Greatest Gear of 5 Years

By Stephen Regenold

Five years ago this month, in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, I penned the first Gear Junkie column, which covered an innovative backpacking stove from Mountain Safety Research. Since that time, The Gear Junkie has expanded to 12 additional syndicate newspapers around the country, and every week for the past five years I’ve tested at least one new piece of gear, from canoes and backpacks, to items of esoterica like personal oxygen bottles, inflatable tents, and reflexology footwear.

This list — my Greatest Gear of 5 Years — includes ten top products that stood above the fray. These best of the best gear items have over the years earned my stamp of approval — and then some.

#1 The Original Buff
Nothing else I’ve tested over the past five years has stuck with me as much as the Original Buff, a hard-to-categorize headgear piece that’s essentially a tubular hat made of a thin, stretchy, seamless synthetic fabric that hugs your head to wick sweat or keep the sun and wind at bay. I use Buffs year-round, as headbands in the summer, hats in the spring and fall, and balaclavas during the wintertime. They are lightweight, multi-functional items that have become literally indispensable for me during outings that range from ultra-endurance races to nightly jogs through my neighborhood. (Original Buff, $18.50; www.buff.us)

#2 Ibex Woolies Zip T-Neck
This thin wool base layer has been my second skin during dozens of adventures over the past four years. Nothing I’ve tried insulates, regulates and breathes as well as this top, which is made of a super fine 18.5-micron merino wool that eliminates any itching. The generous chest zipper provides further ventilation while hiking or trail running. (Woolies Zip T-Neck, $65; www.ibexwear.com)

#3 Kona Jake the Snake
My longtime reliable and dependent iron steed has been the Kona Jake the Snake, a speed demon that’s comfortable on the road as well as off. While it looks like a road bike, the Jake the Snake was made for the strange sport of cyclocross, where riders pedal at high speeds through the woods, plunging into mud, and dismounting their bikes to leap hurdles. It comes with knobby tires and a strong frame, but no suspension. The bike weighs just 23 pounds and has a fair price tag. (Jake the Snake, $1,349; www.konaworld.com)

#4 Granite Gear Virga
Simplicity in the flesh. The Virga is essentially a backpack shell, with one large main compartment and a padded harness, but no frame. Instead, rigidity and support is gained via a sleeping pad: Simply drop in a rolled pad, let it uncoil to push against the bag, and place your gear inside the roll. The upside to this minimalist approach? The pack weighs only 1 pound 3 ounces, even though it has 3,200 cubic inches of capacity. Its price is right, too. (Virga, $110; www.granitegear.com)

#5 Rail Riders Weatherpants
These amazingly tough nylon trousers have put up with hundreds of miles of bushwhacking, canyoneering, mountain climbing, and general outdoors tomfoolery, and they still look nice enough to wear out to dinner. Nothing I’ve ever put on my legs has been this tough, eschewing thick thorns — and even an occasional run-in with barbed wire — without ever ripping. Weatherpants dry quickly once wet. Knee patches add extra reinforcement. They have an integrated belt to keep snug on the waist. Plus, they fit well and are comfortable for days on the go. (Weatherpants, $79; www.railriders.com)

#6 Genesis Pharmaceutical Hydropel
Among all the confounding forces competing to make ill of your outdoor adventure, blisters rank close to the top of the list. For me, a foot lubricant called Hydropel has all but eliminated the issue, letting me hike for 20 miles or more on a single application of this magical jelly. I use it backpacking, climbing, adventure racing, and during marathons. It repels water and lasts longer than Vaseline and the other greasy, gooey salves I’ve tried. Hydropel is manufactured by Genesis Pharmaceutical Inc.; outdoors web sites like www.mandatorygear.com and www.argear.com sell it for $12.95 a bottle. (Hydropel, $12.95; www.genesispharm.com)

#7 Montrail Susitna XCR
They look like normal trail-runners, but these Gore-Tex-wrapped shoes come with small rubber gaiters and are waterproof. I even climbed Washington’s Mount Rainier a couple years back in them, attaching a pair of lightweight crampons for traction. Unfortunately, Montrail discontinued this particular Susitna iteration, but some retailers may still have them in stock. The new version, the Susitna II XCR, are nice shoes, too, though they do not come with gaiters. (Montrail Susitna XCR, $120; www.montrail.com)

#8 Pacsafe TravelSafe 100
Call me paranoid, but I flinch at the thought of leaving my passport and money unprotected in a sketchy hotel room. The simple added security of the TravelSafe 100 — a lockable nylon pouch reinforced with steel cable netting — has given me huge peace of mind while traveling in recent years. Beyond money and travel documents, small cameras and phones can fit inside. I’ve even locked this little fellow to palm trees while snorkeling, letting me bob in the waves without worrying about who’s eyeing my gear on the beach. (TravelSafe 100, $40; www.pac-safe.com)

#9 Icebug DMG BUGrip EXTREME
Breed a winter boot with a running shoe, add carbide spikes on the sole for traction, and you’ll have the DMG BUGrip EXTREME, an all-weather trail-running shoe that grips ice and slippery stones better than anything similar on the market. An exaggerated gaiter keeps debris and snow out. The shoe is lightweight, too, which has kept me fast on my feet in all conditions. Retail price is $149, though the shoes are now available at www.ems.com for a close-out price of $55.98. (DMG BUGrip EXTREME, $149; www.icebug.se)

#10 Watchful Eye Designs ALOKSAK bags
Zip-lock bags for the outdoors set. These indispensable waterproof baggies have housed maps, electronics, food and clothing for me over the years. The company touts a U.S. Navy test that proved these bags — which come in many sizes — to be leak-proof for long-term submersion to depths exceeding 60 meters. In my tests, they’ve never failed. Watchful Eye Designs sells packs of three 5 × 4-inch ALOKSAK bags for $6.25; bags as large as 32 × 16 inches are available for $7 apiece. (ALOKSAK bags; www.watchfuleyedesigns.com)

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