By Michael Lanza
Every year, I field test a lot of new gear and clothing for three-season hiking, backpacking, climbing, and year-round backcountry activities. Much of it’s pretty good. But to be honest, only a small number rise to the level of excellent, either for technical innovation or simply coming at a task from a new angle that makes their performance superior to others. On those rare occasions, gear can actually make the experiences we seek better in some small way. For this article, I’ve picked out the best pieces of new outdoors gear and apparel that came out in 2019.
This review includes two outstanding backpacks and three backpacking tents, two top-performing rain jackets and one ultralight shell, the latest iteration of a classic lightweight daypack, a one-pound sleeping bag and a half-pound air mattress, a four-season puffy jacket, a few impressively light and supportive hiking and backpacking shoes and boots, a couple of ultralight headlamps, and rock-climbing gear I always use.
Maybe one or more of these items will help make your outdoor experiences a little better. And the time to buy them is right now, when retailers offer some of the lowest prices of the year during holiday sales. Make a purchase through any of the links in this story and you will support my work on this blog. Thank you for doing that.
You may also want to see my review “The Best Backpacking Gear of 2019,” which has only some overlap with this article.
As always, I’d love to read what you think of any of these pieces of gear, what experience you’ve had with any, or what favorite product you recommend. Please share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this story.
In the competitive arena of backpacking packs, there’s an increasingly crowded field of ultralight models, as well as an array of choices in heavier, more tricked-out packs built for moderate to stout loads. Then there’s an interesting niche of packs that are, you could say, “almost ultralight.”
Two of the very best packs I tested and reviewed this year fall into that niche: the Granite Gear Blaze 60 and The North Face Banchee 50, which both edge just over the unofficial ceiling weight of three pounds for ultralight packs, but may suit many backpackers for the balance they strike between comfort, functionality, and low weight.
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How many pounds can a lightweight backpack carry comfortably? Granite Gear’s new Blaze 60 is pushing that boundary. On a six-day, 74-mile backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon—including a hard, 15-mile, nearly 12-hour day hoofing most of the rugged Escalante Route—I carried the Blaze 60 with up to about 40 pounds inside. And that load, even in that terrain, felt clearly within this pack’s comfort zone.
Standout comfort comes from its new Air Current framesheet, which flexes slightly along the vertical axis, allowing the pack to move with your torso as you walk or bend, especially in steep or difficult terrain; and the adjustable Re-Fit hipbelt felt so comfortable I didn’t notice the weight on my hips even on the longest, most arduous days in the canyon. With five sizes and four adjustment points on the framesheet, it will fit virtually anyone. Its low weight, superior compression, and versatile design make the Blaze 60 a legitimate short- and long-distance mule, elevating it into the realm of the best all-purpose backpacking packs on the market.
Read my complete review of the Granite Gear Blaze 60 backpack.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s Granite Gear Blaze 60 backpack at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com or rei.com, or a women’s-specific Granite Gear Blaze 60 backpack at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com or rei.com.
Carrying the Banchee 50 with over 40 pounds in it at times on a five-day, 56-mile, September backpacking trip in the Bechler Canyon area of Yellowstone National Park. I judged it a solid and versatile sack with only minor shortcomings. In updating Banchee 50 and Banchee 65 for 2019, TNF introduced its new Dyno Lite suspension system, which has on-the-fly torso adjustment, which allows you to pull a strap or a tab beside the strap at the bottom right-hand corner of the pack to make micro adjustments to the pack’s torso fit, and a self-equalizing load-lifter strap that helps reduce the pack shifting that occurs when hiking.
With a suspension system that comfortably handles up to about 40 pounds, and a spacious main compartment and two large, zippered front pockets, the Banchee 50 can handle trips up to five days or more. Perhaps most appealing for some backpackers, the feature set, including eight external pockets, is outstanding for a pack that weighs barely more than three pounds.
Read my complete review of The North Face Banchee 50 backpack.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase The North Face men’s or women’s Banchee 50 or Banchee 65 at Moosejaw.com. You can also support my blog by clicking any of these links to purchase The North Face men’s Griffin 65 at Moosejaw.com, the men’s Griffin 75 at Moosejaw.com, or the women’s Griffin 65 at Moosejaw.com.
Want to spend less but still get a high-quality backpack? See my review of the new Gregory Zulu 55 and Jade 53.
The Granite Gear Blaze 60 and The North Face Banchee 50 are on my list of the “10 Best Backpacking Packs.”
In 2019, I field tested and reviewed three new tents—two ultralight models and one midweight—that all impressed me, for different reasons.
From clear, cool, late-August nights on the Teton Crest Trail, to mixed weather that included rain and wind on a five-day hike in Yellowstone’s Bechler Canyon area in September, the Nemo Dragonfly 2P demonstrated weather protection and livability that distinguish it as one of the very best two-person, two-door, ultralight backpacking tents on the market today—at a very good price for this level of quality.
It marries low weight with a high space-to-weight ratio, due to a hubbed pole architecture that creates steeper walls, making the tent feel roomier than its 29 square feet. Even tall people will find room to stretch within a shelter with a 40-inch peak height and 88-inch length, while the vestibules are roomier than in competitor models. And stability in wind and ventilation are both very good.
Read my complete review of the Nemo Dragonfly 2P tent.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a Nemo Dragonfly 2P at backcountry.com, Moosejaw.com, or rei.com, or a Nemo Dragonfly 1P at backcountry.com, Moosejaw.com, or rei.com.
The sub-two-pound, double-wall, freestanding tent has become like the two-hour marathon of the backpacking gear world: the holy grail that many have come close to achieving, without quite nailing it. Big Agnes set the pace with the Tiger Wall 2 Platinum, a redesign of its Tiger Wall UL2 from 2018 that seizes the grail and—most importantly—avoids shortcomings endemic to other ultralight tents. Taking it out on a six-day, 74-mile spring hike through the Grand Canyon that—not surprisingly—tested the wind resistance of our shelters, I decided it ranks among the very best backpacking tents available today.
Nearly identical to its predecessor, B.A.’s Tiger Wall UL2, the Platinum version achieves deeper weight savings by using Dominico Textile, a fabric used in parachutes and hang gliders and known for its strength, quality, and durability. The pole architecture helps create a shelter that’s quite sturdy, especially for an ultralight tent: It stood up to gusts that would test any tent weighing three pounds, nevermind under two pounds. And despite its weight, the Tiger Wall 2 Platinum delivers livability perhaps unmatched among its competitors in its weight class (and among double-wall tents that are freestanding or nearly so).
Read my complete review of the Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 Platinum tent.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 Platinum at backcountry.com, Moosejaw.com or rei.com, or a Big Agnes Tiger Wall 3 Platinum at backcountry.com, Moosejaw.com or rei.com.
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Everyone wants ultralight backpacking gear—but not everyone wants to live with the sacrifices inherent to ultralight gear. The trade-offs can be most pronounced in a tent. As I discovered testing it on a 90-mile hike through Glacier National Park and a four-day family backpacking trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, with MSR’s Zoic 2, backpackers get the comfort of a tent with good space, along with superior ventilation and good stability, weather performance, and durability.
The Zoic’s 33 square feet of interior space exceeds what you’ll find in many two-person backpacking tents (especially freestanding models) of comparable weight. A traditional freestanding, double-wall, two-door tent that pitches using crossing hubbed poles common in many backpacking tents, the Zoic goes up intuitively and quickly. A short “eyebrow” pole over the crown elevates the ceiling above both doors, creating more headroom. That pole geometry, with strong but lightweight 7000-series aluminum poles, creates a shelter that can withstand the kind of wind and weather most three-season backpackers encounter in the mountains.
Read my complete review of the MSR Zoic 2 tent.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to buy an MSR Zoic 2 at backcountry.com, Moosejaw.com, rei.com, or msrgear.com, a Zoic 1 at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, rei.com, or msrgear.com, or a Zoic 3 at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, rei.com, or msrgear.com.
The Nemo Dragonfly 2P, Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 Platinum, and MSR Zoic 2 are among “The 7 Best Backpacking Tents of 2019.”
My first reaction to the Knog Bandicoot was: a rechargeable headlamp that weighs and costs less than headlamps that require batteries?! My second thought was: Hey, this thing looks kind of… cool. After using it on late-summer (think: it’s dark by early evening) backpacking trips on the Teton Crest Trail and in Yellowstone National Park, and camping in September at Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve, I think the Bandicoot is the kind of new product that has the potential to upend an entire category.
The Bandicoot’s unique, very light and durable silicone housing seamlessly merges the strap, body, and LEDs, stretches to fit anyone’s noggin, and doesn’t grab, cling to, or snag in hair. The four sets of LEDs include a high-power beam, elliptical beams for proximity lighting, a red LED for night vision, and LED’s angled downward for reading. A fifth mode combines the high-power and proximity LEDs for maximum brightness—which I used at times while hiking in the dark. Weighing just two ounces (60g), while not nearly as bright as the best ultralight headlamps, it can do the job whether you’re hiking, backpacking, climbing, car camping, or trail running.
Read my complete review of the Knog Bandicoot rechargeable headlamp.
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From rising before dawn for early starts to beat the heat on a 74-mile backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon in May, to predawn mornings and dark evenings in camp on a 94-mile traverse of the CDT in Glacier National Park in September, the Black Diamond Spot325 demonstrated the brightness and versatility that makes it arguably the best value in an ultralight headlamp today.
This upgrade of the Spot325’s predecessor, the Spot, has been reduced somewhat in size while powered up to a much brighter 325 lumens. The low-profile design adds a second button that simplifies mode selection. Powered by three AAA batteries, the Spot325’s beam projects at least 200 feet at max brightness. It sports BD’s brightness memory technology, which means the Spot325 turns on in the mode and brightness level you last turned it off; and BD’s PowerTap technology, which allows you to simply tap the side of the housing to cycle between max brightness and whatever dimmed level you’ve already set.
Read my complete review of the Black Diamond Spot325 headlamp.
The Knog Bandicoot and Black Diamond Spot325 are two of “The 5 Best Headlamps of 2019.”
Anyone who’s spent enough hours in waterproof-breathable jackets while on the move in rain knows that the second half of that hyphenated adjective looms as critical to performance as the “waterproof” part. After wearing OR’s Interstellar in weather ranging from rain and snow to strong winds, from a mid-September backpacking trip through Glacier to backcountry skiing at home in Idaho, I consider it a leading, top-value backcountry rain shell.
The Interstellar features OR’s proprietary AscentShell three-layer waterproof-breathable fabric—possibly the most breathable, fully waterproof fabric on the market (and found in other OR jackets, including a personal favorite for backcountry skiing, the Skyward). Fully seam-taped, the Interstellar sheds heavy rain and rises to the challenge of the worst conditions most backpackers encounter. Among the lightest fully featured rain shells at 11 ounces, the Interstellar stuffs into its left hand pocket (which has a carabiner clip), packing down to the size of a cantaloupe.
Read my complete review of the Outdoor Research Interstellar 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 Outdoor Research Interstellar Jacket at backcountry.com, Moosejaw.com, outdoorresearch.com, or rei.com.
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How much rain shell do you want in the mountains, how much should it weight—and how much should you pay? Those questions came to mind when I wore the REI Drypoint GTX rain shell through hours of cold wind and steady rain, with a bit of wet snow, at the tail end of a five-day September backpacking trip in Yellowstone National Park. I was happy with its moderate weight and packability for three-and-a-half days of sunny, mild days at the outset of that trip, when this shell stayed in my pack. But I was even happier that it has features that kept me dry when the weather turned ugly.
The Drypoint is made with three-layer Gore-Tex Active, the lightest and most breathable membrane that Gore-Tex makes. This shell fended off hours of steady rain and wind. In terms of weather protection, it performs as well as any rain shell I’ve used.
Read my complete review of the REI Drypoint GTX.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s REI Drypoint GTX Jacket at rei.com, a women’s REI Drypoint GTX Jacket at rei.com, or a women’s REI Drypoint GTX Jacket in plus sizes at rei.com.
See also my review “The 5 Best Rain Jacket for Hiking and Backpacking,” my “5 Pro Tips For Buying the Right Rain Jacket For the Backcountry,” and all of my reviews of rain jackets and outdoor apparel and that I like.
Three-Season Sleeping Bag
Why spend more money on a sleeping bag? Logical question, of course. But for any backpacker eager to shave a pound or more and significant gear volume from his or her backpack, an ultralight down bag offers one of the best ways of realizing that objective—as well as delivering maximum warmth per ounce. And one of the lightest and most compact bags in this category, Therm-a-Rest’s Hyperion 32F/0C, measured up in every way on a six-day backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon in May, a six-day float trip down Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River in July, a three-day hike on the Teton Crest Trail in August, and on chilly, rainy spring nights that pushed the bag’s limits camping in May in Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve.
The Hyperion is stuffed with water-resistant, 900-fill down—the highest-rated down you can find—which translates to more warmth and packability than most bags of the same weight. Its EN comfort rating of 41° F/5° C and limit rating of 32° F/0° C fell right in line with my experience. The draft collar and comfortably close-fitting, adjustable hood gave me a nice, snug seal on chilly nights.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a Therm-a-Rest Hyperion 32F/0C sleeping bag at moosejaw.com, backcountry.com, or thermarest.com, or a Therm-a-Rest Hyperion 20F/-6C at moosejaw.com or thermarest.com.
Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton, and other parks using my expert e-guides.
As I was loading my backpack at the start of a 74-mile backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon, one of my hiking mates glanced over and said, “Is that your air mattress?!” Yea, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir UberLite is that tiny. If you’re serious about reducing your pack weight—as any backpacker should be—you should take a serious look at the NeoAir Uberlite.
With 2.5 inches of thickness, it delivers comfort comparable to many of the best backcountry air mats. And at 8.8 oz., it sets a new ultralight standard for air mats with enough insulation for camping in usual summer temperatures in the mountains, and it packs down smaller than a liter bottle.
Look at a row of modern daypacks in any store or at an online retailer and you’ll see an increasing number that strive to strike a balance between good carrying comfort and capacity, with a smart feature set that’s not over-engineered, and low weight. Many of them are using the template employed by Gregory’s Miwok and Maya daypack series for years. Carrying the recently updated Miwok 18 on sections of a five-day trek through northern Spain’s Picos de Europa Mountains, and on an eight-mile, 5,200-vertical-foot dayhike of Idaho’s 12,662-foot Borah Peak—with some third-class scrambling—I was reminded of everything I’ve liked about this pack for a long time, and had an opportunity to evaluate a fine, major improvement these outstanding daypacks received this year.
The most significant change in the design of the men’s Miwok and women’s Maya daypacks is that the torso length adjusts by repositioning the shoulder straps up or down using a hook-and-loop patch behind the back panel—a simple and secure adjustment system that provides a five-inch fit range while adding nominal weight to the pack. On our trek through Spain’s Picos, my 18-year-old son (five feet 11 inches, with a 19-inch torso) and I (five feet eight inches, with an 18-inch torso) alternated carrying the Miwok 18 and a larger daypack, and it fit us both. Its low weight, sleek design, and multiple pockets make it a super versatile daypack.
Read my complete review of the Gregory Miwok 18 and Maya 16.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s Gregory Miwok 12, Miwok 18, or Miwok 24 at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, ems.com, or rei.com, or a women’s Maya 10, Maya 16, or Maya 22 at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, ems.com, or rei.com.
The Gregory Miwok 18 and Maya 16 are among the 8 best hiking daypacks.
Outdoor Research Refuge Hooded Jacket
$220, 1 lb. 2 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XL, women’s XS-XL
If you want an insulated jacket with versatility across activities—and activity levels—and in all seasons and weather, a jacket with breathable synthetic insulation will usually outperform any feather-filled or synthetic competitor. And the Outdoor Research Refuge Hooded Jacket stands out in this niche category for all of those reasons, plus warmth that rivals pricier down jackets.
The break-through technology inside the Refuge is OR’s new, proprietary VerticalX synthetic insulation, which has superior stretch, breathability, and warmth for its weight, and as of fall 2019, it consists of 85 percent recycled material. OR equates the warmth of the 60g VerticalX to 700-fill-power down, and I found that when my base layer got damp with sweat from skinning uphill on skis, it would dry out while I skied downhill, a testament to this jacket’s breathability.
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 Outdoor Research Refuge Hooded Jacket at Moosejaw.com, backcountry.com, ems.com, outdoorresearch.com, or rei.com.
Which puffy should you buy? Read my post “Ask Me: How Can You Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is?”
Hiking Shoes and Boots
The trend toward lighter footwear for hiking and backpacking has generally improved the offerings available—but has also produced a lot of shoes that, frankly, lack the support and cushion for rugged dayhiking or lightweight backpacking. On a six-day, 74-mile backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon—which included the very rugged Escalante Route—carrying upwards of 40 pounds (a substantial portion of it water), I found that despite falling within the weight class of trail-running shoes, these shoes delivered the performance of a boot at least a half-pound heavier.
A compressed EVA midsole and an integrated TPU shank in the midfoot provide a really nice balance between having nearly as much forefoot flex as a running shoe and the lateral rigidity, support, and cushion of a burlier hiking shoe, plus protection underfoot against rocks and roots. They offer plenty of toe space, plus a midfoot fit and firm, supportive heel cup that prevent any forward slipping when going downhill, eliminating the friction that can breed blisters. We carried heavy packs for 43 hard miles in just the first three days of our Grand Canyon trek—in temps that pushed into the nineties—and my feet felt great.
Read my complete review of the Arc’teryx Aerios FL Mid GTX.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase the men’s Arc’teryx Aerios FL Mid GTX at moosejaw.com or the women’s at moosejaw.com, or the men’s or women’s at backcountry.com, arcteryx.com, or rei.com, or the men’s or women’s Arc’teryx Aerios FL GTX at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, arcteryx.com, or rei.com.
The notion of a hiking shoe that can be heat-molded to your feet like the liners of ski boots seemed too good to pass up. So I took the Tecnica Plasma S shoes on what struck me as two perfect tests: dayhiking 12,662-foot Borah Peak, highest in Idaho, which entails an almost relentlessly steep, 5,200 vertical feet of ascent and descent in seven miles round-trip, mostly on trail, but also includes a few hundred feet of third-class scrambling; plus backpacking the Teton Crest Trail. And the Plasma S delivered on the promise of a customized fit.
The non-waterproof Plasma S (there’s also a Gore-Tex version) uses the same technology as the brand’s Forge GTX boots. The shoe’s removable footbed and part of its upper can be custom heat-molded to your feet using a special machine (for free). Weighing a couple of ounces shy of two pounds, the Plasma S deliver solid support and torsional rigidity for a shoe that light, and they are well armored against trail abuse, making them good for dayhiking or lightweight backpacking.
Read my complete review of the Tecnica Plasma S shoes.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase the men’s or women’s Tecnica Plasma S or Plasma S GTX at rei.com.
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All through the second day of a five-day trek in northern Spain’s Picos de Europa Mountains, we hiked through steady rain and, higher up, wet snow that accumulated several inches deep on the ground. But throughout that day and the entire trip, these shoes kept my feet dry and delivered the support and performance I expect from much pricier boots.
I carried 25 pounds or more for several hours of hiking a day in a variety of terrain through the rugged Picos, from trails of packed dirt or loose scree to steep, rocky scrambling. They also dried out quickly, thanks to the mesh vents in the leather uppers and the breathable mesh tongue. Leather uppers and a rubber toe bumper protect against hard use.
Read my complete review of the Oboz Sawtooth II Low Waterproof shoes.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase the men’s Oboz Sawtooth II Low Waterproof at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, ems.com, or rei.com, or the women’s Oboz Sawtooth II Low Waterproof at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, ems.com, or rei.com.
The Black Diamond Distance Wind Shell passes the test of being so light that there’s no reason to not carry it. But a shell this packable becomes truly invaluable when you can use it in a variety of situations, and over the past several months, I wore it innumerable times, on outings that included running the Grand Canyon 42 miles rim to rim to rim in one day in early October, a five-day June trek through Spain’s Picos de Europa Mountains, a September weekend of rock climbing in cool temps and gusty wind at Idaho’s City of Rocks, an October hike on a windy ridge in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, autumn trail runs from Boise to the Boston area, and mountain biking through a sudden downpour.
Perhaps best of all, this shell’s construction not only ensures superior durability, but it may be the greenest ultralight shell on the market. Green Theme International’s new Breathable Water Protection tech employs a PFC-free, water-repellent finish that gets permanently hyper-fused to the fabric fibers, improving breathability and never requiring a chemical spray or wash-in treatment or a dryer cycle.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s or a women’s Black Diamond Distance Wind Shell at backcountry.com, Moosejaw.com, ems.com, or blackdiamondequipment.com.
As a rock climber for nearly 30 years, I’ve seen many improvements in gear. While I’m rarely loyal to a single brand, every time I’ve climbed this year, outdoors and indoors, I’ve found myself using gear from Black Diamond.
The Black Diamond Solution Harness ($70, men’s and women’s models) feels supremely comfortable, is light, and has an auto-locking waist buckle and four stiff, pressure-molded gear loops. The Black Diamond Zone climbing shoes ($140) have an aggressive shape and down-curved toe that excel on steep rock and plastic, super sticky rubber, and a soft fit that delivers great sensitivity.
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