Advice on How to Buy Outdoor Gear
The brave horizon of gear-buying, broken down (Jeremy Woodhouse/Blend Images/Getty)

How to Buy…

Advice on finding the best gear—and tried-n-true methods for maintaining your gear for years to come.

Advice on How to Buy Outdoor Gear


Your Mat Matters

For all-out comfort, you can’t beat NEMO’s Cosmo Air ($90; This three-inch-thick pad comes with a built-in foot pump, is thicker at the head for a pillowlike feel, and weighs a respectable two pounds. But the best part: Buy the optional Pillowtop ($60), which adds an inch of foam covered in a soft (and washable) microfiber, and you’ll be the king of your car-camping site. For fast-and-light trips, Therm-a-Rest’s inch-thick ProLite ($100; therma­ is still our favorite. It weighs just a pound and packs down to the size of a Nalgene water bottle. But the best deal around is Kelty’s inch-thick Backpacker Pad ($69; It’s a bit more slippery than others and, because it’s perforated to save weight, not quite as warm, either. But for a lightweight summer pad, you can’t beat the price.


Goose vs. Duck Down

Geese are larger birds and generally have bigger down clusters—and thus can achieve a higher fill-power rating. However, duck and goose down perform identically if rated to the same fill power. So why is duck less expensive? A faulty perception that it’s inferior, and a greater quantity—worldwide supply of duck far exceeds that of goose.

Which fill?

Down insulation provides a better weight-to-warmth ratio and packs more tightly, but it becomes fairly useless when wet. Go with a synthetic bag if there’s a high chance of soaking.


To ensure breathability in wet conditions, apply a durable water-repellent (DWR) coating like McNett’s ReviveX products to the exterior of both waterproof and non-waterproof hiking shoes.

Sock Up

The problem: Synthetic fabrics (polyester, nylon, etc.) are great at wicking sweat but can get stinky; natural fibers (like merino wool) are usually more comfortable and odor-resistant, but are far less durable. One solution? Blend them! Each merino-wool fiber in Bridgedale’s hiking socks is wrapped in a synthetic sheath, which improves strength and wicking speed; our favorite is the Ventum Light Hiker ($19; Point6 bolsters the wool of its incredibly comfortable Outdoor Tech Medium Crew by compacting more fiber into each yarn, making them 20 percent stronger than conventional merino threads, then knitting them onto a tough nylon-and-Lycra skeleton ($20; For humid treks and runs, Lorpen’s TCXS Tri-Layer Light Hiker ($15; sandwiches a soft, natural fabric (Tencel) between a layer of fast-wicking CoolMax on the skin and a tough nylon shell that protects the sock from abrasion. The verdict? An absolute moisture-control champ.



One vs. Two Walls:

The upside to single-wall tents, like the Si2 here, is that they’re light, compact, and quick to pitch. The downside is that, without the ventilation afforded by breathable interior canopies, they’re prone to condensation. They generally perform best on dry, high-altitude, or extremely cold trips.


Drinking Made Easy

Not all hydration bladders are created equal. With a wide opening that makes for easy scrubbing and rinsing access, Hydrapak’s 100-ounce Reversible Reservoir II ($30; is one of the easiest to clean. (Be careful with the Ziploc-like top closure; it’ll leak if you don’t seal it properly.) We’re also big fans of Polarpak’s MoFlow because it can be pressurized to deliver more water per gulp. Our new favorite bladders? Those by Osprey Hydraulics, which are included in their Raptor Series packs but are also sold separately (from $27; Designed in conjunction with Nalgene, their large cap and rigid handle make for easy cleaning—and jamming back into an already overstuffed pack.



What makes a good hood? We’re glad you asked. Look for a wire-stiffened brim (to keep rain out of your eyes) and a combination of adjustments (usually one at the back of the head and two in front) that allow you to easily cinch it comfortably around your entire head, leaving just the center of your face exposed.

Is your soft shell starting to wet out? Throwing most jackets in the dryer (on low) helps reactivate their water-resistant, or DWR, outer coating.


What’s With Barefoot Running?

You’ve most likely heard the buzz that barefoot running is better for you—strengthening your support muscles, tendons, and ligaments and helping prevent injuries. Is it true? Yes—but don’t chuck your trainers yet. “All runners should run in as little shoe as possible,” says journalist and 1968 Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot—a career 100,000-plus-mile runner. Thankfully, foot­wear companies are responding with lower, less-cushioned, minimalist shoes—closer to the spirit, if not letter, of barefoot running. Want to experiment? Start by wearing progressively lighter shoes on your short runs and slowly increasing your usage. “Any runner who makes a dramatic change in footwear should do so very gradually,” warns Burfoot.



Many trail-running shoes have a plastic rock plate in the forefoot to protect against stone bruising; road shoes do not.

High sidewalls keep slop from penetrating the base of non-waterproof shoes while offering protection from sharp rocks and branches.


Low-light red lenses are killer all day long, in any kind of fast, furious sport. Red, like other warm tints, sharpens and punches up views by blocking blue light, at the high short-wavelength end of the visual spectrum, which is hard for eyes to bring into focus.

Stealthy hydrophilic rubber pads at the nose aren’t noticeable enough to compromise the clean design, but they ensure your shades will stay put when things get sweaty or rainy.


Superior construction will cost you—and makes all the difference between luggage made for mild occasional use and bags designed to take the abuses of regular, rougher travel. Be especially wary of wheelies under $100.

Bag got spritzed with corrosive salt water? Clean it immediately with fresh water. For grime, a brush and mild non-phosphate soap will do.


Camera Lingo 101

Not familiar with some of these terms? Here’s a primer. Optical zoom: A “real” zoom, using glass. A digital zoom just crops an unenlarged image, causing distortion. CMOS vs. CCD sensor: Something people used to worry about a lot. Now, either can deliver. Just check the camera reviews for noise, image quality, and capture speeds. 720p vs. 1080p HD Resolution: 720p means 720 horizontal lines are shown at once to make up an image. Cameras that shoot 720p video or better, and 24 frames per second or faster, are considered high-definition. 1080p is the highest-quality picture compatible with top-end TVs. Full-frame sensor: The sensor is what detects light. A full-frame is the size of a 35mm piece of film and captures the most light (and clarity) possible. Any sensor smaller than full-frame forces the camera to enlarge the image upon exposure, increasing distortion. A rangefinder is an eyepiece that allows viewing even at the instant an image is captured, unlike an SLR, which blocks the view briefly with a mirror.



Strap Brunton’s Restore solar charger to your pack, hike all day, and by night you’ve got power on tap for your GPS, phone, and audio player ($90; Audio-Tech­nica’s ATH-ANC3 noise-canceling earbuds are the best we’ve heard in such a small package ($170; Jabra’s tough, self-charging Stone Bluetooth headset fits in your palm and has a very smart design ($130;


Rugged laptops are built from the ground up with shock-mounted hard drives, “unbreakable” cases, daylight-readable screens, and splash-proof keyboards. All of which adds up to prices about twice what you’d otherwise pay. Now that companies like HP, Dell, and Panasonic are aiming to win over more consumers, those prices should start to drop. Until then, travelers can take advantage of ever thinner and smaller computers—and stash them in tough, waterproof cases.

You had solar power in your calculator in high school, and many watches use solar for backup, so why isn’t your cell phone or media player basking in the sun? Just give it a little time. Those power-hungry devices have been waiting to get more efficient, but last year LG and Samsung sold their first solar phones in Europe. Don’t be surprised if the iPod goes solar within three years.


2×10=The New MTB Math

SRAM’s new XX mountain-bike component group is simpler, lighter, more efficient, and more comfortable than anything else we’ve ridden. We expect the basic premise—two chainrings in front and ten cogs in back (a 2×10 setup, as opposed to the standard 3×9)—to become an industry standard. Here’s why: It’s lighter; it allows for a narrower stance for better comfort; it keeps the chain in a straighter, more efficient line; and it eliminates the complexity of a three-position front derailleur. With the addition of a tenth cog in back, the 2×10 XX system also delivers almost exactly the same gear range—the difference between the highest and lowest gears—that a 3×9 does. XX started turning up on pro bikes late last season, and in March SRAM introduced the same 2×10 approach in its entry-level X7 group.


How much travel do I need?

For most people, five inches is the sweet spot. These bikes are light and efficient enough for climbs but can also suck up some bigger hits and keep you comfortable for all-day trail epics. If you plan on racing a lot, or at least riding like you do, stick to four inches of travel or less. If your style is all about technical downhills and big drops, look for six inches or more.


The Case for Tubeless Tires

Compact chainrings are just that—smaller. Where traditional chainrings offer somewhere around a 53-tooth/39-tooth combination, compacts are usually 50/34. Since smaller chainrings mean easier gearing, compacts can make climbing less painless. The trade-off, of course, is at the top end. But if you find yourself more often struggling in your lowest gear than sprinting in your highest one, compacts are worth a look.

Comfort-performance geometry is the best option for the majority of road-bike buyers. With taller headtubes and shorter top tubes, these frames offer a more upright position that opens the chest and makes things easier on the neck and back. Commonly, they also have slightly longer wheelbases for steady handling. In the brutal cobbled European races for spring, even a lot of pros go for comfort-performance geometry to ease the sting.