Innovation ain’t worth bugger all if it pikes out in a pinch. That’s why we took the finalists for our 13th annual best-gear awards to New Zealand: We knew the South Island’s legendary storms and rugged topography would help us peel back the last layers of hype and determine which hot new outdoor designs really work. Herewith, the survivors—13 products that raise the bar for pack, boot, tent, and high-tech performance.
Gregory G Pack
This ultralight weekender stabilizes any load
Why: When you tug on Gregory’s new Wraptor Stabilizer straps, you almost expect to hear a sucking sound—not the painful gasp of your diaphragm collapsing, but a whoosh of air as the pack seals into your lower back. We’ve never worn a snugger, smoother-fitting belt, or enjoyed such good load transfer in a sub-3-pound pack. Said one editor: “After 7 hours of hill-climbing with a 30-pound load, my shoulders and hips felt like they could go another 7 without a break.” Other outstanding features include a deceptively large packbag that held foul-weather gear and food for a weekend; deep mesh pouches; super-simple tool attachments; and snack pockets on the hipbelt. Our only caution: The silicone-impregnated 70-denier fabric is surprisingly strong for its weight—it survived New Zealand bushwhacks and Pennsylvania brambles—but it isn’t meant for scraping through slot canyons.
Who: Any hiker who wants to trim pack weight, but still carry 30 pounds comfortably. It comes in 3 torso lengths.
How much: $139, 2 lbs. 10 oz., 2,700 cubic inches (regular size)
Contact: Gregory Packs. Reader service #101.
Salomon GCS Pro
Be cool in fastpacking’s finest footwear
Why: After hundreds of miles of ultralight hiking and trail running, our testers agree that these are the most stable lightweight low-tops we’ve seen. The secret is Salomon’s new Ground Control System, a funky mechanical innovation that repositions the cushion under your heel with every step. Four floating springs absorb shock with each heel strike—a welcome benefit on high-mileage days. But the springs also flex sideways to handle indirect impact, like the kind you get when the edge of your shoe lands on the corner of a rock. Add a wide and very grippy sole, and you get a shoe that rarely lands awkwardly—a boon to hikers and runners with weak ankles or poor balance. Testers also raved about the supportive plastic exoskeleton and one-pull lacing, which together provide an extremely secure, close fit.
Who: The shoes fit all but the flattest, widest, and highest-volume feet. Women’s model is the Comp.
How much: $130, 2 lbs. (per pair, men’s size 91/2); men’s 61/2–131/2, women’s 31/2–101/2
Contact: Salomon. Reader service #103.
MSR Hubba Hubba
Meet The new benchmark in lightweight, THREE-season shelter
Why: This two-person tent strikes the finest balance we’ve seen yet between minimizing weight and maximizing space. Thanks to an innovative pole configuration that spreads the walls and lifts the ceiling, its 30-square-foot interior is surprisingly roomy; our 6’6” executive editor didn’t touch at either end or bump into his tentmate while sleeping or sitting up. And the story gets better: The Hubba Hubba is freestanding and has two doors—both features a rarity in this weight class. The twin vestibules accommodate packs, boots, and careful cooking, and rain doesn’t drip inside the tent when you open the doors. With an all-mesh canopy, its ventilation is excellent; we saw no condensation through New Zealand soakers. You can save another pound by pitching only the rainfly, or a bit less when you pitch rainfly and footprint (sold separately for $35). Caution: Stake the tent in a sheltered site, because it’s light on guyouts and stability in strong winds.
Who: Unless you’re a tarp, bivy, or cold-weather fan, you’ll love this tent.
How much: $290, 4 lbs. 4 oz.
Contact: MSR. Reader service #102.
Contact 3.0 Hiking Package
Satellite broadcasting gets light, cheap, and trailworthy
Why: This packable multimedia setup ushers in a brave new world of adventure Webcasting. The sat phone/PDA/camera system, all powered by Contact 3.0 software, promises to revolutionize remote communications by offering an economical, portable, easy-to-use system for real-time text, photo, and video transfers from campsite to Web site.
Just shoot photos or video clips on the digital camera, or type dispatches into the PDA via wireless keyboard, and hit “send.” Your dispatch goes out by satellite phone and appears on your designated Web site seconds later. We hauled this package through Glacier and the Canadian Rockies, and successfully broadcasted from isolated campsites, ridgetops, and glaciers. (View sample dispatches from around the world.) All components are solar rechargeable, and you can use each of the pieces alone. A variety of packages are available, tailored to your media preferences; we particularly like the optional software that lets you plug in a GPS unit and automatically plot your position to an onscreen map.
Who: Would-be backcountry bloggers, plus outdoor clubs, sponsored expeditions, thru-hikers, and charity adventurers.
How much: $2,744 (as tested; includes server setup, software training, and Pelican case), 2 lbs. 8 oz.
Contact: Contact 3.0. Reader service #105.
EMS Summit TL Rucksack
This versatile midsize is the sweetest deal of the year
Why: You won’t believe the comfort and features this top-loading weekend pack offers for the price. V-shaped aluminum stays and a plastic framesheet provide plenty of support and weight transfer, as two editors found after hauling 30 pounds on stiff climbs and descents in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. But the Summit’s secret weapon may be its hipbelt—the thin yet firm foam contours closely around your hips, and it’s wide enough that it didn’t sag on long days in the Rockies and Poconos. The solidly constructed packbag easily swallows enough food and gear for 3 or 4 days in three-season conditions, but the Summit is versatile enough to double as a technical daypack or hut-touring pack. Best of all, it has features rarely found in this price range: a handy (if somewhat stiff) shove-it panel for crampons or a shovel blade; a fleece-lined sunglasses pocket in the lid; axe loops; and a 3-liter Nalgene bladder (a $25 value).
Who: The Summit’s harness doesn’t adjust, but only the shortest torsos won’t fit the regular (17”–19”) and long (19”–22”) sizes.
How much: $109, 4 lbs. 14 oz. (with hydration bladder), 2,860 cubic inches (regular)
Raichle Mt. Trail XT GTX
Slip into the most comfortable all-leather backpacking boot you’ve worn in years
Why: Of the 100-plus boots we trail-tested last year, these Gore-Tex hikers offer the best blend of all-day comfort, off-trail durability, and big-load support. Testers raved about the last, which exhibits several classic signs of careful craftsmanship. The first is a deep, firm heel pocket that locks down skinny heels, eliminating the pressure and rubbing that causes blisters. This allows Raichle to open the forefoot just a bit to accommodate wider feet and give everyone’s toes some wiggle room. Then comes a one-piece, full-grain upper that’s supple in an old-fashioned way—it molds to every curve of your foot without the creases and folds that afflict too-soft leather. The XT’s sole also hits a sweet spot: It’s rigid enough to handle 50-pound loads and rugged cross-country routes, but there’s also enough longitudinal flex and cushion for big-mile trail days. And if you get stuck crossing talus slopes, no worries; the XT may be the most nimble boot in its class, and its rubber toe cap will fend off the sharpest rocks.
Who: Anyone hiking rough trails with big loads should consider this boot. Fit is forgiving for all but the widest feet. HOW MUCH: $189; men’s 7–121/2, 13, 14; women's 51/2–101/2; 4 lbs. (men’s size 9)
Snickers Marathon Bars
Keep going—and going—with our favorite new trail snack
Why: Are they the healthiest energy bars out there? Probably not. But the four flavors in the Snickers Marathon line pack a ton of energy and nutrition (100% USRDA of 10 vitamins and minerals) into a chewy, crunchy, chocolate-and-caramel stick that just plain tastes great. And not just during the first hours of a hike. What puts these bars over the top is that they’re still appetizing when nothing else in your food bag is making you salivate. The only downside: They melt in hot weather. Our favorite, Chewy Chocolate Peanut, has 220 calories (60 from fat), 27g carbs, and 13g protein. Other flavors: Caramel Nut Rush (290 cal., 41g carbs, 20g protein), Multi-Grain Crunch (220 cal, 32g carbs, 9g protein), and Peanut Butter (160 cal, 18g carbs, 14g protein).
How much: $1.49 to $2.29
Contact: Snickers. Reader service #107.
The North Face Catalyst 60 & 75
Not going light? Experience a revolution in big-load comfort
Why: You still have to be one strong mule to haul 60 to 70 pounds, but The North Face’s new Pivotal suspension makes the experience a whole lot more pleasant. Built around a super-sturdy frame, the system blends the stability and streamlined profile of an internal frame pack with the workhorse comfort and load transfer of an external. But the real innovation is the pivot itself, which allows the hipbelt to swivel with each step. We immediately noticed improved freedom of motion; we could squat, bend, or high-step without binding. Farther down the trail, we noticed the pack wasn’t sliding south on us, which kept pressure off our shoulders.
Torso adjustments are simple: Just flip a tab and slide the back panel. Nitpicks: Load control isn’t equal to the best big packs, though it’s more than adequate for basic scrambling. And the packbag could be a bit tougher and more user-friendly. But for the way it carries, and the money we’ll save in chiropractic bills, we’ll take it.
Who: Expedition trekkers, Sherpa dads, and luxury campers. Available in two men’s sizes (60 and 75), and two women’s sizes (60 only).
How much: Catalyst 60 is $349, 6 lbs. 6 oz., 3,700 cubic inches (men’s medium);
Catalyst 75 is $379, 6 lbs. 12 oz., 4,600 cubic inches (men’s medium)
Contact: The North Face. Reader service #108.
These boats are so light they redefine where you can paddle
Why: Open a whole new world of backcountry exploration with these revolutionary rafts. At a scant 4 pounds each, the inflatable craft are easily packed in to hard-to-reach headwaters, remote lakes, and other distant put-ins. And these are no toy blow-ups. In New Zealand, after heavy rain kicked the Shotover River into high gear, we paddled through wave trains and flood debris, dragged the boats across rocks—then did it again because it was so much fun. How does it handle? It’s not made for long flatwater paddles, but on rivers the Alpacka is more nimble than a raft and more stable than a hard-shell kayak, and with the optional spray deck ($150, 1 lb. 5 oz.) you can navigate whitewater without swamping (we’ve heard reports of expert paddlers managing Class IV). Space is tight, but with a pack lashed over the bow you can sit comfortably with feet extended. Stiffen and pad the bottom with your self-inflating mattress.
Who: Anyone who wants to run wilderness waterways, safely ford big rivers, or fish backcountry lakes.
How much: $595, 4 lbs. 4 oz., with lashing cord (for the midsize Yukon Yak, also available in smaller and larger models). Alpacka also plans a model with a welded-on spray deck ($775).
Contact: Alpacka Rafts. Reader service #109.
Garmont Trail Sport Junior Boots
Young hikers deserve performance shoes
Why: Because we’re sick and tired of watching our kids pull off boxy, bulky, leaky boots to reveal sore, soggy, blistered feet. If your young ones like hiking as much as ours do, they’ll thank you ten times over for buying them a pair of Garmont’s Flash Junior XCR or Nagevi Junior. Built with the same attention to detail and high-quality materials as the grownup versions, Flash XCR and Nagevi XCR, these boots fit our young testers like gloves, gave them superior traction on wet streamside rocks, and virtually eliminated the foot fatigue they’d experienced with less supportive models. The suede and synthetic uppers broke in quickly, but didn’t stretch or sag, and overall durability is such that you’ll hand them down two or three times. The Flash Junior XCR has a Gore-Tex XCR lining and higher, ankle-protecting cut; the low-cut Nagevi Junior is a better choice for dry, smooth trails and general kicking around.
Who: Active outdoor kids who wear sizes 1 to 5 (both shoes come in half sizes)
How much: Flash, $70; Nagevi, $50
Contact: Garmont. Reader service #110.
Evernew Slick Non-Stick Titanium Cookware
Your ultralight kitchen is now complete
Why: Finally, the benefits of titanium without the hassle of scrubbing burned crud. The trick? Evernew figured out how to apply a tough nonstick coating to titanium, making this cookware line the first we’ve seen to deliver weight savings, durability, and easy cleanup in one smart package. Folding handles eliminate the need to locate that lost pot gripper. We like the 2-pot Cookset for its versatile combination of 1.9- and 1.3-liter pots, and lids that double as frying pans.
How much: $95 (for the 2-pot Cookset; $49 for one 1.3-liter pot); 1 lb. 2 oz.
Contact: Evernew. Reader service #111.
New Balance Ultra Arch Support Inserts
Pamper your feet with the most supportive footbeds we’ve tested
Why: We have happy feet. Check that—we have blissed-out feet. We hiked and ran more than a thousand miles with these insoles in our shoes, and we’ve never felt less end-of-day soreness. We give the credit to the Ultra’s lightweight graphite arch, shock-absorbing pads in key impact areas, and thick, firm foam that’s contoured to support the midfoot and lock in the heel.
Who: Anyone who wants to upgrade the comfort of their boots.They come in unisex sizes from XS to 2XL but are thicker than most insoles, so they work best in mid- and high-volume boots.
How much: $40, 5 oz. (per pair, size large)
Contact: New Balance. Reader service #112.
Garmin Foretrex 101
Get started—or get simple—with the best GPS deal
Why: GPS doesn’t get any easier than this. One of our testers torched the (blessedly thin) instruction manual—yep, up in flames—to see if he could master the unit without it, and within minutes he was saving waypoints and a track log. Novices may need more guidance, but the Foretrex’s intuitive interface and plainly labeled buttons significantly shorten the GPS learning curve. But don’t let the unit’s size and ease of use fool you: It stores 500 waypoints, acquires satellite signals faster than some more expensive handhelds, and holds reception in all but the thickest woods. You’ll want a bigger screen and map download capabilities for serious cross-country navigation, but we had no trouble with off-trail scouting and backtracking in open terrain. In testing, we got 6-8 hours of use on 2 AAAs.
Who: The Foretrex is a fine choice for beginners, ultralighters, and anyone who wants core GPS functions in a small, affordable package.
How much: $139; 2.6 oz.
Contact: Garmin. Reader service #113.
EDITORS’ CHOICE GOLD AWARDS
Two tried-and-true favorites join our gear hall of fame.
Outdoor Research Seattle Sombrero
Stay dry in the wettest weather with this lid
Why: Since 1985, the indestructible Sombrero has kept our heads and necks dry in deluges from northern Canada to the Carolinas to the Northwest’s rainforests. It’s packable, the brim is stiff enough in all but the strongest winds, and the tail is elongated to channel water over your jacket collar, not under it. Sure, the styling is vintage ’80s, but who cares about fashion when the rain is falling so hard you can’t see your fingers in front of your face?
WHO: Four adjustable sizes (S-XL) suit all but the hugest melons.
How much: $46, 4 oz. (size large)
Contact: Outdoor Research. Reader service #114.
These innovative shades continue to lead eyewear evolution
Why: A decade ago, Smith introduced interchangeable lenses, and while others have followed suit, the original Sliders are still a tester favorite when it comes to versatility in different light conditions. We’ve also seen the tough frames survive countless endos and a 60-foot drop in Joshua Tree, and the polycarbonate lenses are incredibly scratch-resistant. The padding on the nose and temple areas absorbs sweat and keeps the glasses from slipping. Of the current models, we like the District Slider ($109) best; it has medium-sized frames, three lens colors, superb protection from wind and dirt, and an optional polarized lens that’s great for anglers. Best of all: In the unlikely event you break the frames, Smith will replace them for a nominal fee.
Who: Anyone who needs durable, versatile, stylish sunglasses.
How much: $99-159
Contact: Smith. Reader service #115.
EDITORS’ CHOICE GREEN AWARD
Because low-impact doesn’t mean low performance
These socks are soft on the planet—and your feet
Why: Many gear companies are taking steps to make more eco-friendly products, and we applaud every one of them. But few have made the top-to-bottom effort Teko has applied to its new line of socks. Teko’s merino wool socks undergo a washing process that uses ozone instead of chlorine (the only byproduct is sweet oxygen). Other models are made of organic cotton and recycled polyester. Not convinced? Teko’s plant in North Carolina buys renewable energy from wind power plants, and last fall every sock in the line passed a strict environmental test in Europe, proving the fabrics are harmless next to your skin. Even its minimalist packaging is eco-correct. Best of all, our testers raved about their warmth, softness, and no-slip fit. The wool model pills a bit, but our favorite, the synthetic Ecopet, is holding up well.
How much: $10-23; S-XL
Contact: Teko Socks. Reader service #116.
Five of the year’s smartest innovations
Osprey’s bake-to-fit BioForm Hipbelts are the new standard in big-pack comfort—and a promising start in what we hope will be a trend toward customizing fit in outdoor products.
Enertia Trail Foods cuts the bulk of freeze-dried meals in more than half by vacuum-sealing theirs. They also added measuring marks to the resealable packages.
Pull a tab, fix the fit. That’s how easy it is to make on-the-fly torso adjustments with the forward-thinking suspension on Lafuma’s Precision 60 pack.
Ultimate Direction used them first, and we applaud others for following: hipbelt-mounted stash pockets for sunblock, keys, and energy bars.
Sierra Designs markedly improves our nighttime view with the zip-out ceilings in its Observatory tent.