When an industry is brimming with reputable brands — both old and young — making awesome gear, it’s difficult to define what’s best. And what makes a great outdoor product anyway? Is it features that make time spent in the backcountry more comfortable? Unparalleled technical capabilities? Compelling design? This year, it was all of these and more.
Arc’teryx Bora AR Backpacks
Trekking backpacks have gone through quite an evolution since the days of metal frames. What once were heavy and bulky bags made of cobbled-together components are now fully-integrated systems that work in tandem with the body as it hikes over the constantly-varying terrain. Arc’teryx’s Bora AR backpacks represent another significant step down this path. The benefits of the Bora are twofold. The packs are highly adjustable thanks to a system called (ironically) GridLock, which lets users quickly unclip and modify the shoulder straps where they meet the back panel of the bag. But the backpack also targets comfort in a big way — the hipbelt is constructed on a sliding and rotating system called RotoGlide, and behaves like a gimbal to keep everything level and balanced for a less jarring walking experience.
Patagonia Sleeping Bags
One of the first products Yvon Chouinard ever made for himself was a down sleeping bag. It was an entirely custom job, with overstuffed baffles and a zipper right down the middle. But as his outdoor gear company took off, the sleeping bag never appeared alongside the fleeces and jackets in its catalogs. Until this year, when Patagonia released its first ever sleeping bags. The bags are an immediate throwback to the descriptions of Chouinard’s first early attempts, with big, puffy, vertical baffles and that zipper right down the middle, which also make them unique when compared to those of other coveted outdoor brands. But these sleeping bags aren’t all nostalgia; the outer shell is made with a super lightweight nylon ripstop called Pertex Quantum, and its interior is Patagonia’s own Houdini fabric. And, of course, the entire piece is made as responsibly as possible with 850-fill traceable goose down.
BioLite Solar Home 620
BioLite is perhaps most well-known for its stick-powered smokeless camp stove that doubles as a portable power source, but the Brooklyn-based tech/camping company is making some real innovation waves in what it calls emerging markets. These are places where energy is scarce and, as a result, health problems are real. Smokeless, energy-producing cookstoves are a big piece of this (they’re much larger than the backpacking models), and so are small, easy-to-install solar units. As it turns out, those solar units are also great for cabins, sheds, and Sprinter vans inhabited by many well-to-do wanderers, too. The SolarHome 620 is the first of BioLite’s emerging markets products that it’s offering to the everyday consumer and its preliminary run is already sold out (but you can still order for an early 2018 delivery).
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MtnLogic Alpine Workwear
Athlete testing is no uncommon thing in the outdoor industry, and neither are athlete-founded brands. Athletes are, after all, the most rigorous end users of a product — they’re constantly in the field, and they know what gear should be. But a company whose entire R and D team is made up of athletes (in this case, a group of elite climbing guides based on Mt. Rainier)? That’s something entirely new, and that’s MtnLogic. Founded by Peter Whittaker, son of legendary mountaineer Lou Whittaker and an accomplished climber in his right, MtnLogic’s core principle is that what’s best for professional mountain guides is best for everyone. Every piece of MtnLogic apparel is thoroughly tested by the guide team and worn over 100,000 vertical feet on Rainier and the tallest peaks in the world.
Eddie Bauer Evertherm Down Jacket
Because technological advances in insulation typically happen on the molecular, fiber level, they often aren’t seen. That’s almost true for Eddie Bauer’s EverTherm Jacket, which is arguably the brand’s most innovative yet. The down-filled jacket has no baffles — that’s because Eddie Bauer has figured out how to arrange the down feathers in a single sheet, (the new material is called Thindown), which means no extra stitching (frequent fail points in a jacket) and much less bulk with all the same lightweight warmth. It works; the EverTherm is remarkably warmer than it looks, which was one of Eddie Bauer’s goals in designing the new technology.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Shell
Hyperlite Mountain Gear, a Maine-based company that has made many of our lists of best backpacking gear, released its first piece of clothing back in August of this year. It’s dubbed “The Shell,” and like all of Hyperlite’s equipment, it’s made from Dyneema — an ultralight and durable fiber that, in terms of its strength-to-weight ratio, is one of the strongest materials on the planet. It’s 15 times stronger than steel, and its high durability and low weight make it a favorite among the ultralight crowd. Hyperlite’s jacket also has an eVent waterproof breathable membrane with a waterproof rating of 10,000mm and a breathability rating of 32,000 gm2/24hr. That puts The Shell on par with most other eVent membrane jackets. Where it differs is its weight: Depending on size, the jacket weighs between 5.16 and 6.20 ounces.
Zero Tolerance 0055
Pocket knives have been around for centuries, and there isn’t much room for serious innovation surrounding a blade that folds into its handle. But, some companies are pushing the boundaries of knife design, and Zero Tolerance is one of them. While many blade makers look to the heritage and tradition of the past for their knives, Zero Tolerance dove into the future with the 0055. Designed in collaboration with Gus T. Cecchini, the 0055 utilizes sharp angles in both the S35VN stainless steel blade and its titanium handle. The aesthetic effect is decidedly futuristic, without straying toward kitsch. But the 0055 isn’t all looks — its action, built on ball bearings, is as smooth as they come.
Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody
The Micro Puff the lightest jacket Patagonia has ever made. On the outside, it looks just like any other synthetic insulation jacket, if not with just a little extra sheen. The outer shell is constructed from a super lightweight, water-repellent ripstop nylon called Pertex Quantum. Instead of using horizontal baffles, as it does with many of its down jackets, or the quilted design exemplified in its Nano Puff, Patagonia applied a unique stitching pattern to create a mostly-continuous maze of channels that prevent the insulation from bunching. The real innovation is on the inside: Patagonia developed a new type of insulation called PlumaFill that’s made up of down-mimicking polyester fibers that are secured together in one continuous, fluffy line.
It’s been a while since tents have seen any real, substantial innovation, and Kammok’s four-in-one Sunda is a welcome blurring of the line between tent and hammock. If any brand were to succeed at creating a shelter that could be suspended over the ground, it would be Kammok, whose well-designed, lightweight hammocks stand out in a now-crowded segment of camping industry. The Sunda can be pitched on the ground with or without its fly, or even without the interior as a shelter. But it’s also the first tent that can also be used as a floating shelter (or just a regular solo hammock). Suspension is required to set up other examples of tree tents, and the necessity of more than two anchor points makes it a cumbersome and finicky task (plus, they’re huge, but the Sunda places simplicity and versatility as its core properties; this tent can go anywhere. But even as a conventional tent the Sunda is noteworthy — it’s constructed with premium materials, packs small, integrates two vestibules for gear storage, and its extra-long design makes for an exceptionally spacious interior.
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