Santa’s Helper: Gear Expert’s Top Holiday Gift Ideas

He’s really a gear expert and a head buyer at a top online retailer. But we tasked Steven “Leon” Lutz to play Santa’s Helper this season to come up with his favorite holiday gift ideas to make shopping easy.

santas helper
Photo by Bianca Cordova Photography

About the elf: Lutz is actually a grown man (who competes in official beard competitions) as well as the head buyer for Backcountry Edge, a family-owned online retailer based in Manheim, Penn. Lutz is a lifelong outdoors junkie and a current middle-of-the pack ultrarunner who strives to be a front-of-the-pack father and husband. See his gear-review videos on the Backcountry Edge YouTube channel, and read on to see some of Lutz’s favorite gear/gift picks for the 2015 holiday season.

Ruff Wear Powder Hound dog jacket – $89.95

Ruffwear Powder Hound

The folks at Ruff Wear “get” dogs. Designing and building the best apparel and gear for adventurous dogs is all they do. The Powder Hound employs a hybrid, stretch construction that delivers a low-profile fit beneath your dog’s body with 200 grams of synthetic insulation on top to fend off frigid temperatures. It is available in a variety of sizes to accommodate dogs of varying sizes and breeds.

Leon’s Take – “My dog loves getting out with me on hikes and runs regardless of conditions but because of her short coat, she’s stuck inside on most winter outings. Many insulated dog jackets are ill-fitting, too bulky, or lack the durability to work for outdoor athletics. The Powder Hound is the first option I’ve seen that lets me extend my dog’s season into colder months.” 

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CamelBak Forge travel mug (starting at $19.99)

Camelbak Forge

The stainless steel CamelBak Forge travel mug employs a double-wall design to keep beverages hot for hours. Its leakproof cap has a unique design that lets you choose between a one-touch or an always-open setting. The mechanism opens up fully so that residue has nowhere to hide when it’s time to clean the mug. The Forge’s exterior looks great, holds up to wear and tear, and is backed by CamelBak’s lifetime guarantee.

Leon’s Take – “There’s an endless array of travel mug options, but the cap on the Forge is my favorite. It doesn’t leak at all, ever, but I can drink from it easily when I want to, and being able to take it apart entirely eliminates those mischievous nooks you find on other travel mug caps that refuse to ever get clean.”

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Buff Thermal Hoodie – $49.99

buff

Buff has carved out a niche with its multi-functional “tubular” headwear, and the brand has expanded its offering for this year. The Thermal Hoodie gives the same convertible neck and face protection as a traditional Buff but marries it with a cozy hood to fit comfortably over the head.

Leon’s Take – “I love hunkering down under the hood of a cozy sweatshirt and I love the multi-functionality of Buff headwear. Partner the two together and I’m sold. The warmth and comfort of this piece should win over just about anyone.” 

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Ex Officio Give-N-Go underwear – starting at $20

ex officio boxers

Available in an array of briefs, boxers, tees, and tops, the Ex Officio Give-n-Go underwear line pieces are constructed of lightweight, breathable mesh fabric that has an antimicrobial treatment to cut down on odor. Flat seams enhance both fit and comfort while helping to prevent chafing. They are quick-drying, surprisingly durable.

Leon’s Take — “Underwear’s underwear, right? Nope. I’m not sure how Ex Officio does it, but these garments fit great and seem nearly indestructible. I can hand wash them at night, hang them up, and by morning they’re dry, making them perfect for extended trips.”

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Farm To Feet Bend Socks – starting at $17

farm to feet

Based in North Carolina, Farm to Feet is independently owned and sources all of the merino wool used in its socks from sheep raised by American farmers on American farms. They also just flat out make great-fitting, comfortable, and durable socks. The Bend series, named for the active outdoor Oregon town of the same name, consists of mid-weight socks with full top-to-toe cushioning that offer performance and a touch of style.

Leon’s Take — “I love Farm to Feet’s story, its commitment to sourcing and manufacturing in the U.S. That story would fall flat, however, if the socks didn’t measure up. They do.”

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Big Agnes Gilpin Falls Powerhouse 4 mtnGLO – $599.95

Big Agnes mtnGLO Tent

Some trips call for weight-savings and demand that you’ve got the most compact, packable gear. Others do not. Sometimes you just want to set up a home-away-from-home and live comfortably in the outdoors, especially if some members of the family are a bit more reluctant than others to leave the modern world behind. The Gilpin Falls Powerhouse 4 mtnGLO goes a long way toward keeping everyone happy. It’s durable, easy to pitch, incorporates built-in LED lighting, and even includes a Joey T55 computerized power supply to recharge your electronics.

Leon’s Take – “Camping purists are likely grumbling over the introduction of lights and electronics, but let them grumble. Trading ‘no frills’ for a few choice frills is a compromise I’m more than willing to make if it means the whole family can happily enjoy a weekend away in the outdoors without any complaints about dead batteries.”

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Gregory Baltoro 65 backpack – starting at $298.99

Gregory Baltero

It’s hard to remember a time when the Baltoro wasn’t winning awards. It’s a rugged offering for multi-day and extended backpacking trips, carrying weight effectively, offering a ton of organizational features and access points, and incorporating a custom-fit suspension to accommodate backpackers of all shapes and sizes. For 2015, Gregory trimmed the Baltoro’s weight while maintaining its load-hauling capability, added a weather-resistant hipbelt pocket, threw in a complementary raincover, and reduced the sticker price! Female backpackers take note, the Gregory Deva offers the same construction and features with a women’s specific fit.

Leon’s Take — “Take one of the most trusted, awarded packs in recent history, trim its weight, add features, and lower the price. I have a tendency to be longwinded and could go on and on about the Baltoro, but there’s really not much more to add as to why it’s on the list.”

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Kahtoola MICROspikes – $69.95

kahtoola microspikes

The MICROspikes have always delivered incredibly confident traction for backcountry adventures, and Kahtoola left them unchanged underfoot for years. The harness, however, has been redesigned this year to use a thinner, but equally strong, material that also incorporates cut-aways to reduce weight and lower the overall profile of this trusty traction device.

Leon’s Take – “Ever since being introduced several years ago, MICROspikes have been my constant winter companions. If I had a gripe it was that the harness was always a bit heavy and bulky. Actually, I didn’t even have that gripe until I got my hands on the update…same identical traction at a fraction of the weight.”

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Osprey Poco Plus child carrier – $259.99

Osprey Poco Plus

The Poco Plus has it all; full fit adjustability for mom, dad, or anyone else who might be toting a kid, safety features and fit adjustability for your child, plenty of storage for diapers and other gear, and a built-in sunshade to fend off glare.

Leon’s Take – “I recently shot a video product review of the Poco Plus and couldn’t stop thinking about how much I would’ve loved having one when my daughters were still small enough to ride around on their parents’ backs. Chalk this up as one of those gifts that keeps on giving as it contributes to the entire family enjoying the outdoors and making memories that lead to future adventures.”

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Salewa Men’s Speed Ascent trail shoes – $138.99

Salewa Speed Ascent

Not everyone needs a full-fledge boot for their trail explorations. With a durable Vibram outsole and abrasion-resistant materials, the low-cut Salewa Speed Ascent is rugged enough for challenging conditions, but breathable mesh and a rockered design that urges you forward keep weight to a minimum and deliver athletic performance for fast-packers, thru-hikers, and weekend warriors seeking a streamlined, reliable alternative to a hiking boot.

Leon’s Take – “I’ve never been comfortable with the weight or stiffness of a traditional boot, so I often find myself in trail running shoes when hiking or backpacking. The Speed Ascents aren’t trail runners, but they are far more responsive than most boots and weigh half as much. The unique lacing system really allows me to dial in the fit, which is another huge plus for long days on the trail.” 

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Ultimate Direction Men’s and Women’s Ultra Jackets – $179.95

ultimate direction jackets

A couple of years back, Ultimate Direction revitalized its reputation by letting trail runners, ultra runners, and fast packers weigh in directly on the design of its celebrated Signature Series running packs. They tapped right into the source again when constructing the Ultra Jacket, a sub-6-ounce waterproof/breathable offering that incorporates a nifty vented hood and convertible, fold-over cuffs that differentiate it from many of the jackets in its weight class.

Leon’s Take — “As a buyer, I find myself very skeptical when companies jump into crowded categories already full of great options. (Jackets, in this case.) UD’s ability to build a great running pack doesn’t necessarily mean that they can or should even try their hand at apparel. Light as a feather without skimping on innovative features, the Ultra Jacket quickly won over my skepticism.”

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