Where gear is concerned, we all want the best. That’s why twice a year, in our summer and winter Buyer’s Guides, we bestow the top performers in certain categories with Gear of the Year honors. But the best usually comes with a high price tag, and sometimes spending top dollar isn’t an option. Luckily, there’s plenty of gear on the market that offers many of the same technical benefits, with some trade-offs, for much lower price tags.
Top Pick: Eddie Bauer BC EverTherm Jacket ($499)
Eddie Bauer’s Thindown insulation consists of down pressed into sheets that stays in place without stitched baffles, which can let in cold air through the needle holes. Thanks to that technology, plus a 15-denier waterproof outer shell, the BC EverTherm offers the packability of down with a high degree of weather resistance.
More Affordable Pick: Columbia OutDry Ex Gold Down Jacket ($250)
If you want a lightweight, packable, waterproof puffy that avoids the cold-air seepage typical of sewn baffles, Columbia’s OutDry Ex Gold Down jacket is a great alternative. It uses regular down feathers for insulation instead of a sheet construction like Eddie Bauer but has the same no-sew benefits: the baffles are welded (not stitched), which means no needle holes for cold air to seep through. Plus, the outer nylon shell is a waterproof-breathable membrane in and of itself, so you (and your down insulation) stay dry without overheating.
Top Pick: Sweet Protection Switcher MIPS Helmet ($249)
What earned the Switcher MIPS its place as our Gear of the Year pick was its extremely dialed fit—no fancy engineering solution, just a shape and level of padding that all testers loved. Plus, 22 vents (controlled by a single knob) turn the lid from insulated to breezy in seconds, and the magnetic chin strap is easy to use with gloves on.
More Affordable Pick: Salomon Sight Helmet ($180)
Sure, we’d all prefer a helmet that fits just right without any fidgeting, like the Sweet Protection. But of all the adjustment mechanisms our crew tried last season, the Custom Air fit system—an internal air bladder that inflates and deflates for a snugger or looser fit—on the Salomon Sight was the resounding favorite. Press a button on the back to pump up the bladder, and push a different button to let air out. The Sight doesn’t have as many vents as the Switcher, nor the convenient chin-strap magnets, but testers loved its sleek, simple look and the fact that the air bladder didn’t deflate throughout the day.
Top Pick: Outdoor Research Interstellar Jacket ($300)
Pretty much every company that makes a shell markets it with words like waterproof, breathable, and stretchy. Outdoor Research’s Interstellar jacket balances those traits better than most of its competitors, thanks to a membrane woven from electronically charged polymers. Our testers found it to be the most vapor-permeable rainjacket they’d ever tried.
More Affordable Pick: Sierra Designs Neah Bay Jacket ($90)
When it comes to rain shells, a price tag under $100 usually means you’re sacrificing something significant—vapor permeability, next-to-skin comfort, durability, refined features, etc. Not so with the Neah Bay. It’s shockingly breathable and stretchy given its two-layer construction, and the seam-taped shell never wet out (our test director wore the jacket for a long, rainy hike under a loaded pack). Plus, with harness-friendly pockets and a helmet-compatible hood, the jacket is equally as capable for climbing.
Top Pick: MSR Hubba Tour 3 Tent ($750)
The Hubba Tour 3’s floor space, 43 square feet, is nothing out of the ordinary for a three-person tent. But add in the 25-square-foot vestibule—big enough for stashing loads of gear and using as a changing room—and you get a tent that’s comfortable even when you’re holed up during poor weather. An external pole system lifts the tent and fly together for speedy setup when the weather turns abruptly.
More Affordable Pick: Eureka Midori 2 Tent ($160)
The Midori 2 doesn’t have the oversize vestibule that our test crew loved in the Hubba Tour 3, but it does offer significant floor space and head room—just over 30 square feet and a maximum height of three feet six inches, respectively. And the two doors each have their own ten-square-foot vestibule. The tent’s calling card is an extra-long ridgepole near the head (the one running widthwise across the top), which extends the peak height from door to door rather than just at the tent’s center point.