This is the year that I have turned into a complete gear geek. I used to not care as much, especially as a minimalist, but my mountain experiences are made by how comfortable and confident I am in my surroundings. Sometimes that means sharpening my skill set and trusting my knowledge, like learning avalanche awareness in the winter, and other times that means having the appropriate gear for the conditions, like microspikes on icy trails.
Over the year my gear bag has grown as I’ve picked up backpacking, grew as a hunter, explored more as a solo hiker, and cultivated my love for snowshoeing. Some of the gear I’ve purchased myself, and others were sent to me to gear test by companies. Regardless of how I acquired them, I’ve put these things through the wringer in all sorts of conditions, and have published a few gear reviews in the process.
With the holidays here and people left wondering what to get their favorite outdoor adventurer, I’ve decided to consolidate a good number of these items into one big gear guide. Unlike all of the other curated gear guides you’re reading in outdoor publications everywhere, this isn’t just a glowing list of cool and awesome gear that you need to have under the tree (that was paid for as an advertorial or sponsored content). This is the master list of “did this work or not” and “would I buy this again” after extensive use on my own adventures this year. Each item that was sent to me to gear test will be noted with an asterisk so that transparency is clear, and if there’s not an asterisk, then I shelled out the cash on my own.
Alright, let’s get to it!
Rickshaw designs and manufactures customizable messenger bags, backpacks, briefcases, tote bags, computer sleeves and related accessories in their own sewing factory in San Francisco. Yes, their own factory, with their own machines, and their own staff. So you’re not going to get something made in China.
The two limited edition bags that I tested are weatherproof and versatile. They’re made from lightweight X-Pac sailcloth and lined with Cordura Nylon, and unfortunately, these durable and abrasion resistant bags aren’t on their website any longer. However, they have a good selection of other styles in their catalog and since testing them, I can say that I trust their other products.
I used the Square Duffle as my gear bag in the trunk of my car. It held all of my mountain travel essentials from ropes, long-handle lighters, extra rolls of backcountry toilet paper, microspikes, garbage bags, and about a billion other things. It kept everything clean and dry while the inside of my car was covered in dirt and dust from driving forest service roads and while water jugs leaked onto the weather mat next to it. I used it as an extra camping bag during a group camping weekend at Horsetooth where it was dragged through the mud and soaked on a boat. It was PERFECT. In fact, I don’t see myself replacing this as my gearbag anytime soon.
I also used the utility pouch. At first I had no idea how I would utilize this small bag, but it’s actually what I use to keep all of my small essential gear items together in my day pack and my backpacking pack. I have gear ties, a compass, fire starters, and all of the little items that end up shifting to the bottom of your pack when you hike. I love this because it fits in my pack perfectly, it helps me organize my small gear, and it acts as another weatherproof layer. I think these bags are totally worth it!
Oxygen Plus is portable oxygen cans that helps keep you level-headed in a number of high-altitude environments to combat altitude sickness. Not only is it designed to reduce the physical effects from high altitudes, but it’s also intended to increase stamina and repair muscles so you can continue to enjoy the great outdoors.
Last summer on the first opening day of Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, I experienced altitude sickness for the first time. It was shocking to me since I spend a considerable amount of my time at 10,000 ft elevation or more. But I noticed after that, that here and there throughout a few hikes this year, I’d experience the classic symptoms of fatigue and dizziness and sometimes it prevented me from reaching my destination. I also have asthma, so that doesn’t help.
It was after my completely disappointing call to quit Emmaline Lake that I was asked to test out Oxygen Plus. I was thrilled, yet also very skeptical. I carried it in my pack for the rest of the year and compared it between my albuterol inhaler, without it, and with both (obviously, don’t replace your asthma medication with this, and this is not a scientific study).
I didn’t find that it helped me much with performance. On a hike to American Lake I struggled with altitude and used this. I was left pretty much wondering if it had a placebo effect and all of this was just a can of air. I think it gave me a boost for about 100 yards. It was negligible.
However, I feel like this may be an altitude sickness safety blanket for me. If I’m going to 12,000-14,000 ft, I feel better knowing that I have this in my pack – just in case. Altitude sickness SUCKS. And while I don’t think there’s any medical or scientific benefit to this product, it does offer me peace of mind. There’s probably other, and better, options available.
Matador Pocket Blankets are blankets that fit in your pocket, but keep you clean and dry when you want to lay down in the grass, sand, or whatnot. With this you can stop sitting on your jacket, or stop lugging bulky blankets with you for outdoor concerts. It’s made with puncture-resistant HyprLyte nylon that keeps sticks, stones, and sand from getting through. The material is super fine and tightly woven, so it has a smooth, silky, and stick free texture without feeling like a tarp. It’s also waterproof, and has patent pending stitched ‘Easy-Pack Pattern’ marks and guides the blanket, making it really easy to neatly fold up into the size of a wallet.
I used this most often during our last elk hunting trip when I was sitting in the frosted grass near creek beds. It fit perfectly in my pack, and it was much easier to deal with than some of the other hunting seats that people come up with. While it’s not insulating from the cold, it did keep me dry, which is huge when you’re out in the forest for 12 hours. It’s very lightweight and compactable, although folding it back up isn’t as simplistic as it seems. It just becomes a ball in a stuff sack. But, I’m fine with that. And while I generally don’t have any problem sitting on rocks and dirt, this is a great addition to my pack in the spring when everything is melting and wet. It can also double as a tarp for survival situations. I totally love having this.
Cairn is an outdoor gear monthly subscription box filled with smaller outdoor-related products. I can’t remember how I discovered them, but I signed up as soon as I did and ended up being one of their early subscribers. I was a member from November 2014 – July 2015. At first I was so excited to be a subscriber – they sent items that I’d never justify buying myself, yet I found them to be really handy or cool. I got durable socks, flexible wine carriers to pour bottles in for camping trips, my favorite outdoor underwear (yes!), gear ties, Stanley stainless steel shot glasses, backpacking sporks, Hydroflask pint cup, a variety of lotions, sunscreens, chapsticks, and even more snacks. It was a great way to discover new things with an element of surprise. I really loved it at first. It was affordable while providing value.
But I ended up cancelling my subscription after a few months of not finding the value any longer, when there were lame products in the box that made me question where my dollars were being spent. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the month they sent a box of tinder as the “main” high value item. I couldn’t justify subscribing any longer.
I keep track of what they’re including in their boxes since I quit, and I just use their site as an idea generator now. Like, “Oh, that product looks cool. I’ll just order it myself,” and it saves me from value disappointment. I really want to love them again. It was fun while it lasted.
Performance Bicycle’s Travel Trac Comp Mag + Trainer is an indoor bike trainer that is a good solution for snow and mud season when the trails are closed. It has three levels of magnetic resistance to help build strength, perform intervals, improve cardio and recover, and opposing magnets and large flywheel to provide smooth performance.
It accommodates most road and mountain bikes and has an easy setup, with no assembly required. The external flywheel facilitates pedaling action while the wide, stable base provides solid performance during hard efforts. The other great thing about the Travel Trac Comp Mag +Trainer is that the frame folds compactly for storage or transport.
Setup really is easy, and the resistance feels great. I would highly recommend switching out to a smooth tire, because anything with traction (like your mountain bike tires) are going to be excessively noisy, and wear down faster. In fact, I didn’t do this because I just wanted to get it up and going and the office smelled like burnt rubber as a result. This is no fault of the trainer, but just something to keep in mind as a necessity for set up.
I enjoy this trainer because it is easy to use and it’s a great way to keep up leg strength during the winter months when I’m only out snowshoeing on the weekend. It sure as hell beats going to the gym!
Yukon Outfitters had their Mosquito Hammock on Woot this summer, and once I saw the price, we snatched it up as soon as we could. These hammocks have an integrated mosquito net, and if you don’t need the mosquito netting, you can just flip the hammock over and use as a normal hammock. It’s made from high strength parachute nylon, it’s lightweight and quick drying, and also mildew resistant – all important factors for a camping hammock.
I LOVE this for car camping. It doesn’t come with tree straps, so I made my own suspension system that’s small enough to stuff in the stuff sack, and I have never had any problems. I would love to take this hiking, but it’s too bulky to fit in my day pack, so it ends up staying in the car.
My backpacking partner bought one too and we used these on our trip to Cirque Meadow. Honest to god, that sucked. I’m glad I packed a tent for the second night, because we were freezing on that first night, despite all of our layers. It’s also uncomfortable to sleep with your feet above your head, and the lack of blood flow made my feet turn into ice cubes under wool socks. I would never sleep in another hammock on a backpacking trip because it’s just not a comfortable position for me. But, you better believe I keep using this as a relaxing chill spot by the campsite. The kids love it too.
The Kelty Ignite DriDown 20 was my new sleep system this summer. Since I picked up backpacking, I needed a reasonable sleeping bag to add to my gear list. My car camping bag wasn’t going to be compact or warm enough for the high altitude sites I wanted to stay at. I did a LOAD of research and comparison shopping between REI and Sierra Trading Post here in town. I had my top three bags narrowed down to the fit and function I needed – Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed was my top choice, but that was a $420 bag that was WAY out of my budget. Sea to Summit Trek II was my second choice, but nobody had it in stock here and I would have had to drive down to REI in Denver with fingers crossed that they had one. I ended up settling for my third choice – the Kelty Ignite DriDown 20. It fit my budget, needs, and was in stock. I also saved $100 by buying it at Sierra Trading Post instead of REI.
This bag is comfortable for me, although I sleep very cold to begin with. I’ll need to get a liner for spring and fall camping, because I’m freezing with layers on and was cold to the bone on my elk hunting scouting trip (this is in late September as the frost begins). I also think it’s pretty bulky for backpacking. It works and there are worse bags out there, but this is not my “perfect” sleeping bag.
The Sawyer Mini was another backpacking item I added to my gear list this year. All of the other filter systems seemed expensive, bulky, or gross. I love this system because it’s rated to 0.1 micron absolute and filters 99.9% of bacteria, weighs only 2 ounces, and filters up to 100,000 gallons. It’s also versatile – it can be attached to the included collapsible drinking pouch, inline on a hydration pack, on a standard soda bottle, or you can use the included drinking straw to drink directly from the water source.
It fits perfectly in my small essentials bag, and now I keep it in my day pack to refill water on long hikes. This is one of those items that I may not need all the time on day hikes, but having it in my pack for “just in case” scenarios is a huge peace of mind. And for backpacking trips when I do need it, it’s great!
My only complaint with this is that the collapsible bag that you use to fill with dirty water to filter through the system is not easy to fill. You can’t put it into a river and expect the force of the flow to fill it up, and you can’t submerge it underwater to fill when air escapes – because air doesn’t escape. You have to have a whole separate cup or bottle to use to collect your river water and pour into the pouch to filter. It’s annoying, but not a deal breaker for me. I’m still glad I have this!
Hillsound has a variety of crampons and gaiter products. I tested and reviewed the Trail Crampon Ultra last winter. This year I had a chance to test out their Armadillo LT Gaiter during our elk hunt and on subsequent snowshoe trips. My gaiters last year were horrible – noisy (which is bad news on a hunt), and ineffective. These Armadillo Gaiters are night and day different! I love their slim fit with stretch fabric that’s waterproof and breathable – so you can wear these during mud season, too. They’re made of Flexia three-layer fabric on the top, and the lower is a 1000 denier, high-density nylon, providing protection from the elements. The buckle at the top makes sure snow doesn’t get down from your knee. They also fit around the boot perfectly to keep snow coming up from the laces, and have a waterproof zipper as well.
Between the fit and the performance, I’m thrilled to have these in my gear closet for snow adventures this winter. I feel like I can go anywhere in the backcountry because of them. I did have a zipper issue but it was very easily resolved and the replacement pair are excellent. I can’t wait to go backcountry snowshoeing with them again!
This certainly isn’t the last of the gear that I’m currently testing – I have more in the works and more gear reviews for you in the spring! But I hope this helps to give you some ideas of what, and what not, to get your outdoor friends and family this holiday season. You can shop for some of these items through the Sierra Trading Post affiliate links and help support Fresh Air Fort Collins at the same time!