Over the past few years, reviewing equipment for camping, hiking, biking, and other pursuits, a few products and a few ideas have stood out. These five innovations in gear have literally changed the way I do things outside.
Merino Wool Base Layers: The fine wool of the merino sheep happens to make a perfect performance fabric for base-layer clothing. It doesn't itch. It breathes. Merino is natural and durable, and it can be worn for days on end because the fabric has built-in antimicrobial properties. But the kicker for me is merino's seemingly magical feature of regulating core body temperature no matter the weather outside. Wool base layers can keep you warm when it's cold, and when you're hot and sweaty, a merino shirt helps keep you cool. Companies such as Ibex, Icebreaker, and SmartWool are top brands and longtime adherents to merino. I applaud them--and other adopters now--for taking the leap with sheep.
Barefoot-Style Running Shoes: Christopher McDougall's best-selling book Born to Run has seriously ramped up interest in a trend that was already soaring quite high. The phenomenon of "barefoot-style" shoes--models that incorporate less padding and little or no arch support--allow the foot to flex and feel the ground as you go (just like if you were barefoot). About four years ago, the barefoot style completely changed the way I run. After switching from heavily-padded running shoes to more minimal models, I went from long strides and heel flops to shorter strides and midfoot strikes. My running style became faster, more efficient, and easier on my body as a result.
Tasty Energy Food: Remember the energy bars of yore? Or were those hunks of cardboard disguised as food? As a category, energy food--including bars, gels, "blocks," and other on-the-go options--have become substantially more palatable in recent years. Standouts include Clif Mojo bars (granola-type bars that are more salty than sweet); Clif SHOT Bloks (gummy fruit-flavor bites); ProBars (hefty, nutty, "whole food" bars); and new gel flavors from GU and Hammer (which make this category more edible than ever).
Single-Speed Bikes: Simple solutions are sometimes the best ones. Thus is the case with single-speed bikes, which have taken off in the past five years for commuters and mountain bikers alike. For me, one gear is often all I need. These bikes--now sold by most all major cycling companies--have fewer parts to break (and thus less maintenance issues), are lighter weight, and--bonus!--often cost substantially less than their derailleur-and-gears-equipped cousins.
Backpacks with Hip Pockets: It is a rare day outdoors that I will wear a backpack without a pair of zippered hip pockets on the belt. These small gear holsters--now seen on backpacks from a dozen or more major pack makers--are a no-brainer innovation and a logical use of wasted empty space on the side of a hip belt. On hikes, adventure races, backpacking trips, and mountain climbs, I stuff my hip pockets full with energy bars, sunscreen, lip balm, a lens cloth, and other essential items I need quick at hand.
--Stephen Regenold writes about outdoors gear at www.gearjunkie.com.