2015 Gear of the Year

Greetings adventurers!

2015 has been a truly amazing year for outdoor adventurers – be it weekend hiking, long distance hiking, trail running, ultra running, FKT’ing, fastpacking (whatever it is we are suppose to believe that is, on any given month), and of course packrafting and bikepacking and beyond!

We have seen some amazing new fabrics hit the market. We have seen some the movement of old school designs merged together with new technology (yes, you are welcome.) We have seen companies making drastic changes to their catalog of products to usher in a new wave. We have seen big name companies bring big name hikers into their folds to get real trail experience on their design teams. Perhaps the greatest of all has been the massive cross-over of products from different adventures types to different adventure types – garments that use to be used exclusively for hikers are now being used by trail runners, ultra trail runners, and beyond – and probably more importantly, vise-versa. Shoe companies are starting to see fast moving hikers using footwear used by ultra trail runners at an insane rate. Companies that traditionally only sold to hikers have expanded to entirely new outdoor markets. And the list could go on.

For this year, in my “Gear of the Year” article, I want to focus on just a few very specific pieces of gear. In previous years I have covered a broad swath of different gear I have used throughout the year. However I decided that for 2015, I am going to keep it very specific – to focus solely on those pieces of gear that I have felt are the top of the line pieces of gear – gear that will be going with me on my 2106 adventures – and really, is that not what is most important… gear worthy enough to make it onto the trail another year!

Six Moon Designs “Fusion 65” (2015)

Six Moon Designs (2015)
Six Moon Designs (2015) “Fusion 65”

The Fusion 65 has become my backpack of choice for hiking when I need larger volume and/or am out there with heavier loads.

Late in 2015 Six Moon Designs updated their “Fusion 65” and “Fusion 50” backpacks. Those who read my 2014 Gear of the Year article might remember I had some pretty good things to say about this backpack – going so far as to say that the Fusion backpack could “probably become a contender for one of the best long distance backpacks on the market“. I also highlighted three ‘cons’: hiker unfriendly pockets, volume sizes that seemed way off, and over the top straps not being long enough. Chris Townsend also had some pretty amazing things to say about the Fusion 65.

Six Moon Designs listened to what myself and hikers were saying and for the 2015 version they resolved all three of these issues, as well as making a number of other small changes to really fine tune the backpack.

The large front pocket has been redesigned, the side pockets have gotten larger and volume sizing issue have been corrected it. Other minor changes have also been made to really give this second generation of the pack some nice refinement.

What I stated last year as the highlights of this backpack remain to be true: once you get it dialed in to properly fit your body, the Six Moon Designs Fusion backpacks are, without any question at all, the best load bearing backpacks I have ever used – thanks to the hip belt, spine and shoulder yoke system they have put together.

Check out this post of mine that goes into a bit more detail of the pack, and be sure to take the time to read the comments, as there are some really good comments in that posts.

The 2015 Fusion 65 also introduced internal lateral stabilizers (see the 10:30 mark in my just-arrived video) that is suppose to help keep any lateral movement down to a minimum.

The Fusion 65 is technically rated at 67 liters, and 1470 grams, that places it at the 22 grams per liter mark. Perhaps a bit higher than other full size UL packs, but remember, all of those other UL packs have max load weight limits of, usually, around 35-40 pounds, and at those weights, the Fusion 65, because of the harness system, just does not even seem close to being an issue.

Most of my time outside last year, this year, and into next year, has been for the purposes of designing new trail routes. This has resulted in my having to be out with a larger backpack than in previous years of hiking. The need to carry additional water has been paramount. Having a backpack that can handle the weight has been extremely beneficial, and the Six Moon Designs Fusion 65 is unquestionably the backpack I am now reaching for. Giving the Six Moon Designs “Fusion 65” the “Backpack of the Year” award.

Long distance hikers… thru-hikers… this is the backpack you should be buying for your 2016 thru-hike!

Here is a video I put together about an hour after I got the 2015 generation of the Fusion 65, that highlights the differences of this second generation backpack.

ZPacks “Duplex” Shelter

ZPacks Duplex
ZPacks Duplex

I was far from the first to get what is so special about the ZPacks “Duplex”. As an obvious fanboy of ZPacks over the last few years, the Duplex just did not seem like something that was “me”. What made me eventually save up the money to buy it was the fact that I wanted more livable space. Spending the amount of days I do out on the trail, I just got tired of being inside of a shelter I could not turn all the way around inside of. I had just gotten to a point that I had had enough with solo shelters when living inside of them for 180-220 days a year. It took me selling almost all of my other shelters to pay for the Duplex, but it was so worth it.

The ZPacks “Duplex” is getting my “Shelter of the Year” award.

Why? Simple: near perfection.

As a solo hiker the Duplex offers an exceptional amount of livable space, yet is not so huge that you question why you would be using such a huge shelter as a solo hiker.

As a two person shelter it offers doors on both sides (so no climbing over your other half to go pee at 2am) and it has an insane weight-to-person ratio.

As a shelter, it offers about the maximum air flow that a fully enclosed shelter can. It hits the scale at the 20 ounce (567 grams) mark! It can handle any amount of rain you can possibly imagine, thanks to the inset storm doors and whooping 8 inch (20cm) bathtub walls!

Earlier this year I wrote a full review of the ZPacks Duplex and after reading it the folks at ZPacks set about to resolve every single “modification” that I listed would be great to see made. Over the course of the year they have – truly amazing. Just as amazing, this is one of those rare shelters that hikers around the world have gotten together and been modifying and sharing their mods on the internet for other hikers to try. I have put together two or three videos of my own on modifications to the Duplex, some of which have been tried by other hikers, and which ZPacks loved so much they integrated into the design of the Duplex.

Over the last five years I have bought an insane amount of shelter systems. I have kept only three of them. First is a ZPacks 80g cuben fiber tarp + TiGoat Bug Bivy. Second is the ZPacks Pocket Tent. Third is the ZPacks Duplex. Each of theses three shelter systems stand at the top of their respective shelter categories. Whether you are a solo hiker or hike with somebody else, the ZPacks “Duplex” is absolutely my “Shelter of the Year” awardee!

Mountain Laurel Designs “Spirit Quilt”

MLD Spirit Quilt, in fully open mode. Offering an at-home style of sleeping!
MLD Spirit Quilt, in fully open mode. Offering an at-home style of sleeping!

Last year I sent out an email to a small group of hikers that I truly respect, all of whom use synthetic sleeping quits, what they recommend I should buy. A full 100% of them said to get the Mountain Laurel Designs “Spirit Quilt”. I am not sure anything more needs to be said.

I have owned a lot of sleeping bags and quilts over the years, but I wanted to make the switch to using a synthetic sleeping system. So I sold all of my animal down sleeping bags and bought a Mountain Laurel Designs “Spirit 28° Quilt“. It has proven itself to  be an exceptional piece of gear and worthy of the praise of those that I know have used it for years.

When it comes to a quilt this is about as simple as it can get. A big sheet of Climashield Apex in between of some 10d fabric. A small bit of velcro for the foot box, and a small end plug to keep the cold air out. Unlike with animal down where you need a bunch of pockets/baffles to hold the animal down in a small area, with Apex there is no shifting of the thermal layer, so that makes it so you do not have to have a bunch of sew lines going through it, and realistically, none at all – and this is exactly what you get with the MLD Spirit quilts, unlike other companies making synthetic quilts that for whatever reason, seem to have this thing for sewing through the Apex.

With the 38° and 48° quilts you get the option of having a ‘Poncho Head Slot’, so you can wear it as a thermal in a sort of serape style garment. This can result in you saving the weight of a thermal garment – be it second layer thermal or a mid layer thermal.

You can check out my full review of the MLD Spirit.

Except for a few hikes this year where I did not need the temp rating or bulk of a full size quilt, the Mountain Laurel Designs “Spirit Quilt” has been my go-to sleeping quilt and thus has the top spot for my “Quilt of the Year” award!

Therm-a-Rest “Evolite” Sleeping Pad

Therm-a-Rest “EvoLite”

What do you do when you want just a bit more comfort than the quintessential Therm-a-rest “XLite” sleeping pad, yet do not want to sacrifice a lot of additional weight?

That was a question I asked myself.

Thankfully the kind folks at Therm-a-rest hooked me up with an early version of the new EvoLite sleeping pad. I have been using it exclusively since it showed up.

I have blabbered on-and-on about it over on my facebook page like a giddy school kid. From a weight perspective it is an additional 190 grams (6.7 oz) heavier than a XLite Large. My back and hips thank me the first hour or two of hiking in the morning.

What is the old hiker saying “sleep is the most important thing“. You do what you have to do to get a good night of sleep… pain free sleep. When  you spend the amount of days I do out on the trail, you just absolutely do not want to have to be pop’ing pain pills every day, that is just not good for the body.

So for me, a couple extra ounces in exchange for a good night sleep and no pain in the morning, that is worth it. And, let us just be honest, if you already use an XLite (or such) the same could be said… why not go without your XLite and just sleep right on the ground. Well, because that sucks and you want to not have a painful night sleep and wake up sore. No different. I just require a bit more padding.

I had already been using a heavy sleeping pad in order to get a good night sleep, by making the switch to the EvoLite I am saving 100 grams of pack weight (3.5 oz) compared to my other huge pad, and I am getting a significantly more comfortable sleeping pad, that requires less effort to inflate, and packs down smaller.

Therm-a-Rest is coming out with “Plus” version soon that is going to have a higher r-value (3.2) AND be a half-inch thicker, at 2.5 inches. I happen to have been given one and let me just say… “OMG”.  They are going to be making a “large” version (meaning: the much loved 25″ wide) that will be 1.9 pounds. A “large” XLite is 1.01 pounds. Ask me if I am going to care about that weight difference… rather yet, let me just give you the answer… yeah, I am going to buy one!!

When it comes to a large size sleeping pad that is the most comfortable sleeping pad I have ever used, the Therm-a-Rest EvoLite is without question getting my “Sleeping pad of the Year” award!

MSR WindBurner
MSR WindBurner

MSR “WindBurner”

Ok I cannot lie… I have way too many stove setups in my house. This year, due to state-wide limitations on what kind of stove systems are allowed in the State of California, I have, for the most part, been forced to only use canister stoves. This has been a bummer as I really do love my esbit cook systems. But, we do what we have to do.

My long time readers know I have written a lot about the Jetboil stove systems over the years. As I have previously written about, in November of 2014 while out on a trip I finally reached a point where I had had enough with the Jetboil stoves. I came back home and resolved to find something else to use. So I spent the money to piece together my own system from a few different companies. It worked, but I was not happen with it. Having seen the recently introduced MSR WindBurner perform in some rather intense conditions, I decided it was time to give it a try.

I have already published an article on the MSR WindBurner and encourage everybody to jump over there and read it. It has been my go-to stove system for the last few months. Highly impressed with how it performs. When it comes to needing a stove system for really bad weather conditions, the MSR WindBurner has absolutely proven itself to me – and many others.

My second “all in one” stove of choice would be the Jetboil Minimo. Yeah, yeah, it is a Jetboil, but it has the ability to cook meals inside of the pot – and by meals, I do mean full on meals. Soups, spuds, mac-n-cheese, any type of noodle meal you can think of, you can bake cakes in it, you can even safely cook rice inside of the Minimo. Like the MSR WindBurner, it is not the lightest stove out there, but when it comes to all-in-one stove systems, the WindBurner and the MiniMo get my stamp of approval.

Sun Precautions “Ultra Athlete Shirt” & Sun Precautions “Ultra Athlete Pants”

Sun Precautions
Sun Precautions “Ultra Athlete Shirt & Pants” while on the Bigfoot Trail in Northern California.

In mid-2014 I decided to make the switch to using the Sun Precautions “Ultra Athlete Shirt” and Sun Precautions “Ultra Athlete Pants” full time. For the last few years I have gone on-and-on about the Montbell Dynamo Wind Pants and Icebreaker top layers, but decided it was time to really commit to the Sun Precaution garments.

Combined with previous usage I now have a bit over 400 days of use with them.

Having spent over half my life in the desert, I understand the effects of the sun. Being somebody that has high sun skin sensitivity issues (not sun burning, but other medical issues) the need to protect my body from the sun is pretty high on my list of self-awareness while out on the trail. My father has spent nearly his entire live in the deserts of southern California and almost every time I see him he tells me, “John, I wish I was smarter about sun protection back when I was young, I am paying dearly for it now”, and he is. Last time we got together I gave him one of my Ultra Athlete Shirts and it has become his go-to shirt when he goes out fishing and has to spend time out under the sun. I originally purchased a set of white but I did not care for the colour so ordered up a pair of shirt/pants in ‘stone’ color and they are a much better color for being out on the trail.

There are a few companies selling what they call “sun protective” clothing, but most of them are, at best, laughable. When it comes down to it, there are only two companies out there making sun protective clothings that are worth the money, and when you want the best of those two, you buy from Sun Precautions. They are the best. The market leader.

The “Ultra Athlete” lineup of the Sun Precaution catalog of garments are designed primarily for desert runners – initially designed for the Badwater Marathon, if I remember correctly. They offer ventilation slits in the legs, chest, and back area. These ventilation areas allow air to flow into the garments and push out body heat. Yet, and this is what makes them so special, they are designed in such a way that even though they have ventilation slits, the design does not allow sun/skin exposure. Along the arms are some vented fabric areas to help keep your arms cool. While it is possible for sun/skin contact in this mesh area, it is not something I have ever noticed.

The pants, even while walking, have a noticeable amount of airflow. Many a morning and early evenings I have found it necessary to slip on my Montbell Dynamo Wind Pants and my ZPacks Wind Jacket over the Sun Precautions, in order to act as a thermal barrier, but after the temps warm up, I just slip off them off and I am good to go.

The shirt has a nice mid-chest lateral pocket. Cannot fit an iphone 6+ inside of it (sadly) but a small power bar or such can fit into the pocket. I almost always keep things like Blistex and Ayr Saline Nasal Gel in the pocket, for quick and super easy access.

In 2014 while at the adzpctko I spoke two a few hikers that had been using them for years. One lady, who was wearing a Sun Precautions shirt, said she had been using/wearing her original shirt that she got for hiking the PCT, over twenty years ago – I had no idea they had even been around that long. Another hiker told me he had been wearing the same Sun Precautions shirt on for of his thru-hikes. I am somebody that usually takes ultra-sensitive care of his gear, but I have to be honest and say I have not given even a single thought towards treating my shirt with even a bit of TLC, and aside from a few stain marks from slobbering food while eating while I am hiking, the shirt has taken all of the abuse I have thrown at it.

For max sun protection and exceptional durability, I am proud to give the Sun Precautions “Ultra Athlete Shirt” and Sun Precautions “Ultra Athlete Pants” my “Garments of the Year” award!

Montbell Thermawrap Jacket
Montbell Thermawrap Jacket

Montbell Thermawrap JacketMontbell Thermawrap Pants

When it came to thermals this year, I went back to some garments I had bought a few years ago and never used, the Montbell Thermawrap JacketMontbell Thermawrap Pants. I liked them so much I even got a new pair here a short bit ago, because I have lost so much weight my old pair were waaay to big.

Unlike the animal down jacket market, there are not a whole lot of companies out there making ultralight synthetic thermals. Most folks agree that the ones from Montbell are pretty much at the top of the market. As light as they can be, excellent synthetic material, a perfect compromise in fabric, and you put all that together and you get the best of the best, from Montbell.

I have had hikers tell me that they have used their thermawrap jacket for years and years – far longer than I knew they were even made.

Hitting the scale at only 8 ounces, about as minimal of sew lines as is warranted, and some nice little features really make the Thermawrap jacket and pants the ideal mid baselayers.

I also own the Montbell Thermawrap Guide Jacket, which is just a beast of a synthetic jacket, but it only comes out  when it starts getting really cold.

While the Thermawrap Jacket does not have a hood (thereby it is not a parka) that is perfectly ok as I already carry a MLD Balaclava, which I got when I bought the Spirit Quilt talked about above.

While the pants do not go with me, and to be honest, do not get all that much use, the jacket is pretty much my go-to jacket and goes with me just about everywhere, including around town when I am at home. It is a good looking jacket, keeps me as warm as a mid-layer thermal should, and priced at only $129 bucks, yeah, the Montbell Thermawrap Jacket is getting my “Jacket of the Year” award!

Hoka One One
Hoka One One “Speedgoat”

Hoka One One “Speedgoat” Shoes

I have had a long, and well documented, history of trying out different shoes over the last five-plus years.

From the once-amazing Brooks Cascadia G4 & G5 (which went down-hill after gen5), to the La Sportiva Electron (a truly amazing trail running shoe, but was not good for hiking), to my previous favorite shoe, the Inov-8 Trailroc 245, and before that the Inov-8 X-Talon 212 (the most extreme of them all), and even a pair of those Vibram FiveFingers Spyridon LS things. I have also extensively hiked and trail run using my favorite sandals, the Luna Oso.

Check out photos that I posted over on facebook of the HOO Speedgoat if you are interested in seeing some of my pictures of these amazing shoes!

Before the HOO Speedgoat shoes, I had been wearing the Altra ‘Olympus’ shoes – basically the extra-thick-padding version of the massively popular Altra ‘Lone Peak’ – which triple-triple Lint loves wearing. But I started having some problems with the Olympus. First I started having some pretty serious ankle twisting. This seems to be a rather popular issue with the Olympus, and by far the thing I got the most questions about from other trail runners. In order to counter that my body started re-adjusting my gait and that unfortunately resulted in my rubbing/hitting my shoes against each other, just ever so slightly every few steps. I ended up with a pair of shoes that almost had holes in them right below the lateral malleolus.

When the Hoka One One “Speedgoat” was announced I decided I would make the change, and when I did everything changed for me. They have less padding than the Olympus, so they ride lower to the ground – and combined with some ‘side-cuts’ on the sole, I have had zero ankle rolling (weeee!) The Speedgoat is possible the most breathable trail runner shoe I have ever used. It is also, for whatever and unknown reason, the first trail runner shoe I have not had to pull out the insole and replace with a pair of Sole footbeds. It also has some crazy sweet lugs that give awesome grip in muddy conditions, while crossing slippery rocky rivers, and such. The only better slugs I have ever encountered are on the Inov-8 X-Talon 212 shoes, but they offer pretty much zero foot pad protection when compared to the Speedgoat.

But most importantly, the Hoka One One “Speedgoat” has proven, even in the short time period that I have used it, to be the most supportive and comfortable pair of trail running, and trail hiking, shoes that I have used.

There has been a lot of buzz about the Hoka One One shoes for the last few years. Now with my first pair, I have finally understood why. The Speedgoat is far from the lightest shoe they make, and far from the most padded shoe they make. It seems to be falling into that sweet spot, at least for me, and that makes it my “Shoe of the Year” awardee!

ZPacks Carbon Fiber Staff

Picking an “Accessory of the Year” award was not an easy thing. Think of all the stuff that ends up inside our backpacks… sooo many things I had to pick from. Sawyer Squeeze, Optimus spoon, Optimis fork, Vargo Titanium bottle (winter sleeping bag warmer, stuffed into a wigwam sock), the zpacks multi-pack, klymit pillow, suntactics solar panel, suluk46 trowel, black rock gear foldable gloves, my favorite torches, the RoadID, you know how it goes…

Earlier this year I did up a full review of the ZPacks Carbon Fiber Staff, you should go check it out as it will really go into all the details.

But eventually I did have to pick something, and when it came down to it, the ZPacks Carbon Fiber Staff just ended up being that one special piece of gear that has really stood out to me, amongst all of the other pieces of accessory items I use on a day to day basis while out on the trail. I holds me up. It clears the spider webs in the mornings. It helps me cross rivers. It holds back bushes and other things that want to rip my body apart (did I mention about a bazillion times over the last few years that I hate blackberry bushes?). It has gotten action while having dogs running at me (because their idiot owners don’t know what the hell a leash is.) It has been used to hold up my shelter when I couldn’t find a stick off the ground that was long enough. It has caused almost every hiker I have encountered on the trail to stop and ask about it (which has lead to waaaaay to many conversations about two poles vs one staff.)

But in the end, I think it is just one of those special pieces of gear that means something to me, for perhaps no reason at all, or, perhaps because of some very special reason. What matters is that I like it, and it is getting my “Accessory of the Year” award!

Thank you,
+John Abela

In accordance of USA Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR, Part 255: I hereby declare that at the time this article is published that I am a sponsored hiker of Black Rock Gear, Montbell US, Suluk46, Sun Precautions, Suntactics.

All mentioned gear within this article I have paid for, with the exception of: TaR sent me an evolite before they were on the market to do testing & evaluation of, and msr sent me a windburner to do performance and efficiency testing and reporting. a big part of what I do within the industry is test and report back findings to the gear companies. In regards to both of these products, regardless of my method of acquiring them, they have both proven to me over the course of time I have used them to be exceptional pieces of gear – that stand out from the rest of similar products I have used over the course of this year. If they had sucked, I would not have awarded them, even having been sent them without paying for them. I received other items this year, for t&e purposes, that did not stand out above-and-beyond, and they are not listed here. Worthy products deserve recognition.

7 thoughts on “2015 Gear of the Year

  1. Gday. I wonder if you’ve ever looked into being able to type on a smartphone while out on the trail? I’ve been doing a bit of research as I maybe starting a doctorate next year which will involve a lot of time out on trail. I’m wondering if there’s a light way of getting those blog entries/essays written while out in your tent rather than writing realms of notes and having to type them up once home. Firstly, typing in notepad on airplane mode in a iphone. Secondly, using either a apple magic keyboard (230g) or a wekey (160g) or logitech keys-to-go (180g). The apple one appears to be the best to type on but a bit heavier. And thirdly, the problem of charging your phone once it goes flat – either with powerbank or solar or wind. If you’ve given any of this some thought I’d be interested to hear. Thank you

    1. Howdie Jim,

      A bit outside the scope of this blog, but I will do what I can to answer some of these questions.

      For the most part I do not carry electronics that do what it is you are talking about, so I have very little experience to draw on. Perhaps 5% of the time I spend on trail involves me taking a smart phone.

      The one thing I could address is the solar charger. Myself and a whole lot of other hikers have been using the Suntactics sCharger-5 to be able to charge up our electronics. I carry one that I use to re-charge an Anker power brick, which I than use to recharge my Iridium Extreme satphone and my Garmin GPSMAP 64 devices.

      My advice would be to ask these questions to Erin “Wired” Saver. She is a triple crowner who has documented all of her hiking, while out on the trail… so she probably has a ton of insight into how to answer these questions!

      (ps: I hope you enjoyed this article!)

  2. Great article! thinking about replacing my six moon sky scape with z pack duplex. Also, looking at sun clothing for Christmas gifts! thanks for your reviews. / Tony

  3. Hi Thank you for your reply above. On another item: how is your apex balaclava working out? I see it mentioned in your 2014 gear review – but you only just received it. Any advice about 2oz vs 4oz warmth and sizing? Thank you

    1. Hey Jim,

      I am absolutely loving my Mountain Laurel Designs ‘APEX Balaclava’.

      I have given up one of my most prized and cherished gear of all time… the Nunatak Balaclava… in my progression to move away from animal down. So amazingly happy with the MLD one.

      2oz vs 4oz… my thoughts: go with the 4oz.

      sizing… I got the large and it fits well. Not to snug that I cannot put it on (do have to take my glasses off) and not so baggy that it flops all around when I am tossing and turning at night.

      The only thing that would make it move up into the “OMG!!!” classification would be if it had snaps closures on the face, like the Nunatak version, because that option just makes it really amazing to help vent when/if it gets too hot.

      Being synthetic, MLD did the really smart thing and kept thread lines through the insulation at pretty much as minimal as can be. Seen other synth balaclavas out there with waaaay too mean thread lines through them. Bad, bad, bad.

      Anyway Jim, yep, hopefully you can tell I am super happy with it.

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