Best New Gear of the Year: My Top 10 Favorites
By Michael Lanza
I’ve tested an untold number of new backpacks, boots, tents, jackets, and other outdoor gear and apparel over the past two decades, and I’ve seen the good, bad, ugly (the fishnet long underwear probably took first place in that category)—and the best of the best. So just as I posted not long ago a list of the 10 most-read gear reviews at The Big Outside by you, my readers, now I present my personal picks for my 10 favorite, new pieces of outdoor gear and apparel—the most innovative, top-performing, best-value stuff that’s worth spending your hard-earned dollars on.
In no particular order, here are my top 10 (actually, with a bonus two extra favorite items). Click on the name or photo of any product to read my full review of it.
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The Osprey men’s Atmos AG 65 and women’s Aura AG 65 backpacks feel different from any backpack you’ve ever worn the first time you buckle it on, thanks to Osprey’s new and innovative Anti-Gravity suspension, a panel of lightweight, tensioned mesh extending from the top of the back panel to the hipbelt, fully wrapping around your back and hips while delivering ample air movement across your back. It feels more like putting on a jacket than a backpack. These packs are also popular with you, my blog’s readers: They topped my recent list of the 10 most-read gear reviews at The Big Outside.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy an Osprey Atmos AG or Aura AG pack at backcountry.com.
After hauling the new Gregory men’s Stout 45 while backpacking the very rugged and remote Royal Arch Loop in the Grand Canyon in May, I decided that it and the women’s Amber 44 pack are a superior value from a pack maker that doesn’t offer product at such affordable prices. Characteristic of Gregory, the foundation of the harness support resides in an ample lumbar pad and a hipbelt with good rigidity; the TrailFit hipbelt is also adjustable, giving you six inches/15cm of play for a wide range of waist sizes. A steel alloy, perimeter frame transfers much of the pack weight to the hips.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy a Gregory Stout or Amber backpack atbackcountry.com.
If you want your child to like backpacking, get him or her gear that helps them enjoy it as much as your gear helps you. That’s why my son and daughter are both carrying a new Osprey Ace kids backpack these days. The packs, which come in 38-, 50-, and 75-liter sizes, are adjustable for torso length, and the Ace 50 and 75 add Osprey’s Fit-on-the-Fly adjustability in the hipbelt—same as found in the men’s Atmos AG and women’s Aura AG packs—which extends the fit range for waists by five inches. With a peripheral-wire frame and a plastic framesheet in all three packs, they carry 20 pounds or more comfortably (always depending on the child).
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy an Osprey Ace kids pack at backcountry.com.
At a featherweight one-and-a-half pounds, the MSR FlyLite tent (lead photo at top of story) sleeps two people but is light enough to serve as a palatial solo tent, isn’t prone to collecting condensation like other single-wall tents, and stood up to strong winds on a family backpacking trip down Paria Canyon on the Utah-Arizona border. This non-freestanding shelter lacks a rainfly and is pitched using trekking poles (which smart hikers and backpackers carry), but getting a tent like that is one of the best ways to lighten your pack load.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy an MSR FlyLite tent at backcountry.com.
This field test almost seemed unfair: I wore the Asolo Triumph Gv GTX boots on a four-day hike on what may be the hardest, wettest, muddiest, most rugged trek in New Zealand’s famously rainy Fiordland National Park—the Dusky Track—and these boots just flat out rocked it. The Triumph and women’s Tacoma Gv offer features and performance you’d normally pay much more for in a high-end leather boot, but at a lower price and weight, including all-leather uppers, Gore-Tex, and superior construction. Plus, the AsoloFlex lasting board allows Asolo to vary the boot’s stiffness across a range of sizes, which means that no matter your size, the boot will have a comfortable flex pattern and torsional support.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy the Asolo Triumph Gv GTX or Tacoma Gv at backcountry.com.
Not all hikes are wet—some are dry and hot. In fact, many hikers do most of their hiking in dry conditions in summer, when you want shoes that support your feet while keeping them cool and comfortable. The Oboz Switchback low-cuts did exactly that for me on a 25-mile dayhike from Hermits Rest to the Bright Angel Trailhead in the Grand Canyon in May. Credit the very breathable, perforated mesh uppers, with synthetic leather overlays for abrasion-resistance. But these board-lasted low-cuts also provide an unusual degree of support for a low-cut, two-pound shoe, with a TPU chassis built into the dual-density EVA midsole and a molded TPU heel counter that absorbs miles of pounding.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy the Oboz Switchback at sierratradingpost.com.
I have a pair of favorite new rain shells that I reviewed this year, which are very different jackets for different circumstances.
The Marmot Crux Jacket, at a wispy 7.5 ounces, emerged as the year’s standout ultralight shell, ideal for trips where you’re cycling between wearing it and carrying your rain jacket. The Crux stuffs inside the left pocket and packs down to the size of a grapefruit. Fully seam-sealed, its proprietary waterproof-breathable fabric repelled all precipitation and breathed moderately well, largely drying out from body heat when I wore it during lulls in rain. I like the sleeve design that keeps the jacket from hitching up when I lift my arms.
The Arc’teryx Zeta LT Jacket is an all-season shell for any conditions. Featuring the new Gore-Tex C-KNIT technology, the fabric feels more supple and quieter than many rain jackets. But it also breathes very well—it kept me from overheating on long, uphill climbs wearing a 35-pound backpack in Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains—and repelled hours of rain, while the fully adjustable hood delivers good face coverage
BUY IT NOW: You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase an Arc’teryx Zeta LT Jacket or Marmot Crux Jacket at backcountry.com.
Breathability and versatility are the name of the game in backcountry insulation these days, and the Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody is the kind of next-generation, hybrid insulation piece whose versatility is limited only by your creativity in thinking about your layering system.
With Polartec Alpha, a lightweight, synthetic insulation that’s breathable, wicks moisture and dries fast, in the front, sides, and shoulders, and stretchy, even more-breathable Polartec Power Grid fleece in the back, sleeves, and the close-fitting hood, the Deviator covered me from cool-weather hiking and backpacking to skate-skiing in winter.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase an Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody at backcountry.com.
When I’m backpacking with my family, or any group of three or four people, I want a stove that can handle that many hungry hikers, is reliable and fast, and packs away efficiently. In other words, I want something exactly like the Jetboil Joule Group Cooking System, which my family used on a five-day backpacking trip down Paria Canyon in Utah and Arizona in late March. The Joule’s heat regulator keeps burner output at a thermonuclear 10,000 BTUs, boiling a liter of water in an eye blink. Most uniquely, the Joule’s fuel canister mounts upside-down, so it performs more like a liquid-gas (i.e., white-gas) stove, maintaining a strong flame in below-freezing temperatures, where butane-gas stoves can experience condensation on the canister and diminished heat output.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy a Jetboil Joule Group Cooking System at outdoorplay.com.
Last but hardly least, it was really tough choosing a favorite between two excellent, new air mattresses—so I’m including both to let you decide which one is better for your purposes.
The Sea to Summit Comfort Light insulated Air Mattress is shockingly plush, thanks to a unique matrix of tiny air cells that move independently to conform to your body without affecting adjacent cells.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy a Sea to Summit Comfort Light Insulated Air Mattress atbackcountry.com.
And the Exped SynMat Hyperlite air mattress, a full half pound lighter and more compact, is remarkably comfortable for its weight and dimensions and my choice of backcountry bed when ounces take top priority.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy an Exped SynMat Hyperlite air mattress at CampSaver.com.
If you’re looking for other gear recommendations, see my “Gift Guide: My Top 25 Picks in New Outdoor Gear and Apparel.”
See also my gear-related stories:
NOTE: I’ve been testing gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See all of my reviews by clicking on the Gear Reviews category at left or in the main menu.
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