By Michael Lanza
If you’re shopping for a gift for someone who loves the outdoors—or even for yourself—look no further. This list covers the top-performing products and best values I’ve found among the outdoor gear and apparel I’ve field tested over the past 12 months, including jackets, backpacks, a tent, a sleeping bag and air mattress, headlamps, trekking poles, climbing harnesses, and a pile of other stuff in a wide range of prices. Plus, many of them are available at deeply discounted sale prices right now, and you’ll find links to those sales below.
You just may finish all of your holiday shopping right here.
Many of the products listed here have links to my original review; plus, you’ll find links to other informative reviews at The Big Outside. By making purchases through any of the links to online retailers below, you will support my work on this blog. Thanks for doing that.
Here’s to a well-equipped new year of great adventures. Happy holidays.
Let’s face it, nothing conveys a warm feeling like a high-quality insulated jacket for getting outside in winter or three-season camping. I have two new favorites, both of which come in men’s and women’s sizes.
Weighing just a few ounces over a half-pound, the Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hoody ($379, 11 oz.) is quite possibly warmer than any other down jacket of the same weight that I’ve used, thanks to the 850-fill down stuffing in the hood, sleeves, and torso. But because moisture trashes down’s ability to trap heat, Arc’teryx placed its Coreloft synthetic insulation in areas prone to getting wet: the shoulders, cuffs, chin guard at the top of the zipper, and the armpits. The combination of insulation types delivers the benefits of down (warm, light, and compact) and synthetics (retaining heat when damp).
Read my complete review of the Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hoody.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s or women’s Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hoody at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, leftlanesports.com, or rei.com.
From backcountry skiing to Nordic skiing, in a huge range of winter temperatures and conditions, the Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket ($199, 10 oz.) kept me warm and dry for hours on end, without me changing layers. That’s because it traps heat in my torso while releasing excess heat off my back and arms. Credit a hybrid design that puts FullRange synthetic insulation, which stretches and breathes, in the front, shoulders, and top sides of the sleeves, and a much more breathable, wicking, stretch waffle knit on the back of the sleeves, in the sides, and covering the entire back. This jacket offloads body heat about as fast as you produce it, making it ideal for a variety of cold-weather activities.
See my complete review of the Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s or women’s Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, patagonia.com, or rei.com.
If you’re looking for high-level performance at a medium-level price, Osprey’s men’s Stratos 50 and women’s Sirrus 50 ($190, 3 lbs. 9 oz.) deliver the goods. With adjustable torso lengths and a seamless, tensioned mesh panel integrated into the hipbelt and shoulder straps, these packs support loads up to about 35 pounds while allowing air flow across your entire back for hot days of hiking. They’re also loaded with features like a side zipper for quick access to the main compartment, multiple pockets, and an integrated rain cover.
See my complete review of the Osprey Stratos 50 and Sirrus 50 packs.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of these links to buy an Osprey men’s Stratos 50 at backcountry.com, ems.com, moosejaw.com, or rei.com, or a women’s Sirrus 50 at backcountry.com, ems.com, or moosejaw.com.
While there are certainly packs that are more comfortable, feature-rich, minimalist, or capable of hauling more weight than the REI Flash 45 ($149, 2 lbs. 14 oz.), it’s hard to find a lightweight pack that offers a better value. It carries 25 to 30 pounds comfortably, comes in two men’s and women’s sizes with some adjustability in the fit, and has an impressively functional feature set for a sub-three-pound backpack.
See my complete review of the REI Flash 45 backpack.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s REI Flash 45 pack at rei.com or a women’s REI Flash 45 pack at rei.com, or a men’s Flash 65 at rei.com, or the women’s Flash 60 at rei.com.
Want the best backpack? See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and the best thru-hiking packs.
Got a young backpacker to outfit? I’m 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 ($189, 3 lbs. 10 oz.) Versafit suspension has five inches of range and movable hip pads for fitting growing young people (and small adults, especially women). It also has good space and organization, including a U-shaped front panel zipper that provides quick access to virtually everything inside.
Read my complete review of the Gregory Wander 70.
Check out my “10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You”
and “Ask Me: How Do I Outfit a Growing Kid Affordably?”
I consider the Exped Skyline 15 ($129, 2 lbs. 5 oz.) the best new daypack of 2017, for good reasons. With a simple adjustment, the innovative Switchback suspension transforms in seconds from having with a gap between your back and the pack, maximizing air flow to keep you cool when cruising a good trail, to a spine-hugging back panel for stability when hiking difficult terrain or scrambling off-trail. It carries up to 20 pounds comfortably and has a simple but smartly designed organization, with two zippers accessing the main compartment and two large hipbelt pockets.
See my complete review of the Exped Skyline 15 daypack.
The Exped Skyline 15 is one of my 6 favorite daypacks.
For someone who spends a lot of time outside, few things say “I love you” like a jacket that’s eminently functional anywhere, any time of year. And good for you if it happens to present an awesome value. The 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 good price for this category.
See my complete review of the Realm Jacket and my “Review: The 5 Best Rain Jackets for the Backcountry.”
The lightweight, folding Swiss Army knives have been a backpacking staple for decades, for a simple 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.
Nights of heavy dew soaking the shell of the bag while sleeping outside, and rain blowing in through an open door tent both went unnoticed by me inside my REI Magma 10 ($349, 1 lb. 13 oz.). I stayed dry when the bag got wet because it and the women’s Magma 17 are stuffed with 17.6 ounces of water-resistant, 850-fill goose down feathers. The down-proof Pertex shell also repelled moisture while letting no feathers leak out. Warm, light, and roomy, they are great values in high-end sleeping bags.
Read my complete review of the REI Magma 10 and Magma 17 bags.
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Insulated Air Mattress
Compare air mattresses for backpacking in terms of comfort, price, weight, and bulk, and it’s hard not to come away liking the Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Ultra air mattress ($100, 1 lb. 6 oz. regular/20×72 inches). Its plush 3.5 inches of thickness translates to luxurious comfort, while the mat remains no heavier and somewhat less bulky than competitors. Separate, high-volume valves make inflating and deflating faster than many air mats. I’ll tell you from experience: Having only one, I only get to sleep on it when I go backpacking without my wife.
See my complete review of the Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Ultra air mattress.
Call me soft, but I bring an ultralight, inflatable pillow on all backcountry trips, because they help me sleep better. The Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Ultra Light ($43, 2.5 oz., large 13x17x1 ins.) stuffs down to the size of my fist and its fabric feels soft against my face. The larger Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight Deluxe Pillow ($60, 4.6 oz., 23.5x16x5.5 ins.) will almost feel like your pillow at home.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Ultra Light at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or rei.com, or an Aeros Ultralight Deluxe Pillow at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or rei.com.
Get the world’s best ski bag. Read my review of the Douchebag Snow Roller.
The Black Diamond Spot headlamp ($40, 3 oz.) 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 it 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.
The rechargeable Petzl Actik Core ($60, 3 oz.) stands out among ultralight, backcountry headlamps for its maximum brightness of 350 lumens. More significantly, unlike rechargeable headlamps, it delivers that much brightness even when using the rechargeable battery. Equipped with white and red modes and two beam patterns—a focused beam for seeing straight ahead and a proximity beam for illuminating a wider area.
The Black Diamond Spot and Petzl Actik Core are among my “5 Best Headlamps of 2017.”
The NiteRider Sentinel 150 ($55, 4 oz., with mount) and NiteRider Solas 150, ($50, 3 oz. with mount), two rechargeable, seat post-mounted taillights for bikes, make safety convenient. Both have a max brightness of 150 lumens—bright enough to be visible in daylight—and a “group ride mode” for visibility without annoying or distracting other cyclists. Their rubber mounting unit quickly and securely attaches the light to a seat post. The larger Sentinel 150 has three red LEDs and seven modes, including flashing and (cool feature alert) lasers that project red, virtual bike-lane lines onto the street (for motorists to see). The smaller Solas 150 has four red modes (two flashing, two steady).
I knew the Outdoor Research Skyward Jacket ($350, 1 lb. 7 oz.) was exceptional the first day I wore it, because through several hours of backcountry skiing, I never took it off, even in temperatures when I normally would when climbing uphill—that’s how breathable it is. (It uses the same proprietary AscentShell fabric used in OR’s Realm Jacket, above.) And yet, it’s fully waterproof and seam-taped. Cool feature: two-way, side-pit zippers that run from under the biceps all the way to the hem, so you can open the entire sides of the jacket while keeping most precipitation off your body. It has become my go-to winter shell.
Read my complete review of the Outdoor Research Skyward Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase the men’s Outdoor Research Skyward Jacket at backcountry.com, ems.com, moosejaw.com, or rei.com, or the women’s Skyward Jacket at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, rei.com, or REI Garage.
As someone whose fingers turn white when chopping vegetables still cold from the fridge, but who loves getting outside in winter, I’ve tested more types and models of winter gloves than I could estimate. Some favorites, for different purposes, include the Ibex Kilometer Glove, Black Diamond Legend Gloves, and Outdoor Research Luminary Gloves.
See my “Review: The Best Gloves For Winter.”
A good gear duffle swallows a shipping container’s volume of gear (or seems to) and protects it whether you’re taking multiple flights or strapping it to the roof of a Third World bus. Of the many I’ve tested and own, the two that get used the most in my house are the Osprey Transporter 95 ($160, 2 lbs. 5 oz.), because it’s light, well organized with multiple pockets, made with durable 900-denier fabric, and stuffs inside a pocket; and the big and burly Patagonia Black Hole Duffel 120L ($169, 3 lbs. 13 oz.), which has superior carrying comfort thanks to generous padding in the shoulder straps (which are easily removable to avoid damage in transit), and virtually impregnable, water-resistant, polyester ripstop fabric with a TPU laminate and DWR (durable, water-repellent finish).
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase an Osprey Transporter 95 at backcountry.com, ems.com, moosejaw.com, or rei.com, or a Patagonia Black Hole Duffel 120L at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or patagonia.com, or the Black Hole Duffel 90L at rei.com.
I’ve used many rechargeable lights and lightweight, portable lanterns that double as charging stations for small electronics like phones, but the Goal Zero Lighthouse Mini Lantern ($50, 8 oz.) has become a favorite for its performance and utilitarian design. For starters, it’s supremely 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). A 5V USB outlet can charge 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.
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. And when you need to filter water for a group of three or more people, a pump filter is lighter than everyone carrying a water filter bottle (see one of those below). 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.
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 ($45, 8 oz.) did 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 of the LifeStraw Go Water Bottle.
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 lifestraw.eartheasy.com.
For their low weight, durability, water resistance, and price, my top pick for stuff sacks are the Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Dry Sacks ($12-$33, 1L/61 c.i. to 35L/2,136 c.i., 0.5-2.2 oz.). They kept my down jacket dry inside my pack throughout four February days of backcountry skiing in the Sierra mountains around Lake Tahoe, and other clothing dry while paddling an inflatable kayak on Idaho’s class III Payette River, even though the boat filled with water numerous times and we flipped twice, and on numerous other occasions. The 30-denier, high-tenacity Ultra Sil Cordura nylon, siliconized for durability and packability, has a hypalon roll-top closure that doesn’t wick moisture, plus fully taped seams and reinforced stitching.
Just 11 ounces—less than one low-cut hiking shoe—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 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.
See my complete review of the Helinox Passport FL120 trekking poles.
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.
I always use trekking poles. Read why in my “10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier.”
Light and small enough to carry into the backcountry, the Helinox Chair Zero ($120, 1 lb. 1 oz.) will force you to ask yourself why you’d ever tolerate squatting on a rock or log in camp again. The chair consists of a fabric seat that slips over a shock-corded pole structure that forms the chair’s back and legs; and it assembles quickly, like a hubbed tent pole system. The result is a comfortable seat that’s 20 inches wide, 19 inches deep, 25 inches tall, and whose bottom rises 11 inches above terra firma.
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 Vacuum Bottle
Whether heading into the backcountry on a winter day or taking a road trip, I rarely go without my Hydro Flask 24-oz. Standard Mouth Bottle. Made with professional-grade stainless steel and TempShield double-wall insulation, it keeps liquids hot all day in sub-freezing temperatures, or cold on hot days for up to 24 hours. I actually have several—my entire family uses them.
Got a favorite sipping beverage you like to have in the backcountry? Mine is single malt scotch whisky, and I carry it in a GSI Glacier Stainless Hip Flask ($30, 7.5 oz., 6 fl. oz., 4×1.2×5 ins.). With a mouth wide enough to pour into directly from the bottle, this stainless-steel flask has a leashed screw cap and a classic, curved shaped, and comes with a soft stuff sack. Steel is heavy, yes, but leaves no taste like plastic can.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a GSI Glacier Stainless Hip Flask at backcountry.com.
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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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