Editors' Choice Awards 2010 - Backpacker

Editors' Choice 2010: The Best Backpacking Gear of the Year

After 15-hour trail days with 50 pound packs on 100-miles of Switzerland's Via Alpina, we're proud to present the best gear of the year.

After 15-hour trail days with 50 pound packs on 100-miles of Switzerland's Via Alpina, we're proud to present the best gear of the year. Whether it's a proven pack, tent, ultralight stove, pair of boots, or just the tastiest camp coffee on the planet, you'll find it in Editors' Choice.

Salomon Wings Sky GTX Boot

editors choice 2010 salomon wings sky 445x260

Salomon Wings Sky GTX 

Fast and light meets cushioned and stable in this category-bending hybrid. After Alps days that included long trail miles, snow-covered passes, and pavement pounding getting in and out of villages, one tester said, “They never felt out of place.” Three things elevate this shoe above a beefed-up sneaker.

1) Fit: A medium-volume heel pocket combined with a low-volume midfoot enhances stability on rough surfaces, and an asymmetrical, high-volume forefoot allows for foot swell.

2) Stiff synthetic bands buttress the high ankle shaft and anchor at the lace points, bolstering stability.

3) Excellent arch support let us put in 15-hour days with 50-pound packs—with no excessive foot fatigue. Other features are equally dialed. EVA cushion makes for a pillow-soft heel strike, a Gore-Tex liner ensures waterproofing, and the low-profile tread grips well on all surfaces.

Caveat: The priority here is flex. A half-length thermoplastic “chassis” provides rear-foot support, but some hikers may want more rigid protection under the forefoot. $200; 2 lbs. 4 oz. (9); men’s 7-13, 14

Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 Tent

A 2010 Editors’ Choice Award-winner, this ultralighter still leads the pack for lightweight, freestanding convenience: It sets up fast, offers legit space and weather protection for two, virtually eliminates interior condensation—and all for less than a pound per person. $390; 1 lb. 15 oz.; bigagnes.com

Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 Tent

At barely more than two pounds, the Fly Creek stomps on bivy-sack turf when it comes to weight and bulk. Yet what’s remarkable is its livability-per-ounce. With 28 square feet of floor space and a 38-inch peak height, it’s merely compact, not coffin tight: Testers (under six feet) could change clothes, play Yahtzee, and sleep without overlapping pads (it’s 52 inches wide at the head and 86 inches long). “And when packed, it’s so tiny and light I kept thinking I forgot a tent,” says one tester.

Ultralight materials, like silnylon fabrics and DAC’s TH72M aluminum poles, help shave grams, but it’s the single Y-shaped hubbed pole that really eliminates weight. It lets designers align poles with ridgelines; with three rather than four ridges, Big Agnes can drop a seam and pole section (the heaviest component per inch). Result: Less weight, good stability, and a fast, easy pitch. It’s technically freestanding, but you should stake it out to ensure maximum internal volume. In the Alps and in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, the Fly Creek proved totally weatherproof, repelling hard rain and wind.

Even more impressive, the double-wall construction, with mesh ceiling panels, kept even a hint of condensation from accumulating. Testers deemed the single door plenty big, but cautioned that for chronic wet weather, most hikers will want two doors and more vestibule space—gear for two is a squeeze in the seven-square-foot vestibule. $350; 2 lbs. 2 oz.

Patagonia Merino 1

editors choice 2010 patagonia merino 1 445x260

Patagonia Merino 1 (Steve Howe)

Few products divide our testers like merino and synthetic baselayers. Some swear by the warmth-to-weight and natural stink-proofing of wool. Others demand the softness, durability, and quick-dry performance of polyester. And now they all want this hybrid fabric.

The keys are the ratio of wool to poly yarns and the construction. It’s made with 63 percent chlorine-free merino (16.5 microns) wrapped around a recycled poly core (which improves insulation and moisture control). Result: Testers wore the long-sleeved crew for a week straight in the Alps, and on scores of other trips, and it dried faster than an all-wool shirt yet never worked up a stink.

Due to the wool content, Merino 1 is more prone to pilling under abrasive pack straps than synthetics, but even our highest-mileage sample (almost a year) held up well. Caveat: Female testers wanted a closer fit. $65-$89 (six styles)

Soto Pocket Torch

editors choice 2010 soto torch 445x260

Soto Pocket Torch (Broudy/Donahue Photography)

Give us gale-force winds. Give us torrential rain. And we’ll give you a flame for your stove or campfire, guaranteed. Just put a 50-cent lighter into this little widget, and you get a mini blowtorch that produces a searing-hot blue flame.

We’ve used it to spark fires and stoves in the worst weather, from wet Wales to the windy Alps. “I love the convenience factor,” says one editor. “No messing with butane refills—just pop in a fresh disposable.” Note: The Torch works with squarish disposables commonly found around the world, but not Bics. $20; 2.3 oz. (including lighter)

Soto OD-1R Micro Regulator Stove

editors choice 2010 soto micro regulator stove 445x260

Soto OD-1R Micro Regulator Stove (Steve Howe)

Cook anywhere, anytime with this innovative ultralight. “I brewed three cups of tea in a biting, swirling wind at just under 14,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park,” says one tester. “And the Soto achieved a rolling boil in less than five minutes.” Try that with any other canister stove and you’ll likely be drinking iced tea. The problem with most models: When ambient temperatures dip below freezing, vapor pressure inside the canister drops too, causing weak heat output. Solution: The OD-1R employs a dime-size fuel regulator inside the burner to maintain a steady flow of gas regardless of internal pressure, which keeps heat output constant in cold and high conditions. It even works when the canister nears empty (which causes decreasing pressure as fuel is burned). In our controlled tests (June 2009), in temps between 15°F and 30°F, boil times varied from 4.5 to 6 minutes—30 to 50 percent faster than any other stove in the test. Plus: It lights instantly via a piezo igniter; stable supports handle three-quart pots; and it packs smaller than palm-size. It doesn’t have an integrated windscreen, but after a storm-lashed Olympics trek during which the flame never failed, one tester said, “It doesn’t need one.” $60; 2.5 oz.

Tanka Bar Spicy Pepper Blend

editors choice 2010 tanka bites 445x260

Tanka Bites (Jonathan Dorn)

Lakota Indians can claim one of the original trail snacks; they pounded dried buffalo meat together with chokecherries. Now, their descendents living on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation have updated the process to bring hikers the best jerky we’ve tasted.

The spicy version, with buffalo meat, dried cranberries, spices, and peppers (including habanero), delivers seven grams of protein and 70 calories per ounce in a flavor hit that puts all other protein snacks to shame.

Bonus: No preservatives, just grass-fed buffalo bliss. $6/two 1-oz. bars; $15/two 3-oz. packs of Tanka Bites

Mophie Juice Pack Air

editors choice 2010 mophie air pack 445x260

Mophie Juice Pack Air (BP Photo Department)

Until last fall, our affection for the iPhone 3GS knew only two limitations. One, it wasn’t waterproof. Two, the camera, video, and GPS drained the battery wicked fast. We could get a weekend’s worth of photos, tunes, and reading with the GPS off, but running a nav app like MotionX cooked the phone in about four hours.

Enter the Mophie, a hardshell case and rechargeable battery pack. Slide it over your iPhone (or iPod Touch), and you’ll almost double your battery life. In the field, one editor shot more than 200 photos and 30 video clips during a four-day hike in the Wind Rivers—and listened to NPR podcasts each night.

That kind of juice lets the iPhone go places it couldn’t before. (Tip: Turn on power-saving options and limit playback to achieve times like ours. And carry a Ziploc for rain; this doesn’t solve problem #1.) $80 (available through iTunes and authorized Apple vendors); 2.7 oz.

NEMO Meta 2P Tent

editors choice 2010 nemo meta tent 445x260

NEMO Meta 2P (Steve Howe)

If you use trekking poles, you should use this tent. Eliminate tent poles, save weight. It’s a simple strategy, but mostly results in shelters that compromise stability or convenience—or both. Enter the Meta 2P—rock-solid, spacious, and easy to pitch.

“This is the sturdiest trekking-pole design I’ve seen,” declares one tester, who said it didn’t budge during gusty winds above treeline in Colorado’s Zirkel Wilderness. Credit a hybrid single-wall design that incorporates two hiking poles—one inside each vestibule—where the grips and tips are both anchored. Stakes tension the corners and vestibules. Living space is lavish by ultralight standards, with a whopping 36 square feet inside and two vestibules totaling 25 square feet of storage space.

That, combined with a 43-inch peak height, let testers sprawl out and sit up comfortably. And the Meta doesn’t suffer from condensation buildup, thanks to the huge mesh doors and four vents. And unlike with some shelters this light, the Meta’s durable fabrics don’t need TLC. After a week in Switzerland, one tester summed it up: “Where’s the sacrifice?” $350; 2 lbs. 15 oz.

Starbucks Via Ready Brew

editors choice 2010 via 445x260

Starbucks VIA Ready Brew (Steve Howe)

We’ve had Editors’ Choice trips devolve into near-mutiny when the java ran out. Our staff caffeinistas insist on carrying fresh grounds and bulky brewing kits, which on long treks inevitably leads to coffee rationing. And it always comes with futzy cleanup and excess waste.

We’re happy to report that we sailed through a week in the Alps with no coffee wars and no mess—and had java to spare. Starbucks may not have intended to make the world’s greatest camp coffee when it launched VIA, but we love the result: easy-packing, single-serve tubes of trip-saving joe. Credit the microgrinding process that preserves the flavor and oils of the 100-percent Arabica beans.

Our favorite roast: Colombian (also available in Italian and Decaf Italian). No bitter instant aftertaste, subtle and complex flavor, and a quick energy boost. $3/3 packets

Zamberlan 760 Steep GT Boot

Zamberlan 760 Steep GT Boot

Zamberlan 760 Steep GT Boot (Steve Howe)

One of our editors bravely put these boots to the ultimate test: With zero break-in, he took the all-leather Steeps on a two-week expedition to Alaska’s Brooks Range. He crossed glaciers, climbed in crampons, and hiked 50 miles across often-soggy tundra with a 70-pound load.

Conclusion: This boot delivers tanklike support and stability with Cadillac comfort. For starters, a leather collar wraps your ankle like a soft glove, so you can crank the laces tight for support without any pinching. A low-density polyurethane midsole absorbs shock so well that one tester noted, “Even after a full day of trail pounding, I didn’t take off my boots until I crawled in the sack.”

A plastic toe and heel counter increase stability and help the boot hold its shape in wet conditions. And the Steep excelled off-trail, thanks to a polypropylene shank with good torsional rigidity and Vibram soles with a toothy lug pattern. It’s not the lightest or cheapest midweight, but you get an Italian-made beauty that’ll handle years of big-trip, big-load abuse with total comfort from mile one.

Fit is best for medium- to large-volume feet with medium width. $258; men’s 8–12, 13; 3 lbs. 1 oz. (9)

ARC'TERYX Altra Backpack

editors choice 2010 arcteryx altra 445x260

Arc'teryx Altra (Jonathan Dorn)

Until they make a pack that walks behind you, get the Altra. The key to comfort: the best hipbelt we’ve ever tested. It’s wide and stiff, with memory-foam-like padding for all-day comfort and reinforcements that prevent even the hint of big-load sag. Add a lumbar pivot, which lets the belt rotate with your hips as you walk, high-step, and navigate tricky terrain, and you get a smooth ride with no rubbing.

“There’s none of the constant shifting and adjusting you get with so many other packs,” said one tester after an 18-mile day in the Alps. A rigid framesheet with aluminum stays aids load transfer and wide, padded shoulder straps boost comfort, as does the customlike fit from the ladder-lock adjustment. A floating top lid and a U-shaped wraparound zipper make the pack bag both easy to stuff and easy to live out of (though the panel access is hard to use with bulging loads).

And features are utilitarian: two pockets in the top lid, compression wings that enhance lashing options, stretch-mesh stash pockets, and a large, zippered kangaroo pocket. Our only gripe: That U zipper should be waterproof; it leaked when the fabric didn’t.

The Altra comes in three versions, with two sizes each: 75 (5,004 cubic inches extended); 65 (4,394 cubic inches); and 62 (women’s suspension, 4,211 cubic inches). $399 (75) and $375 (65/62); 5 lbs. (75, regular)

Editors' Choice Gold Awards

REI Half Dome 2 Tent

editors choice 2010 rei half dome 445x260

REI Half Dome 2 (Photo by Jonathan Dorn)

When this two-person dome debuted with an Editors’ Choice win in 2002, it was a lesson in both economics and smart shelter design. On the financial front, the Half Dome showed what REI, a big company with none of the middlemen who drive up costs for other manufacturers, could do if it put its mind to building the perfect three-season tent.

At only $149, the original model sent shockwaves through the industry: Here was a freestanding, two-vestibule tent with quality materials and an outstanding space-to-weight ratio—at a price that saved consumers at least $50 versus any comparable name-brand model. Not great news for mom-and-pop tent makers, to be sure, but a big win for wallet-conscious campers, who immediately bought the Half Dome in droves. (An REI spokesperson told us that it’s been the company’s best-selling backpacking tent for years.)

Today, the Half Dome remains the epitome of functional, affordable design, something we saw in Switzerland, Colorado, and Wyoming with most of the same testers who first used it eight years ago. Since 2002, it has gotten roomier (long and wide enough for two six-foot editors), taller (a new hub structure and crossing pole improve headroom), and stronger (more pole coverage). And it comes in a tall version (pictured). We’re still not thrilled that the vestibules—when opened fully—let water drip into the tent, but we’re psyched that the trail weight is still five pounds—exactly where it started.

Best of all, the price—in real terms—has come down slightly. The Half Dome would now cost $179.17 if it had kept up with inflation. $179; 5 lbs.

Evernew Titanium Cookware

Editors' Choice Gold 2010 Videos: Evernew Titanium Non-Stick Cookware

Three indisputable truths: Backpackers love good camp food, love lightweight gear, and hate cleaning pots—especially when half of the meal is burned to the bottom. Let us add a fourth: Backpackers who do any cooking more advanced than boiling water should carry one of Evernew’s cooksets.

The titanium makes them featherlight and nearly as tough as a Dutch oven; the nonstick coating guarantees you’ll never spend an hour chiseling off heat-welded crud; and folding rubberized handles make for easy packing and handling (without easy-to-lose accessories). Yes, there are cheaper non-titanium options, but none that will perform this well and last for decades. And with 34 models of pots, billies, and fry pans to choose from, there’s one for every hiker. Here are three of our favorites:

Solo: Titanium Non-Stick 0.9-Liter Pot ($58; 5 oz.)

Why It’s the thru-hiker standard, with room inside for your stove and canister.

Two people: Titanium Non-Stick 1.9-liter pot with rubberized folding handle ($72; 9 oz.)

Why Accommodates a two-person prepackaged dinner and two hot drinks.

Group: Titanium Non-Stick Pot Set with Handle 1.9L + 2.6L ($150; 1 lb. 3 oz.)

Why Get one pot for boiling water, another for cooking entrees.

Editors' Choice Green Awards

GoLite Tier 1 Recycled Fabrics

editors choice 2010 golite fabric 445x260

GoLite Tier 1 Recycled Fabric (Steve Howe)

Recycled fabrics are not new to the outdoor industry—Patagonia and Polartec and others have been using them, often in large volume—but GoLite is walking the talk in a whole new way. For 2010, the company is manufacturing nearly all of its packs and bags (and some apparel) from recycled nylon or polyester, reducing the carbon footprint of key fabrics by up to 70 percent. GoLite expects to realize a 30-percent decrease in the company’s total impact. Best of all, based on our testing, you’ll see no drop-off in performance. That’s because GoLite is using chemically—rather than mechanically—recycled synthetics.

Translation: Waste material is reduced to its basic molecular components through a process called depolymerization before being reprocessed into new fabrics. The result: recycled nylon and polyester—known as Tier 1—that performs like the virgin stuff and, significantly, can be recycled indefinitely in a closed-loop system. All packs (except two H2GO models), sleeping bags, and four jackets, including the Badlands Trinity three-layer shell, are now made with Tier 1 recycled fabrics.

We took one of the new Odyssey packs ($200; 3 lbs. 8 oz.), a perennial staff favorite for its low weight and comfortable suspension, and banged it around Utah and Switzerland. If there’s a difference between the recycled fabric and the virgin nylon used in pervious years, we couldn’t tell.

La Sportiva FC ECO 3.0

editors choice 2010 lasportiva 445x260

Like the best eco-friendly gear today, this shoe reduces its impact without sacrificing performance. One editor strapped crampons onto the FC ECO and climbed Switzerland’s 13,474-foot Mönch, pushing the boot to its limit. He called it a “superb light hiker that can easily handle a weekend load on trails and moderately rough terrain.” (The midsole flexes for easy striding, but lacks torsional rigidity for bigger loads and sidehilling.)

A Gore-Tex liner repelled wet brush in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, yet the upper’s combination of perforated, eco-tanned leather and recycled-nylon mesh prevented overheating on desert hikes. Heel brakes delivered exceptional traction on greasy trails.

$160; 2 lbs. 4 oz. (men’s 42); men’s 38–47.5, women’s 36-43