The World’s Best Holiday Gift Guide: 40 Top Picks in Outdoor Gear and Apparel
By Michael Lanza
If you’re shopping for someone who loves the outdoors this holiday season… or, ahem, for yourself… look no farther. I’ve compiled my annual list of the best outdoor gear and apparel that I’ve used over the past 12 months. Two decades of gear testing has given me a pretty good eye for quality, I think. This list includes super values in jackets, backpacks, a tent, a sleeping bag and air mattress, trekking poles, climbing harnesses, snowshoes, rechargeable lanterns, a headlamp, knives, kids’ gear and apparel, and a pile of other stuff, as well as some neat stocking stuffers, and a huge range of prices. Plus, many of them are available at sale prices right now (I’ve indicated those below). You just might get all of your holiday gift shopping done right here.
Many products listed below have links to my original review of them, and you’ll find other links below to informative reviews and stories at The Big Outside.
If you’re purchasing anything in this article, you can support my work on this blog (without it costing you anything) by making your purchase through the BUY IT NOW links below.
Here’s to a well-equipped new year of wonderful and safe adventures. Happy holidays.
Let’s face it, nothing says “I love you” to someone who spends a lot of time outside like an apparel item that’s eminently functional and happens to look pretty good. The absolutely weather-proof Outdoor Research Realm Jacket ($279, 10.5 oz.) has year-round versatility, exceptional breathability, and technical features like a fully adjustable hood in a shell weighing 10 ounces—at a very competitive price. See my complete review of the Realm Jacket and my “Review: The 5 Best Rain Jackets for the Backcountry.”
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase an Outdoor Research Realm Jacket for 30 percent off at backcountry.com.
In the same vein as the above gift, nothing conveys a warm feeling like a high-quality insulated jacket for winter activities or three-season camping. In this category, I have two new favorites, both of which come in men’s and women’s sizes.
Besides excellent performance, the Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody ($249, 13 oz.) is good for Mother Earth (and we really haven’t been very nice to her lately). Its water-resistant PrimaLoft Gold Insulation Eco packs beaucoup warmth for its weight, and is made with 55 percent recycled polyester insulation. See my complete review.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody or any of the other Nano Puff models at backcountry.com.
In the growing category of jackets with breathable insulation, the Outdoor Research Uberlayer Hooded Jacket ($299, 1 lb. 2 oz.), with its water-resistant, highly compressible, Polartec Alpha Active synthetic insulation and adjustable hood, stands out for its versatility in all seasons: You’ll wear it on the move in sub-freezing temps and for warmth when sitting around camp in warmer months. See my complete review.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy an Outdoor Research Uberlayer Hooded Jacket for 30 percent off at backcountry.com.
For his 16th birthday, I gave my whitewater-kayaker son a lightweight, multi-purpose utility knife, the Outdoor Edge Le Duck ($35, 3 oz. with sheath). Its heat-treated, 2.5-inch fixed blade nests inside a hard sheath with a removable clip that rotates 360 degrees, and has a locking feature to prevent accidental deployment—perfect for clipping to a backpack strap, fishing or diving vest, or whitewater PFD. And the handle, shaped like a duck head, offers a solid grip. outdooredge.com.
The lightweight, folding Swiss Army knives have been a staple of outdoor gear for decades, for good reason: they do a lot. The Swiss Army Hiker ($30, 2.5 oz.) gives you 13 tools, including two steel blades, bottle and can openers, three screwdrivers, tweezers, and a tiny wood saw. It’s a great value in a small, folding knife.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Swiss Army Hiker at moosejaw.com.
Ultralight Sleeping Bag
An ultralight bag helps transform the backpacking experience by significantly reducing gear weight and bulk. The 32-degree Western Mountaineering Summerlite ($390, 1 lb. 3 oz.) stands out among ultralight bags for having features not always found in this category of bags, including a hood, a draft tube, and a two-way, full-length zipper. With 10 ounces of 850-fill down feathers packed inside continuous baffles that encircle the bag, the Summerlite’s four inches of loft is fat for a summer bag. It also has good space for a lightweight mummy—enough to get dressed inside—with a shoulder girth of 59 inches, and it packs down to slightly larger than a loaf of bread. Read my complete review.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Western Mountaineering Summerlite at backcountry.com.
The Black Diamond Spot headlamp ($40, 3 oz. with 3 AAA batteries, included) offers top performance at a hard-to-beat price, with a powerful max brightness of 200 lumens, multiple white and red modes, a locking feature (no turning on accidentally in a pack), and a unique PowerTap technology that allows you to tap the right side of the casing to cycle between the TriplePower and SinglePower LEDs. Read my “Gear Review: The 5 Best Headlamps.”
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of the links or the text ad below to purchase a Black Diamond Spot at backcountry.com.
The UCO Titan Matches ($10, 3 oz.). will fire up in any downpour, no matter how wet. Each thick, four-inch-long match provides 25 seconds of wind and waterproof burning; they even relight after being submerged in water. The kit includes 12 matches, three replaceable strikers, a waterproof case that floats, and a cord that attaches to a lanyard.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase UCO Titan Matches at rei.com.
Okay, there’s absolutely nothing romantic about McNett Tenacious Tape ($5). But it works for repairing tears and holes in just about any fabric, from jackets to tents, stays put in any weather, and comes in black, clear, and many colors to match what you’re putting it on. Mcnett.com.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase McNett Tenacious Tape at rei.com.
The Colter Co. 100 percent cotton Know Your Knots Bandana ($14) features how-to diagrams of 16 essential climbing, survival, and sailing knots that any outdoorsy kid or adult (and you know that guy) will think is pretty cool. http://ift.tt/2gdUlnQ.
Hiking can be hard on feet—especially really long days of hiking. I’ve tried many custom insoles, and my new favorite is the Enertor Performance Insoles ($60, 6 oz./pair), which helped my feet finish a dayhike of the 32-mile, 10,000-vertical-foot Pemi Loop in New Hampshire’s White Mountains feeling surprisingly good. enertor.com/insoles.
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For the person who wants one, all-purpose pack for backpacking, The North Face Banchee 65 ($239, 3 lbs. 12 oz.) strikes a delicate balance between being reasonably lightweight yet capable of carrying at least 40 pounds comfortably, at a competitive price for this category. Coming in two sizes for both men and women, with adjustability in the torso length and hipbelt, it fits a huge range of adults. And it has nice organization and design features.
See my complete review of The North Face Banchee 65.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of these links to buy a men’s The North Face Banchee 65 at backcountry.com or a women’s Banchee 65 at backcountry.com, both at 20 percent off right now.
Got a young backpacker to outfit? I’ve always been a big believer that good gear helps kids enjoy backpacking more, and a comfortable pack makes a world of difference.
The Gregory Wander 70’s Versafit suspension has five inches of range and movable hip pads for fitting growing young people (and small adults, especially women), and good space and organization, including a U-shaped front panel zipper that provides quick access to virtually everything inside. Read my complete review.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy a Gregory Wander 70 at backcountry.com.
The Osprey Ace 38, 50, and 75 ($140-$180, 2 lbs. 4 oz. to 3 lbs. 9 oz.) fit all sizes of kids, from the youngest you’d want to put a pack on to bigger teenagers. These top-loaders have a functional feature set that includes a large, stretch-mesh front pocket and an integrated rain cover. My kids have carried them on numerous backpacking trips. Read my complete review.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy any of the Osprey Ace backpacks at backcountry.com.
Want to know my tricks for getting my kids excited about our family adventures? See my “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids” and “10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You.”
I’ve seen many rechargeable lights and lightweight, portable lanterns that double as charging stations for your small electronics like phones, but two in particular have become favorites of mine for their performance and utilitarian design.
The Goal Zero Lighthouse Mini Lantern ($60, 8 oz.) has an ingenious design. For starters, it’s very packable: Two legs fold up, a top hanger folds flat, there’s a top carabiner loop, and the USB charger cord wraps around the middle of the unit (below the bulb) and locks into place with a magnet—you’ll never misplace this charging cord. And it’s compact: 4.2 inches tall and two inches in diameter. The base is magnetized for placing it securely atop a metal surface. The light-adjustment knob/dimmer switch turns one way for 360 degrees of light (LED max output 210 lumens for four hours) and the other direction for 180 degrees (max output 105 lumens for seven hours). The rechargeable Goal Zero Lithium 18650 battery’s compartment opens from the bottom, which also has a tripod mount. There’s one 5V USB outlet for charging a phone or other small device. The Lighthouse Mini recharges fully from a USB outlet in about four hours, or you can use the Goal Zero Nomad 7 solar panel to recharge the Lighthouse Mini in 4-6 hours in full direct sunlight.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy a Goal Zero Lighthouse Mini Lantern at rei.com.
The Nite Ize Radiant 300 Rechargeable Lantern ($45, 8 oz.) has both white and red LED modes that are bright (300 lumens on white high) but not blinding, thanks to an optical diffuser that creates a uniform beam pattern. The power button cycles through the three white modes by default; press and hold the button to switch to red mode. The 2600 mAh rechargeable battery delivers burn times ranging from five hours at white high to 110 hours at white low (15 lumens). It has a carabiner-style handle, can be used to charge small devices, and comes with a protective stuff sack. Niteize.com.
There are circumstances where you need a pump water filter in the backcountry: when the water source is silted, or sources are far enough apart that you have to treat a large amount of water every time, or for a group of three or more people (it’s lighter than everyone carrying a water filter bottle). Then the MSR Hyperflow Microfilter ($100, 9 oz.) excels. I’ve been impressed with it on backpacking trips from Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains to the Grand Canyon, Death Valley National Park and Canada’s Kootenay National Park. This hollow-fiber filter cranks out three liters per minute, removing protozoa, bacteria, and particulate matter (though not viruses or chemicals), and leaves no taste. Measuring 7×3.5 ins., and lighter than many pump filters, it almost disappears inside a pack pocket. It comes with a Quick-Connect Bottle Adapter for pumping directly into a variety of containers, including all MSR hydration bladders and Nalgene bottles.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy an MSR Hyperflow Microfilter for 25 percent off right now at backcountry.com.
Water Filter Bottle
Rare is the piece of gear whose convenience and utility actually change the way I behave in the backcountry, but the LifeStraw Go Water Bottle With 2-Stage Filtration ($50, 8 oz.) does just that. In short, wherever there are fairly frequent water sources along a hike, the 22-ounce Go bottle enables me to carry less water and avoid the inconvenience of taking time to filter water: I can just dip and fill this bottle in a couple seconds and start drinking and hiking again. Without requiring batteries or pumping, the LifeStraw Go’s two-stage, hollow-fiber, 0.2-micron filter membrane with activated carbon removes virtually all bacteria, protozoa like giardia and cryptosporidium, and organic chemicals like pesticides and herbicides. It’s ideal for single- and multi-day, three-season backcountry outings, and international trips where there are concerns about water safety. See my complete review.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a LifeStraw Go Water Bottle With 2-Stage Filtration at campsaver.com.
The RevoMax Vacuum Insulated Flask ($30 for 20 oz., $25 for 12 oz.) distinguishes itself for two reasons. First, the no-twist cap is easily opened and capped with one hand. To remove the cap, depress a green button and the two release buttons on the side of the cap simultaneously. To lock it closed, pull the locking finger ring until the green safety button below it pops into place. Second, the tightly sealed cap helps this double-wall, vacuum-insulated, stainless-steel bottle achieve superior heat retention, keeping liquids cold up to 36 hours and hot up to 18 hours. And it fits in most cup holders. revomax.com.
Collapsible Water Bottle
It’s not the first collapsible water bottle, but the wide-mouth HydraPak Stash Bottle 1L ($23, 3 oz.) has a distinctive, solid plastic top and base, giving it the rigidity—when filled with water—to stand up, which really adds convenience in the backcountry. When empty, the flexible walls collapse and the base clicks into the top, shrinking it down to slightly larger than a hockey puck for stowing away in your pack. Plus, the Stash Bottle is BPA and PVC free. The 750ml Stash bottle is $18.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a HydraPak Stash Bottle 1L at rei.com.
Ultralight tents are rarely ultra-roomy, but the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL3 ($450, 2 lbs. 15 oz.) has a pole structure that creates steep walls, resulting in better headroom throughout the tent. With good ventilation and stability, it’s snug but roomy enough for three and light enough to carry as a relatively spacious two-person tent—giving you, in effect, two tents in one. Read my complete review.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy a Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL3 tent at backcountry.com.
Just 11 ounces—less than one of the low-cut shoes you’re wearing—that’s the total weight of a pair of Helinox Passport FL120 trekking poles ($140). They feel lighter than air. And yet, these twist-lock, three-section sticks are adjustable—not a fixed length, like many ultralight poles. Made of a proprietary TH72M aluminum alloy from DAC, a leading manufacturer of tent poles, they have a high strength-to-weight ratio, so they’re sturdy enough for the most rugged dayhiking and backpacking. They’re a good choice whether you’re an ultra-hiker, ultralight backpacker, or just want to make your hikes of any distance more comfortable.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy the Helinox Passport FL120 trekking poles at backcountry.com.
See why I always use trekking poles in my “10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier.”
I’ve already ordered for my soon-to-be-80-year-old mom, an avid snowshoer, a new pair of MSR Lightning Explore Snowshoes 22-inch ($260, 3 lbs. 11 oz. for women’s 22-inch), which are lightweight but sturdy, come in men’s and women’s versions, and have a secure but simple binding system for easy entry and exit while wearing gloves. The 22-inch model will provide flotation for a person weighing up to 180 pounds (including pack weight). The MSR Lightning Tails ($60, 9 oz./pair) added five inches of length for flotation in deep powder or for someone with a combined body and pack weight of up to 280 pounds (on the men’s 25-inch model); remove them when you don’t need that extra flotation and want the maneuverability of shorter snowshoes.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a pair of the men’s or women’s MSR Lightning Explore Snowshoes at 23-26 percent off right now at backcountry.com.
Winter Shell Jacket
Backcountry skiers, ice climbers, mountaineers, and snowshoers who venture deep into the mountains need a shell that keeps them comfortable and dry as their bodies cycle between overheating and feeling chilled. Waterproof-breathable like a hard shell, the Marmot Zion Jacket ($400, 1 lb. 4 oz.) looks, feels, and behaves more like a soft shell, offering excellent breathability and seasonal range. See my complete review.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy a Marmot Zion Jacket at backcountry.com.
For people (like me) who get cold fingers easily, the Outdoor Research PL 400 Sensor Gloves ($39, 2 oz.) are the ticket. Made with stretchy, 300-weight fleece and a 100-weight fleece liner, they’re perfect as a single glove in temperatures around freezing, or as a liner glove in colder temps, balancing more warmth than most liner gloves with optimal dexterity for delicate tasks like lacing boots. I wore them for most of four days on an April climb of the Mountaineers Route on 14,505-foot Mount Whitney in the High Sierra. They extend slightly beyond the wrist for better warmth. The fabric breathes really well, wicks sweat, and dries quickly. The forefinger and thumb are touchscreen compatible, though you have to tap a little more deliberately than with bare hands.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase the men’s or women’s Outdoor Research PL 400 Sensor Gloves at 30 percent off at backcountry.com.
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Kids Winter Jackets, Pants, and Mittens
My kids have done everything from hitting the ski slopes (resorts and backcountry) to sledding and building snow forts in the REI Timber Mountain Jacket ($100, 1 lb. 9 oz.) and Timber Mountain Pants ($70, 1 lb.)—both super values, as are the Timber Mountain Mittens ($35). See my review of the jacket and pants.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase an REI Timber Mountain Jacket, Timber Mountain Pants, and Timber Mountain Mittens at 25 percent off right now at rei.com.
For adventures in serious cold, a small body needs serious insulation, which is why I put my son in a Marmot Boy’s Guides Down Hoody ($140, 1 lb. 6 oz.) when we climbed the Mountaineers Route on California’s 14,505-foot Mount Whitney in April. Also available in a girl’s version, the jacket’s 700-fill down is treated with Marmot’s proprietary Down Defender technology to make the down fibers water resistant, and it’s packable and warm for its weight. See my complete review.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of these links to purchase a Marmot Boy’s Guides Down Hoody at backcountry.com or a Marmot Girl’s Guides Down Hoody, both on sale right now at backcountry.com.
See my stories “10 Smarter Ways to Think About Your Layering System” and “Review: 6 Super Versatile Layering Pieces.”
Is someone on your gift list new to climbing? Whether a budding gym rat, trad or sport climber, or eyeing some mountaineering challenges, he or she would be safe and comfortable in an affordable Black Diamond men’s Momentum harness or a Black Diamond women’s Primrose harness (both $55, 12 oz.). Both harnesses have a versatile set of features: BD’s pre-threaded belt buckle, which adjusts with one hand and eliminates the risk of forgetting to double back the belt; easily adjustable leg loops; a well-padded foam belt; and four stiff gear loops. They also have sizes to fit skinny teenagers.
Insulated Air Mattress
When my wife and kids first spied my new Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Ultra air mattress ($80-$130, 1 lb. 6 oz. regular), they all wanted to sleep on it. On backpacking, car-camping, and river trips, its 3.5 inches of thickness packed a lot of comfort without being too heavy or bulky for backpacking, yet it’s cushy enough to use car-camping, when you could bring something bigger. Separate, high-volume valves make inflating and deflating faster than many air mats. It’s not the lightest air mat you can buy, but it’s one of the two most comfortable for backpacking that I’ve used, and less expensive than some of the best in the field. See my complete review.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Ultra air mattress at backcountry.com.
Backpacking Chair Kit
Backpack all day and it’s mighty nice to have a chair to relax comfortably in at camp. But if you don’t want to carry a lot of extra weight or bulk on the trail, go with the Therm-a-Rest Trekker Chair Kit ($40, 9.5 oz. for 20-inch, $55, 13 oz., for 25-inch). Lighter than competitors, available in two sizes to fit air mattresses 20 inches or 25 inches wide, it’s sturdy enough to hold all but very large people and packs away to a slender tube shape to stow inside or outside your backpack.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Therm-a-Rest Trekker Chair Kit for 25 percent off right now at backcountry.com.
Even when car-camping, there’s no reason for gear to be unnecessarily heavy and bulky or a lot of work to set up. The Leki Breeze collapsible camp chair ($100, 2 lbs. 13 oz.) assembles in a minute and is comfortable and sturdy even for bigger people. It’s impressively comfortable for its simple design—and way more pleasant than sitting on a picnic table bench. Plus, it has a cup holder. You need nothing more.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Leki Breeze collapsible camp chair at moosejaw.com.
An ideal first-aid kit for the backcountry prepares you for the typical injuries that can occur, while remaining lightweight and compact for hiking and backpacking. I actually put the Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight Watertight .9 Medical Kit ($36, 12 oz.) to use while backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains with my 15-year-old son and two of his buddies, when one of his friends suffered a minor puncture wound on the bottom of his foot (apparently, walking around in the woods barefoot is risky). I used the kit to clean and bandage the wound and we continue with our trip. Contained in two layers of waterproof packaging in this kit are various wraps and bandages, a trauma pad and wide elastic wraps, blister treatment, an irrigation syringe and wound closure strips, medications for diarrhea, stomach issues, pain, and inflammation, and, of course, a mini roll of duct tape. I found myself wishing the kit had a small tube of antibiotic ointment, but you can add that to this otherwise complete first-aid kit.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight Watertight .9 Medical Kit at backcountry.com.
No one should have to suffer cold feet, and you won’t with the Exped Syn Booty ($69, 7.1 oz./pair). Available in three sizes, these booties feature synthetic insulation, a removable, insulating 4mm EVA foam footbed, drawcord adjustments at the collar and ankle so the booties don’t slip around when you walk, and a grippy Cordura outsole. Made with ripstop nylon and a super fine microfiber, their packed size is 5.5×11 inches. I find them ideal for three-season backpacking trip, yurt and hut trips, or for lazing around the house.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to the Exped Syn Booty at 20 percent off right now at moosejaw.com.
The Timex Ironman Sleek 150 wristwatch ($80, 2 oz.) is a motivational training partner. It has a stopwatch/chronograph, intervals timer, 150-lap memory, hydration alerts and alarms, and an Indiglo light. The menu-based operating system is intuitive, using side buttons to move forward and backward, and the watch is water resistant to 100 meters. The smooth resin strap is comfortable on your wrist for hours. Unfortunately, there’s no lockout feature to prevent your bending wrist from depressing the functions button. But this is a good, functional feature set for the price.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Timex Ironman Sleek 150 wristwatch at rei.com.
Tough enough for hiking on a trail and super comfortable for the post-hike leisure time, the Chaco Z/1 Classic Sandals ($105, 1 lb. 10 oz.) are pretty versatile while hewing true to the basic sandal design. The polyurethane (PU) midsole is more supportive and durable than the softer EVA used in many sandals. Unlike many sandals that have a relatively flat foot bed, the Z/1 is contoured, with arch support, and has a dimpled, foam LUVSEAT foot bed that feels great under bare feet. Only drawback: No toe or foot protection. Note: I found the sizing runs big; I normally wear a men’s 9 but fit a men’s 8.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a pair of Chaco Z/1 Classic Sandals for as low as $79 at backcountry.com.
Waterproof Gloves and Socks
For whitewater or sea kayaking, canoeing, standup paddle boarding, or hiking in cool water in canyons, you sometimes need warm, waterproof gloves and socks. The Hanz Waterproof Gloves ($35, 3 oz.) and the Hanz Waterproof Socks Crew-Length ($38, 4 oz.), made with a stretchable waterproof, breathable membrane and bonded, three-layer construction, have a smooth fit that doesn’t wrinkle, and enough insulation for cold water in warm air temperatures (think: June in mountain runoff on a river, in shade, or on a cloudy day). The gloves have gripper dots on the palms and excellent dexterity, so your hands don’t get fatigued as can happen with thicker, stiffer neoprene gloves.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a pair of Hanz Waterproof Gloves at 17 percent off right now at leisurepro.com, or a pair of Hanz Waterproof Socks Crew-Length at leisurepro.com.
See also my stories:
“Why and When to Spend More on Gear: Part 1, Packs and Tents and Part 2, Rain Jackets, Boots, and Sleeping Bags”
“Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites”
“My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips”
“10 Tips For Getting Outside More”
NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.
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