Did you end up with some extra cash or gift cards from the holidays? Looking to spend it on some new outdoor gear? Here are our recommendations for the best items when it comes to winter hiking, camping, and other outdoor accessories.
Most people who are getting into the outdoors for the first time buy a pair of boots and stick with them all year long. While this is economical as a starting point, one quickly realizes that different types of terrain, seasons, and weather call for different types of footwear. People are prepared for summer usually, when just about any type of hiking boot will live up to the challenge. But come fall, winter, and early spring, summer boots – designed mostly with ventilation in mind – have trouble handling the mud, cold rain, and wet snow.
Consider, then, whether the adventurer in your life’s feet are prepared beyond the after-work summer hike. A complimentary “off-season,” “secondary” boot is something that someone might not buy for themselves, but may really appreciate as a gift.
There are many different styles of winter and off-season boots out there, but I’m digging the new offerings from Vasque – the Breeze WT GTX and Talus XT GTX (both come in men’s and women’s sizes). The Breeze is made with an extra 200g of insulation, an all-terrain midsole, and both mesh and leather in the upper part of the boot, meaning it not only keeps your feet warm and waterproof, but it also breathes and allows for sweat to dry.
Vasque says this combination of insulation and breathability makes the Breeze the more winter-worthy boot of the two, which makes sense in theory, since the Talus forgoes extra insulation entirely and has less mesh on the upper part of the boot. But out in the field, I found the Talus to be plenty winter worthy. I wore them for two straight days on a winter camping trip, with four inches of fresh snow, and my feet stayed warm and dry the entire time.
At the end of the day, these boots are very similar. They weight exactly the same (2 lbs. 11 oz), utilize basically the same soles/traction, are both hightops, and are made to keep your feet warm and dry. So how do you choose between them?
One way would be price. The Talus ($209) is $30 more expensive than the Breeze ($189), probably because the design includes more leather and less mesh.
If your feet tend to sweat a lot, and you see yourself wanting a winter boot for the cold temperatures and occasional snowstorm, then I’d go with the Breeze. It’s cheaper, will keep your feet warm, and will breathe into the shoulder seasons.
But if you’ve got winter camping in mind, or plan to deliberately seek out snowy hikes, I’d rock the Talus. I like the idea of breathable mesh, but it does leave one vulnerable when you stay immersed in snow or rain for an extended time period. Wearing the two side-by-side, and testing them in the field, I found that while the Talus doesn’t boast the comfort of the Breeze, it does seems more armored against the elements altogether.
While sleeping pads and bags may seem straightforward, advancing technology has introduced some discernable differences. Today, it’s not just about the temperature ratings and weights; it’s also about the packing size, blow-up method, and design.
For a while, I got so fed up with blowing up and deflating sleeping pads that I switched entirely to backcountry cots. But now I’m back on the sleeping pad train thanks to the rise of easier blow-up and deflation methods that don’t leave you short of breath or frustrated.
For example, Sea-to-Summit’s Ether Light XT Air Sleeping Mat utilizes a bag-inflation system that, at first, raises an eyebrow. The stuff sack connects to the sleeping pad via two rubber valves, and the idea is to blow into the stuff sack and then “pump” the air into the pad itself. While I was skeptical of the extra steps at first, the method turned out to be very easy and very efficient. Simply blow lightly into the stuff sack and roll the air down into the pad. A couple breathes, and the mat is inflated, no huffing or puffing required. Deflation is just as easy thanks to the large valve on the pad that lets all the air out with just some simple, light pressure. You can see what I mean in the video above.
When it comes to sleeping bags, one thing I’ve noticed is that, despite the lightweight and compact industry trends, many don’t pack down very small and they take up a lot of room in my backpack. While adding an extra pound or two might not be a big deal, the space they take up is invaluable. Indeed, these days, many sleeping bags take up more room than a backpacking tent.
So I was happy to see that Sea to Summit pairs its sleeping pad with the Spark Ultralight Sleeping Bag. It weights less than a pound and packs down to the size of a small Nalgene – two feats that many low-temperature bags don’t accomplish. When backpacking in the spring and fall, or at high elevations during the summer, the lightweight protection of this combination allows you to keep your load light while still feeling prepared to combat the cooling nighttime temperatures. And more room in your bag means more room for the fun stuff.
Most big purchases, like a tent or sleeping bag, last a couple years (or with any luck, more). But camp accessories tend to be a more frequent purchase. Headlamps, stoves, camp chairs, cooking items – they all take a beating, in and out of the pack, exposed to the weather, with smaller components that are more likely to fail. So if the outdoorspreson in your life seems to “have everything,” rest assured there is still a gadget or accessory they can upgrade.
Headlamps are perhaps the best example of a device that doesn’t seem to last me more than two years. Part of it is that they wear down, and part of it is that new products come out that make the old seem inferior. The Biolite Headlamp 750 ($99) is one of the newest headlamps on the market, boasting 750 lumens of light. What does that mean? Consider this: When you are using the headlamp on low, it uses 5 lumens. When you use it on high, it uses 500. In a special “burst” setting, which would take a special circumstance to justify, you use the whole 750 and everything is lit up as far as you can see.
When I put it on high (500 lumens), I basically had a spotlight on my head. It would illuminate otherwise pitch black areas well past 50 feet out in front. When hiking through a forest or climbing at night, this is essential in order to illuminate enough terrain to determine your location and find your way.
Something else I love about the Biolite 750 is that it dims as your eyes adjust to the darkness, saving battery life and allowing your nigh vision to redevelop. However, unlike other headlamps in its class, you can override this setting and, if necessary, keep your brights on. You have to charge it via USB – there are no replaceable batteries – which could, in some extreme circumstances, be an issue. But, for most recreational uses, the battery’s life, 150 hours on low, 7 hours high, and 8 hours of what they call “reserve” life, should be enough to get you through the weekend without a recharge (you could, of course, charge it with a portable battery pack).
Another nice feature, which I originally didn’t think I would like, was the battery pack on the back of my head (none of my old headlamps had this construction). I was a little worried about the weight of it at first, thinking it would weigh down my head or be too heavy. But I found neither to be true. It does add some weight, of course, but that weight acts as a counterbalance to the weight in the front, making the whole unit feel more secure and stable. You can whip your head around, bend down, and look up without any worry of the headlamp shifting or falling off. This was something I really grew to appreciate, as some of my old headlamps would move or shift when I was looking around. It also has a light in the back, designed to help keep runners safe at night.
With the increase in outdoor recreation due to the virus, there was a bit of a shortage of fuel this summer and fall. I don’t expect that to continue, but it did introduce me to another backcountry stove option that doesn’t require a dependence on canned fuel.
The Biolite Campstove 2, for example, uses actual wood – small sticks – to boil water and cook food. Not only is this financially beneficial, it’s also practical – you don’t need to purchase fuel canisters and worry about whether or not they will last, and you don’t need to lug them along, either.
Trying out this product, I couldn’t have been happier. Simply gather twigs and sticks and feed them into the stove. As the fire burns, a battery operated fan – which is powered by the heat of the fire (i.e. no worries about charging batteries) – adds oxygen and fuels the flames. The Biolite Campstove 2 is compatible with any pot, so you can still use your existing gear to cook. But, it does sell two intriguing attachments, the Kettlepot and a portable grill (they can be purchased separately, or as part of a bundle). The portable grill attachment is my personal favorite, as it transforms the stove into a legit grill. Unlike gas-powered backcountry stoves, you can actually grill brats or dogs over an “open fire” without burning your pan or starting a bigger fire.
Lastly, an idea for all those worrying mothers out there (like mine). Regardless of whether the adventurer is brand new to the outdoors or experienced, a backcountry locator/GPS can serve as not only an efficient navigation tool, but a smart backup plan should things not go as planned. The Spot Gen 4, on sale for $99 (originally $149), tracks your location and also allows you to send three different types of messages when out of cell service.
One is an “all-is-well” check-in message to friends and family, just to let them know you’re still off the grid and still having fun. The other two are direct emergency messages, but with different levels of severity. The first is a SOS to emergency responders that signals you’re in danger and it might be life threatening, such as an injury or becoming lost. The second is an emergency message that signals you need help but it’s not life threatening. For example, perhaps you got a flat tire out of cell service. Through these options, you have all your bases covered. There are two service plans to choose from, depending on your intended use. Monthly membership gives you the most flexibility and allows basic tracking of your location ($14.95).
Road Trip Gear
Thanks to the pandemic, many people have taken up road tripping and car camping this summer – that is, embarking on an extended road trip and sleeping inside their vehicles. In the west, you’re just as likely to see someone sleeping in the back of their SUV or truck as you are a tent.
If this sounds like someone you know, considering hooking them up with an air pad outfitted for a vehicle. I know – there are all kinds of other solutions. You can fit an at-home air mattress in the back of most big vehicles, or you can use your backcountry sleeping pad. But there are flaws in those methods. At-home air mattresses usually require power to inflate, and also don’t pack down small – taking up precious room in the car. Lightweight, backcountry sleeping pads do indeed work in the back of cars, it’s just that you run the risk of damaging them as they butt up against other things in the vehicle. The last thing you want is to sleep on your pad in the car one night, and go into the backcountry the next only to find out the sleeping pad has been damaged. Because of this, I recommend having a dedicated pad for the vehicle.
For example, the UST Fillmatic Sleeping Mat ($179) fits perfectly in the back of a truck or SUV, is durable, and is at least an inch thicker than most backcountry air pads, dramatically increasing its comfort. If there’s two of you, the pads can be hooked together in the event you want to create a bigger bed. But because they are individual and compact, they roll up smaller than the bigger, made-for-the-house inflatable mattresses that many people use. The pad is self-inflating, although in my experience it is not immediate (best to open up the valve an hour or so before bed) and you will have to top it off at the end. If you’re looking to crash quick, you can blow up the pad by mouth in just a few minutes.
For the record, UST also makes a lightweight sleeping pad (17 ounces) for backcountry campers that, like the Sea to Summit pad above, uses the bag-inflation method. It’s cheaper than the sleeping mat ($109), but again, I would keep your backcountry gear separate.
Once you have everything figured out in the back, you’ll want to focus on the front. For that, I ‘d like to draw your attention to a company you probably already recognize, Otterbox. We all know them for their robust outdoor-friendly phone cases, but you might not realize that the company has significantly expanded its offerings in recent years, diving into other segments of the road trip and outdoor market, including power banks, car chargers, and outdoor accessories, like insulated cups.
By the way, that last one is not just a throw in. If you’re making coffee on the road, or at a campsite, you’re going to want it to stay hot for longer than five minutes. It might seem bougie but… if you’ve never tried an insulated cup ($20) like this one, give it a go – you’ll never revert back.
SAXX is traditionally known as an underwear company, famous for it’s “ballpark pouch” that made working out a lot more comfortable for a lot of men. Basically, it’s a pouch with panels that keeps “everything” organized and prevents chafing – something that, while I’m not overly excited about paying $25-$35 for a pair of underwear, I grew to appreciate on my outdoor adventures. So if Mom wants to buy me underwear (again) for Christmas, this is the direction I now point her.
But SAXX has extended its ballpark pouch over to its new line of base layers (starting at $55), which, along with its no-chafe seams and moisture-wicking micromesh, gives it an techy-edge over the competition. Regardless of whether you’re planning to play in the winter, shoulder seasons, or summer, you’ll want to be outfitted with a variety of layers to adjust to changing temperatures and elevations. For sure, the gift of a “base layer” is one that will keep giving all year round here in the West, where the weather seems to change every hour regardless of the season.