Editors' Choice Awards 2011 - Backpacker

Editors' Choice 2011: The Best Backpacking Gear of the Year

From a bargain ultralight tent to perfect-fit boots, here are 14 products that passed the ultimate field test.

TrekSta Evolution Mid GTX Hiking Boot

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TrekSta Evolution Mid GTX (Courtesy Photo)

When it comes to hard-to-fit feet, we have a ringer on staff: an editor who, after hiking 1,600 miles of the AT, says his “feet are sensitive enough to get blisters from silk slippers.” He put the Evolutions on, hiked a week through Capitol Reef’s foot-chewing terrain, and says, “I didn’t have a single hot spot.” And so it went for nine testers across a wide range of sizes and foot shapes.

Credit TrekSta’s hype-worthy NestFit technology, which uses measurement data culled from three-dimensional laser scans of 20,000 different feet in order to account for every possible pressure point or gap (traditionally, making lasts is more art than science). The result is an amazingly secure fit that’s cradle-comfy but stable enough for surprisingly rugged conditions. That fit, combined with the midcut ankle stability, low weight, and a supportive-but-flexy midsole, puts the Evolution in a category unto itself. “I carried a 50-pound pack through five days of trailless, rocky terrain in Capitol Reef, and my feet were never sore,” says one tester. An elongated toe eliminates any hint of toe bang, and the anatomically shaped footbox leaves room for trail swell without feeling sloppy.

The low-profile tread gripped tenaciously, even on slush-covered slickrock, thanks to fiberglass-impregnated rubber pads. And despite the lightweight construction, it’s built to last: Even after that canyon-country abuse, the Evolution’s fabric upper showed only normal wear and tear, while the sole held up better than average for a shoe this light. Combine all that with reliable Gore-Tex waterproofing and the affordable price, and you get best-in-class performance on every front. $140; 1 lb. 15 oz. (m’s 9); m’s 7-13, w’s 5.5-10.5; trekstausa.com

Rab Boreas/Aurora Pull-On Softshell Jacket

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Rab Boreas/Aurora Pull-On (Steve Howe)

“A softshell for backpackers,” raves our gear editor. Before trying Rab’s Boreas (women’s model is the Aurora), she says, “It was hard for this New Englander, who doesn’t feel safe without a hardshell, to justify pack space for a heavy, slow-drying softshell.” But the featherweight Boreas offers packable, fast-drying protection thanks to the blend of 86 percent polyester and 14 percent Lycra.

First, the materials are twisted together and then woven into a fabric that is both breathable and weather-resistant. (But no treatment or coating is used, which keeps breathability extremely high.) During a daylong storm of big, wet snowflakes in Capitol Reef, one editor paired it with just a baselayer and was amazed that it never wetted out. She was also grateful for the streamlined hood, which she pulled over a hat to block out neck drafts. While Rab promotes this top as a baselayer and softshell in one, testers split on the next-to-skin performance.

One loved the soft, snug fit and versatility: “I lived in it for two weeks in New Zealand.” Others preferred wearing it over a lightweight baselayer or T-shirt. Additional features like four-way stretch, a deep venting chest zipper, and long, rollable cuffs are welcome on every trip, and make the Boreas a great layer for highly aerobic activities like biking and trail running. Bummer: Like a lot of synthetics, it develops a funk after several days of constant (sweaty) wear. $75; 8 oz. (w’s M); m’s S-XXL, w’s XS-XL; rab.uk.com

SteriPEN Adventurer Opti

Zap your water clean with this simple to use, reliable UV wand. Two coin-style batteries will treat up to 100 liters. The Opti doesn’t mar the taste and weighs less than 4 ounces.  $90; steripen.com

Zap your water clean with this simple to use, reliable UV wand. Two coin-style batteries will treat up to 100 liters. The Opti doesn’t mar the taste and weighs less than 4 ounces. $90; steripen.com

Nemo Astro Insulated Sleeping Pad and Pillowtop

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Nemo Astro (Steve Howe)

“This is the only sleeping pad I’ll ever need—for my ounce-counting backpacking trips and my weight-be-damned, luxe car camps,” says one tester. That’s because the Astro combo is a pad system that allows you to strip it down or amp it up, depending on the trip. At its heart is a 2.5-inch, full-length mattress that’s insulated with open-cell foam and packs down to about eight by four inches. Alone, it’s as comfortable and warm (down to at least 15°F) as any pad we’ve tried, with a rugged, 75-denier polyester shell that fended off abrasion even on sandpapery slickrock.

The Astro takes some lung power—and three to four minutes—to inflate, but the handy push/pull valve let’s you easily cap it for a breather. (You can also opt for the foot-powered Disco Pad Pump, which weighs 2.2 ounces and costs $40.) For trailhead throw-downs, basecamps, and drive-up campgrounds, slide the Astro into its Pillowtop sleeve. Made of open-cell polyurethane foam, it adds a pound and a half, a few inches of girth when packed, and an entirely new level of comfort.

The combo is like a portable mattress, a full 3.25 inches thick. “It turned our lumpy, rock-strewn trailhead campsite in Capitol Reef into a featherbed,” says one tester. And the price? It looks high, but consider this: If you were to buy a lightweight backpacking pad and a decadent car-camping mattress, you could easily spend more and not sleep as well. Astro: $100; 1 lb. 8 oz.; 20x72x2.5”; Pillowtop: $80; 1 lb. 9 oz.; nemoequipment.com

Marmot Plasma 15 and 30 Sleeping Bags

Sleep System

Sleep is important. I am taking my Marmot Plasma 15. [Avry Martinson]

First, bag-swapping testers were suspicious (“No way that’s warm enough—you take it”) and then greedy (“Never mind, I’ll pack the Plasma again today”). Who wouldn’t want to carry so little and sleep so warm? Whether in Alaska, the Adirondacks, or Capitol Reef, the response was unanimous: The cloudlike Plasma kept even cold-sleeping editors toasty on chilly nights that flirted with the bag’s temp rating (in both the 15°F and 30°F versions). The trick? Every detail is focused on efficiency.

The Insotect FlowGate system contours to your body, offering even insulation so none of the bag’s 900-fill down is wasted. Vertical baffles conceal smaller chambers spaced 10 to 15 inches apart; these cells help reduce cold spots by isolating the down and keeping it from shifting. And a 10-denier Pertex shell is 25 percent lighter than comparable shells; it’s so thin sunlight shines through, but we dragged the Plasma across slickrock like a toddler’s blankie with nary a lost feather.

And the shell enhances ultrafast drying: Four days of damp Denali trekking eventually soaked the footbox, but it dried with body heat after a few hours. A fat draft tube, snug collar, and deep, contoured hood seal the deal. Fit is narrow and efficiently trim, but not claustrophobic. (The zipper, however, required a little trial and error for a snag-free close.) Magic every morning: The 15 compresses down to volleyball size. Plasma 15: $469; 1 lb. 12 oz. (reg.); Plasma 30: $419; 1 lb. 6 oz. (reg.); two lengths; marmot.com

Kelty Salida 2 Tent

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Kelty Salida 2 (Kim Phillips)

Tents tend to seesaw between weight and price: As one goes up, the other goes down. The light-load, low-cost Salida 2 turns that equation on its head. And there’s no tradeoff when it comes to a tent’s key function: weather protection.

The double-wall dome’s taut fly kept testers dry during storms on Vancouver Island’s notoriously soggy West Coast Trail, and the simple, sturdy two-pole support exhibited no ultralight shudders in gusty weather. And ventilation—sometimes a weakness in tiny tents—proved more than adequate, thanks to good airflow through the mostly mesh canopy. Testers reported only light condensation inside the fly after a night of wet snow in Capitol Reef National Park. The tough-enough 68-denier ripstop nylon floor withstood abrasive slickrock. And the Salida pitches fast—one tester did it for the first time in the dark.

So what’s the catch? To save weight without using expensive ultralight (or cheap and flimsy) materials, designers trimmed features and dimensions. There’s only one side door, which makes midnight exits a climb-over-your-partner hassle for one of you. Headroom and length are good for six-footers, but the 30.5-square-foot floor is cozy for two big guys. And the 10-square-foot vestibule, while big enough for a pair of packs and boots, leaves no space for sheltered cooking. $160; 3 lbs. 12 oz.; kelty.com

Salewa Alp Trainer Mid

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Salewa Alp Trainer Mid GTX (Steve Howe)

Big-boot stability meets approach-shoe agility in these do-everything hybrids. After off-trail canyon-country days comprised of sandy washes, baby-head-littered sidehills, and slickrock passes, one tester proclaimed, “I could cruise, climb, and descend with a 45-pound pack and never fear losing my footing, even after a storm dumped inches of snow.” The versatility alone would make these standout boots, but the universally comfortable fit puts them in a class by themselves.

Here are the four key ingredients. 1) A Y-shaped plastic exoskeleton (reinforced with a tiny steel cable) secures your heel for no-rub striding. 2) The “multi-fit footbed” (picture a thin and thick insole sandwiched together) let our testers adjust the boot’s volume by keeping or removing the thin layer. 3) To-the-toe lacing enabled testers to size the toebox to their liking and easily adjust midday, when feet swell. 4) A thin neoprene ankle collar keeps sand and debris from working into the boot and causing hot spots. A 76-year-old European gear company, Salewa is so confident in the fit system that it offers a blister-free guarantee. If your boot is sized right and “used in an appropriate manner” (pustules from running an ultramarathon in trekking boots won’t fly) and you still get a blister, you get a free exchange.

“It seems as preposterous as if Firestone issued a no-flat guarantee,” says our senior editor. “But after wear-testing three different Salewas this year—a low-top approach shoe, an alpine mountaineering boot, and these trekking boots—I’m a believer. I didn’t have a single hot spot from Rainier to Longs Peak to Capitol Reef.” Fine print: Trail-test as soon as you get the boots—the guarantee is only good for the first two weeks you own them. Waterproofing (the Gore-Tex liner didn’t leak a drop) and durability (Kevlar lines the midsole and bottom third of the boot’s suede upper) are also top-notch. $179; 2 lbs. 6 oz. (men’s 9); m’s 7-12, w’s 6-10; salewa.us

Granite Gear Blaze AC 60

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Granite Gear Blaze AC 60 (Courtesy Photo)

If the human body came with a pack, it would fit and feel a lot like this back-hugging model. The Blaze offers Granite Gear’s fine-tuned ultralight technology—a supportive, superbly ventilated framesheet and category-leading hipbelt, combined with judicious use of light and tough fabrics—in a superlight and surprisingly affordable package. This sub-three-pounder’s soft foam shoulder straps and slightly stiffer hipbelt conform to anatomical curves for well-distributed support and monkey-hug stability, even with loads up to 45 pounds.

“I just love this hipbelt,” says our gear editor. “It’s simple, yet amazingly effective because of the just-right cushion and precision wrap.” The torso length adjusts four inches (without Velcro) for a custom fit on every tester who tried it. The three-dimensional, molded-plastic framesheet kept the load locked down even when a tester was climbing hand-and-foot up snow-covered sandstone, and air channels in the framesheet line up with holes in the back padding to keep air moving. The Blaze’s minimalist packbag doesn’t offer much by way of organization—and the lidless design will be too minimalist for some (the lid sells separately for $40)—but it swallows gear like a black hole.

“It’s a 60-liter bag that packs like a 70 or 75,” says one editor. “It’s just as suitable for a weekend as for a week.” On the outside, deep stretch-nylon pockets accepted a fuel canister, water filter, raingear, gloves, knit hat, and foldable waterbucket—with plenty of room for more. After months of testing, the pack remained pristine—save for a friction hole in the side pocket after a pull up a rough rock face. The gram-saving compression cords are a little more futzy than webbing (they can stick in the cordlocks), and the packbag’s dark, 100-denier nylon makes it tough to see inside without reaching in, but these are minor gripes for such big-load, lightweight comfort. (Women’s version is the Blaze AC 60 KI.) $200; 2 lbs. 14 oz. (reg.); short, reg.; granitegear.com

MontBell Alpine Light Down Parka

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Montbell Alpine Light Down Parka (Courtesy Photo)

Unless you go backpacking only in midsummer, and only at low elevations, you’ll want to add this hooded, 800-fill-down toaster to your layering system.

“It’s warm down to the teens, it weighs less than a pound and packs down to grapefruit size, and it costs considerably less than other lightweight down jackets that perform comparably,” says one editor. The 30-denier ballistic nylon shell defies wind, and it’s more durable than its wispy weight suggests. Ballistic nylon fibers are heated and stretched (much like tensile steel), so the molecules align in a way that increases durability without adding weight. “I didn’t have to baby this jacket at all while scrambling through rough sandstone slots,” says one tester.

It’s not super fat for truly Arctic conditions, but it shines as a three-plus-season layering piece, because it slides nicely under a shell and the insulation doesn’t get crushed. Fit is thermally efficient, but roomy enough for comfortable reaching. $185; 12.4 oz. (w’s M); m’s S-XXL, w’s S-XL; montbell.com 

DeLorme Earthmate PN-60w with SPOT Satellite Communicator

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DeLorme Earthmate PN-60w/Spot Satellite Communicator (Steve Howe)

Wouldn’t it be great if you could send messages to friends and family (and yes, rescue personnel) from anywhere in the backcountry, at any time, with customized texts and precise location information? Now you can. By crossing a handheld GPS with a satellite transceiver, these two companies have created a revolutionary tool that integrates navigation and communication.

The all-new category could use a catchy name (GPS Messenger?), but here’s how it works. The PN-60w and its companion SPOT Communicator connect wirelessly to send geolocated text messages of up to 40 characters (up to 500 texts for $50 a year). It allowed our editors to map adventures in Capitol Reef, North Cascades, Denali, and Abu Dhabi and simultaneously beam real-time locations and status updates to the folks back home, who followed our real-time progress on Google Maps and received our notes via email and SMS. It’s easy, too.

Before each trip, enter up to 10 contact groups in your online SPOT account, connect the GPS to your computer, and export the info. On the trail, use the GPS keypad to type and send customized (or prewritten) messages, post updates to your Facebook and Twitter pages, or notify 911 responders. And the GPS? The PN-60w is a top-shelf unit with high-resolution tracking, terrain and street maps of North America, 3.5GB of internal memory, a three-axis electronic compass, and a lightning-fast, dual-core processor.

In the event that the GPS unit is damaged or out of batteries, a covered button on the SPOT can still transmit SOS messages. $450 for the devices, plus $100/year for the required service plan; texts ($50/year for 500) and the Track Progress feature (real-time routes on Google Maps, $50/year) cost extra; 10.7 oz. (with batteries); delorme.com and findmespot.com

Big Agnes Copper Spur UL4 Tent

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(Courtesy Photo)

When one tester packed the Copper Spur for a weekend trip in Colorado’s Indian Peaks with his wife, three kids, and dog, the missus looked at the little bundle strapped to his pack and asked, dismayed, “Are you bringing two of those?”

But she became a believer when he pitched the shelter (with the help of a nine-year-old, it took just a few minutes), and the family of five plus pooch crawled in. Wall-to-wall headroom with a peak height of 50 inches—and a generous 57-square-foot floor—make the Copper Spur so spacious that, in Capitol Reef National Park, eight (adult) testers squeezed in for dinner and a card game during a snowstorm. The crew cooked in one 13.5-square-foot vestibule and stored a couple of packs in the other.

The key to the amazing space-to-weight ratio? Ultralight fabrics like 15-denier siliconized nylon in the fly (which contribute to the high price), and the same stable, efficient, hubbed pole system that earned the Copper Spur UL3 a 2008 Editors’ Choice Award. Like the smaller version, this one proved dry and stable in typical three-season storms. And ventilation, thanks to high vents and plenty of mesh, is superb; with temps in the low 30s, even our family of five saw no condensation inside the canopy (though there was moisture on the fly’s interior).

The wispy materials held up well to kid and canyon abuse, and while the fly fabric is prone to catching in the zipper, it never ripped. Downside? “With this much space,” says our tester, “I don’t have an excuse for making the dog sleep in the vestibule.” $600; 5 lbs. 10 oz. (fly, canopy, poles); bigagnes.com

Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z-Poles

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Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z-Poles (Steve Howe)

The magazine you hold in your hands weighs more than twice as much as one of these airy poles. When our staff passed the sticks around, the most common response was a wide-eyed “Holy #!&!” We were equally awestruck by its smart, avalanche-probe-inspired design that, when broken down, allows the pole to fold into an unusually short, 13-inch-long bundle.

“It’s small enough to stash in a hip pocket for short, scrambly sections,” says one tester. A concealed Kevlar cord runs inside the pole from grip to tip. Push the release button to collapse the pole. To snap the pole back into place, simply hold the first shaft section and pull the molded-foam grip—the inner cord pulls taut, and plastic cones guide the shaft segments together until the release button locks back into place. Length isn’t adjustable, but that means fewer parts that can break, and as another tester notes, “Deploying the Z-Pole is faster than traditional twist or clamp locks.” The Z-Pole series has three poles, ranging from $100 (aluminum, adjustable length) to $150 (carbon, fixed length).

Our favorite is the crazy-light Ultra Distance. Swing weight is nil, and it easily tackled terrain that literally snapped another pole in half during our cross-country traverse of Capitol Reef National Park. Interchangeable tips (carbide and rubber) gripped on hardpack as well as slickrock. Note: Since the Ultra Distances are not adjustable, be sure to get your size (comes in four lengths, from 100 to 130cm). $150; 8.4oz. (100cm, pair); blackdiamondequipment.com

Editors' Choice Green Award

The North Face Venture Jacket

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The North Face Venture Jacket (Courtesy Photo)

If you tried to run a backpacking stove on beans instead of fuel, you’d be eating cold meals in camp. Better idea: The North Face subbed in bean-derived castor oil for petroleum-produced products in the HyVent DT EC membrane on its Venture rain jacket. Result: a shell that works and eliminated the use of an estimated 50,000 pounds of petro-pollutants this year (no small beans there).

After backpacking in the Pacific Northwest with 40°F temps, 10-plus-mph winds, and plenty of rain, our tester posted this score: Venture Jacket 1, Pineapple Express 0. “It’s as waterproof as other shells,” he says, “but the textured interior doesn’t get slimy or clammy.” Testers praised the breathability, which is enhanced by two long pit zips and mesh-lined chest pockets.

The forearms admitted a few drops when one tester was bike commuting in driving rain, and the jacket wetted out—but didn’t leak—under pack straps. Functionally, the castor-oil blend works just like a standard waterproof/breathable: Tiny pores pass perspiration vapor, but don’t admit water. Best part? The price. This is a no-brainer shell, not an eco-niche showpiece. $99; 12.4 oz. (m’s M); m’s S-3XL, w’s XS-XL; thenorthface.com

Editors' Choice Gold Award

Icebreaker Hopper T

Editors' Choice 2011 Gold Award: Icebreaker Hopper T

We know what you’re thinking: Can a T-shirt really be worth $75? Look at it this way, says our editor-in-chief. “The Hopper T will be the last trail shirt you’ll ever need.” Amortize the cost over years’ worth of adventuring, and even accountants will love the value equation. We’ve been using this shirt for five years, and have yet to find a major gripe. The fit is relaxed but not baggy, and the midweight merino wool (18.9 microns, 200 grams per square meter) is supersoft.

It’s also thin enough to wear on summer dayhikes and perfect as a moisture-managing baselayer in winter. The low-profile shoulder seams are placed to avoid pack straps, and high-wear areas (shoulders, small of back) have not pilled after hundreds of days. The Hopper T won’t dry as fast as synthetics in some conditions, but its natural warm-when-wet performance means you can wear it dry without getting cold—and mostly it only takes about five minutes. Plus, you get wool’s legendary funk resistance. “It erased big-trip stink better than deodorant,” says one editor.

The drawback: If you sweat through the shirt, it can take on an eau de sheep and doesn’t smell right until it’s dry. And one tester says even this fine merino itches his wool-sensitive skin. (Women’s version is the slightly thinner Tech Lite T: $60; XS-XL). $75; 6.3 oz. (M); S-XXL; icebreaker.com