Gear of the Year

For more great gear reviews, pick up a copy of the 2004 Outside Buyer's Guide, AVAILABLE ON NEWSSTANDS NOW!

(Nigel Cox, Brooks Freehill Kayak, Kim Kurian Rack)
gear of the years awards

EQUIPMENT FANATICS CAN TALK SPECS FOR HOURS: How big is the vestibule? What’s the fill power? But the truth is, you can’t measure greatness. The proper response, when you see it, is to inhale and say, "Whoa." Take the 15 products honored in this edition of the Outside Buyer’s Guide. Their seamless merging of design, functionality, and performance makes us swoon. To hikers, cyclists, paddlers, and other athletes, these products represent quantum leaps—that’s why we’re bestowing each with a 2004 Gear of the Year award. Please join us in bowing before the altar of fine craftsmanship.

—The Editors

Sunglasses

outdoor gear, sunglasses

JULBO ADVANCE $99
WHY THEY RULE: Thanks to light-sensitive photochromic tinting, the brownish glass lenses make an unheard-of plunge from dark (87 percent of visible light blocked) to the stygian depths of full-on snowfield blinkers (95 percent). » The Advances have all the features of traditional glacier glasses—flexible side shades, bendable wire-core temples, and lanyard—but with none of that retro young-Messner vibe. » You'll want to wear them off the high ice, given their clean good looks, extraordinary comfort, and optics that make punishing brightness a delight. » Protection is primo, as is security, which becomes absolute when you bend the temples into J-hooks. This model begs for such frigid entertainments as mountaineering and skiing, but I fell in love on a steep hike beneath the Hollywood sign. » The low price only deepened that love. » Rx-able? Yes. Call Julbo. HMMM...Because they aren't polarized, the Advances aren't for boaters and anglers. » The lenses are too dark for shade.

Best Electronics, Camera, and Binoculars

outdoor gear, electronics, cameras
outdoor gear, electronics, cameras
outdoor gear, electronics, cameras

Watches

Nike Triax Elite HRM/SDM $369
WHY IT RULES: This heart-rate monitor and wrist-mounted coach makes everything—except the huffing and puffing—a snap. Think of it as the one-handed corkscrew, the clip-on bow tie of fitness equipment. Yes, it's that easy to use. » Don the chest strap to measure beats per minute, and secure the plastic foot pod to your laces to clock pace and distance. The water-resistant unit collects these vitals wirelessly, telegraphing your stats to an oversize display. A glance kept me from over- or under-pacing. » Aprè;s-exercise, you need only step within ten feet of your PC to upload data—without awkward serial-port cords or finicky infrared beams. » The included software archives full-color graphs of heart rate and pace. » Need supervision? A virtual coach can route workouts to the watch. » The final flourish: While sucking data from your wrist, Nike's PC attachment pulses blue light to a heartbeat rhythm. Gimmicky? Yes, but it's a runner's high to use. HMMM...Speed and distance functions (the SDM half of the equation) proved tricky to calibrate.

Cameras

Canon Digital Rebel $999 with lens ($949, street*); $899 without lens ($849, street)
WHY IT RULES: The Canon—a 6.3-megapixel digital SLR for $200 less than the competition—blows away every other digital in its class. The pictures are that good. » Want action? The Rebel will reel off four 6.3-megapixel shots in less than two seconds, and because the autofocus tracks the rate at which a subject is approaching or retreating, I could snap crisp images of two deer sprinting through trees. » Canon's image sensor is among the world's best, regardless of price. It renders color and exposure with great accuracy and flushes data faster than other SLRs, so you can shoot more rapidly. » The 18–55mm, f/3.5 digital lens offers superb optics. » Even with lithium-ion batteries, the 23-ounce Rebel is lighter than its peers. » The auto-depth-of-field mode meters all objects in the frame and exposes ideally for fore- and background images, properly exposing your girlfriend in front, and Rainier behind her. Hmmm...SLRs send light to the viewfinder—you look through the lens via a prism. That yields perfect composition, but it means you can't frame pictures using the LCD.

Binoculars

Steiner Peregrine 10x42 $899
WHY THEY RULE: A company that satisfies legions of birders—some of the fussiest buyers—obviously knows its optics. Focusing is superfast and precise, but not overly sensitive. You see it, you nail it. » The image is breathtakingly sharp, like an Ansel Adams glass-neg enlargement. » Though Steiner spec'd the Peregrines for birders, that's good news for everyone else, too. Birders want true color; check. They need high light transmission for deep-forest shade; they get it, via more than 40 lens coatings and 42mm objectives. Even in murky light—a marina at dusk—anything I pointed them at, from feeding pelicans to partying yachters, sprang to life. » Featherheads ply their craft for long hours; the 25-ounce rubber-armored body—ridged on top, flat thumb spots below—is a pleasure to hold. HMMM...The folding eyecups will wear out faster than twist-out types.

Backpacks

outdoor gear, backpacks

Dana Design Raid Z $200
WHY IT RULES: Dana eliminates the standard pack bag, while accommodating every weeklong-trip necessity. Imagine the skeleton of a pack: a back panel incorporating a superlight framesheet and two fiberglass rods, plus a front panel with two long pockets and a big mesh pouch. In between, there's space to sandwich a hydration bladder and nearly any size drybag (a 50-liter version is included), where most of your gear will go. Dump the drybag and you're left with an 800-cubic-inch daypack that weighs just two pounds 14 ounces. » The Raid Z carries extraordinarily well despite its wispy, cutout-center hipbelt: Two parallel strips of thin mesh padding are connected by a rigid plastic bridge, beautifully cupping the hips and carrying 40 pounds comfortably. » It's exceptionally stable. A valve lets you bleed air out of the drybag—compressing and easing your load—or inflate it for flotation or a pillow. On the trail, a tug of the shoulder lift straps activates those Delrin rods, pulling the bag onto your back, pet monkey style, as snug as you wish. » Bottom compression straps secure a pad and tent. HMMM...The hipbelt's plastic bridge created a pressure point on my sides above my iliac crest.

Hikers and Runners

outdoor gear, hiking, running
outdoor gear, hiking, running

Hikers

Lowa Vertex GTX $225
WHY THEY RULE: "Biomex" sounds like genetically engineered food from El Paso, but it's really just Lowa's name for an external ankle support. The hinged, rigid-plastic cuff locked my ankles in place on loose, off-camber talus—even as I teetered under a 35-pound backpack. Indeed, they aced the hairiest stability test I know of—the skating-rink scree surrounding Arizona's Courthouse Rock. » Uppers are synthetic leather and microfiber with a Gore-Tex bootie. The combination breathed well and shed water flawlessly. » Ankle support is nothing without a sturdy sole, and the Vibram treads both edged and stuck with enthusiasm. » A polyurethane midsole and nylon insole round out the support package, making the Vertexes a sweet fit for extended backpacking. HMMM...For all their technical wizardry, at four pounds per pair, these are not light boots.

Runners

The North Face Ultra Gore-Tex XCR $110
WHY THEY RULE: These trail runners are sexy, yes, but also smart—TNF crammed 'em with a mountain runner's dream list, including a waterproof-breathable XCR bootie to keep you dry, an Outlast footbed engineered to hold heat and release it when needed and a wider lacing system that ensures dogs' comfort through checkpoint 14 and beyond. » How did the whole package run? I got a satisfying combination of support, cushioning, protection, and stability. » Wait, did we sufficiently gush over the design? Let's not undersell the gold stitching on the black rubber heels or the stitched mudguards over the padded mesh; also of note are glow-in-the-dark trim and navy-on-yellow outsole lugs. » TNF added little shock-corded anchor stations for optional $20 waterproof stretch gaiters. Thus equipped, I postholed through two-foot drifts without soaking my ankles. HMMM...Did TNF size these things for elves? I ordered three successively larger pairs before landing a fit.

Tents, Sleeping Bags, and Camp Stoves

outdoor gear, camping
outdoor gear, camping
outdoor gear, camping

Tents

Mountain Hardwear Airjet 2 $285
WHY IT RULES: The Airjet's two-minutes-flat pitching saved me when I was hustling to beat some sleet: Thread two cross poles and a brow pole through the sleeves, then stake out six points. Done. » The Airjet stood taut as a kettledrum—even under two inches of wet snow. » Thanks to a curvaceous roof and steep silicone-and-polyurethane-coated walls, rain rolls off like marbles. » I'm six feet tall and a bit of a claustrophobe, but the 39-inch ceiling, 30-square-foot floor, eight-square-foot vestibule, and plastic window quashed a case of the cabin crazies. Hmmm...Mesh panels along the floor and four ceiling vents hustle in fresh air, but not quite enough of it. I'd add another vent on the vestibule.

Sleeping Bags

Feathered Friends Osprey $300
WHY IT RULES: As a custom shop, Feathered Friends tailors each of its bags exactly to your specifications, meaning you get your choice of fabrics, color, and even zipper location. I picked the Pertex Quantum interior for breathability and the Epic exterior for water resistance—the combo tipped the scales at just one pound nine ounces, yet the price is competitive with off-the-shelf models. » There are no flashy, newfangled design twists here. Instead, what defines this bag is the craftsmanship. From the quality of the materials to the roominess of the shoulders to the smoothness of the zipper, I felt like it was made precisely for me. (Oh, yeah, it was.) » Though my first evening with the Osprey was rainy, with the temp approaching freezing, sleep came quickly and stayed all night long. Indeed, the 750-fill down kept me warm even when the mercury dipped into the mid-twenties. » My bag was tapered at the legs with a full zip—good for easy entry/exit and heat conservation. Hmmm...A single drawcord tightens the collar and the hood simultaneously—which prevents either one from cinching perfectly. Two drawcords would allow less warmth to escape.

Camp Stoves

Jetboil Personal Cooking System
WHY IT RULES: The first effort from a scrappy New England startup, the Jetboil represents a total rethink of backcountry cookery. A tall one-liter pot—aluminum, with a hard anodized cooking surface and insulating neoprene cozy—docks (and locks) to the stove's burner. A ring of heat-conducting baffles attached to the pot's base channels the flame precisely where it's needed. » The result: a furious heat. Yank this combo out of your pack, flick the bomber piezo igniter, and a hypothermic comrade can have a cup of lip-scalding tea in one minute. » The neoprene cozy, with handle, stays cool enough to hold in the hand: Bye-bye, additional cookware, pot holders, and needless extra weight. Burns: Isobutane canister. Hmmm...You're pretty much committed to one-pot cuisine; sauté;ing anything larger than a shallot is awkward. And flipping pancakes? Forget about it. » The Jetboil complains when forced to simmer—this boy likes to run with the accelerator on the floor.

Jackets

REI Momentum Pullover $119
WHY IT RULES: The Momentum is exactly what it needs to be. Thanks to a slim, clean cut and spare styling, this piece will keep you comfortable on the crags as well as in the city. » The Schoeller Dryskin fabric functions by virtue of its construction: A tight, double weave of tough nylon on the outside bends back breezes, while a layer of CoolMax on the inside siphons moisture from your skin. It's our choice for chilly conditions where rain is a slim possibility. » REI added Polartec PowerStretch panels at the cuffs, along the sides, and under the arms to power up flexibility and breathability. » The CoolMax lining is soft against the skin, but its silhouette makes the Momentum a great underlayer, too. » It's so nice to see effective cuffs that aren't tarted up with gobs of extra fabric. » The chest pocket dips down below the zipper; your keys won't escape when you open it. Hmmm...The toggle on the collar cinch—a thoughtful feature to keep your neck toasty—requires two hands to operate.

Bikes

SANTA CRUZ BLUR $2,380
WHY IT RULES: The Blur gets its boing from a new system that keeps the shock from being activated by the up-and-down motion of pedaling. Released last year, the so-called virtual pivot-point design still tops anything new for 2004. »The suspension point between this bike's rear swingarms isn't fixed to the frame, as with other rigs; instead, it floats freely. What this means: While many dualies get mushy and squirrelly on climbs, the Blur is solid, biting in and offering extra traction. I cleaned a pine-needle-covered ridge that my cohorts had to hoof up. Yet when I snaked through fast, flat singletrack or pointed the Blur downhill, it danced over just about anything. »Santa Cruz is a boutique shop, which means buyers get à la carte component options. My test bike came with a Shimano LX/XT mix, along with Avid SD5 brakes and a RockShox Duke XC fork. For a few more Benjamins, you can upgrade to, say, disc brakes. HMMM...As with all dualies, expect some regular maintenance—fixes that require special tools and a degree of mechanical savvy.

Kayaks

Necky Mission $999
WHY IT RULES: Check out this river runner's design: Semisoft edges make for good stability in grabby water, yet offer all the carve necessary for sharp turns, while large bow volume maximizes legroom and helps prevent pearling by keeping your nose out of trouble. » Though not built specifically for play, the slim, lengthy rear makes stern squirts a snap. » The Mission travels fast: invaluable when trying to catch a wave or paddle a few miles of flatwater. » Though kayakers of all sizes easily fit into this boat—it's a full foot longer than the Necky Vibe—the Mission is perfect for larger paddlers. » Outfitting is simple yet effective, with an improved backband and thigh braces that are solid without being intrusive. Hmmm...I could use a bit more latitude with the seat adjustment—bigger boaters who move it all the way forward to balance the load may experience foot crunch.

Fitness Is an Adventure

Expert Advice

"The whole point of working out is to create more relaxation. If you're stressing about your workouts, you're missing the point. Use them as time reserved just for you—and soon you'll crave that time."

Steve Scott
World-record holder for the most sub-four-minute miles (136)

workout, training, fitness, exercise, nutrition

[#10] Recovery
Downtime
You've heard this one already: Recovery is a critical part of any fitness program. But did you know that this means a lot more than lying on the couch with a cold one after a hard training session? "We treat recovery as a scheduled workout," says Lance Armstrong's personal coach, Chris Carmichael. And so should you. Ultralight workouts aid recovery much better than total slack; blood flow to muscles increases at low levels of effort, and this in turn increases the amount of muscle-building nutrients your body can absorb.

The Workout
For those engaged in weight training, sprint sessions, or building their cardiovascular base, go light on nonconsecutive days three times a week. This week, your heart rate goes no higher than 65 percent of your max. Every few weeks, try an alternative to your routine: flexibility training, a massage, a hike, a mellow ride, an easy swim, or light bouldering. Lastly, every seven to ten days, take a day off from exercising to restore your energy for the coming week's workouts.

Toolbox: Sure, beer tastes great, but, contrary to popular opinion, it's not the best recovery drink. "Right after a tough session, your body needs to rehydrate, restore its energy, and repair its muscles," says Shannon Hayes, a sports nutritionist with the St. Louis–based NutriFormance. Before that frothy pint, try PowerBar's new Performance Recovery drink. "It provides all the essentials: fluid, electrolytes, carbohydrates, and protein," says Hayes. ($25; 800-587-6937, www.powerbar.com)

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