From South America to the Austrian Alps, with dozens of domestic stops in between, 2011 was a year of high adventure for the GearJunkie crew. On mountain climbs, ultra runs, adventure races, bike events — and plain-old camping and backpacking trips with family and friends — we tested a serious load of outdoors equipment. The list below, Gear Junkie’s annual “Top 10 Gear” awards, gives a nod to our favorite new products, tested and approved, after a year of fun outdoors and around the globe. —Stephen Regenold, editor of GearJunkie.com
1. Sea to Summit Specialist Solo and Duo shelters. “When a company begins measuring its tents in grams, not pounds, you know the term ‘ultralight’ has accomplished a new realm.” That’s what we wrote back in August when we first saw these two new minimalist shelters from Sea to Summit.
Now, after some serious field testing, we are confident giving the micro-tents — which weigh respectively 625 grams (solo tent) and 846 grams (double), with their poles! — a Top 10 award. Sea to Summit employs a thin waterproof/breathable Pertex fabric and pared-down design to create the shelters, which hover in a category between a tent and a bivy sack and pack down to the size of a Nalgene bottle. $429 (Solo model) and $499 (Duo model). Available in March, 2012. More info/GearJunkie review article
2. New Balance Minimus Trail. Strange-looking and super flexible on the foot, the Minimus shoe takes a large dose of design direction as per the current barefoot/minimalist footwear zeitgeist. But while testing more than a dozen similar shoes this year, and running collectively hundreds of miles on urban paths to rugged trails, we feel the New Balance Minimus stood out as something special. Orange and meshy, the shoe regularly gets mistaken as an aqua sock. But it runs like a bonafide terrestrial beast, a grid of textured dots on its Vibram sole biting dirt and smearing on rock to stick and grip. Weighs an airy 9.3 ounces (in our test size 12 men’s). Cost is $100. More info/GearJunkie review article
3. Black Diamond Z-Poles. Thin, light, and amazingly packable when folded up, these new-school trekking poles from Black Diamond shined on hikes and adventures around the continent this year. With narrow carbon fiber shafts, each Z-Pole weighs a scant 5 ounces, about half a normal “ultra-light” pole.
They come in four fixed sizes, from 100 to 130 centimeters, and the poles have threaded, replaceable tips. A push-button release lets you collapse the poles for storing in an instant on the go. Solid package all around. One of the year’s best innovations in gear, hands down. $149.95. More info/GearJunkie review article
4. SOL Escape Bivvy. Adventure Medical Kits calls it a “breathable Space Blanket bivy.” We tested the lightweight bag on trips from Utah to British Columbia this year and fell in love with its crinkly, reflective material (a “vacuum-metalized spun-bonded olefin,” according to the company). We have been using AMK’s regular “Space Blanket” bivy sacks for years. They are lightweight and body-heat-reflective, though always clammy — water condenses inside the original design. But with this new bag, condensation can escape better through the material — though the exterior is rain-, snow- and wind-resistant — leaving you more dry after a night’s rest, both inside and out.
The SOL Escape Bivvy weighs about 9 ounces. It packs up to the size of a Nalgene bottle. The bag will sell for $50 in 2012 when the company ships to stores. More info/GearJunkie review article
5. Centrifuge Jacket by Outdoor Research. Our go-to top for cool weather activities like winter trail running and XC skiing, the Centrifuge fits and feels more like a shirt — the front side has a wind-blocking fabric but on back (where you sweat most) there is only a thin, air-permeable fleece. The breathability is matched with a good fit and smart design — thumb holes on each cuff allow you to pull the Centrifuge’s sleeves over your hands, eliminating the need for gloves in temps down to about 40 degrees. A tight hood stretches and fits like a skull cap, and if you zip the jacket up past your chin the Centrifuge offers a thin panel on its collar that you can breathe through. More info/GearJunkie review article
6. Yurbuds Exercise Earphones. The rubbery tips of Yurbuds’ namesake earphones squeeze and “lock” into place via a grippy silicone material that molds to the shape of your ear. We have been testing the tight-fitting buds for a couple months, mainly while running on roads and trails. During our tests they have never fallen out — the soft, “medical-grade” silicone tips comfortable and sweat-proof even on the hottest days. $49.99. More info/GearJunkie review article
7. Adidas TERREX FAST Sport Glasses. These sporty outdoors frames have accompanied Gear Junkie and crew on a dozen adventures this year, from climbing Kings Peak in Utah to hiking 65 miles through Minnesota’s Boundary Waters wilderness. The glasses’ modular nature makes them stand out — they have interchangeable lenses, screw-less temple bows (they snap out), and a removable nose piece that fits an Rx insert for a prescription lens if needed.
For winter use or high in the mountains, the TERREX FAST kit comes with a switch-in elastic strap and a foam face piece that hugs the glasses to your head like a ski goggle. $210. More info/GearJunkie review article
8. Fenix HP-11 Headlamp. In a week-long adventure race this year in Idaho, where Team GearJunkie/YogaSlackers was in the dark for nearly 50 hours of the event, the HP-11 literally shined. With a rated 277-lumen L.E.D., our team could ride singletrack mountain bike trails at full speed with this light, which requires four AA batteries. It runs for about 4 hours on that high setting, or about 25 hours on a lower light setting, which we use for hiking. The headlamp is waterproof, rugged, and (best part) costs only $65. More info/GearJunkie review article
9. Salomon EXO Sensifit Running Apparel. Yes, you might look like Spiderman running in this getup. But Salomon’s compression clothing, which comes in shorts, a shirt, and calf wraps, is worth the strange glances. We loved the line’s rubbery web overlay and tight-wrapping fabric. The line ensconces muscles yet still allows for full freedom of movement as you run (like a superhero) down the trail. $100 (shorts), $120 (shirt), $55 (calf wraps). More info/GearJunkie review article
10. Purist Bottle from Specialized Bicycles. They cost just $8 apiece but offer a big upgrade in the bottle category. Namely, the Purist bottles’ touted “flexibility and safety of a sports bottle with the pure taste of drinking from a glass” we found to be for the most part true. The secret ingredient is in an inner surface coating of “infused silicon-dioxide,” which the company says creates a low surface tension to which contaminants can’t readily stick. They easily wash clean, and we found you could go from a sports drink to regular water without the bottle retaining any color or taste. The Purist bottle’s leak-proof cap with a self-sealing valve is a bonus goodie on this new-order hydration vessel. More info/GearJunkie review article
—Stephen Regenold is editor of GearJunkie.com. Writers Jason Magness and T.C. Worley contributed to this report. Connect with GearJunkie at Facebook.com/TheGearJunkie or on Twitter via @TheGearJunkie.