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]

Seven Days in a SmartWool Sweater

Here’s the thing: When I review gear, I actually use the stuff, I don’t just scribble a few words about how fluffy it is out of the box, and how the tag says it’s good in all kinds of weather or water resistant or… Nope, I trim the tags, throw everything that’s wearable into the wash (and sometimes, in complete disregard of the instructions, the dryer). And then, I go out into the world in pants that are not quite the right size or a sweater that’s a color I didn’t pick out myself. That’s how I roll.

I’ve just spent the last week in a SmartWool TML Light Sport Zip sweater. I’ve been in this sweater for not quite 24 hours a day, but I have been in it rather a lot, in fact, I’m wearing it as I type this review. I put in on when I headed to the airport a week ago, wore it for most of a long haul flight, wore it over dress clothes for a fancy-ish dinner at a spa hotel, wore it in my mother-in-law’s garden with shorts, in fact, I’ve worn it everywhere I needed a warm, not too sloppy outer layer.

At the risk of sounding like I’ve been paid to say so, I’ll tell you the truth. I loves me some SmartWool. I love this sweater.

I’m not a recent convert to the joys of SmartWool — several years back I wrote gear reviews for a snowshoeing magazine, and I couldn’t get enough of SmartWool then. I traded all my base layers for merino wool. Not a cheap move, but worth it as my SmartWool gear has outlasted all my synthetics, and, lasted a crazy long time through years of tough wear. Plus, anyone who’s spent any time in synthetics knows about the smell, it’s weird. Natural fibers just don’t get that odd smell from the combination of human heat and artificial materials.The sweater I won’t stop wearing is a little long in the sleeves and the body for a short person, but I don’t mind that so much, it gives me extra length to pull over the back of my hands when I’m using the thumb loops. There are zippered pockets on both sides — one has come un-anchored over the week of wear (too short a time!) but it’s a minor repair. The zipper goes up into a crew neck collar and there’s a little tab that covers the metal bit of the zip so it doesn’t scratch your neck or chin; that’s a nice detail. There’s ribbing on the sides and the underside of the sleeves giving the sweater a nice variety in texture and some thoughtful styling. It looks nice; I got compliments on it whenever I wore it (which, in case you haven’t been paying attention, is every day for the last seven days.

This particular sweater goes up on the SmartWool site in August. It comes in teal, claret, and black and will retail for $170. Yes, there will be a similar model for guys. It’s expensive, but you’ll have it for a very long time, trust me on this. I’ve got the gear in my kit to prove it.