Wow winter season is fast approaching and it is time for my Favorite Gear of the Year for 2017.
A few of the items are going to be fairly long term gear, having used them for a season or two, or more, yet I still consider them the best-of. Similarly, some of the gear is going to be pretty new pieces for me, things that I just started using this year but that have impressed me enough to highlight them.
This article will not be just about gear. Down towards the bottom I will share some of my favorite videos, website, things I am looking forward to trying next year, and some honorable mentions. Please do not forget to read the disclaimer at the bottom of the article. And a special thank you to those folks who have joined my patron page this year!
Anyway, with all the mumbojumbo out of the way, here are my picks for the 2017 season!
My Favorite Shelter:
The MSR FreeLite 2.
The FreeLite 2 has become my favorite shelter to grab this year, without a doubt! Yep, it is a three pound shelter (3.04 pounds, including shelter, stuff sack, poles and stakes) but by gosh, this is one of those shelters that is just worth grabbing off the shelf when it is time to go out on nice enjoyable short hikes, something I have done significantly more of this year than in years past.
The vast majority of the time I have taken without the rainfly, just carrying the inner, poles and stakes, which brings the weight down to 1.77 pounds. Totally do’able.
I tried really hard, earlier this year, to give the bivouac an honest try, really, I did. But the net-in-the-face just got old. With very little rain this year, being able to go out with just a bug shelter/inner, the FreeLite 2 in bug setup, at 1.77 pounds, was a pretty nice setup for me. Those times when I did know that there was possibly going to be inclement weather, it was easy enough to toss in the rain fly and know that I was going to stay dry, out of the cold/wet weather, and have a fair bit of room inside thanks to my choice of going with the 2P version.
My Favorite Backpack:
This tiny little 22L backpack is one of those backpacks that pushes the boundaries, even for sub 2268 hikers. But if you have your stuff dialed in, really dialed in, and typically do not need to carry more than three days worth of food, the MLD Core 22 should be your next backpack purchase.
I did a full article on the Core 22 earlier this year and it goes into all of the stats and such, and I fully understand that the average hiker just cannot accept a backpack that does not have pockets. But pocketless backpacking has been my preferred style of hiking for over five years. It does present a couple of small challenges, but they can be overcome easily enough, just like other challenges different backpacks may present.
The Core 22 has a place in the world of sub 2268 hikers, weekenders that got their stuff together, day hikers that want a small pack, or just a simple BOB. The Dyneema X fabric can take a beating and keep on going, and has quickly become my backpack fabric of choice. I will take Dx over DCF and X-Pac without any hesitation.
Going with the Core 28L over the Core 22L can probably be a wise decision, as the little Core 22L can get pretty tight at times, and those extra six liters can mean a bit more food or a bit warmer garment. Regardless, the Mountain Laurel Designs ‘Core 22l’ Backpack has been the primary backpack that I pick up when it is time to head out of the house.
My Favorite Fanny Pack:
Whether you mock them, or like me, think they should be an integral part of a hikers gear setup – especially if you have a super low volume, hip beltless backpack, a fanny pack can be a super sweet way to solve a bunch of problems with current backpack hip belts/pockets. And, if you do have a hip beltless backpack, a fanny pack can be sweeeet.
Personally, I think the Groove Stereo is unquestionably the best fanny pack out there. Yeah, it does not have a huge volume pocket, that the more traditional fanny pack has. Instead, it has two water bottle pockets (which can be used for storing/holding most stuff) and one little zippered pocket (which I keep my wind jacket in) and one little stuff pocket right behind the zipper pocket (which I usually do not use), and then on the other side (front) of the fanny pack, it has a pouch for keeping your huge phone inside of, or maps, or whatever.
I used the Zpacks Multipack for years, read my article on it, but the absolutely comfort of the belt on the UD Groove Stereo just kept me reaching for it over the Multipack to a point where I just ended up putting the multipack into a long term storage box. I can carry pretty much the same amount of stuff in both of them, but the Groove Stereo makes it easier to get to my water, is way more comfortable, and rides a whole lot better thanks to a much taller and significantly more adjustable belt system. I have a few photos of the Ultimate Direction ‘Groove Stereo’ that shows the different pockets and such.
My Favorite Quilt:
The Mountain Laurel Designs ‘FKT Quilt’ is starting to make a name for itself. Jupiter Hikes, on his 4,800-mile Eastern Continental Trail hike used the FKT quilt. I use it pretty much every night, both at home on my bed and out on the trail.
Earlier this year I did a full article on the FKT quilt and I highly recommend reading that article. Since the time that I purchased my first FKT quilt, I contacted MLD to see if they would make a ‘reversed approach‘ design (see my full article for more on this) and the reversed approach has just nailed it for me. Having the extra thermal at my core body has proven to be the ideal way for me to go about things, as I do not typically need warmth on my legs/feet. I am not advocating this approach, just sharing that it has worked out for me.
The Mountain Laurel Designs ‘FKT Quilt‘ has proven itself to me to be the perfect summer and even shoulder season quilt. If you are somebody that already knows and understands how to use a quilt, and if you are looking for something to help you focus, or even refocus, how you approach thermal sleeping, and if you are willing to exchange a tiny bit of pack volume for the advantages of synthetic insulation over animal down (read ‘why synthetic‘), the Mountain Laurel Designs ‘FKT Quilt’ really should be replacing whatever you are currently using!
My Favorite Top Garment:
This T-shirt, from my favorite sun protective clothing company, Solumbra, is actually a long sleeve t-shirt, that is designed with a unique four way stretch fabric, that has a 100+ SPF rating, and has been my go-to garment for day to day wear – including helping me survive ground temps in excess of F130° while out on the trail near Death Valley. It is an amazing garment that can handle it all
I have pretty much lived in these shirts since January of 2016, and in September of last year, 2016, I ordered a second one, as I needed a smaller one from losing so much weight. My second one, in blue, I have worn almost everyday since it showed up, I think there were three days that I have not had it on, so I guess that puts this second one at over a year of wearing it, and about 250 days with my first one, so combined over 600 days of use.
The Solumbra ‘BodyShade Workout Athletic T-Shirt’ is one of those garments that took me by surprise. After 600+ consecutive days of wearing the Solumbra Ultra Athlete shirt (another amazing garment from them) I did not expect to find anything that was going to really make me happy. The Ultra Athlete shirts are absolutely amazing in crazy – stupidly – hot weather, and would still be my garment of choice for temps above F100°, but the BodyShade has gone above and beyond in proving itself to be a truly versatile garment for everything but those hottest of hot days.
I have worn it mostly as a NtS garment, but at times as a L1, over either a merino wool tshirt or a Mountain Hardwear ‘WickedCool Tank’, depending on if I wanted the warmth, or needed to shed the warmth. It is a surprising versatile top garment!
My Favorite Bottom Garment:
Back in February I posted my 400+ days of use article on the Solumbra ‘Active Pants‘. At this point I have now passed the 600+ days of use wearing these things. Freaking amazing. Zero rips. Zero holes. Holding up beyond what I could have ever thought they would – far beyond what I thought they would when I took them out of the package.
I am not sure what else there is to say beyond what I have already said about them.
My Favorite Jacket:
Listen, pretty much everybody knows that this is the jacket for those wanting an UL synthetic lightweight jacket. It ticks off pretty much every thing there is that needs ticking off to make it the best. Read more about my pros/cons on this jacket in my 2016 article on it. Pretty much everything that I wrote about how awesome of a jacket was last year, still stands. I know so many hikers that use this jacket. Big mileage hikers. It has some amazing respect within the world of synthetic jackets. It pretty much speaks for itself. ‘Nough said.
My Favorite Shoes:
After some injuries last year, including some foot injuries, I went through four or five different shoes trying to find something that helped. Nothing did. One day I reached down and put on my old Teva Fi Llite sandals. Later that day I realize my foot was not the size of a pumpkin, like it normally was. ‘WTF?‘ I thought to myself. Turns out that my shoes were causing pressure on my foot that was exacerbating my foot problems, even a pair of shoes that I have bought that were 1.5 sizes larger (specifically because of foot swelling issues) than I normally wear, but even they did not help. Now, I still have foot swelling problems, but at least when wearing these sandals, there is room for the pumpkin to grow/go, so to speak.
I had bought these Teva sandals back in early 2014 and they have mostly sat around, being something I might have put on once or twice a year since I bought them. IIRC I picked them up because I was doing a lot of river crossings back then during day hikes.
Anyway, yeah, I have been wearing these things almost every day all year long. They have reminded me what all there is to love about sandals. Some may remember I use to wear Luna sandals, and really enjoyed them, but the huarache style (between the toe) style just really hurt my foot because of my foot injury, so I could not use them, and thus the over-the-toe style of Terra Fi Lite have really done the trick for me. My feet can swell and shrink (drastically) throughout the day, and I do not have the issues that I do with a fully enclosed shoe. Woot.
Favorite Sleeping Pad:
Over the last three years I have been testing and testing (and testing) so many different sleeping pads, for so many different companies, that I have lost track of them all. Sometime earlier this year I just got sick of testing sleeping pads, and told everybody that I was done. With dozens of them sitting around my house, from full production pads to ones that will never see the light of day, I had a whole bunch to choose from. It was really a no brainer… the NeoAir Xlite.
The top dog in the industry. The pad every other pad is judged against. So now I am back to enjoying the uber comfort of my large size, yep, the large, 25-incher, NeoAir XLite. Sleep bliss. I have returned.
My Favorite Cook Pot:
For some reason I went on a cooking pot quest this year. I went through I think 7 different cooking pots. Now, carefully note my continual use of the word “cooking” there. I have been wanting to get back into cooking while out on the trail, instead of either no-cook or just doing the freeze-dried / dehydrated food thing.
This ceramic cook pot from MSR is actually my newest acquisition, and I think it is the finest, highest quality, backpacker cooking pot that I have ever bought. The days of ‘hot spots’ on the pot are pretty much non existent, and the ceramic no-stick is just amazing.
Actually cooking full on meals in this thing. Mind blowing. Yeah it is a couple ounces heavier than anything else I have of the same basic capacity, but I am cooking things that are simply unthinkable in any titanium pot. I have intentionally tried to burn food in this pot and it just will not happen – unlike every titanium pot that I have ever owned that would burn food, just by looking at it wrong.
At 1.3 liters the MSR Solo Ceramic Cook Pot can sometimes feel a bit too big – I have tended to like the 900ml range, but the 1.3L works out great for full on meals being cooked, but maybe in the future MSR can release an 800ml or 900ml version, that would be sweeet!
The Montbell SunBlock Umbrella. Freaking love this little thing. Gone are the days of that mammoth size ChromeDome sticking five feet above the top of my backpack!
The Suluk46 Trowel. Often imitated, never beaten. The Suluk 46 trowel has undergone a couple of small design changes, including removal of the holes (that was at my request) and there are now two different sizes – I prefer the larger version.
The Black Rock Gear ‘Synthetic Beanie’. I spent over a year working with BRG to bring this to market. It has been slowly getting accepted and every few weeks I hear from somebody that has gotten one. Whether you are an animal down user or a synthetic insulation user, Black Rock Gear has you covered, but being a synth guy, this is a beanie that I wear pretty much every day of my life. Really. Seriously. Every night.
My Favorite Websites:
I want to actually share three, a resource website, a commerce website, and a writer/blogger.
The first is lighterpack. What a great little website it has turned into. And being over on Github it has been great being able to help report on bugs, offer help, feedback and all that.
The second is Massdrop. It has been really neat to see the folks at Massdrop work with a number of the Cottage(+) outdoor companies to bring to a broader market some of the gear we all love, and at times at some pretty sweet discounts.
The third is the website of Andrew Skurka. Not just because it is Skurka, but because, without knowing it, he has really spoken to me this year. I have always followed him. Learned an insane amount from studying him over the years. But over the last couple of years he has been finding new adventures in live. Running. Hunting. Family. Becoming a gear designer. All that stuff. Through it all he has continued to stay involved in the ‘community’, and that is something I have found to amazing. I think back to the guys that were hardcore youtubers and writers back when I was first getting serious into backpack. Not a single one of them are still out there doing their thing. They all moved on in life, found new adventures, got bored, or whatever, and pretty much disappeared off the face of the planet. Jason Klass comes to mind. Man, I use to be addicted to watching his videos. But anyway, yeah, through all the life changes, Skurka has remained committed to continuing to publish articles at his website, about all different types of things, and that has meant a lot to me. ps: if you have not read his second edition of his book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide, Second Edition: Tools and Techniques to Hit the Trail, you really really should! It took me about 180 pages before I read something that I just plain flat out did not know, but for all those pages leading up to that point, most of it was spent with me going “dang, i had to learn that the hard way!” over and over and over again.
My Favorite YouTube Videos:
I have marked over 50 videos within my favorite youtube playlist this year, but here are a few that I have wanted to share:
More than just 52 minutes of a great man building a wood bucket… life lessons here!
An amazing video of Jonathan Stewart exploring the Upper Dolpo Nepal.
I have invested a great deal of time the last couple of years trying to educate folks on using safer fuel sources. Here is a great example of just how dangerous alcohol stoves can be – and remember, these are hikers with about ten thousand miles of hiking!
Probably the cutest video I have watched this year!
How to bake a cake in an orange – omg! Still have not tried this, but so want to one of these days!
Like a couple of the other videos above, this video by Christof Teuscher truly spoke to me deep down inside.
Lastly, Arnold Schwarzenegger shares what he feels are 6 rules of personal success.
I did not do all that many videos this year, a dozen or so maybe, and I think my favorite one that I did I never actually hit the publish button on, just because it was so out of character for me, but, I think my second favorite one, or rather my favorite published video, was the one that I did on the Zpacks Vertice Rain Jacket. I only used this jacket for a few days in the rain, but OMG did it impress the crap out of me. The 56,000k+ g/m2/24hrs JISS L 1099 rating goes a long way in making this one hell of a rain jacket! I just wish I would have kept my wind/rain pants on before shooting this video. For some stupid reason I took them off while setting up camp, and forgot to put them back on when I left camp to go shoot this video. doh/sigh.
Here are a few items that would have gotten, or came very close to, getting the Gear of the Year award, and why they did not.
Shelter: I would say that the next best option to the MSR FreeLite 2 would be the Six Moon Designs ‘Haven Tarp + NetTent’. Which is $350 bucks and 950 grams (2.09 pounds) but does not have dedicated poles and is more of a PITA to setup (video), though I sure do love my CF Haven+NetTent! Now, the Six Moon Designs ‘Cuben Haven + NetTent’ would have gotten my number one pick but it has not been available for a couple of years, and I just could not give a Gear of the Year award to a product that folks cannot buy.
There is, of course, the Zpacks Duplex if you do not want the advantages that come with the double wall shelter of the SMD Haven or the FreeLite 2. The MSR FreeLite 2 is a bit over twice the weight (784 grams heavier) of a Zpacks Duplex, but the FreeLite 2 is (MSRP) $159 bucks cheaper, and if you buy it at amazon or other websites, it can be as low as $350, making it $250 bucks cheaper than a Duplex. Plus, you get the added benefit of having a double wall shelter, or just a bug shelter, or just a tarp. And the FreeLite 2 is about a bazillion times easier to setup (and waaaay faster, less screwing around) than the Duplex, especially if you are a solo hiker and trying to setup it up in the wind. Not intending to dis’ on the Duplex, just wanting to share that the MSR FreeLite 2 has given me more options, for about half the price (when on sale) and it has a smaller pack volume consumption. But, all that said, if I was after a larger livable space shelter (2p) and weight was an absolutely concern (say, a thru-hike), it would be really hard to try to pick between the crazy weight savings of the Duplex, over the versatility (bug net only option for the non raining nights) of the double wall FreeLite 2. That would be a really hard pick for me.
Backpack: Vargo Exo-Ti 50. What a brilliant backpack. And, what a shame it has not gotten the recognition that it deserves. I have talked and wrote so much over the last few years about LWD (Load Weight Distribution) and in every way the Exo-Ti 50 nails it. The main reason it did not take my Gear of the Year award is because I almost never use it. At 50+ liters it is almost three times the pack volume that I need. Now, come winter and thus larger pack loads, who knows, maybe it will take my ‘Winter Gear of the Year’ award… I am guessing it probably will.
Quilt: I had the oppertunity to work with Enlightened Equipment on R&D of their new synthetic Enigma quilt. In every way this is an exceptional quilt. A cooker too, I actually thought the temp rating was on the conservative side, most nights it cooked me out of it. My one issue with it, has nothing to do with anything but personal preference, and that is that I just do not like sewn closed foot boxes. As it was during their R&D process, getting a Revelation APEX has not an option, as it has a full open footbox, that would be more along the lines of what I would get – if I needed something to get me down into the F20° range, which is pushing things for the MLD Spirit 28, an EE Revelation APEX 20°F would be my go-to purchase.
Trekking Poles: If they had not been taken out of production, the Appalachian Ultralight ‘Bear Batons’ Trekking Poles would have made it into my Favorite Gear List. I have no idea if AU plans to every re-introduce these trekking poles, but if they do, you gotta try a pair of these! Favorite trekking poles ever!
Shoes: Hoka One One Speedgoat. Oh my did I fall in love with this shoe. But they wore out fast, really fast, especially the lugs. And at the $100+ price range, they just got too expensive to keep replacing. I did try the Altra LP 2.5 shoes, and while they were comfy, they got nothing on the HOO Speedgoat.
In The Works:
Here are a few items that I have been giving a try, and so far have been impressing me, but that I have not used enough to make the list.
Kora ‘Xenolith’ Sweater. This is the most technologically designed garment I have ever put on. Yak Wool. Merino Wool. Polartec Alpha. OMG. This garment has gone from being a NtS garment to being a L3 garment since I got it. An incredibly expensive garment, but a garment with incredible diversification!
Peak To Plateau ‘Kailash 1/4 Zip’. I got this from their initial Kickstarter campaign. I keep giving it a try, finding that I like it, but then it seems to work its way out of my system, only for me to come back around to it at a later time. My goal with this garment has been to use it as a L1, over the NWAlpine 100% merino wool tshirt and under the Kora Xenolith, for a multi-layer of awesomeness.
Looking Forward To Trying:
Here are a couple of products not yet on the market (as of Oct 01, 2017) that I am really looking forward to giving a try.
Sawer Foam+ Filter. I have been a fan of water bottle filters for a few years, and the amount of long distance hikers that attach their Sawyer onto the top of a SmartWater bottle is just huge these days. Sawyer has taken their existing water filter bottle and switched things up a bit. I really do think that the ‘S1’ is probably going to be the most popular, and I think the ‘S2’ is also going to be pretty sweet, being a virus level purifier. (if you do not know the difference between ‘filter’ and ‘purifier’, you should go research it) The addition of a Foam membrane on the inside of the bottle, with the Sawyer filter on top of the bottle is taking the whole concept of water bottle filtration/purification to a whole new level in the outdoor industry.
Sierra Designs ‘High Side Tent’. A bit of what I talked about in my favorite shelter pick comes back around to my wanting to give this a try. In almost every way I could care less about the rain fly, I just want to give this thing a go as a super glorified bug net / bivouac. Check out the video and my further thoughts over on my patreon post about this shelter.
Just the standard disclaimer of mine: I am sponsored by a few of these companies. Amazingly, less than 1% of the full production gear that I have within my gear list/closet is gear that I have received for free from my sponsors. I just prefer to buy my hiking gear, even from companies that sponsor me. Additionally, throughout each year, I help numerous companies – sponsored and unsponsored, both cottage and non cottage – with R&D and T&E of potential new gear As one would expect with the gear being alpha/beta/proto status gear, it is typically all provided on a ‘return’ basis, that is, I return the gear after doing my R&D/T&E, and often times there are NDA’s involved. Very little of it I get to keep, and what I do, even less of it I actually keep, instead choosing to give it away around Christmas season in my annual ‘HikeLighter Christmas Giveaways‘ – during which over $5,000 worth of gear has been given away, with the vast majority of it going to thru-hikers that have lost gear and/or have had gear stolen.