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 is to inhale and say, "Whoa." Take the 16 products honored here and on the pages that follow. Their seamless merger of design, functionality, and performance makes us swoon. To hikers, cyclists, paddlers, and other athletes, these products represent quantum leapsthat's why we're bestowing each with a Gear of the Year Award. Please join us in bowing before the altar of fine craftsmanship.
Sunglasses, electronics, and optics
Kaenon Polarized Kore $180
Plastic can't get more drastic than Kaenon's spectacular next-gen hard-resin lenses. Why It's Cool: The view is ab-fab through polarized lenses that wrap wide to the sides and protect against wind. The Kore's copperish tint, lightly mirrored, shines in tough in-between conditions, such as the shadow-and-dazzle of a wooded trail, but it also performs in full sun. Acuity is on a par with the very best glass. Clever indents at the bottom of the lenses follow the contour of cheekbones but leave a gap for defogging air movement. The springy frames, with rubber at the nose and ears, clung tight to my noggin. S-M-L sizing triples your chances of finding a fit. (Bravo! Why don't all shades makers do this?) The look is original. I get a circa-seventies wife-swapper-moderne vibe here that's sort of funny. But how do you quantify perfection? You gotta wear it. Rx-able? No. Hmmm... The price is painful, but in this case it hurts really good.
Suunto X6HR $429
The world's most advanced wrist computer doubles as a portal to a world of fitness geeks. Why It's Cool: Like a physiological dashboard, the X6HR records heart rate, altitude, and split times as well as weather conditions. That's a lot to absorb when you're pounding out the last mile, but Finnish manufacturer Suunto has crafted each screen to give you clear workout data when you need it most. Post-event, you can view performance graphs on the watch or on your PC via Suunto's sophisticated software. I quickly became addicted to graphingand obsessing overthe relationship between my heart rate and altitude. The X6HR admits you to a worldwide athletic club at Suuntosports.com, where you can compare notes with similarly equipped boarders, divers, and the like. I swapped workout logs with coaches from California and Colorado as well as a tundra hiker from Lapland named Wiik. Hmmm... If you have more than one workout saved, the X6HR may run out of memory, scratching your best efforts. There's no Mac version of the software.
Brunton Epoch 10.5x43 $1,499
The Japanese-built Epoch takes dead aim at high-end German optics-and scores a hit. Why It's Cool: The view through these matches any binoculars I've used, with no distortion or color aberration whatsoever. With help from big, bright, 43-millimeter objective lenses, I easily tracked a backyard bobcat on a full-moon night and even differentiated warblers in deep shade. A progressive-speed focusing systemthe world's firstsharpened the image from my toes out to infinity with a mere finger flick. By using a magnesium chassis, Brunton made the waterproof Epoch incredibly light for its sizejust 24 ounces, a good six ounces lighter than some competitors. Eyeglasses wearers enjoy a full view, thanks to 17 millimeters of relief. An optional eyepiece adaptor ($279) turns one tube into a 21-power spotting scope. Should an elephant step on your Epoch in Namibia, Brunton's lifetime guarantee ensures that you'll have a new pair shipped right to your tent flap. Hmmm... The snap-in, flip-open lens and eyepiece covers work well, but are very easy to knock off and lose.
Cameras, backpacks, and hiking boots
Olympus Stylus 300 Digital $399
Water and humidity have been the bane of digital cameras-until now. Why It's Cool: The Stylus is the first high-quality, high-resolution, weatherproof digital camera. Thanks to beefy rubber gaskets, this shooter will tolerate not just a few drops of rain but sustained spraying and even brief immersiontake it whitewater rafting. Less than four inches long and just under six ounces, with a round-cornered all-aluminum body, the camera is stylish and ultraportable. It stores images on xD-Picture Cards, a proprietary format that Olympus promises will eventually be available with a whopping one gigabyte of memory, room enough for 500 medium-quality shots. The Stylus comes with a fast charger. Hmmm... It takes a bit of practice to open and operate the clamshell cover with one hand. The tiny LCD monitor is muddy and hard to read, and many of its icons look alike. Kiss your existing collection of memory cards goodbye-you'll need to pony up for yet another proprietary storage format. Backpacks
Osprey Aether 75 $239
Here's a sweet blend of comfort and foolproof convenience. Why It's Cool: On a steep bushwhack through the Santa Monica Mountains, the Aether felt like a happy monkey on my back. A pair of long composite rods helps to spread the load away from the lumbar area and toward the sides of the hips. The bag is designed like a giant burrito. Grande load? The "tortilla" expands to handle 4,500 cubic inches. Poquito? The bag wraps tightly around. Cool open mesh swaddles the beautifully contoured, medium-firm foam of the hipbelt and broad back panel, keeping you cool. The lid includes a slot for a hydration reservoir and converts to a lumbar pack, so it's the best summit bag of the bunch. Hmmm... External compression straps were too short to secure my bulky sleeping pad on the side of the pack when the burrito was at full grande. There's no hole for the hydration hose.
The North Face Trek Light Leather GTX $150
TNF should have named these boots the Border Collies. Ask them to do anything and the answer is "Great! Let's go!" Why It's Cool: For the vast majority of wilderness foraysday trips and the occasional long-weekend jauntthis is all the boot you'll need. At just three pounds, the Trek Lights fit squarely into day-hiker territory, yet I felt comfortable and stable lacing 'em up, then hauling a 45-pound packthe steel shank adds just enough beef to the polyurethane midsole and nylon insole to carry the freight. The 2.2-millimeter-thick nubuck uppers looked handsome, stayed that way after several weeks of deliberately rude scuffing, and all the while kept my weakish ankles from misbehaving. The Eurosole lugged outsole offered great traction-and hey, it didn't track rocks into the house! A Gore-Tex Durakool membrane ensures waterproofness, yet breathes so well I couldn't tell it was there. A combination of snug heel pocket and roomy toe box is the right recipe for long, blister-free days. Hmmm... I'd love to see these with a one-piece upper to eliminate the extra stitching along the side.
Tents, sleeping bags, and stoves
REI Roadster $129
It's fast and sleek-just like a real hot rod. We're betting everyone will want to jump in. Why It's Cool: Setup is a snapthe fly can stay attached to the tent body in its stuffsack, meaning all I had to do was slide in a pole and pull out and tension the corner struts. Granted, my five-foot-six frame doesn't fill up most tents, but with 15.5 square feet of floor space, the two-pound-ten-ounce Roadster is the roomiest one-person abode I've ever slept in. The vestibule was large enough to protect my pack and boots, as well as to allow easy entry and egress, even when the rain was sheeting down. Thanks to umpteen ventilation options, every nocturnal slumber proved to be a condensation-free experience. Hmmm... The Roadster could do with a few more inches of fly coverage over the foot of the tent. During one cloudburst, the exposed lower section of my sleeping bag ended up damp.
Marmot Fusion 15 $189
A bold new bag stuffed with down and synthetic fill, combining the strengths of each. Why It's Cool: Marmot claimed it in the lab, and we confirmed it in the field: The Fusion is warmer than a synthetic bag with the same measured loft. Why? The PrimaLoft PL2 synthetic outer layer maintains its insulation chutzpah even when condensation forms beneath the shell fabrica common occurrence that degrades a down bag's efficiency. An inner layer of 600-fill down envelops you in Mother Nature's own warmth Zounds, it's less than 200 bucks! Total weight for this 15-degree bag is an easily hefted three pounds three ounces. External moisture rolls off the DWR finish on the nylon shellfabric that might infect your dreams with its cool, almost-three-dimensional grid pattern. Super-stiff zipper guards banish those aggravating midnight hang-ups. Hmmm... As a hybrid it isinevitably-neither as light as an all-down bag nor as inexpensive as an all-synthetic model. I'd like to see a fatter down collar on a 15-degree sack.
Optimus Crux $70
This cooker's MOMA-worthy design RULES the canister-stove kitchen. Why It's Cool: The Crux unfolds from a flat, sleek package into a high-output stove. Simply rotate the burner head upright on its ball-and-socket joint, allow the spring-loaded retaining collar to lock into place, and unfold the flame-adjustment lever. Once collapsed, the 3.1-ounce Crux slips neatly into a change-purse-size neoprene pouch, which in turn nestles perfectly into the concavity found under all isobutane canisters. The positive "snap" of flame adjuster and burner head engagingnot to mention the flawless polish of the whole packagereveals master-craftsman-level machining. It cooks as good as it looks. That expansive burner boils in a flash, and the flame adjuster is smooth and consistent, down to the slightest simmer. Burns: Isobutane canister. Hmmm... Ball-and-socket joints in general have some inherent play, and the Crux's imparts a worrying wobble to larger pots on the boil.
Jackets, shoes, and bikes
Helly Hansen Storm $120
The world's first breathable polyurethane coat is tough as nails and dirt-cheap. Why It's Cool: Interface bWHelly's house-brand polyurethaneisn't just stretchy and breathable. It also has what fabric-biz folks call nice hand, meaning that the material is softer and quieter than just about any other threads you'd find in an expedition-level garment. But the devil is in the details, and Helly nails these, keeping the weight down to 19 ounces by sonically welding panels together and adding rip-resistant coated nylon on the lower back, tail, and forearms. The polyester lining is almost as soft as microfleece, besting what you find inside other laminates. The shell is waterproof, so it will never need renewing via a spray-on DWR, and it's impervious to random scrapes. That means less coddlingwhether you're on a weekend scramble or a 30-day expedition. Hmmm... With no pit zips, chest pockets double as vents, and the hood won't pull over a helmet.
Patagonia Core Skin $249
Bow before the ultimate all-in-one, highly compressible lightweight jacket for cool-weather aerobic pursuits. Why It's Cool: You'll find many versatile soft shells made of Polartec's two-layer Power Shield wünderfabric, but none that performs as well as the Core Skin (or, for that matter, that looks so deceivingly low-tech). The Core Skin is a nylon stretch-woven shell laminated to an interior fleece layer, but instead of your basic microfleece, Patagonia uses a more breathable open-weave version of its Polartec-made R1 insulation. The result is a 20-ounce jacket that compresses to the size of a cantaloupe and breathes like Lance in the Pyrenees. Lacking water-retaining Lycra in the exterior layer, the Core Skin dries quickly. During an autumn flurry, the jacket's Deluge DWR coating repelled water like wax paper. Hmmm... The awkward between-the-legs strap may keep the jacket from riding up on you as you climb, but we removed it immediately.
Vasque Velocity $80
Like high-tops with wings, these runners fly over any off-road playing surface. Why It's Cool: Yippee! Vasque's new shoes are the complete package. They fuse all of the best elements of a road runner with the necessary components of a trail shoe in a smartly designed kicker to carry you over just about anything. Although they resemble approach shoes, they have the grip of a honed crampon. The slightly taller-than-average upper adds protection and beefs up an already stable frame of dual-density EVA. A flexible polyurethane plate keeps sharp trail debris from pushing through to the bottom of your foot while perfectly complementing a reliable and effective (but not too aggressive) outsole. There's adequate cushioning in the midsole, as well as a firmer wedge to combat pronation. Most importantly, the curve-lasted Velocitys are flexible, agile, and fastan uncommon combination for such a protective shoe. Hmmm... The shoes aren't as light as some of their minimalist contemporaries. At 28 ounces per pair, they're chunkier than average.
Specialized S-Works FSR $4,880
Bike designers have pursued full suspension that soaks up bumpsbut locks out for hard pedalingas if it were the Holy Grail. Folks, Specialized has its hand on the chalice. Why It's Cool: The Brain, a new shock developed jointly by Specialized and Fox, controls rear suspension with an inertia valve-an early-20th-century invention brilliantly reimagined here. When you're just tooling along, the valve locks out the shock. Hit a good bump and the Brain activates the suspension. The result? The FSR climbs with the rock-solid response of a hardtail, but the rear dances over abusive downhills. Up front, the supple, air-sprung RockShox SID World Cup fork features a lockout lever; though not automatic, it's still effective. The S-Works is dressed with Shimano's freshly revamped, top-of-the-line XTR parts. Hmmm... It doesn't have the all-around cushy ride dualies are known for, especially on small bumps. Adding some adjustability to the inertia valve would help tons, and we bet that's already being planned for next year.
Kayaks, racks, and luggage
Riot Air $1,125
For all-day play sessions working on your freestyle movesespecially aerial onesthere's nothing sweeter. Why It's Cool: If you're an advanced paddler looking to milk the most fun out of a trickle of water, the Air will take you there. At a mere six feet and 29 pounds, with a surfboard-style nose, this boat could yield fun in a stock tank. The trendy swallowtail design greatly enhances carving ability, and the included attachable fins make the Air a killer beach toy in small surf. Maintaining your line on a pushy river may be a challenge, but the payoff comes in the park, where the boat's sharp edges and diminutive size make every move available to you. This is a fun, bouncy boat that had me off the water even on smallish waves. Hmmm... The soft elastomer thigh braces may take some getting used to. They're more comfortable than the kind made of hard plastic, but they don't give that confidence-building, wedged-in-tight feel. Racks
Saris Cycle-On $299 for two-bike version, $540 for four
You certainly aren't bionic, so why should you have to lift a bike to head height to get it on your hitch rack? Why It's Cool: Drop any bikefrom a ti-framed X-country rig with wild geometry to your kid's first two-wheeleronto the aluminum tray and rubber wheel holder. Like magic, the Cycle-On keeps it upright. To secure the bicycle, clamp a small foot over the back tire and swing a curved arm over the bike's front wheel, then ratchet it down tight. We tested this sucker using a beefy downhill bike with 2.5-inch knobbies and it still held. And, OK, it's hardly mission-critical, but the Cycle-On's zinc-plated steel (competitors, take note) is a lot spiffier than your average black-aluminum-tubing rig. Hmmm... Like to lower your tailgate? On certain SUVs and pickups, the rackat least while in folded-up modemight get in your way.
Victorinox E-Motion 360°26-inch Trek Pack Plus $345
It's classic Swiss Army: ingenious, versatile, and bright-red. Why It's Cool: Bags don't get any more modular than this. It's foremost a rolling suitcase, but a darn decent pack as well, with a zip-out shoulder harness that includes a padded hipbelt and a curved back panel that shifts weight to the lumbar, so you can portage wherever you can't roll. Choose from three optional daypacks ($49 each) that dock, by way of four quick-release buckles, to the front of the pack. I recommend the 550-cubic-inch lumbar pack (versus the 800-cubic-inch shoulder bag or the 1,100-cubic-inch backpack). The grab handles are just right: cylindrical, padded, firm. Like so many clever knife blades, you can squirrel away your stuff in nine compartments. Hmmm... The backpack harness isn't adjustable for torso length. On previous versions, the bag's telescoping handle swiveled to facilitate cornering, but now it locks into position at every quarter turn, to no obvious benefit.