State of the Art

Trail Runners

For years, trail runners lagged behind road shoes in the cushioning department as the more popular roadies got all the high-tech R&D. But with more people trail-running—and with many hikers opting for lightweight runners, too—look for more manufacturers to put their best shock technology into trail shoes.

Today's crossover shoes, like the Gear of the Year–winning Vasque Blur, match sophisticated, low-profile cushion with aggressive outsoles. The best of the new breed blend the stability of a traditional trail runner with road-shoe explosiveness.

Uppers need to be tough to withstand trail abuse and stable so your foot doesn't flop around on uneven terrain, while simultaneously flexing for a smoother toe-off and high-mileage comfort. That's a tall order, but manufacturers are responding with new materials and reinforcements—like the lightweight injected-TPU rand on Timberland's Endurion.

Road Runners

EVA foam midsoles are relatively cheap and light, but the cushion typically wears out after about 400 miles—much sooner than the rest of a shoe. The alternative? Innovative springs, gel pods, and air pockets, which may cost a little more in the short term but promise longer life down the road.

Repeat after us: I will not go grocery shopping in my running shoes. Extend the life of the midsoles—whatever they're made from—by using shoes for running, not walking.

Almost all shoes today are light enough, so don't sweat an ounce or two to get the fit and performance you need. Just avoid anything over about 14 ounces per shoe (for a men's size 9) or you'll feel like you're running in boots.

New to running—or simply never found the right shoe? Get help from a specialty dealer. Your particular foot shape and gait will work better with some shoes than others, and a shop with expert fitters, a wallful of models, and a treadmill for wear testing will help you zero in on the perfect kicks.

Road Bikes

Carbon-fiber bikes are now as common as LiveStrong bracelets at Austin-area group rides. Because of the expense and difficulty of working with carbon, however, sizes are typically limited. Enter custom carbon frames. This year, Serotta debuted the MeiVici, built from carbon tubes and lugs for a classic-looking bike in nearly any geometry. And Seven capitalized on carbon's infinitely tuneable properties to create the wildly shaped aero Diamas. You'll pay for the privilege: These made-to-order bikes start at seven grand.

Italian component giant Campagnolo has devoted significant R&D over the last few years to its hush-hush electric group. (Shimano also has an electric set in the works.) Though an electronic drivetrain is not a new idea, Campy's group would be the first legit performance-oriented package. And while Campy has not set a release date, several beta models have been spotted in the peloton in recent months, meaning push-button gearing could be available soon.

Mountain Bikes

Following the lead of the downhill industry, dual-density tires—which place softer rubber on the outside for better traction and harder rubber in the center for longer wear—are increasingly popular among cross-country riders.

Bikes with 29-inch wheels (see the Ventana El Capitán) have been around for about five years but are just now making serious market inroads. Numerous manufacturers introduced 29ers this year, so you can finally test out the plush, momentum-carrying ride without breaking the bank.

Like 29ers, single-speed mountain bikes aren't new, but they are enjoying a surge in popularity. Once the domain of fitness freaks and tech-savvy bikeheads—with few complete bikes for sale until recently, half the fun was cobbling one together—single-speeds are now widely available as ride-ready factory bikes. Compared with their geared counterparts, they tend to be both both lighter and less expensive.

Shells

Stitching is going the way of oilcloth as welded seams replace thread. Most stitchless seams don't require tape and thus reduce weight and bulk. And the gluing technology should get cheaper in the future as it trickles down through companies' lines.

What's the holy grail in new-school jackets? Garments that tap the benefits of soft and storm shells. With innovative fabrics like that used in the Spraymaster, look for an emerging class of outerwear that combines the best of both worlds, with zero compromises.

On the heels of iPod and cell-phone compatibility, look for the next generation of wired jackets to include digital-age features such as flexible keyboards embedded in the fabric and pulse monitors woven directly into the wrists.

Last fall, Patagonia launched its Common Threads program, an initiative to collect worn-out synthetic long underwear and turn it into new, 50-percent-recycled undies. In the future you'll be able to recycle your jacket, too.

Light Hikers

Even light hikers need stiffeners in the sole; these plates act like a secondary skeleton to support your foot's 26 bones. But the steel shanks of yesterday's wafflestompers are long gone, replaced by updated designs—using various combinations of pliable foam and lightweight synthetic plates—that create unique blends of flex, cushion, stability, and protection. The best new midsoles reflect the way these shoes are really used: to hike fast, scramble up peaks, and stroll to the pub.

Variations in lasts—the forms around which shoes are shaped—make it hard to always achieve perfect fit. But hiking-shoe manufacturers have taken a page from snowboard boots, which use thin steel cables—called the Boa lacing system—that snake through the guts of the shoe and wrap your foot for an otherworldly snug fit. After testing, we deemed prototypes not yet ready for prime time, but expect to see refined versions soon.

Backpacks

Pack makers are increasingly designing hipbelts and other components with dynamic movement. These nonstatic harnesses swivel with your every stride. Result? Less of the straitjacketed chafing you get from old-school systems, plus improved all-day comfort, especially with heavy loads in rough terrain. You'll find dynamic suspensions on review models from Arc'teryx, Gregory, Mountainsmith, and The North Face.

Lids and hydration sleeves that convert to summit packs are getting lighter and simpler to use. If you like to day-hike from base camp, this feature will save weight on the way in. Look for smart daypacks on models from The North Face and JanSport.

The best new external pockets are made of stretch-woven fabric—much like your favorite soft shell. The upgrade means better durability (as the fabric is stronger and less likely to snag on branches) and a more streamlined profile, since the stretchy pockets hug the pack when empty.

Tents

Tent makers are putting more R&D into poles; the result is stronger, roomier, lighter tents. Variable-diameter poles add strength while saving weight, and pre-curved shapes increase internal space. Other developments include carbon-fiber models (see Big Sky's Evolution 2P) and no poles at all (Nemo's inflatable Morpho).

Ultralight materials and design have trickled up to three-person tents, creating a new class of shelters: big enough for three, light enough for two. This breed weighs in well under five pounds, feels cavernous with two campers, and can accommodate a third. If you're going to own one tent, make it one of these.

More and more manufacturers are turning to silicone-treated fabric, since the material is both light and strong. But in many cases, tents that employ the fabric don't pass the strict fire-retardant standards used by several states. Until the regulations or fabric technology change, shelters like Black Diamond's Skylight may have limited distribution in some regions.

Sleeping Bags

When cloudlike 900-fill down debuted a few years ago, we wondered if the supply would last. It has, and then some. Not only has the number of sleeping bags with the highest-quality down increased, but fill power has been bumped up across the board; 750-fill, once top-tier, is now a starting point for the best lines.

Thanks to featherweight material, virtually every manufacturer now offers bags rated between 30 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit that weigh well under two pounds. You can spend a little or a lot, but add one to your summer kit and leave that bulky bag behind.

Cold-feet fix: Increasing numbers of bags offer ergonomic footboxes that let feet rest naturally, while allowing insulation to drape warmly around them.

Goose down is still the champ when it comes to durability, warmth-to-weight ratio, and compressibility. But synthetic insulation like PrimaLoft Sport has narrowed the gap, making synth-fill bags a good choice for soggy climates and river trips.

Surfboards

For nearly half a century, boards were made in basically the same way: with polyurethane-foam blanks covered in polyester resin. Due in part to the closure of a major foam factory and the subsequent scarcity of traditional foam, the tide is turning. Surfboards made from expanded-polystyrene (EPS) foam and glassed with epoxy resin are becoming more widely available, and accepted by surfers, because they're stronger and lighter—and better for the environment, since the resin contains significantly fewer volatile organic compounds.

Space Age hollow carbon-fiber boards and epoxy-and-carbon boards offer lightweight high performance. The best of these are virtually bulletproof—expensive, but sexy and long-lasting.

In the wake of the twin-fin-fish trend, four-fin boards, like Hobie's M-80, are appearing in surprising places. Even big-wave surfers at spots like Maverick's are hot on quads, making these sticks the emerging choice for huge waves, too.

Kayaks

Thanks to a technology plateau, the kayaking arms race is over. Where before each company came out with at least one new playboat per season, now, with only incremental advances in hull shape and proportions, the shelf life of a design can top three years. Models like the Dagger Crazy 88 and the Jackson Fun are still cutting-edge despite their older vintage.

Creekboat life expectancy is even longer, with Liquidlogic's Jefe, Dagger's Nomad, and Pyranha's M:3 series leading the pack by reaffirming the dominance of the V-shaped displacement hull.

One area that's seen big advances: kids' boats. Jackson Kayak—founded by three-time world champion Eric Jackson and now in its second year—introduced the Fun 1 for paddlers as light as 70 pounds. Jackson's sales are already catching up with the older, more established manufacturers, and the company is betting that will continue as grown-up youngsters fondly remember their first kayak.

Sunglasses

Retail prices for sports shades worth owning have crept into the triple digits or thereabouts. That's a lot of dough, but generally worth the expense—in most cases, you get the goodies you pay for.

Used to be you had to pay extra for polarized, antiglare lenses, which often lacked the clarity of nonpolarized models. No more. These days, polarized lenses are pretty much standard and have no optical downside.

Photochromic lenses, which get darker as the light gets brighter (and vice versa), are ever more common in sport shades, because they greatly extend the wearable comfort zone. But be sure and test them out to see how long it takes for the lenses to change. In many current models, the tint shift happens at a leisurely pace: Some manufacturers brag that their lenses are 50 percent adjusted to new light in less than 30 seconds. But that's nowhere near fast enough when you're speeding in and out of shadows at a full sprint on a bike.

Luggage

Air travel has rebounded since 9/11, and the increased handling due to extra security measures borders on abuse. Manufacturers are responding with molded corner protectors, curb plates, and other wear-point reinforcements—as well as cleaner designs that reduce straps and webbing that can snag on carousels.

Stop losing half your weight allowance to lead-bottom luggage. Taking a cue from the outdoor industry, designers have shaved pounds off old-school duffels with lighter handles, wheels, and chassis systems.

High-tech weatherproofing—better fabrics and welded seams—is migrating to luggage. Now, the best of these duffels can ride out a rainstorm. The technology jacks up the price, but as popularity grows, look for the cost to drop below the current $300 base.

The best new all-conditions wheels go way beyond curb-to-gate duty: They're a boon to travelers who like to drag their duffels to spots normally reserved for mountain bikes.

Digital Cameras

With even the mid-grade digicams sporting five-megapixel sensors—good enough for high-quality prints up to about eight by ten inches—the megapixel race is over. Good news for you, as the new battleground will be over features and price.

LCD screens continue to get bigger and sharper. This year, several companies will unveil three-inch LCDs.

With its Wi-Fi-equipped digicams, Nikon helped usher photography into the wireless world last year. Soon, we'll be e-mailing pictures directly from cameras to the Web.

Image-stabilization technology—once a luxury affordable to pros only—has crept into affordable point-and-shoots. What's it mean? Tiny internal gyroscopes counteract normal handheld camera shake, producing sharper images. As zoom lenses become longer, expect this feature to become standard.

No need to ration memory cards. Gadgets like MP3 players and PDAs are becoming more camera-friendly, letting you store—and view—images as you go.

GPS

Quick and reliable satellite acquisition is now the norm, and with the introduction of more sensitive receivers and faster processors in coming years, expect to get reception even in heavily treed or steep terrain—like canyons or deep mountain valleys.

Though already ubiquitous, onscreen mapping is advancing rapidly as memory capacity grows. Not only do you get more detail; with vast built-in databases, you also get tips on everything from nearby microbreweries to the best viewpoint on a hiking trail.

In late 2005, the European Commission launched the first satellite in Europe's forthcoming Galileo navigation system. Because it's nonmilitary (and hence not subject to strategic concerns), the system promises to be more accurate and better able to penetrate forest cover worldwide.

Sharing navigational data—wirelessly—will be standard in future devices and is already available on GPS phones with software from Trimble Outdoors (www.trimbleoutdoors.com).

More Gear

Holiday Subscription Sale! Save 79% and Get a Free Gift!

Subscribe
Pinterest Icon