Gadling Gear Review: This Year’s Favorite Gear

I’ve been reviewing gear for a few years now. I wrote for a snowshoeing magazine and a site focused on gear for travelers before I joined the Gadling crew. That means I’m kind of a tough sell when it comes to new outdoor and travel clothing, bags and accessories. And I test everything, I ride my bike in the rain to see if that jacket is really waterproof, I wrangle that roller bag into the overhead bin, I wear those noise-canceling headsets on a long-haul flight. I pay attention to what always makes it into the bag, to what gets used more than once, to what works. Here are six things that really worked from this year’s gear.

Birki’s Skipper Slides
: You could not have told me that a shoe from Birkenstock would become a (fair weather) travel favorite, but they’re great for long-haul flights, easy to get in and out of at the airport, they do double duty as slippers or flip-flops when you’re running down the hall to the ice machine and, though they may not suit your style – they’re very casual – I love these things and think they’re great if you’ve got room for a second pair of shoes in your bag.

Ozone Ultralight Roller from Osprey: Just about perfect as a weekender, at its smallest size, this super light bag holds everything you need for a three-day getaway. What’s causing it to miss the 100% mark? It needs a shoulder strap for when it’s not appropriate to roll it. That aside, this is an extremely well designed bag with lots of pockets in sensible places – there’s even a place for your netbook or tablet – and it looks cool.

Gregory’s Border Laptop Backpack
: Everyone’s got a system for getting you through the TSA checkpoint with your laptop pack; most of them are fine. They all seem to use the same open flat configuration, but that doesn’t mean they also make a great day pack. The Border pack is full of sensible pockets that are exactly the right size and shape for whatever it is you’re carrying. If you can’t find the right place for it in this pack, you don’t need to be carrying it. (Ok, one exception: it’s not built to carry a DSLR.) This is, hands down, the best laptop pack I’ve tested.Mophie Juice Pack Plus: Addicted to your phone for travel apps, podcasts, photography, etc.? Yeah, me too. Which means I’m always burning through the battery. The Mophie Juice Pack Plus doubles the life of your phone by wrapping it in a case with an integrated battery. Strategists can shut down some of those power sucking things like Wi-Fi or data to get even more time out of it. That’s a terrific extra for the mobile addict.

Panasonic Lumix: I’m a devoted photographer and at times I carry a big heavy DSLR with big heavy lenses. But I sprung for a new Lumix this year and I left my DSLR at home for two big trips. I’ve been so happy with what the Lumix offers me – excellent optics, works beautifully in low light, all kinds of customization settings for photo nerds, and it fits in my pocket. I love this thing. Love it.

SmartWool Anything: Lots of brands are making nice stuff out of merino wool these days and it’s good stuff. Icebreaker makes styling clothing and base layers, Nau makes cool pieces that pack well; it’s all great stuff. SmartWool has been around forever, though, and while they’re not the cheapest and don’t always have the edge on style, they’re stuff is consistently excellent and it lasts for a very long time. I have SmartWool gear that I purchased more than ten years ago and it’s still in great shape. Their gear fits, wears tough and lasts. Get whatever you like, but the midweight stuff that they came out with this year? Aces. It’s rare that I’ll endorse a specific brand so whole-heartedly, but I am never disappointed with their gear. Never.

[Image credit: Packing for NZ by herdingnerfs via Flickr - Creative Commons]

Gadling Gear Reveiw: Osprey Atmos 50 Backpack

The Osprey Atmos 50 BackpackI’m one of those people who almost exclusively uses a backpack when traveling. I simply prefer carrying my gear on my back rather than dragging it behind me in a piece of luggage, particularly when navigating through a busy airport. Over the years I’ve managed to collect a number of packs in a variety of sizes, which makes each of them useful depending on the length of the trip. Whether it’s a weekend escape to the coast or a month’s long expedition to the Himalaya, I have a pack suitable for the journey.

My favorite pack by far is my trusty Atmos 50 from Osprey. Not only is it comfortable and spacious, but it is also rugged enough to withstand the rigors of the road. It is so good in fact that it has been a constant companion on trips to six different continents. When I heard that Osprey had updated the Atmos with a new model I was eager to discover if they had managed to improve on the already great design or if their tinkering was ultimately detrimental to the product that I already loved. I needn’t have worried one bit.

Fundamentally the Atmos 50 remains largely unchanged. As the name implies it has a capacity of 50 liters, most of which is contained in its cavernous main storage compartment. A removable storage pocket on the lid is perfect for keeping small gear items close at hand while two large front pockets help to keep other essential items well organized. An integrated hydration sleeve allows backpackers to stay well hydrated on the trail while removable sleeping pad straps and tool attachments extend the carrying capacity beyond just the pockets themselves.As you would expect, the trademark Osprey comfort remains intact on the new Atmos packs as well. An easily adjustable harness makes it a cinch to find the right fit for nearly any body type and a new, thickly padded, hip belt can be adjusted quickly and easily without ever having to take the pack off. The shoulder straps cinch up tightly to keep the Atmos locked in place while on the move, yet still allow the wearer nearly unrestricted motion, even while carrying a heavy load.

One of my favorite features of the original Atmos 50 was the integrated AirSpeed frame, which allows for the passage of air between the wearer’s body and the pack itself. This feature comes in very handy on long days on the trail as it provides some ventilation to the back, keeping you as comfortable and cool as possible, even while carrying a lot of gear. The new version of the Atmos has a redesigned frame that is smaller and lighter yet still manages to perform at the same level as the original. Because the new frame design is more compact and flexible, it is much easier to get this new pack into an overhead compartment, which is always appreciated on crowded flights.

Despite all of the things I love about the Atmos, both old and new, there are still areas where it could be improved. For example, as good as my original Atmos 50 is, its design sometimes made it a challenge to find gear items that I had packed away at the bottom of the bag. On more than one occasion I’ve wished that there was an alternate way to access that gear, either through a bottom zipper or a side panel. Other packs that I own have this ability and I had hoped that Osprey would find a way to add this feature as well. I was a bit disappointed to discover that alternative access wasn’t part of the new design, however, which means I’ll have to continue to dig for that elusive pair of hiking socks that I invariably stuffed to the bottom. Smart packing can help alleviate this issue to a degree but it seems no matter how well you anticipate what you’ll need, Murphy’s Law will ensure something is always just out of reach.

That minor quibble aside, if you’re in the market for a new backpack for an upcoming trek, or like me you simply prefer to travel with your gear on your back, the new Atmos 50 from Osprey is a real winner. Lightweight and comfortable, yet still able to carry everything you’ll need, the new version of this old classic refines the product in some important yet subtle ways.

This is a pack that will see you through many adventures both big and small, but if you feel the need for even more capacity, Osprey offers the Atmos in a 65-liter version as well. That pack is nearly identical to the 50 in every way other than size. MSRP on the Atmos 50 is $199 while the Atmos 65 will set you back $240. Both packs are worth every penny and will last you for years to come.

Holiday gift guide for campers

gadling eureka sunrise camping gift guideWhile most campers take the winter off to pursue other outdoor adventures, the holidays are still a great time to spoil the camper in your family with some fresh new gear. And, some of the heartier folks out there camp all year long, so they’ll appreciate gifts that they can play with immediately. Here at Gadling, we’re geeks for camping gear and love to get outside. With the holidays approaching and wish lists being compiled, we’re here to help you treat your favorite campers to some goodies that will keep them safe, comfortable and happy when they venture out into the wilderness. From stocking stuffers to big ticket items, every camper will love these gifts.Eureka Sunrise 9 Tent

Who says you have to rough it when you go camping? This three-season, five-person tent features plenty of pocket space for organizing and storing your gear, a mirror and water bottle holders. Don’t be fooled by the amenities, though. This is a durable tent that can withstand strong winds, wet weather and just about anything else that your environs throw at it. Priced at only $179.26 on Amazon, it’s a steal for a five-person tent.

If you’re looking for something smaller, our own Kraig Becker recommends Eureka’s Apex 2XT tent.

Snow Peak Iron Grill Table Set 3

If you want to turn your car camping trip into a culinary wonderland, upgrade from a simple camping stove to Snow Peak’s full-on camp kitchen setup. It includes a BBQ box for charcoal grilling, a single burner stove, stainless steel inserts for preparing your food and bamboo table extensions for extra space to prep and eat. At 26″ tall, it’s the perfect height for sitting but not too low for when you’re cooking. It conveniently folds up neatly into a canvas storage bag for easy storage at home. It’s pricy ($699.95), but Snow Peak gear is durable, so it will last for years. If you or someone you know camps (or tailgates or just needs a portable cooking space for trips to the park or beach), then this is the ultimate piece of cooking gear.

gadling snow peak snowminer headlamp camping gear guideSnow Peak SnowMiner Headlamp

This is without a doubt the cleverest piece of camping gear that we discovered this year. It’s both a headlamp and a lantern without sacrificing in either category. Sure, you can hang any headlamp from your tent ceiling and call it a lantern, but the SnowMiner allows you to adjust its lens to focus a beam of light (for use as a headlamp) or diffuse the light 180-degrees (to become a lantern). You can adjust the brightness in both modes. The headband even includes a hook so that you can easily hang it in your tent. At $49.95, it’s an affordable and creative gift.

Black Diamond Icon Headlamp

Need a slightly more hardcore headlamp? The Black Diamond Icon is the brightest of the climbing brand’s line, lights your way, offers red light for better night vision and is powered by three AA batteries. That power allows it to last up to 145 hours and illuminate an area over 300 feet ahead of you. Perfect for finding your camp after dark, whether you’re leading a night hike or simply returning from a trip to the bathroom. Not too shabby for less than $60.

gadling osprey waypoint 65 camping gear guideOsprey Waypoint 65

The last thing you want on any camping trip is too many things to carry. Anytime that you can consolidate items and find multiple purposes for your gear, you’re making your life easier. That’s why we love Osprey’s two-in-one travel pack and daypack combo, the Waypoint 65. Pack your clothes and extra layers in the 50L main pack and your gear for daytime activities in the 15L daypack. The packs zip and clip together for easy transport and detach when the time is right. Like most Osprey packs, the Waypoint 65 is gender specific, so the female camper in your life can get a pack made for women. As a bonus, the Waypoint 65 is perfect for travel, as well, so it’s not just for camping. Available in multiple sizes to fit any torso, the Waypoint 65 starts at $231, which is a great deal two packs, one of which works as a piece of luggage.

Gerber Camp Axe

Perfect for cutting firewood or clearing out a campsite, the Gerber Camp Axe is also lightweight enough to carry along with you on long hikes. That’s thanks to a fiberglass handle, which means the axe is durable while only weighing 2.5 pounds. The plastic sheath securely clips over the stainless steel blade, so it’s safe to carry. For under $40, it’s an affordable and powerful piece of hardware.

gadling camping gift guide eddie bauer first ascent downlight vestEddie Bauer First Ascent Downlight Vest

As noted above, we appreciate multipurpose camping gear. That’s why we love this down vest that packs into itself and becomes a microfleece pillow. The vest is perfect for cool mornings and evenings and it folds right into its own pocket to create a perfect, compact camping pillow. It’s also water resistant and wind repellent. It’s a great vest and a portable pillow. Two pieces of gear in one for $129 (and also available for women).

Kelty LumaPivot Lantern
It’s multi-directional. It’s powerful (110 lumens). It lasts up to 12 hours. It’s the perfect lantern for lighting up your entire camp while cooking dinner. And, at less than one pound, you’ll barely know it’s there when you pack it up with your gear. That’s a lot of positives for only $39.99.

Big Agnes Yampa Sleeping Bag

This 650 down fill bag will keep you toasty until the temperature reaches 45 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s a great three-season bag with a built-in pad sleeve so that you never have to worry about rolling off of your sleeping pad. It comes in regular (72″ long) and long (78″ long), so it will fit most any camper. When stuffed into its compression sack, it can pack down to a 7.5″x6″, easy-to-carry bundle. Starting at $159, it’s a terrific sleeping bag for a great price.

gadling camping gift guide pizza sleeping bagPizza Sleeping Bag

Who says that all of your camping gear needs to be utilitarian? Each one of these delicious sleeping bags is handmade by the artist and requires a $100 deposit. The vegetable pillows will have you sleeping comfortably, as will the satin lining. Worth $300? We think so! But only five feet long? We prefer an extra large pizza, and possibly a meat lovers. It requires some time to make, so you might need to arrange for a rush order in order to get it in time for Christmas.

Gear Tip: Store your hydration bladder in the freezer

If you love hiking, cycling, mountain biking or any other outdoor activities, you need a good hydration pack. Carrying your water in a bladder stored in your pack keeps your hands free and you hydrated. The problem with hydration packs, however, is keeping the bladders clean. Try as you might, you won’t be able to get all of the water out of them when you get home. Stagnant water is a breeding ground for bacteria, which will make water stored in your bladder taste funky and potentially unsafe to drink. Bladders aren’t cheap, so you don’t want to replace them the minute they start to smell poorly. So, how do you keep your water bladder clean and safe? Here’s a simple trick to avoid bad smells and worse bacteria.

Store your hydration pack’s bladder in the freezer. The bladders aren’t that big when they’re empty (even a three liter bladder, like the one in the Osprey Raptor 14 that we reviewed), so you’re bound to be able to find some space in your ice box for one. Go ahead and put the hose in there, too. Any part of the bladder that might have water left in it should get put in cold storage.The frigid temperatures will kill any bacteria and prevent odor from forming. The next time you need your hydration pack, simply take the bladder out of the freezer, fill it up as you normally would and enjoy how cold your water stays because of the temperature of the bladder. Your water will taste fresh and smell pure. Assuming, of course, that you’re filling your bladder with good water.

Sure, you can spend the money on a cleaning kit, but even those aren’t perfect for killing bacteria and don’t ensure that you get all of the water out of the bladder once you’re finished. Plus, they cost money.

You already have a freezer. Storing your bladder in there is free, easy and a way to keep your gear fresh.

You’ll thank us the next time you hit the trail.

Gadling Gear Review: Osprey Raptor 14

gadling raptor osprey 14 daypack

I have a bit of a fetish for daypacks and, as such, I’ve become quite particular about what I like and what annoys the heck out of me. That’s why I was so excited to try out my new Osprey Raptor 14 on a recent trip to Zion National Park. With temperatures pushing 100°F, hikes lasting hours and the air as dry as a bone, it’s incredibly important that you have the right supplies and that you’re comfortable throughout your time on the trails.

Did the Raptor 14 live up to Osprey’s reputation?The Raptor 14 has a 14L volume (duh), so it’s neither a tiny scramble pack nor a large daypack. Even with its 3L reservoir full of water, there is still plenty of room in the pack for other supplies. It features an exterior compression pocket, a small front storage pocket, a large main compartment, a small top pocket and the reservoir sleeve. Beyond that, it also has Osprey’s new favorite feature, the LidLok, which allows you to attach your bike helmet to the exterior of the pack. Additionally, there are two small pouches on the hipbelt (more on those shortly).

Osprey packs always feature impeccable construction and the Raptor 14 is no different. It feels indestructible. The reservoir is held snug and I never felt any sloshing around when I was hiking. The Raptor series utilizes Osprey’s AirScape suspension system, which helps distribute weight evenly and allows for airflow so that your back doesn’t become a sweaty mess. That said, it definitely adds some weight and the Raptor feels slightly heavier than other packs its size.

gadling osprey raptor 14 daypackThe pockets do not feature a tremendous amount of organizational options, but that’s to be expected as this is a pack for outdoor rather than urban use. However, I was disappointed in the lack of pockets on the shoulder straps and the pouches on the hipbelt. I hate having to constantly take my pack off to access gear, which is why I enjoy convenient pockets for storing a snack or my phone. I certainly understand wanting to maintain a sleek profile, but some pockets on the shoulder straps – the kind that you see on Osprey’s Momentum series – would be useful. The pouches on the hipbelt are always open. The lack of zippers disappointed me, as I never felt comfortable storing anything in those pockets.

The reservoir is a 3L Nalgene bladder. It has a bite valve, which I love, and clips magnetically to the harness so that it’s always conveniently located and never dangling annoyingly. The handle on the reservoir makes removing, filling and repacking the bladder significantly less awkward than with other hydration devices and is a simple feature that makes a huge difference.

Thanks to the compression straps, it is easy to squeeze the Raptor 14 down once you’ve packed it. I’ve never been one to utilize hipbelts on small packs, so I was particularly thrilled to see the small loop on the front of the pack that allows you to neatly wrap the hipbelt around and clip it so that it is out of the way and doesn’t dangle uncomfortably off of your torso.

It’s small details like that, the LidLok, the reservoir design and abundance of large pockets on a small pack that make up for some of the minor disappointments on the Raptor. Combine those positives with Osprey’s All Mighty Guarantee (a lifetime guarantee to repair any damage or replace anything that cannot be fixed) and I was won over by this pack. If it had pockets on the shoulder straps or the hipbelt (I refuse to use the open pouches), it would put icing on the cake, but that is certainly not a deal-breaker.

While the $109 price tag certainly is steep, the lifetime guarantee ensures that you’ll get your money’s worth from the Raptor 14 for years to come. It’s built for aggressive outdoor use but is plenty comfortable for even the most casual adventurer.

Let’s break it all down:

Pros

  • Durable construction
  • Ample storage in multiple pockets
  • Comfortable on shoulders and back
  • Magnetic bite valve and handle are my favorite features on any reservoir I’ve tried
  • Holds reservoir tightly
  • Lifetime guarantee
  • Slim profile
  • LidLok for holding bike helmet

Cons

  • Suspension does add some weight
  • Lack of convenient harness pockets
  • Pouches on hipbelt cannot be closed

Would I recommend the Raptor 14? Absolutely. The few things that it failed to check off of my wishlist are more than made up for in its positives.

The Raptor 14 is available now for $87.20 at EMS but normally retails for $109 at REI and other outfitters.