping programs.

But what really wowed us is the Rino’s ability to plot the precise location of other Rino units (up to 50). With a simple “send” command, another unit’s whereabouts pops up on your onscreen map, and you can follow its last 10 waypoints, or simply use the easy “go to” feature to head straight for your partner.

The Rino 110 stores 500 waypoints and 20 routes, and includes a trip computer, a GPS compass, stopwatch, and city/highway maps of North and South America. The Rino 120 ($268) adds a voice scrambler and 8 MB of memory.

We wish only for an electronic compass to use independently, since continuous use of the GPS drained battery power fairly quickly (two 8-hour days of use for three AA alkaline batteries; expect 4 hours of nonstop talk time).

8 oz. • $197

Contact: Garmin. Reader service #114.

editors choice 2003 backpack

Granite Gear Vapor Trail/Nimbus Ozone

Light as air and tough as rocks, these packs save weight without sacrificing support.

We applaud every method of shaving pack weight but those that sacrifice carrying comfort or durability. In the field, we don’t want to baby fragile materials or fret about overloading a thin suspension.

The Nimbus Ozone passed both tests to become one of our favorite packs. This streamlined pack is light enough (3 pounds) to deliver noticeable weight savings, yet big enough for a weeklong trek in three-season conditions and supportive enough to push it beyond the careful-what-you-pack category. Several testers agree the Ozone handles 45 pounds with stability and comfort; credit goes to its rigid framesheet and hip-hugging waistbelt, which are similar to Granite Gear’s Precipice, the winner of our overnight pack test (February 2002).

The Ozone’s secret is keeping weight in features that count (like the suspension) while cutting other features altogether. There’s no top lid, no external pockets or internal organizers, and no hydration sleeve or trail-accessible water bottle pockets. What the Ozone has is a no-exaggeration 3,800-cubic-inch capacity, an expandable top sleeve that can stack halfway to the moon, and enough reinforcement on wear-prone points that it won’t get trashed from real-world use. Elasticized nylon wand and shove-it pockets offer functional, simple ways to lash odds and ends on the outside, and effective compression straps keep every load stable. Fine-tuning the torso length is precise, but the operation requires a screwdriver (two torso sizes, 13 to 23 inches).

Ultralight zealots may prefer the Ozone’s sister pack, the Vapor Trail, which has a similar but smaller packbag and a streamlined suspension that’s best for loads less than 30 pounds. The Vapor Trail is available in three fixed-length sizes.

2 lbs./3 lbs. • capacity: 3,500–4,000 cu. in./3,800–4,200 cu. in. • $145/$195

Contact: Granite Gear. Reader service #115.

editors choice 2003 waterproof down bag

Mountain Hardwear Spectre SL

Problem: A wet down bag really sucks. Solution: a waterproof down bag. Next problem?

The paradox of down is legendary: We love the light, fluffy, compressible warmth, but hate the soggy, wilted-lettuce misery of wet feathers. So when Mountain Hardwear rolled out a down bag and told us it was waterproof, we were excited—and skeptical.

The first stormy night our equipment editor spent in the Spectre, a steady downpour pounded the bag. He admits, “It felt unnatural, like pitching a tent in your living room. But soon enough I realized the inside of the bag was staying warm and dry, and I went happily to sleep with the pitter-patter of rain closer than ever before.”

How does the Spectre work? The shell is made with Conduit (Mountain Hardwear’s proprietary waterproof/breathable fabric), the seams are welded, and a storm flap protects the zipper. The most significant innovation is the welding, or gluing, technology that seals the seams and makes the Spectre the first watertight bag that really works and has a reasonable price tag.

But don’t throw out your tent just yet. The Spectre isn’t really intended for use alone in the rain (water will enter through the hood), but rather as the ideal sack for tarps, single-wall shelters, and snow caves, where wind-blown moisture and condensation are your big concerns.

The Spectre easily shed drizzly weather in the Smokies, and it puffed up reasonably well even after we stuffed it wet. All testers agreed the bag’s 25°F rating is conservative, thanks to plenty of 800-fill-power down, a snug-fitting hood, heat-trapping draft collar, and a comfortably efficient cut. (Need more warmth? Try the 10°F Banshee SL.) Our only complaints: The membrane left us slightly clammy in moderate temps.

2 lbs. 12 oz. • $350

Contact: Mountain Hardwear. Reader service #109.

editors choice 2003 backpacks

ULA Equipment P-2

Make every ounce count with this superlight, custom-built pack.

Imagine going to a restaurant where every meal is delicious, low fat and nutritious, made to order, and fairly priced. Consider the P-2 pack a dish at this eatery. Here’s what’s on the menu:

A framesheet that’s cushy against your back, yet stiff enough (due to a single aluminum stay) to support loads up to 35-plus pounds. Standard with every pack.

Load-lifter straps, hip stabilizers, no-pinch shoulder straps, and a thin waist belt that wraps perfectly and keeps loads from sagging. Also standard.

Excellent load control and all-day comfort, thanks to the above. This is one of the few sub-3-pound packs we’ve seen that doesn’t compromise on carrying ability for moderate loads.

A simple, tough packbag reinforced with Spectra Gridstop and big enough for a week’s worth of lightweight gear. We found the standard version plenty durable after trips to Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Smokies, but gear abusers can get the “overkill” option (the whole thing in Spectra Gridstop) for another $20.

All the trimmings. The P-2 comes equipped with easy-to-reach mesh water-bottle pockets. Minimalists can stop there, or add the following custom features: another mesh pocket on back, a hydration sleeve, zippered hipbelt pocket, and a lid with zippered pocket (the basic model has an extension collar and drawcord closure). Prices range from $5 for the hydration sleeve to $22 for the lid.

A great fit. The P-2’s harness isn’t adjustable, but its four standard sizes (plus multiple hipbelt options) mean you’re sure to find one that fits.

Our one gripe: Reservations required: Expect to wait a few weeks for a custom-built pack.

2 lbs. 5 oz. • capacity: 3,000–4,000 cu. in. • $150

Contact: ULA Equipment. Reader service #110.

editors choice 2003 tents

Exped Sirius Extreme

Hikers who count features before ounces will love this shelter: It’s roomy, sturdy, and well ventilated. Did we mention it’s light, too?

The Sirius Extreme is the first tent we’ve seen that lets us rave about its low weight without including qualifying comments about its tiny living space or high price. At less than 6 pounds, it belongs in the bantamweight class for full-featured two-person shelters—but it’s so spacious it feels like a three-person tent. “My partner and I barely noticed we were sharing a tent,” says one tester. If you leave your gear in the cavernous 32-square-foot vestibule, the interior seems even roomier. Another welcome feature: Big vents at the front and rear let out moisture, leaving us dry inside even in chilly temps and high humidity.

How does the Sirius Extreme do it? Materials, for starters. The silicone-coated rainfly is about 11/2 pounds lighter than a comparable polyurethane-coated fly, and DAC Featherlite poles save a few ounces. Design is also a factor. The Sirius is a hoop-style tent, which offers a great space-to-weight ratio, but means it’s not freestanding. While there’s nothing new about hoop tents, we haven’t found another that uses superlight materials and sports a reasonable price tag.

The Sirius pops up lightning fast, since the rainfly remains attached to the canopy when packed (although they can be separated and each used alone), and the poles slide into sleeves on the rainfly. Numerous staking and guying points, an aerodynamic shape, and Exped’s tension pole pockets keep the tent rock solid in heavy winds and rain. And you could drive a Fiat through the doorway, with its smart circular zipper. For a year-round, all-purpose shelter, this tent strikes a happy balance between weight, features, and price.

5 lbs. 15 oz. (tent, rainfly, poles)* • floor size: 35 sq. ft. • $349

Contact: Exped. Reader service #117.

editors choice 2003 tents and tarps

Dancing Light Gear Tacoma-For-2 Shelter

Give up weight, not elbowroom, with this storm-worthy ultralight tent.

If you dream of dropping pounds from your three-season tent, consider the innovative Tacoma-For-2. Its smart design combines a tarp’s weight savings (use your trekking poles for support) and the features of a tent (a floor! vestibules! bug protection! space!). Here’s what you get:

A spacious interior that sleeps two tall hikers with elbowroom to spare. The adjustable ceiling height (up to 44 inches) provides better head and shoulder clearance than many dome tents we’ve used.

A fast pitch with trekking poles (or sticks), stakes, and guylines—once you’ve set it up a few times. The Tacoma-For-2 is not freestanding and not for mechanical dunces.

Dual mesh screens that unfurl for complete coverage in bug season or roll away for better venting.

Double doors that stake out in various configurations to form windbreaks, rainshields, or vestibules. Closing them fully (via hook-and-loop strips) creates a muggy but weathertight shelter.

Numerous guy outs that permit a taut pitch; the rainfly only fluttered a little in moderate winds when we tested it on exposed campsites in the Smokies.

Siliconized nylon that’s used for the rainfly and floor to keep weight down to 2 pounds 4 ounces and enables the Tacoma to stuff into a breadbag-size sack.

The combination of weight savings, interior volume, and weather protection makes this the perfect tent for thru-hikers and other ounce-counting backpackers who want a livable, rain-ready design made from the lightest materials.

2 lbs. 4 oz. • floor size: 40 sq. ft. • $290 (plus $35 for optional seam sealing)

Contact: Dancing Light Gear (Internet orders only).

editors choice 2003 pot insulator

AntiGravityGear Pot Cozy

Save heat, save fuel, save time, save money. Yeah, this pot insulator can do it all.

If there were a product that weighed 2 ounces, cost 7 bucks, and could make every day you spend camping better, would you want one? The Pot Cozy is one of those forehead-slapping ideas you’ll love the first time you use it. The simple foil-and-plastic insulated Cozy wraps your pot, keeping water piping hot for more than an hour in moderate temps. Here’s what we did with it:

On leisurely mornings, served hot coffee and cocoa to late-sleeping campmates without lighting the stove again. Ditto that second cup we used to hesitate making.

Saved fuel by “cooking” in it. Meals that normally require simmering finished up just fine in the heat-trapping cozy, even in freezing weather. The process: Boil your rice or noodles, then turn off the stove and transfer your pot to the cozy. Allow an extra 5 minutes of heating time for every 10 minutes of simmering the instructions require.

On group trips, used it to keep one dish hot while cooking another, letting us bring just one stove but prepare multiple courses and eat them all hot.

The Pot Cozy comes with a fitted lid (you can leave it on to increase efficiency while cooking) and has a slot for pot handles, making it easy to slide a hot pot into the cozy. Then just fold down the rim over the lid to seal in the heat. The lightweight materials aren’t made for abuse, but you’ll save enough in fuel costs to buy a new one every year. The catch? You have to use one of six standard Pot Cozy sizes, all small (they include MSR Titan and Evernew titanium pots, both available in .9- or 1.3-liter models). Inquire about custom sizes.

2 oz. • $7

Contact: AntiGravityGear (Internet orders only).

editors choice 2003 sleeping bags

Pertex Endurance

Say good-bye to soggy sleeping bags. This shell fabric raises the bar for repelling moisture.

Under different circumstances, the cold rain and heavy condensation in the Smokies would have been trying. The constant drip would have soaked most down sacks, but two testers slept dry in bags with Pertex Endurance shells.

In testing for the better part of a year, from the Smokies to Alaska, we found Endurance to be the most effective weatherproof/breathable sleeping bag material we’ve ever used. A coated fabric, it sheds water like an umbrella, is as tough as armor, and boasts excellent breathability. Unlike Mountain Hardwear’s Spectre SL, most bags with Endurance aren’t seam-sealed, which means less success in full-on rain (the exception: Exped’s Endurance bags are seam-sealed, but cost significantly more than the Spectre SL). It’s also less crinkly and noisy than other water-resistant shells we’ve tried. Endurance is slightly bulkier than a standard microfiber shell and adds a few bucks (about $60, give or take) to a bag’s price, but anyone who wants dry down in inclement conditions should give it a look. Endurance is available on bags from Exped, Integral Designs, Moonstone, and The North Face.

Contact: Pertex USA. Reader service #118.

editors choice 2003 toothbrush

Clever Toothbrush

Simply the best thing to hit backcountry dental hygiene since we started brushing our teeth.

An Editors’ Choice Award for a toothbrush? When you’re done snickering, listen up: If you clean your teeth on backpacking trips—and we hope this means all of you—we guarantee you’ll love the Clever Toothbrush. It’s superlight, convenient on the trail, easy to pack, and far less embarrassing than trimming your toothbrush handle. Squeeze toothpaste into the Clever’s hollow end, twist to dispense onto bristles, and voilà, sparkly bicuspids for less hassle and weight than ever before. A secure top covers the head for no-mess storage, and the handle easily holds a week’s worth of toothpaste. We broke the dispenser on one sample, but that was after using it on the trail and at home for several weeks straight.

1 oz. • $4

Contact: Brand Dynamics.

editors choice 2003 reused shoes Nike

Nike Reuse-A-Shoe

Just Recycle It: That was Nike’s answer to the wasteful practice of throwing out used shoes.

Well-worn boots may seem like smelly old friends, but they usually come to an unseemly end: taking up space in a landfill. No one likes that kind of waste, so it’s with great pleasure that we present our inaugural Editors’ Choice Green Award, for the industry’s most eco-friendly products, to Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe program. Started in 1993, this program takes discarded footwear (any brand) and recycles the outsoles into a rubber called Nike Grind, which the company uses in building new treads. Currently, you can buy five Nike ACG models with 3 percent recycled rubber. Nike also saves foam from the midsole and fabric from the upper, making three types of Grind that are used in playground and playing field surfaces. In 10 years, Reuse-A-Shoe has recycled more than 13 million pairs of shoes. You can drop yours off at participating retailers across the country, or send old boots directly to Nike (synthetic shanks only; check with the manufacturer if you’re not sure). In January, Nike announced a deal with the nonprofit National Recycling Coalition, with plans to bring the program to recycling centers near you.

But hey, you ask, how does Grind work on the trail? Like a charm. We recently tested the Air Mowabb ($85, left) and found its tread gripped well on wet and dry rock, and showed no undue wear, giving you the best of both worlds: a shoe that saves your butt and the planet.

Contact: Nike. For details on Reuse-A-Shoe. 

editors choice 2003 compass

Silva Ranger CL Compass

Backpackers need a compass like a fish needs water. Here’s the model that has kept us on the right path for a generation.

A good compass is lightweight, requires no batteries or complex electronics, and is often the only thing that separates hiking and wandering. We haven’t found a simpler, more dependable, more functional model than the Silva Ranger CL, which was released as the Type 15 almost half a century ago. Features include:

A clear plastic baseplate with varying map scales to help you quickly estimate distances.

A geared declination adjustment to eliminate potential confusion between True and Magnetic North.

Reliable readings from the rotating, liquid-filled, jewel-bearinged compass housing.

A folding mirror, with a handy sighting notch, that lets you take wicked accurate bearings on distant landmarks; it’s also useful for aerial signalling, stubble shaving, and checking for granola chunks in your smile.

When you’re done with the Ranger, the mirror snaps against the baseplate to form a well-armored package. A lanyard with attached mini-screwdriver completes this simple yet elegant system.

3 oz. • $75

Contact: Johnson Outdoors. Reader service #120.

editors choice 2003 thermarest

Therm-a-Rest Sleeping Pads

We’ve been sleeping on this award for years.

How did we come to honor Therm-a-Rest sleeping pads with an Editors’ Choice Gold Award?

First, we were wowed by Therm-a-Rest’s new Fusion EX, a self-inflating sleeping pad with a nifty six-in-one design. An internal sheet of closed-cell foam adds optional cold-weather insulation, and a removable 1/4-length foot section adds length (or stays at home) and doubles as a sit pad. Versatile, lightweight, compact.

Then, while testing the Fusion, we started telling stories about our favorite Therm-a-Rest pads of years past—“I still have one of those crazy orange ones!” “I’ve used mine as a fishing raft!”

Next, we tried and failed to locate a single staffer who hadn’t relied—happily—on a Therm-a-Rest pad at some point in his or her backpacking career. For 3 decades, Therm-a-Rest has been a campfire name among well-rested hikers. The Deluxe Limited Edition earned an Editors’ Choice Award (April 1993), and the Z-Rest notched another in 1995.

Finally, we compared current Therm-a-Rest prices to what we paid for a pad 10 years ago. Astonishingly, the Standard, long the benchmark in the field, is just $3 more than it was a decade ago. The 3/4-length? That’ll cost you $4 more.

Case closed. With a brand new pad that offers year-round versatility, a score of well-made, proven models, and value-laden prices that have remained stable for years, Therm-a-Rest is still the king at putting us to sleep.

Contact: Therm-a-Rest. Reader service #119.

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