In the season of flash sales and emails, where impulse purchases push companies into the black and fill our closets with things that aren’t strictly necessary, it behooves us to step back and take a break. As I wrote three years ago: “A lot of gear upgrading is malarkey, born of boredom or fashion or envy or lust or some other vaguely protestant shortcoming. Buying new stuff is fun, usually harmless in that postmodern capitalist headinthesand way, and sometimes even justified, but most often little substantive reward is gained… Thankfully, there are areas where this is simply not the case, and one can invest in richly made tools and toys which both function so much better and give immense aesthetic pleasure. It is good to live in a world, suffused in money that it is, in which such things are still possible. Where buying a given item will legitimately spur you to get better at a given activity.” Analytics tell me that the original had and continues to have resonance.
It also pleases me that my regard and affection for the original list has not changed at all since late 2014. The same Werner Shuna still gets me psyched to paddle every time I snap it together. I’m still using the same Gossamer Gear grips on my trekking poles, though they are certainly showing their age. A trip down to the local gear store every 6 weeks or so for Aquaseal remains a staple event. I wear my Suunto Observer every day. I still use a flat tarp often. My Prolite XS died this spring, in circumstances that were not really its fault. Brightly colored socks, gloves, and hats remain a favorite whose value was emphasized this fall when my favorite (and black) hat went missing. Many other bits of gear have come and gone since, but all of the above items are either still hanging around providing good service, or died a glorious and inevitable death in the field.
Clothing generally is tough to put on a list like this, it being equally open to boredom and whimsy. But with rare exceptions technology doesn’t push ahead that fast, so in the list which follows I’m going to mention a few stalwart pieces of apparel along with the more usual, underappreciated basics, and some big ticket items whose utility will prove enduring. We like gear for a good reason, it not only makes it easier to do important things, items become companions and after the fact become soaked in memories. The best pieces of gear wind up being as evocative as any photo on the wall or bauble on the shelf.
Inflatable sleeping pads pop, eventually. All of them, in fact, though heavier car camping mats can safely double as mild-use pool toys. My beloved Prolite XS fell victim to the hot Utah sun, but the compelling circumstances of its death failed to make it more comfortable to sleep on.
If you have to or want to sleep on closed cell foam, and enjoy the light weight, bulk, and thin cushion in equal parts, the Thermarest Ridgerest is the pad you want. It provides the best mix of comfort, light weight, longevity, and good insulation value. Shown above are a 5ish year old Ridgerest Solite, and a brand new Ridgerest Solar. The later is 5mm thicker and .9 higher R value. The least expensive Ridgerest recently made a comeback, the so-called Ridgerest Classic in all-black. My Solite was either the first or second year Thermarest added the aluminized coating, and as can be seen (the coated side is up in both photos) it does not last all that long. Then again, I wasn’t aware of quite how packed out my Ridgerest was until I picked up the new one, so if the coating does have value it at least doesn’t far too fall short of the useful life of the Ridgerest generally.
Coal Frena beanie
Wise backcountry folks know that when nasty conditions really get going one cannot have too many hats. Three hats and two hoods is for me not an unusual rig when I’m nice and cold and hunkered down packrafting, glassing, or dead tired and walking into the teeth of a snowstorm. The warmer of the two insulated hats I usually bring along needs to dry fast, be comfortable enough to wear 24 hours or more straight, stretchy enough to fit over a bunch of other stuff, yet tight enough that while asleep it won’t wander too far. The Coal Frena does this, with a jaunty range of solids and color blocks available, generally for less than 20 dollars.
The acrylic at work here is not fancy or nuanced, just on the thick and dense side, which is the large part of the genius here: no seams to restrict stretch, and no panels or liners or reinforcements to trap moisture. Eventually the material does stretch out a bit (5 year old hat at right, versus 3 year old hat at left) but the lifespan would seem to be more than acceptable.
An Alpacka raft
Packrafts have the potential to become more popular than canoes, kayaks, or all the permutations of rafts. They speak to why SUPs have spread so quickly, being easy to transport and making any little backyard bit of water fun, and infuse that with genuine technical prowess and the sort of beginner and intermediate friendliness that only rockered skis and modern, big wheeled suspension mountain bikes have imitated. They do this all while being one of the most potent tool for real wilderness exploration this side of rubber soled shoes.
So what is not to like?
Well, they are expensive, and Alpacka rafts in particular have kept pace with and perhaps even outstripped inflation. But now that Kokopelli rafts are available through REI they’ll be subject to sales and discounts and will count towards your dividend, and just as with SUPs and snowshoes and gravel bikes this will do more than anything short of a government subsidy to push them towards ubiquity. From a management perspective, as well as that of a misanthrope, I worry about folks with bad judgement unintentionally trying to kill themselves as well as precious places becoming more tramped upon. But packrafting has given me and more recently the whole family so much joy that I just cannot begrudge them and it to anyone.
It also warms my heart that with a tool so basic yet sophisticated there remains an option which is both grassroots and cutting edge. Seeing the 2017 offerings from Alpacka, Aire, and Kokopelli (left to right) side by side this summer just brought home how much better Alpacka rafts are in every way. Kokopelli clearly chooses not to compete directly in terms of material quality, but it baffles me that they can’t be at least a bit more forward thinking in terms of design, something overseas manufacturing should not inhibit. The Nirvana is about 4 years behind Alpacka when it comes to nuance.
Yes, with Alpacka boats you are to a certain extent rolling the dice as to where you’ll have a welding irregularity and when you’ll need to glue some seam tape back down, but big picture Alpacka build quality remains adequate or far better, and the designs paddle ridiculously good. You’ll pay 1.5 to 2 times what you might for a Kokopelli, but a comparable jump in quality and performance in mountain bikes will cost you considerably more. $1575 is a lot of money (it’s what I’d spend if I were to buy a new boat today; a Gnarwhal self bailer in custom multicolor), but relative to what you get I still think it is one of the best deals in premium outdoor gear around.
A Western Mountaineering sleeping bag
Before Little Bear came along to complicate the picture M and I happily did reams of trips all over with only three sleeping bags, two of which (an Ultralite and an Antelope MF) are from the big WM. If they were children we’d be worried about pimples and birth control; the Ultralite is a bit over 12 years old, the Antelope 14. Until the Ultralite suffered an unfortunate burning at the hands of a hot wood stove this past January (and the subsequent drastic patch job) both were essentially brand new, having presumably lost a tiny and difficult to quantify amount of loft over the hundreds of nights they’d been used.
Beyond the basic quality of construction and longevity of premium down insulation, I recommend WM bags because they’re warm, warm in a way the current quilt fad just isn’t going to match. Increasingly convoluted designs (c.f. Zenbivy) seem to dance with ever growing fervor around the fact that you’ll always be warmer if you are genuinely surrounded by warmth.
For instance, the Antelope MF (which is almost unchanged since we bought ours) has a 62″ shoulder girth, 26 oz of fill in 6′ length, a class leading draft color and hood, and weighs 2 pounds 7 ounces. The Katabatic Grenadier, also rated to 5 degrees F, has 20 ounces of fill and weighs 1 pound, 14 ounces. Comparing quilt and bag circumference is never perfect, but the two are pretty close in this regard. Would you have to spend the 9 ounce difference making the Grenadier as functionally warm as the Antelope? I would say so. Katabatic’s Crestone hood is 2 ounces, and the extra 7 get eaten up by the energy spent rolling over with precision and making darn sure you don’t pop that seal between hood and neck baffle.
Sleeping bags that are true to their temp rating and air tight enough to be boosted 30 degrees lower are shit that just works. So too are boats that can be beaten up for years without caring, kept in a daypack, and work almost anywhere (so long as the headwind is mild). There are a few things I almost added to this list; the Nano Air Light hoody (haven’t had it long enough), the MSR Windburner (use it on every trip, could be lighter), the Seek Outside LBO (dimensions are a little funny, too many stakes, beak panel needs cat cut to kill flapping), the BD Alpine Start (sucks up just too much water). For those there is always next year, and the many trips it should entail. Start planning, and consider the apocryphal Chouinard quotation: “Buy plane tickets, not gear.”