In Utah over the past five days more than 1,000 brands and tens of thousands of attendees gathered for the twice-annual Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City. GearJunkie editors and reporters met with a large percentage of the represented brands to seek out “Best in Show” products, the most innovative and unique items put out by the industry this year. (See part II of “Best in Show” here.) Take a look below. We’ve crowned these products, most of which will hit shelves in 2013, as winners for part I of our “Best in Show” coverage. Congrats to the brands and the designers behind this great new gear! —Stephen Regenold
Minimal Shoe — It’s called the Minimus Hi-Rez, but looking at the ultra-minimal shoe from New Balance is a low-res experience. The pixelated sole is broken into 42 unconnected rubber pods. These half-inch nubs are welded into a soft foot bed in one of the most unique shoe designs we’ve seen. We had the chance to slip one on for a couple minutes and the tactile response of the 4.3-ounce shoe was amazing. It seems to provide a modest level of cushion and protection, despite the light weight. This is like nothing we’ve ever seen and can’t wait to give it a real test. The Hi-Rez will retail for $120.
Airy Wind Shell — Weighing almost nothing — a whole 1.6 ounces (!) according to maker MontBell — the Tachyon Jacket gets a “world’s lightest shell” tag with its thin face fabric. Though it packs up tiny enough to fit in your front pants pocket (and weighs less than an energy bar) the Tachyon will offer noticeable protection from wind. It has a DWR coating, too, keeping light rain away, though it’s not waterproof for storms. It adds warmth as an emergency shell and there are mesh inserts under its arms for ventilation on the move. Price tbd.
Speed Climber Pack — Taking cues from ultra-running vests (as well as significant design direction from Ueli Steck, one of the world’s fastest climbers) the SummitRocket 20 VestPack from Mountain Hardwear aims to balance features climbers need with a design built for speed. It has wide mesh straps with pockets where you can store energy gel for fuel or other small need-now items. There is no hip belt, only chest straps, keeping the pack from interfering with a harness and gear.
The SummitRocket has a streamlined, minimal build — just one main compartment and few bells and whistles. It fits close like a hydration running vest and weighs just 12 ounces when empty but it can haul a moderate load up-mountain in its 20-liter body, just enough for a quick summit, fast and light, and done in a day.
Rack Art — Whispbar, a new line from Yakima, offers high-end aerodynamic rack bars and mounts that seem to scream the words “premium and sleek.” From the Whispbar line, which includes multiple products ranging from crossbars to ski racks, a bike mount, the WB200, stood out.
The fork mount connects to a Whispbar rack bar in seconds via adapters that cam into a T-slot on the bar. Its tray is a solid swoop of aluminum, and the front adapter is so refined it looks like sculpture art. A bonus, this bike mount works with standard 9mm forks as well as 15mm through-axle forks without adapters. A premium car-top accessory but with a premium price tag, too. $249.
Cloud Kit — Offered alone or in a three-piece package, Sierra Designs’ Cloud Layering System includes a windshell, a thin waterproof jacket, and an insulated puffy. The company markets the kit as able to keep a person in the outdoors dry and comfortable across a huge temperature swing and on dry or wet days. The first piece, the Cloud Windshell, is a thin breathable jacket made to be worn over a base layer.
It keeps wind at bay and adds a bit of warmth. If the clouds open, pull out the waterproof Cloud Airshell, a 4-ounce zippered sheen that’s about as thin as a plastic bag (though stronger). It has some breathability, though the company says it is “designed to be worn only when it rains.” Finally, if you’re cold pull out the down-insulated Cloud Puffy, a 12-ounce heater that can be warm enough when layered on to keep you comfortable as snow falls from the sky. The whole kit packs small together and weighs a total of 22 ounces. $492 as a system.
Zipper-Less Tent — No more snagging! Magnets stitched in around the door (not a zipper) seal the Fishhook SL 2 tent from Big Agnes closed. We tested the unique design on the show floor — the tiny magnets snapped into place with little effort. Big Agnes states the Fishhook SL 2 tent “eliminates the frustration and noise of zippers while maintaining full protection from the elements.” The two-man tent is fairly light, too, at 3 pounds, 10 ounces (with 37 square feet of floor space) but not cheap ($400).
Cooling Fabric — On display in a big way during the trade show was what Columbia Sportswear and its subsidiary brand Mountain Hardwear have called “a whole new category of clothing.” Named Omni-Freeze ZERO from Columbia and Cool.Q ZERO by Mountain Hardwear the fabric has tiny ring-shape accents laminated on that are advertised to provide a cooling effect when wet from sweat. Both brands use the fabric on multiple products, from hats to shirts to arm sleeves. The little cooling rings are made of a polymer that comes from a product used in industrial water-filtration processes and the cooling effect, Columbia cited, is delivered via a mechanical reaction where “latent heat absorption” cools the skin.
If this all sounds a bit whacky, we know. But our initial tests, including during a hot eight-hour adventure race last month, have shown that Cool.Q and Omni-Freeze do indeed give off a subtle cooling benefit. The innovation, which has shown initial promise, deserves an award at the show.
Hard Pack — Travel is hard on electronics and hard-sided briefcases are hard on the back. Into a few new pack models Pelican integrates its hard cases for protection, including on the U100 Urban Elite Laptop Backpack model. This pack has a solid poly case built into a fabric backpack that Pelican claims can be submerged underwater for 30 minutes with electronics inside.
Made mainly for urban situations (think bike commuting or travel), the pack is built to fit 15- to 17-inch laptops in its hard-side case. A pressure-release valve lets you open and close the airtight case at altitude or on a plane.
Foam Hard Hat — As if being blaze orange wasn’t enough, Petzl went over the top in the design of its SIROCCO climbing helmet, a pliable foam dome protector that is a weird mix of spongy and strong. It uses a dense but forgiving foam material found in automobile bumpers and others products where serious absorption properties are called into play.
There is no hard outer shell or veneer, and the polypropylene foam absorbs shock but is remarkably light. (People were standing on the helmet for demos at OR; it’d flex and compact slightly, but then regain shape once weight was removed.) The helmet weighs in at just 165 grams — it feels like not much more than a baseball cap when on but still provides legitimate protection from falling rocks or ice. A magnet on the chin strap clip lets you put on the light lid with one hand and no fuss. $110.
Power Stove — As we noted in a pre-show roundup, the BioLite CampStove turns heat from a fire into usable electricity, able to charge an iPhone or GPS device in the wilds. You stuff wood inside the unit and light it, placing a cooking pot on top to heat water or food. The $130 unit has a small fan to perpetuate the fire. It also steals energy away from the burning wood and converts it to device-friendly power compatible with a USB plug.
We tested the stove this past week. (We boiled a pot of water while charging a phone in the outdoors.) It does what the company claims, straight and simple. As a bonus, with a sister product BioLite aims to get its fire-for-power tech into the developing world. The company’s HomeStove model will be marketed to people in the developing world who cook with wood in enclosed places. HomeStove burns fuel efficiently, lessening smoke, and it has the extra benefit of providing power to charge up lights or other devices needed in daily life.
—Reporting by Stephen Regenold, Sean McCoy, Jason Magness, Chelsey Magness, and Sam Salwei. See part II of “Best in Show” here. For the latest OR Show reportage look to our new special section, “Outdoor Retailer Coverage,” and in the articles “Future Gear Extravaganza! 2012 Outdoor Retailer Preview” and “Coming to Market 2013. . . Peek at Future Gear.”