We’ve said goodbye to 2013, but not to the best gear I tested this year. Of the dozens of products I put through the paces, these eight items stood out as some of the best.
The Suunto Ambit2 S ($399) has been on my wrist day in and day out for months. It’s a GPS watch that can record, track, analyze, and interpret my motion on a bike, run, while swimming or climbing a peak. Custom apps can be uploaded to the watch for a range of new ways to geek out in the outdoors.
The Salomon Sense Mantra ($120) hit a sweet spot on serious mountain trail runs where I needed protection and light weight. The shoes are flexible and light enough (around 9 ounces a foot) to make the “minimalist” runner in me happy, but the Sense Mantras are built solidly to cushion from sharp stones and other interferences on the trail.
Among other remote communiqués, last spring I called my wife from a remote desert in Jordan on the SPOT Global Phone. The signal was clear, the unit was easy to operate, and the cost was lower than any satellite call I’ve ever made. The $499 unit is in line with the retail price of a high-end smartphone like the Apple iPhone 5, and calling plans start at just 25 cents a minute.
The North Face ThermoBall Full Zip Jacket ($199) uses a new type of synthetic insulation called PrimaLoft ThermoBall that’s created to compete with goose down. It’s lightweight, packable, warm, and if it gets wet outdoors the insulation does not collapse or clump like down.
The Backcountry Bed from Sierra Designs is basically a sleeping bag with an opening in the middle. An attached blanket closes the opening instead of a zipper, and the result is a comfortable and versatile alternative to a constricting sleeping bag. The company uses an airy 800-fill goose down for premium backcountry sleep. $349.
It’s easy to drop $2,000 or more on a fat bike. But late this year Framed Bikes launched a high-quality fatty for just $899. The bike, called the Minnesota 2.0, has 4-inch-wide tires and can tackle sand, mud, and snow. A nice aluminum frame, SRAM components, and an overall quality build make the Minnesota bike comparable to models that cost $1,000 more.
I’ve paddled small inflatable pack-rafts on waters around the world. The LiteWater Dinghy model from Klymit ($225) stood out this year because of its extreme light weight and packability – this is a boat that folds up tiny and weighs just 35 ounces. Inflate it and you have a personal watercraft for crossing lakes and rivers in the backcountry with ease.
The Canvas Commuter backpack from Banjo Brothers is three things: tough, practical and affordable. Its outer fabric is a pliable waxed canvas, and the pack has multiple pockets, including three reachable while riding. The waterproof backpack costs $99.99, and it has been a go-to commuting pack in every type of weather for the past nine months.
On the Web: gearjunkie.com.