Gear Reviews

I've recently realized that, thanks to my current line of work, I'm one of those people who actually uses a lot of outdoor gear enough to get a good sense of what works well, what doesn't, and, most importantly, what lasts. Hopefully, it will be a public service of some kind to share some of these experiences and note which pieces of equipment I can and cannot recommend based on fairly heavy use.

I use plenty of gear, and am selecting a few stand-out specimens to mention here. Some of them are well-known for their quality, but I have tried to highlight a few which may not have so much name recognition.

I've grouped it, generally, into Winners and Duds. Further comments (including qualifications such as my not having used the item all that much, really) will provide important elaboration. Items are not grouped in any particular order.

Winners

Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 (tent)

Pros: 
  • Light weight: to my knowledge, the lightest free-standing tent on the market outside of cuben fiber.
  • Easy setup: though if you had to do it in rain, there'd be no way to avoid getting the interior wet.
  • Pretty decent in storms: I've had it in some quite fierce winds and rains and been perfectly happy. You do need to make sure you've tightened down the rain fly, otherwise it can flap something fierce, but that's the case with any tent. I have encountered some winds so strong that it became a bit worryingly unstable, though.
  • Durable: an important criterion. I've been careful not to leave it out in sunlight and to let it air-dry after trips when needed. I also try to keep the zippers clean on a regular basis, as they are always the first thing to fail.
  • Excellent customer service: I actually bought the thing heavily used, its seller having completed an Appalachian Trail through-hike. When the tent body's zipper failed and I sent it in for repair, Big Agnes sent me a new tent body free of charge. The same thing happened when the rain fly's zipper failed. This makes me willing to pay the otherwise disturbing price tag, when the time comes that I need another big-ticket item and Big Agnes is in the running.

Cons: 
  • Cramped inside: I'm 5'9" and my head brushes the top of the tent body when I sit up. There's very little space to spread out when you're inside. It's the price you pay for the low weight.
  • Incomplete protection from rain-splashes, which is not so much a problem unless you're using the footprint-and-fly-only setup option to save weight. The rain fly does not come near the ground, and heavy rains will leave the side of the tent very mud-spattered. If you used the minimalist setup during a rainstorm, you and your things would be covered in mud instead. Reserve this setup mode for desert nights when you want to block some wind.
  • Price tag: As noted above, the manufacturer's above-and-beyond support mitigates this considerably (especially given that I got the tent used for $100 and they've never even seen a penny of my money), but it may put the tent sadly out of the reach of many a backpacker.
  • Zippers are flimsy: These are the weakest point on any item that has them, but given the rest of the tent is so sturdy (and so expensive), I wish they'd have gone with a beefier zipper that's less likely to break after becoming clogged with desert dust. I really wouldn't begrudge the extra grams.

Thermarest NeoAir XTherm (sleeping pad)

Pros:
  • Comfortable: I'm a real princess when it comes to sleeping surfaces, and I'm nearly always happy on this thing.
  • Light: There are lighter sleeping pads, but for what it is, it's still remarkably bearable.
  • Warm: It's advertised as 4-season and has quite a high R-value, and I've endured some quite bitter nights with ease. Pads make less perceptible difference in warmth than sleeping bags do, but it's very nice to have.
  • Durable: I went with this one after having puncture problems with its relative, the XLite (which therefore appears under "Duds" below). No such issues with this one. I do protect it, when possible, with up to two silnylon layers and a foam pad, but I've laid it straight on top of a tent footprint plenty of times too, and no holes yet.
Cons:
  • Noisy: It's actually not too bad as Thermarest pads go. I've never heard any complains from fellow campers, and the crinkling sounds don't bother me - a very light sleeper.
  • Price: This was a serious splurge item for me, but I am glad I have it.

Darn Tough (socks)

I hike almost exclusively in their ankle socks (meanwhile, I use a pair of extra-thick mountaineering socks from SmartWool as my feetie-heaties for nighttime). They're comfortable, by far the most durable I've found, and come with a lifetime warranty. The price seems high for socks, but for what you're getting, it's really unreasonable to count that as a "con."

Grand Trunk Skeeter Beeter UL (camping hammock)

Camping hammocks were a revolutionary discovery for me, and this one was the most affordable option on the market back when I was broke and wanting to get hanging. It probably still is, but I wouldn't know - this hammock has been serving me well for the five years since I bought it. It lacks a lot of fancier features and cottage-manufacturer cred that some higher-end brands have, but in terms of bang for your buck, you can't do better. 

Its system for suspending the mosquito net could be better; when combined with a tarp, it can sag down onto you, which of course would negate the bite-repelling capabilities of the mesh. Its stock suspension, as with most hammocks, is also terrible, and the $30 upgrade to "whoopie slings" is pretty much required. And, of course, hammocks are far more fiddly than tents, so you've got to be a bit involved in your camping setup to get it working properly for you. Overall, though, it's by far the cheapest bug-netted hammock around, and anybody camping in a forested biome should give it a try.

Garmin ETrex 20 (GPS receiver)

I haven't gone out of my way to try, but I'm not convinced it's possible to kill this thing. It's certainly been dropped enough times, especially before I realized there was a cheap clip attachment to fasten it much more securely to my backpack's shoulder straps. My ETrex has scouted just about the entire Abraham Path through five countries, plus plenty more escapades across two continents, and shows no signs of slowing. Granted, its speed of function is pretty sluggish to begin with, and the molasses-slow interface is almost physically painful to use if what you're trying to do is examine a topo map. However, you couldn't ask for a more reliable workhorse for collecting data, locating points and following routes, and heavily abusing it the whole time.

Sawyer Squeeze (water filter)

I've gotten nowhere near the advertised million-gallon lifetime of this filter, needless to say. Of course, it could be a fifth of that, and it would still be far more durable than all the pump filters on the market, and at a fraction of the weight and cost. Assuming you're willing to put up with some added inconvenience, this filter is a no-brainer.

As mentioned in almost every other review, the "dirty" water bags that come with it can't be trusted not to spring leaks. Luckily, in my experience, these aren't catastrophic, but rather annoying, and the bags can be replaced with a standard Platypus bladder.

The elbow grease/time-and-frustration factor is substantially more than with a pump filter; you must still manually push water through the filter, but you also have to get the water bag filled from your natural source before you can even start. In some disappointingly rare water sources (waterfalls of more than 8 inches' height, for example) this is the work of an instant. Otherwise, it takes some finagling. If your source is very shallow, such as a certain spring I camped near in Zion National Park, you'll need a cup or other vessel to transfer any water into the dirty bag at all.

The squeezing action is no more laborious than the pumping work of a conventional filter, but you also have to deal with keeping the outlet end aligned with your clean-water receptacle, which can be extremely irritating (especially with water bladders, as opposed to hard bottles) without a partner. But with a group, the weight of pump filters becomes less of an obstacle, while their efficiency begins to yield greater benefits.

Still - who wouldn't prefer a 3oz filter over the 12oz+ alternatives, and at less than half the price?

Boulder Bikepacking (bikepacking-style bags)

I have a frame pack, gas tank, and saddlebag made by Greg Wheelwright of Boulder. As far as I know, the design of these is not radically different from the mainstream, which features dozens of manufacturers these days - all using essentially the same design specs, with a few exceptions. However, it's worth mentioning, since Greg has provided excellent service (including free zipper repairs when I managed to break one on the frame pack by abusing it and neglecting maintenance, and free replacement of an item when it was apparently stolen from my porch after delivery). Moreover, the bags are very solid (the zipper breakage was the only issue, and that was my fault for severely overstuffing the bag). Customers choosing bikepacking gear now are already spoiled for choice, despite how new and niche the hobby still is, and just about all the options seem to be great. But I thought I should give credit to the one I've chosen.

Ergon GP1/GR2 (handlebar grips)

I could not ride long distances without these. I have read blog posts in which long-distance bike tourists have worn them out, but I've put plenty of miles on mine, and I'm nowhere close to that point. I think the number of miles needed to destroy a pair is in the high thousands.


Duds

Merrell Moab (and other footwear)

Pro:
  • Supremely comfortable. This is why I kept buying them, up until I decided it just didn't make economic sense. I have never found any other shoes as cushy and consistently comfy as the several pairs of Merrells I've gone through. I've hiked a heck of lot in them and, to the extent that deathly-tired feet can be always happy, mine have been.
Con:
  • They don't last. If I'm buying expensive hiking footwear, I expect it to have a reasonably long lifetime. In the past year (during which I hiked a lot, but not really that much, considering what my job is; certainly nowhere close to a through-hiker's mileage), I ran a pair of Moabs down to the point where the soles were coming unglued all over the place, and one of them was taking on water from below, just from walking across a sidewalk in the rain. I had the same experience with a previous pair of boots, which lasted longer only because I started my hiking-heavy job two years after buying them. An REI employee classified them as great for occasional hikers with fragile feet (though of course, my trail-hardened feet still love them), but not for anybody doing significant amounts of hiking, and I'd have to agree.

Thermarest NeoAir XLite (sleeping pad)

Some might be surprised to find this popular product under the "Duds" heading. One factor got it there - durability. Yes, the pad is extremely light, and relatively affordable. No, the insulation level ("R-value") is not high, but that isn't what counts against it. The problem is, the pad got so light by being made of thin and relatively flimsy material, which I discovered over the course of several afflicted backpacking trips in the desert. I'm fairly attentive to ground conditions at camp, and not prone to let stray thorns stay in my sleeping area, but on too many occasions, I woke up halfway through the night to a deflated pad, and had to re-inflate - an unhappy process which of course had to be repeated throughout not only the night, but the rest of the trip.

Punctures in the pad are repairable, of course - but not field-repairable, in my experience. If the hole is too small (which all of mine were), you need a tub or other large volume of water to dip it into, just to locate the leak. So any puncture means the rest of the trip spent fitfully rolling off your pad, blowing air back into it, then gloomily drifting off to sleep in anticipation of the next iteration. 

I suppose if you're in a place with lots of still water, you might find it easier to do the hole-hunting required for a field repair. In the desert, forget about it. Even a rushing stream probably wouldn't work - you're looking for a tiny stream of bubbles that would be washed away by water flow.

I ultimately replaced this pad with its relative, the XTherm, and haven't had a puncture yet (two years later as of this writing). The extra dollars (though they are many) and few extra ounces are easily worth the durability you get out of the deal; the far higher R-value is just a bonus.