I love my job. Playing with gear is clearly the highlight of my day and getting to geek out while writing about it is a relatively close second. But reading about what's new is also pretty high on the pleasure scale right now. With more people buying gear online, the need for quality reviews is higher than ever. And with the demand high, established sites and newcomers have rushed to show us what's new and exciting. But with all the players, it can be hard to spot the winners. Of all the gear coverage I read online day-to-day here are my seven favorite sites.
Blister Gear Review Blister Gear Review, the youngest site on this list, is certainly the most thorough about its treatment of outdoor gear. Their reviewers are all top-level athletes and they test the dickens out of gear before writing about it. It's true long-form, the average length of a review of a single piece of gear is 1500 words, and they take advantage of those words by really breaking down the minute performance and design details that matter when you are using high-end gear.
Having started Gear Junkie in 2006, Stephen Regenold is one of the longest standing members in the gear blog game and has built an empire around it. Regenold told me in an email that they have over 20,000 reader comments on their blog. I personally gravitate to their "First Look" coverage. It feels like every time a new piece of gear is released in our the outdoor space, Gear Junkie seems to be right there playing with it.
Ex-Outside Associate Editor Justin Nyberg paid his gear dues as Executive Editor for the Outside's Buyer's Guide, working on every BG for six years before co-founding the Gear Institute. The sharply designed site is easy to navigate by category and packs a lot of information in to a small space thanks to its use of illustrated ratings along with words and images.
Trek Tech Blog
Trek Tech Blog's founder, Billy Brown, is a beast. The 3-savage-workouts-per-day athlete recently competed in the American Ninja Challenge on assignment. Brown and his crew of testers are brutal on their bodies and the gear they test—dragging it behind cars, spilling whiskey on high-end tech, and occasionally sending themselves to the hospital. The site is in a scroll down blog format and features gear one piece at a time.
Gear Patrol is my go-to for inspiration on hip treatment of gear. The site uses photo essays, a clean design, and well produced videos to create an aesthetically pleasing experience. Gear Patrol has a much more lifestyle lean than any other site on this list, but a man can't live on outdoor gear alone.
Amy Jurries, who runs The Gearcaster, is always right on top of trends. Jurries maintains the most comprehensive outdoor trend forecasting site by constantly reading, keeping up with industry events, and getting after it outside herself. Jurries just came back from a Pack-Raft gear testing adventure in Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska. Her gear testing is presented one item at a time in a scroll down blog format.
Adventure Journal's gear coverage is fun to read thanks to writers like site founder Steve Casimiro and Semi-Rad's Brendan Leonard's pervasive, decidedly funny, voice. I find myself laughing out loud when I read sentences like the following, from Leonard: "If your gear were a person, it would divorce you, have you arrested, or stab you to death."
I'M DOZING IN a hammock slung between two snow-ghost spruces overlooking a gypsy-camp movie set put together by Sweetgrass Productions. A dozen or so locals, professional skiers, and hangers-on, all dressed in vintage drover coats, animal skins, and thrift-store fishing sweaters, are walking around on hobbit paths that wind through the woods. We’re a few hundred yards off the back side of the White-water ski area in Nelson, British Columbia, in a clearing decorated with a tepee, an igloo, several blue-tarped lean-tos, and a couple of four-season tents disguised under khaki-colored canvas. Watching the actors and crew move about, I can’t quite tell who’s in character and who’s for real.
A few feet away, Cody Barnhill, a 30-year-old professional freeskier from Alaska, is disrobing and locking limbs with his girlfriend, Meredith Richardson, a 27-year-old reporter for ESPN.com. Santa Barbara–based photographer Lindsey Ross snaps a picture. Ross, 33, has schlepped in an Ansel Adams–style 8x10 box camera and a portable darkroom, and has been shooting collodion wet-plate nudes of just about everyone here.
Down below Barnhill and Richardson, a guy named Todd, a midforties snowboarder with thick dreads and a gentle voice, is in a similar state of undress with an early-twenties local named Beth. It’s early March, and they’re scrubbing themselves with handfuls of snow, the possible goal of which is backcountry hygiene. As they wince from the cold, Sweetgrass codirectors Nick Waggoner and Ben Sturgulewski, both 27, film the act in high definition, offering occasional directorial comments. I knew there would be nudity—one of Waggoner’s ex-girlfriends had said to me, “I hope you’re ready to get naked”—so none of this is too surprising.
“Having naked people skiing is really about expression and finding comfort with your own self,” Waggoner, the outfit’s figurehead, explains. “This is not a negative thing.”
The Sweetgrass crew, whose base of operations this winter is a three-story, five-bedroom house on the south side of Nelson, spent much of the previous night around a towering bonfire, filming scenes for their upcoming release, Valhalla. An art-house take on your typical ski film, it will tentatively feature something exceedingly rare in the genre: a narrative arc. The movie is a mostly fictional account of a young American paper pusher named Conrad, played by Barnhill, who burns out, quits his job, and heads north in his Volkswagen Beetle to reclaim the youth he lost to conventional ambitions.
Along the way, Conrad meets a tribe of feral skiers, including Ayla, played by 24-year-old professional skier Sierra Quitiquit, and the cultish Rasheek, played by Alex Monot, a lanky, bearded, 38-year-old Frenchman who looks like the sixth wizard of Middle Earth and barely knows how to ski. They’re all searching for something that Waggoner calls the “eyes of youth,” a theme prominently featured in a trailer Sweetgrass released in December 2012, along with lots of swirling visuals, fire dancing, Sturgulewski’s rear end, and skiers soaring gracefully off impossibly high cliffs. “When I think of freedom, it’s that first snowfall and walking out into it,” says Sturgulewski.
Valhalla, which debuts September 13 at the Paramount Theater in Denver, is inspired by Woodstock and the sixties—or, rather, by Waggoner and Sturgulewski’s interpretation of that era. They started shooting two years ago here in Nelson. Tracking the annual migration of professional skiers, photographers, and filmmakers, they moved their operation to Alaska for a few months in the spring of 2012, only to return to Nelson again for the winter of 2013. The whole process is less about efficient storyboarding and more about curating the enviable lifestyle they want to portray on film—the ultimate freewheeling ski-bum existence. And, in a way, the finished movie is only part of the performance art. But it’s a big part, one that Patagonia, Dynafit, and a dozen other upstanding ski-industry companies have ponied up real money to see produced.
Right now there isn’t much skiing going on, though. After one of the snowiest Decembers in B.C. history, blizzards have given way to rain crust, and the crew hasn’t touched powder in weeks. This morning, Sturgulewski and Waggoner are spitballing ways to effectively use Quitiquit, their female lead. A self-identified “ironic vegan” who occasionally eats meat, she’s also appearing in the forthcoming Warren Miller film Ticket to Ride and has been working as a fashion model for apparel company American Eagle.
“We could shoot the nude drop-in,” says Sturgulewski, referencing one of several naked ski-action segments in the film.
“Or we could have her interacting with animals,” offers Waggoner.
I FIRST MET Waggoner in 2008, during his senior year at Colorado College. He took a journalism class taught by Outside editor-at-large Randy Wayne White, who brought his students to Santa Fe to meet editors and photographers. Waggoner, who grew up in New York City’s Greenwich Village and attended the tony Upper East Side Loyola School, stood out as having both the talent and the ability to sell himself at a young age.
His self-assignment for the class was to write a story about the reinvention and massive expansion of British Columbia’s Revelstoke Mountain Resort. But he had other motives. “I convinced the PR guys at Revelstoke to comp my heli time,” says Waggoner, who sought out the best local skiers to shoot for a film. During a spring break, on a press junket partially paid for by Colorado College and partially by Revelstoke, Waggoner captured the first scenes of what would become Hand Cut, the film he made with freshman roommate Sturgulewski, classmate Zac Ramras, and Mike Brown, a childhood friend of Ramras’s from Salt Lake City. The four would later name their fledgling production outfit Sweetgrass, which is headquartered in an old school bus that’s most often in Colorado.
If you’re aware of the quartet, it’s likely because of their second film, Signatures, which chronicled the 2008–09 winter they spent in Hokkaido, Japan, among a soulful group of local snowboarders and artists. That movie contains what’s easily the best four minutes and four seconds in ski porn: a mesmerizing montage of neck-deep powder turns through silver birch trees set to Bon Iver’s "Skinny Love," released six months before anybody had ever heard of Bon Iver.
Waggoner and company have a rare ability to boil skiing down to a feeling. “What strikes me most about Sweetgrass’s work is the subtlety of the art,” says legendary ski-film director Greg Stump. “The images are stunning. The skiing is great. The use of light is pretty dang perfect. And then they top it off with musical choices that are downright haunting.” The marquee scenes in many ski films—a lone figure on an Alaskan ridge about to drop in on a seemingly endless, obstacle-ridden, near vertical apron of snow—are almost always shot from helicopters. Sweetgrass, which occasionally uses helicopters to get around, never films from them. Its productions are quieter; watching one makes you want to quit your job and go on an extended quest for deep powder.
Which is exactly what the Sweetgrass crew embarked on when making their wildly ambitious third film, 2011’s Solitaire, a western-themed ski movie set in the Andes and featuring narration adapted from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. As if the conceit wasn’t highfalutin enough, they decided to translate the text into Spanish and then subtitle it back into English on-screen.
The film was hampered by several major problems, including a lack of good snow, unreliable vehicles and lodging, and the skiing deaths of two of their athletes. “Solitaire wasn’t my favorite movie,” Waggoner says. “It was stressful and impossible to shoot.”
Valhalla will be different but no less risky as an artistic endeavor. Waggoner and Sturgulewski started with a 60-page script, but the finished product will have almost no dialogue. It will be narrated mainly by Barnhill, Quitiquit, and Monot in a series of moody voice-overs—the sort of thing that can be either unforgettable or cringe inducing.
Waggoner understands the challenges of structuring a film this way, but he might well pull it off. He’s become one of the most respected filmmakers in the genre, and he isn’t under serious financial pressure as he pursues his vision. Although ticket and DVD sales matter to some extent in a production like this, his primary obligation is to make a film that his sponsors will want to help publicize. And for the first time, he has his pick of the world’s best freeskiers, including Barnhill, Oregon native and freeskiing elder statesman Pep Fujas, and high-flying Canadians Kye Petersen and Eric Hjorleifson.
Sweetgrass has nicer toys these days, too: the crew is shooting with a pair of $40,000 Red cinema cameras. (They had to sell a third one to make rent.) “We don’t want to be Brain Farm,” says Waggoner, referring to the Jackson Hole–based production house with the most expensive moviemaking equipment. Whereas Brain Farm is the Michael Bay of the industry, Sweetgrass aspires to be its Terrence Malick.
WAGGONER HAS a kind of soft-spoken, charismatic innocence. And he often dresses like a dandy, favoring shawl-collared sweaters and fringed suede jackets from thrift shops. Combined with his well-stamped passport, it makes for a conspicuous profile, as I learned when I crossed the border on my way to Nelson.
At the international checkpoint north of Spokane, Washington, an inspector in the secondary screening area asked to see my phone. While he searched it, his colleague explained that cell-phone data helped “reveal peoples’ true intentions.”
“How do you know Nick?” the inspector asked when he returned.
At that point, Waggoner’s name was not in my contact list, but there was a text message from his cell-phone number giving me his address in Nelson, which is commonly referred to as the country’s pot capital. Waggoner has been flagged in Canada’s database since 2010, when agents detained him for 11 hours and strip-searched him. “Where are the drugs, Nicholas?” they wanted to know.
He didn’t have any. Like most of the rotating cast of 15 people who are currently inhabiting the Sweetgrass mansion, Waggoner practices yoga every day and prefers the town’s health-food co-ops to its famous smoke shops. (He does have a weak spot for ten-year Laphroaig Scotch, though.)
At the moment, the house’s other residents include Barnhill; the Frenchman Monot; Quitiquit; her boyfriend, professional freeskier Julian Carr; the photographer Ross; and a few others. In what should be the dining room, camera gear and beat-up tripods litter the floor like kids’ toys. Quarters are tight: Barnhill is currently sleeping in a closet under the stairs. But everyone mostly likes the arrangement. Mostly. On a pizza box in Waggoner’s room, I find a note Ross wrote to Waggoner with a Sharpie, lamenting her inability to sleep with all the loud sex that’s happening but not involving her.
Over the course of the week, all four of the Sweetgrass guys are in constant motion. Brown makes several six-hour round-trips to Spokane to shuttle talent to and from the airport. Ramras picks up a truckload of fireworks for a night-skiing shoot, and Waggoner rents a generator for another, even bigger bonfire party they hope to film at Whitewater Ski Resort.
Occasionally we ski. On one of the few runs we take during the week, Barnhill, who is arguably the most underrated freeskier in America, drops the group while skiing backward down a steep tree-studded glade of icy moguls. And somehow he manages to look like he’s having fun while doing it.
One day, we drive a minivan an hour north to an abandoned mine, where a dozen defunct Into the Wild–style buses sit collecting snow. The goal is to shoot scenes of Quitiquit as the jackbooted, union-suit-wearing Ayla squatting at an abandoned cabin, trying to carve a living out of the land. Only things don’t go as planned. Waggoner shoots a few scenes of Ayla catching a trout and laying out her bedroll, but then the minivan won’t start. While Ramras tries to revive the vehicle, we decide to cook up one of the props—the store-bought fish Ayla supposedly caught on a fly. We fry it on an iron skillet over an open fire, throw in some leftover curry someone brought along, and stand around scooping it into our mouths with bare hands. Waggoner produces a couple of cans of cold beer, and for a moment life imitates art. Then Ramras coaxes the van back to life.
Toward the end of the week, everything is finally set for the bonfire party. The resort’s management is so enthusiastic about hosting it that they have their ski patrollers saw up and stack more than a cord of eight-foot logs to fuel it. At the appointed time, a mix of locals and cast members stage a hippy gala set piece in the woods, with dancing, flaming Hula-Hoops, and generator-amplified music. The inferno is massive. It looks as if a small house is on fire.
Sturgulewski and Waggoner spend much of the night filming Monot’s Rasheek leading Barnhill/Conrad into the circle of gyrating bodies, which includes the mysterious Ayla, and delivering one of the film’s few lines of dialogue: “C’mon, man, let’s get some love.”
Waggoner says the sponsors have been accommodating to Sweetgrass’s style of production. They haven’t required him to turn in anything more than the trailer, which they’ve already posted online. Do they know just how free-spirited the film will be? He doesn’t want to ruin the surprise.
When pressed, he says, “We’re not going to show a cut of it to our sponsors ahead of time. At some point, you just have to say fuck it.”
The fall book season opens with ambitious works by two heavyweights, Bob Shacochis and Scott Anderson, writing on empire and the making of the modern world. It’s been two decades since Shacochis’s last novel, Swimming in the Volcano, and the Outside contributing editor’s new offering, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, doesn’t disappoint. Woman is a masterful novel with the power to shake the bones of Graham Greene. The title character is Dottie Chambers, a.k.a. Jackie Scott, a.k.a. Renee Gardner, an American secret agent with a penchant for self-reinvention and a keen interest in Haitian voodoo. Her violent death in Haiti entwines human-rights lawyer Tom Harrington and Delta Force operative Eville Burnette in a mystery that grows to encompass Croatia, Kenya, Pakistan, the Cali Cartel, and the geopolitical run-up to 9/11.
Harrington’s a classic Shacochis character—an ex-journo turned war-criminal hunter working the dark seams of Port-au-Prince—but the book belongs to Burnette, a Montana boy caught up in intrigue far beyond his pay grade. “We’re not interested in winning hearts and minds,” a Delta leader tells him. “For our guys, hearts and minds are targets. We shoot hearts and minds.” Burnette finds himself recruited into a defense undersecretary’s network of operatives running dark ops with (and against) Pakistani colonels, Mexican drug lords, and Saudis trying to foment jihad. This is no mere thriller, though; Woman is a book of deep beauty thanks to Shacochis’s hard-earned observations on war, justice, and U.S. naiveté. Americans, Shacochis writes, never took faraway, struggling nations seriously “until their faces were rubbed in the awfulness they sometimes made when they were seized by the exalted passion to remake the world.”
Like Shacochis, Anderson is concerned with the origins of our modern mess. A veteran war correspondent with extensive experience in the Middle East, he traces the genesis of the region’s fractious present back to T. E. Lawrence and the big bang of World War I.
In Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Anderson chronicles the intersecting paths of Lawrence, the charismatic British Army officer, and three others whose Great War espionage, influence, and skullduggery cracked the Ottoman Empire apart. Anderson leaves no clandestine pact or subtle double cross unmentioned. The other main players—an American oilman turned spy, a Jewish agronomist with Zionist designs on Palestine, and a German agent trying to incite anti-British sentiment among Muslims—are compelling, but they can’t compete with the brilliant Lawrence, who adapted to Arab culture and crossed deserts only Bedouin could survive.
Everything you remember from the film Lawrence of Arabia is here, including his role in the daring 1916 Arab raid on Ottoman Empire forces in Aqaba and his failed dream of estab-lishing an Arab state. Anderson’s final chapter brilliantly stitches together the ways in which all the machinations of the Great War led to the troubles of the past century—“a catalog of war, religious strife, and brutal dictatorships.” Anderson, like Shacochis, reminds us that today’s small conflicts and porous borders will surely blow up into tomorrow’s larger war. We just don’t know when.
It’s time to build your summer stack: that squatty tower made up of equal parts brain candy, literati buzz, and guilty pleasure. This year’s juiciest offerings feature an African aid-work hustler, a monster in backcountry Alaska, a drifter in Hawaii, a Spaniard obsessed with murder and cheese, and a trio of river rats who risk jail and damnation to become legends of the Grand Canyon.
Start with The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon, by Outside contributing editor Kevin Fedarko (read an excerpt here). In the spring of 1983, snowmelt and rainstorms threatened to blow out Glen Canyon Dam, the concrete plug that harnesses the Colorado River above the Grand Canyon. To ease the pressure, dam engineers sent a raging pulse of water through the Canyon. A trio of grizzled river guides responded like Laird Hamilton to a buoy report: Launch time! Fedarko, a Colorado River boatman himself, crafts a dramatic tale of courage and hubris that encompasses the sweeping history of the Canyon.
An eminence grise of travel writing, Edward Hoagland reminds us that he is also a nimble novelist in Children Are Diamonds: An African Apocalypse. Children follows the transient life of Hickey, an American freelance aid worker who moves food and medicine through battle zones and bandit alleys, offering a vivid window into the continent’s hot spots. About an outlaw militia’s airstrip in the Congo, Hoagland writes, “There are no police or consular officials or coroners: just vultures to do the autopsy and record the fingerprints and dentistry. You’d be recycled into wings.”
For a comic break, turn to Stench of Honolulu, Jack Handey’s adventure novel set in a bizarro slice of paradise, where the narrator goes to escape his creditors. Handey’s burlesque works best in small doses, so take one bite at a time.
Since Arthur Frommer published his first guidebook in 1957, globe-trotters have stuffed dog-eared volumes into their packs. But last March, Google announced that it would dissolve the series—which it bought in August 2012—after mining it for content. It appeared to be one more spasm of a dying industry: sales of travel books dropped 19 percent last year and 10 percent the year before. Last March, BBC sold Lonely Planet to a reclusive tobacco magnate at a loss of more than $100 million.
Blame crowdsourced sites like TripAdviser and Wikivoyage, along with a swarm of innovative digital travel guides and tools like Wanderfly and VerbalizeIt. In the past few years, though, guidebook companies have started to respond. “Traditional publishers need to be platform neutral, so they can repurpose their content for whatever channel their customer is on,” says Mark Henshall, content director for digital agency Propellernet and a former Frommer’s editor. “The guidebook isn’t dead. It’s just evolving.”
Lonely Planet now has 500 e-book editions and in May launched Fluent Road, an online language program. Both Lonely Planet and Fodor’s offer apps and e-books loaded with news and links to maps. The work is starting to pay off: Lonely Planet doubled its e-book revenue last year, helping push overall revenue into the black, and sales of Fodor’s e-books grew 642 percent in the past two years. But electronic guidebooks still make up only 5 percent of the companies’ overall sales—and all digital platforms, including apps, make up no more than 30 percent.
To survive, say industry experts, guidebook companies will need to offer their content in more formats with more features, quickly. Some of that is in the works—animated illustrations and audio phrase guides for e-books are on the way—and startups will push the envelope further. “Travel publishing has been shot in the arm with adrenaline,” says Brice Gosnell, VP of publishing for Lonely Planet. “All these things we’ve wanted to do for years, we now have the tools and platforms to do them.” While it remains to be seen whether companies like Gosnell’s can catch the tide quickly enough, he’s right about one thing: “On the consumer end, it’s all great.”
THE FUTURE Lonely Planet City Guides: Customers can search attractions and services alphabetically or by theme (“parks and gardens,” “sweeping views”). But at $4 a city, they’re pricey for an app.
FODOR’S CITY GUIDES: Splashy photos illustrate reviews, and events and shows are bookable from the app. Plus: it’s free. Unfortunately, it kept crashing on us.
ROUGH GUIDES CITY GUIDES: An interactive map shows lodgings, restaurants, shops, and sights on command. And slide shows link directly to reviews of attractions. One bummer: reviews are organized into neighborhoods, but the app doesn’t show you where they are.