Ten years ago from this spring, I penned the very first “Gear Junkie” column, covering a small camp stove from MSR. Fast forward a decade and you can guess we have tested our fair share of apparel and equipment made for the outdoors, including dozens of tents, packs, shoes, jackets, socks, sunglasses, and all other type of gear. To celebrate 10 years of testing, we offer here a look at 10 top product picks. These items, tested over the years and at venues around the planet, have literally changed the way we do things outside. —Stephen Regenold
#1 Sheep’s Clothing — Merino wool, a fine blend that does not itch, is my favorite fabric for the outdoors. Ibex, Icebreaker, and SmartWool are among my preferred brands, and from boxer shorts to bike jerseys I am a freak for merino wool’s natural feel, its breathability, warmth, and its temperature-regulating properties. Bonus: The miracle material does not stink even after a few days wearing it on a trail!
#2 Outdoors Do-Rag — The Buff is a handkerchief-like product that you can wear as a beanie hat in the winter, a sweatband in summer, and as a thin layer under a bike helmet in the wind. I use these funny looking headwear pieces, which are seamless polyester fabric tubes, almost every day of my life for one outdoors activity or the next, from daily training runs in my home neighborhood to serious wilderness events around the world. This winter, we even got a custom GearJunkie Buff made for use 365 days of the year.
#3 PrimaLoft Puffy Jacket — Instead of goose down, jackets like the puffy Rab Xenon use a synthetic PrimaLoft insulation that can retain heat even when wet. In the wilds, this type of jacket has kept me toasty for years and through any type of nasty, cold weather I could find. The Xenon’s face fabric, a material from Pertex called Quantum GL, is packable and super light yet magically tough enough to stand up to years of abuse.
#4 Soft-Side Water Bottles — Forget bulky water bottles. The flexible, highly packable, and nearly indestructible SoftBottles from Platypus have been my go-to water carrying containers for years. The polyethylene bottles hold a liter of water yet weigh less than 1 ounce when drained. On long treks they roll up when empty and store away in tiny places, ready to unfurl at any time and haul massive quantities of water once you find a spring or water source.
#5 Good-Tasting Energy Food — A small revolution has sparked off in the realm of energy food in recent years, namely the advent of items you actually will want to eat! No force feeding required, companies like Clif, GU, Hammer, ProBar, and many more now use better ingredients and have more palatable flavors for their bars, gels, drinks, and gummy energy products made for the great outdoors.
#6 Minimalist Shoes — I’m not talking Vibram FiveFingers. But the footwear trend of making trail- and road-running shoes that are lighter and more flexible has made me a happier, healthier runner. After switching from heavily-padded running shoes a few years ago to more minimal models, I went from long strides and sloppy heel flops to an efficient gait with a mid-foot strike that has made me both faster and more efficient on the trail. Inov-8, La Sportiva, Saucony, and New Balance (Minimus line), are among my current preferred minimalist brands.
#7 Helmet Cameras — Recording your outdoor experience has never been easier thanks to GoPro, Contour, and other helmet-camera companies. Press a button and go — the camera mounted on your helmet or just about any place will record the experience in HD, ready to replay on a computer or broadcast to the world. We have leaned hard on GoPros over the past year filming around the continent for two series (“Off The Map” and “Fast&Light”), and the camera’s ease of use, durability, and quality of the footage has been nothing less than stunning.
#8 L.E.D. Headlamps/Flashlights — All hail electroluminescence! The mainstream emergence of light-emitting diodes (L.E.D.) has revolutionized lighting in the world outdoors. A decade ago we were using fragile, yellow-light HID bulbs that sucked batteries and were too dim. Today, most all outdoor brands — Petzl, Princeton Tec, Black Diamond, Fenix et. al. — have switched to L.E.D. and our paths are all the brighter for it.
A flashlight Team GearJunkie uses in races, the Fenix PD32, for example, blasts 315 lumens (bright!) via an L.E.D. that runs off two CR123A batteries inside a waterproof aircraft-grade aluminum case smaller and lighter than some Swiss Army Knifes.
#9 Dissolvable Electrolytes — Mixing drink powder into water is a pain. Fortunately, an innovation in the form of a drop-and-dissolve tablet has become commonplace. Companies like nuun (the originator), ZYM, and CamelBak’s Elixir sell small tablets that dissolve in water like Alka-Seltzer, delivering minerals, sodium, and other electrolytes in a no-fuss formula.
#10 Fixed-Gear Bikes — No coasting allowed! Fixed-gear bikes do not have freewheels, meaning the pedals are locked in motion with the chain and wheels. The experience is akin to driving a stick-shift car versus one with an automatic transmission, including subtle control increases and the thrill of being locked in motion with a machine as it rockets down the road. It takes time to learn to ride fixed. But once understood you’ll see that fixed-gear bikes are fast, quiet, smooth, quicker-responding, and often times just plain more fun than their freewheel single-speed cousins.
I have owned three “fixies” over the years (from Wabi, Raleigh, and Kona), and I have ridden one nearly every day since 2005 for commuting and mid-distance road rides (up to about 40 miles). Sure, I am freewheel-equipped on trails with my mountain bike. But in the city I am bonafide fixed, locked in, and I ain’t turning back.
—GearJunkie was founded as a syndicated newspaper column in 2002; GearJunkie.com launched in 2006. Stephen Regenold is Founder and Editor. Connect with Regenold at Facebook.com/TheGearJunkie or on Twitter via @TheGearJunkie.