It seems like the past two months have been nothing but travel, hike, and travel, but this past week, I made another pilgrimage to the biggest outdoor gear trade show in the U.S.
My purpose was to scout out some of the newest, most innovative gear for the ultralight backpacking community. I was looking for big trends, game changing inventions, and incremental improvements on gear that is already out there. Here’s a recap of some of the coolest items spotted on the show floor:
Headlamps for your Shoes:
Winter OR brought us GoMotion lights—“headlamps” that don’t go on your head at all but are worn as sternum straps. This OR brings us “headlamps” that you attach to your shoes to immediately light up the trail right in front of you. Night Runner developed by FresheTech provides 30+ feet in beam distance at 270 degrees of visibility. The water resistant system clips right to your shoelaces like gaiters. Although right now the technology only allows for 4-8 hours of battery life (to keep the weight down, it is charged via micro USB instead of AAA batteries), my mind is blown at the endless possibilities this could have for changing the game of night hiking. A few years ago, the game changing gear trend for backpackers was in sleeping pads. These days, I’m increasingly impressed by what is coming out of the head (and other body part) lamp manufactures.
Removable Backpack Air Core Frame:
For those of you out there who love Osprey’s Air Core frame (a pack frame that allows air to vent between your back and the pack, minimizing back sweat), the Ventra is a BRAND NEW invention that can turn any pack into an Air Core Pack. Debuting at their first Show, you can attach any frameless pack to your Ventra and increase its carry load or just get it off your pack.
Right now, the Medium Ventra frame is weighing in at 11 oz. Considering that a normal frameless ultralight pack comes in at about a pound, by placing your frameless pack on a Ventra, you essentially get a framed Air Core pack for less than 2 pounds. The best part is one Ventra can be used on multiple packs (your pack attaches and unattaches very easily). So, if you have several frameless packs, you can use all of them with one Ventra. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this young company evolves and what great things it will develop (I also really hope that some bigger company doesn’t poach their idea).
Three Breath Inflatable Sleeping Pad:
You heard that right. Where a full length sleeping pad usually takes me 40 breaths to inflate, a brand new valve invention is blowing (excuse the pun) the competition out of the air. Windcatcher valves was developed by what I can only assume is some physics grad student who took aerodynamic application to a backpacking level. Using entrainment, a physics principle I had to look up on Wikipedia, I watched a full length pad inflate after 3 breaths. If you don’t believe me, check out this video:
Unfortunately, Windcatcher claims that a major gear manufacturer (a walk around the Show makes it obvious that company is MSR) stole their design and there is currently a legal battle going on. Windcatcher asks that you support the original inventor.
Put on a Windshirt without Removing your Pack:
For those of you who dreamt of the day when someone would invent a layer that you could put on without requiring you to take off your pack—that day is here! Thru-hiker shoe favorite Altra just announced a new clothing line with its most exciting item being a windshirt that you wear in a pouch around your waist and then can pull onto yourself without having to stop or remove your pack. It is backless—so it won’t get caught on your pack and (extra bonus) means it has less fabric than a normal windshirt (meaning that it is ultralight). In fact, the whole system–which includes a hood, a pouch, and a waistband–is 3.3 oz (the tank top in the photo, by the way, weighs 1.95 oz). Although the Altra windshirt was invented for ultramarathoners whose every minute can count in a race, speed hikers, hikers who get cold and hot easily, or hikers who just enjoy being in their hiking groove and don’t want to stop will all go as gaga over this new item as I did.
Mini Wood Stove:
For the past 20 years, TOAKS has been manufacturing titanium stoves and cookware for the big players like Sea to Summit. In the past year, they’ve decided that they want to start selling their own designs, and their inventor has developed a wood stove that just won Best in Show at the European equivalent of Outdoor Retailer. After hearing from several thru-hikers that the wood burning backpacking stoves on the market were too big, TOAKS developed this stackable woodstove aimed for the solo hiker. It can take a 750 mL cup, but can also be used for larger pots.
Most notably—this wood stove packs down to a really small size, especially compared to some of the uber bulky wood stoves out there that just refuse to fit anywhere in an ultralight pack (too big for the water bottle pockets, bulky in the mesh, annoying to put in the body of the pack). This stove DEFINITELY fits in my Gosssamer Gear Kumo water bottle pocket—a first for a wood burner as far as I know!
Purify Your Water from Pesticides and Chemicals:
In the light of the Animas River spill, hikers are starting to think a little bit more about what may be in their “natural” seeming water sources. That mountain spring that may be free of Crypto and Giardia can still have plenty of Arsenic. I for one have downed more than my fair share of pesticides in my thru-hiking career. A new invention debuted at Summer OR that is a water filtration system that claims to address the usual water hazards while also removing petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, arsenic, lead, and mercury. Solarbug Water Purifier claims to be the first water purifier on the market that changes colors to let you know when your water is “done” (purified). You simply add a drop of chemical to the system and when it stops being blue, your water is ready to drink. The Solarbug system lasts for 500 gallons (when the water stops changing colors, you know you need a new system) and retails at $100. The company also donates a significant portion of its profits to clean water projects in developing countries. Right now, the gallon-to-dollar ratio isn’t quite within thru-hiker realm (and I’m very curious to see how long it takes to treat the water), but I am really looking forward to watching this technology improve in the future.
National Geographic Appalachian Trail Map Book:
In the same spirit of the highly popular John Muir Trail Map book rolled out at Winter Outdoor Retailer, Nat Geo is developing a mapbook set for the entire AT. Right now, the maps for Maine down to Pennsylvania are complete, in perfect timing for the typical southbounders. The thin book’s dimensions are longer than the maps you would print at home, making it well suited for a long skinny trail like the AT. Everything is put together in order including some town data, almost making it suited to be the only info source an AT thru-hiker would need. One downside, as with any long skinny map set, is that not all bail out options and not all resupply options are included. Nonetheless, it’s wonderful to see a major map company like Nat Geo take on thru-hiking in full like this!
Water Resistant Altra Lone Peaks
The Altra Lone Peak, often called the “thru-hiker’s favorite shoe,” is coming out in a new fabric, a waterproof Polartec Neoshell. This breathable membrane has had huge success in outerwear but has never been used in shoes before. I have a feeling that the NeoShell Lone Peaks are going to open a lot of doors for three and four season hiking in trail runners. Furthermore, I run into a lot of people just getting into hiking and backpacking who demand a waterproof shoe, and now I’ll know what to tell them to get. Although I’m going to stick with my Lone Peaks for the summer (the new Lone Peak 2.5s were announced at Summer OR and offer a redesigned upper, improved lacing system, improved upper durability, and slightly firmer midsole over the Lone Peak 2.0s), I’m really looking forward to testing the Neoshell Lone Peaks in some snow later this year.
Hammock that Keeps out Amazonian Mosquitoes
Explorer, Adventurer, and former British Army Officer Ed Stafford set out to walk from the Andes to the ocean, following the Amazon River from its source to its end over 860 days. To undertake such an endeavor, he asked long time thru-hiker favorite Hennessy Hammock to design a special expedition grade double-walled hammock that would prevent mosquitoes from biting him as he slept. After the modern day Dr. Livingstone completed his journey, he cited his double-walled Hennessy as his favorite piece of gear. Hennessy decided to market the special design for others who hate mosquitoes or are traveling in super buggy territory.
The new Jungle Series model marks the first new models of HH’s in a couple years and are a huge addition to the Hennessy line. The Expedition Jungle Zip and Jungle Explorer Zip and Jungle Safari Zip offer different features depending on your height and weight requirements (the Jungle can take enough weight for a couple). While heavy for a typical thru-hiker (the Hyperlite or Ultralite Backpacker models are the most popular among that crowd), I imagine the requirements for jungle thru-hiking are entirely different than back here in the states. If you’re designing a route across Borneo, it sounds like HH’s new Jungle Series hammocks are a piece of gear you may not want to be without.
Bigger “Bear Proof” Bag for Hungrier Hikers:
LokSak, maker of the OP (Odor Proof) bags that so many thru-hikers these days are carrying instead of bear canisters, just came out with a larger size bag. I’ve often carried two LokSaks myself for times when it is 6+ days between food resupplies. This larger bag has twice the capacity of a normal Loksak bag. I’m not sure how it will fit in my pack, but look forward to finding out.
14 g Socks that will Last a Lifetime:
Darn Tough just rolled out a new line of super ultralight socks, the Vertex Series Running Sock, that weigh in at 14 g a piece and still come with the Darn Tough Life Time Guarantee! (I can’t think of anything as ultralight that comes with a Life Time Guarantee). The Vertex Series socks were designed for runners who want the most minimal sock they can wear that will prevent chaffing and provide support just where it is needed, and nowhere else. This could be a great sock for those thru-hikers who enjoy hiking in liner socks or for thru-hikers who like to carry extra pairs of socks but don’t want the weight penalty.
Frog Togg/Driducks Waterproof Fleece Shell
Frog Toggs raingear is so affordable, I didn’t think they’d be able to afford a booth at OR. Nonetheless, they had a booth at the Show and were showing off their newest invention, a supposedly waterproof breathable fleece shell. Although heavy for the typical thru-hiker, like all Frog Toggs items, the sticker price seemed surprisingly affordable. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this item become a new favorite among budget hikers.
Running Coach in a Box
Zero Drop thru-hiker standard Altra has just developed a “smart shoe” that integrates with your phone or Smartwatch when you are running. As you run, it informs you of your cadence (180 strikes per minute being the ideal) and also lets you know where on your foot you are striking. It’s like having your running coach always watching you, except it costs a fraction of an instructor’s time (the IQ shoe retails at less than $100 more than a normal running shoe). It can also be used as a great instructional tool for running coaches to use to have data to show clients about how they run. While only the most data-obsessed thru-hiker would wear an Altra IQ on the trail, you’d be hard pressed to find a thru-hiker who isn’t curious how to make his/her stride more efficient during the off season. Boys and girls, now you know what to ask Santa for Christmas.
Well, this wraps up the GEAR portion of the Outdoor Summer Retailer 2015 write-ups.
Stay tuned for the FOOD section where I describe all the innovative, potentially revolutionary foods debuting at the show including flavored caffeine pills, caffeinated chocolate chews, cricket energy bars, good tasting MREs, and dehydrated cheese!