Great Gift Ideas 2-2020
by Wenatchee Outdoors Staff
Editors Note: Click here to read part one of Great Gift Ideas for 2020.
Petzl – Zipka Headlight ($30). Time for true confessions: We haven’t tested the latest-generation of the Zipka headlight. We have, however, been mightily impressed by the previous two generations of the light and believe the newest iteration is better still. The Zipka remains the lightest, most-compact headlight running off three AAA batteries (weight with batteries: 2.3oz). It achieves this status through its clever headband which is a self-adjusting, retractable cord rather than a bulky elastic strap. This feature makes all the difference in reducing the Zipka’s size and eliminating the tendency for headbands to tangle inside ditty bags and pockets. This makes the Zipka a perfect light for the Ten Essentials kit – it’s small enough to always be carried for unexpected emergencies, powerful enough to be useful when it is actually needed. The new Zipka is the same size, weight, and design of its predecessors but has a few improvements: the high beam now puts out 300 lumens rather than 200 lumens and the light now has a lock so it won’t turn on accidentally inside a pack. Besides AAA batteries, the Zipka also accepts the rechargeable lithium-ion Core Battery Pack ($30) that Petzl sells as an accessory—a desirable option for better cold-weather performance or if the light will be used as a staple for dark-hour training.
SOL – Escape Pro Bivvy Sack ($125). For long day trips into wild areas, whether by foot, bike or, skis, it’s important for groups and individuals to carry some survival supplies should injury, poor navigation, equipment failure, or poor conditions cause a benighting. An impressive performer in this arena is the Escape Pro Bivvy Sack. The sack is light enough (8 oz) that there’s little hesitation about including it in a hiking, climbing, mountain biking, or ski touring pack. Yet if a sprained ankle, tweaked knee, broken bike, or shattered ski results in an unplanned night under the stars, this waterproof-breathable sack made of Sympatex Reflexion fabric will keep one person fairly comfortable in temperatures that are at least 20 degrees F colder than what they could endure without the sack. We were impressed with how well the Escape Pro Bivvy conserved body heat, vented body moisture, and shed rain without leakage (seams are taped). Also, on cold-weather trips we found the Escape Pro Bivvy extended the comfort range of a sleeping bag about 15 degrees F and did so without producing condensation between the sack and the bag. Many pricier (and heavier) Gore-Tex bivvy sacks we’ve tested don’t breathe as well as the Escape Pro Bivvy. Note: If used this way, be aware that the Escape Pro Bivvy is not roomy enough to bring the sleeping pad inside the sack — keep the pad on the outside of your cocoon.
Outdoor Research – Helium Rain Jacket and Rain Pants ($159 & $119). In Central Washington we receive so much fair weather it’s easy to get complacent and remove rainpants and even rain coats from the pack after checking the weather forecast. This practice will eventually leave one ill-prepared for an unexpected and potentially dangerous turn in the weather. The waterproof-breathable Helium Rain Jacket (6.3 oz, $159) and Helium Rain Pants (6.7oz, $119) are the anecdote to this problem. These items are light enough that no one will sweat carrying them regardless of the forecast. Given that 13 ounces buys you full-body coverage from rain, wind, falling temperatures, and biting bugs, these items (or a facsimile) should be staples in the pack. On top of all this, the Diamond Fuse fabric (from Pertex) used in the jacket and pants is an excellent performer in breathability and waterproofness. It’s also supple and moves nicely with the body. In our experience no storm wear keeps you completely comfortable when conditions get truly nasty and/or when you’re exercising hard. Either some seepage from shoulder pads or sweat is going to dampen your spirits a bit. That being said, these two items will keep you safe and fairly comfortable when the Central Washington skies spill and you hustle to reach camp (or get back to the car!).
Bending Branches – Angler Classic Paddle $140 (Hooked on Toys). A double-bladed paddle is de rigueur for whitewater kayaks, sea kayaks, sit-on-top kayaks, fishing kayaks, and inflatable kayaks because it maximizes efficiency and is far more ergonomic than a single-bladed paddle. So what gives with canoeists? Why do they insist on single-bladed paddles that are less efficient and less ergonomic? The answer is complicated but we think solo canoeists in particular will enjoy a double-bladed canoe paddle. We’ve also found that flatwater tandem canoeists paddle farther, faster, easier if either the stern paddler (think no J-stroking) or both paddlers convert to kayak-styled paddles. A good double-bladed paddle for a canoe needs to be longer (260 to 270 cm long) and should break apart into at least two pieces for car travel. Many manufacturers do not make kayak-styled paddles this long but Bending Branches offers several options ranging from extremely lightweight carbon-fiber layups like the Angler Pro (28.5 oz, $300) and the Angler Ace (30 oz, $200). An affordable paddle for testing the waters of kayak-styled canoeing is the Angler Classic (32 oz $140), a high-quality blade that is light, even if not carbon-fiber light.
Patagonia and Black Diamond – Windshells ($99 – $130, Arlberg Sports). Probably no other piece of equipment adds so much warmth (10 to 15 degrees F) for so little weight (under 4 ounces) than a good windshell. A perennial favorite in this category is the tried-and-true Patagonia’s Houdini Air Jacket (3.7 oz, $99). The Houdini is superb for high-output winter pursuits when worn over a base layer. It’s equally valuable in summer to cut cool mountain winds. Folded into its own pocket, the Houdini nearly disappears in a pack, inside a pocket, or on a climbing harness. Black Diamond’s Distance Wind Shell (3.6 oz, $129) is another favorite among serious outdoor athletes looking for a layer that passes heat well when they’re cranking uphill yet cuts the cold wind when they’re sitting still. Like a snake devouring its tail, this shell also packs away inside its own pocket to almost disappear. Both of these products seem expensive for how little there is to them. You’re paying for quality design and for the fact that each seems so inconsequential that you’ll always carry it. Over time you’ll discover those are priceless attributes.
Granite Gear – Virga 2 Pack ($140). To the light-is-right backpacking crowd the Virga blueprint has withstood the test of time – it’s been a favorite ultralight pack for 20 years. The Virga 2 is not just feathery (19 oz), it is also roomy (3300 cubic inches or 54 liters) and affordable. The Virga 2 is a frameless pack and draws its support from how it is packed, which is something of an art learned through experimentation. With our test pack we sewed in a next-to-the-back sleeve (1 ounce of additional weight) so that we could easily insert and remove a folding Ensolite pad (another 3 ounces) giving the pack more structure and cushion against the back. The same pad also makes transitioning the pack’s capacity between day use and multi-day use easier. While it takes experimentation to perfect its use, ultralight travelers looking for a pack delivering excellent capacity and versatility in a ridiculously lightweight package will be hard pressed to do better than the Virga 2. Read our review of lightweight packs to see how the original Virga stacked up against other ultralight packs.
Jetboil – MiniMo or Sumo Cooking System ($150 – $160). Jetboil invented the idea of physically coupling specialized pots with built-in heat exchangers to especially efficient stoves. The original Jetboil stoves could boil water for breakfast faster than you could dress and rub sleep from your eyes. And they used less fuel than other canister stoves doing so. Now a newer generation of ‘regulated’ burners makes Jetboil stoves even better at producing both roaring and simmering flames – and they use even less fuel in the process. More importantly the newer regulated stoves are much better at producing a forceful flame in cold weather or when the IsoPro fuel canister is approaching the empty mark. Of Jetboil’s different offerings, the MiniMo with its one-liter pot is the most versatile for solo travelers. The complete MiniMo cooking kit (regulated stove, heat-exchanger pot, pot lid, cup, stove ignitor and stove stabilizer) weighs 14.6 ounces. Those who usually travel with a partner will prefer the Sumo which mates the same stove to a larger, 1.7-liter pot. The complete Sumo cooking kit weighs 16 ounces. In our field tests conducted in 39-degree Fahrenheit weather and heating 39-degree water, the Sumo consistently boiled a liter of water using .38 ounces of fuel. That means an 8-ounce fuel canister delivers 21, one-liter boils (roughly 5 days of cooking for two people using instant and quick-cook meals).
Therm-A-Rest and Exped Sleeping Pads ($179 – $230, Arlberg Sports). The foundation of getting a good night’s sleep in the outdoors is built upon a quality full-length backpacking air mattress that prevents ankles, knees, hips and shoulders from grounding out. The best backpacking air mattresses are completely different animals than department store air mattresses — they provide the comfort of air mattresses but use interior insulation or a honeycomb of interior baffles to stabilize the air inside the tubes. By so doing, these mattresses use the trapped air as an insulator, preventing heat loss to the ground. For three-season use a good backpacking mattress should weigh under a pound and have an R-value over 3. For winter use or for sleeping on snow, look for a mattress with an R-value greater than 6 and weighing about a pound. The state of the art in backpacking mattresses that are comfortable, lightweight, and warm are those made by Therm-A-Rest with their line of NeoAir sleeping pads and by Exped with their line of Synmats and Downmats. In the Therm-A-Rest line, check out the XLite (12 ounces, 4.2 R-value, $185) and the XTherm (15 ounces. 6.9 R-value, $215). In the Exped line, look at the Downmat HL Winter M (17 ounces, 7.1 R-value, $230) and the Synmat HL Winter M (15.3 ounces, 5.2 R-value, $179).
Therm-A-Rest and Sierra Design Backpacking Quilts ($280 to $340). The standard backpacker’s sleeping bag (i.e., the mummy sack) is poorly designed for restless sleepers, side sleepers, or stomach sleepers who are all inclined to get tangled up in the bag. All of the aforementioned sleepers should be using a good backpacker’s quilt that is attached to a quality sleeping pad (see above). Quilts we’ve tested and endorse include the Therm-A-Rest’s Vesper 32F ($340) rated to a minimum temperature of 32 degrees F, weighing 17 ounces and using 900-fill Hydrophobic Down for insulation. We also give two-thumbs up to Sierra Designs’ Nitro 20F ($280) rated to a minimum temperature of 20 degrees F, weighing 25 ounces and using 800-fill DriDown for insulation. Read our detailed review of these quilts.
Wenonah – Spirit II Ultralight Aramid-fiber Canoe ($3100). Aramid fiber is used for bulletproof vests because it’s extremely light yet incredibly strong. When applied to canoes, aramid fibers like Kevlar can create hulls that are strong, stiff, and 20 to 30 pound lighter than fiberglass or Royalex boats. That keeps people who are weak from age, injury, or genetics in the game of canoeing because a 40-pound boat is feasible for a decrepit couple to car-top, launch, and portage in a way that a 70-pound boat is not. That weight difference makes all the difference in whether aging or ailing paddlers keep canoeing or migrate toward the couch. This particular boat from Wenonah is a jack-of-all-trades ‘tripping’ canoe that adeptly handles flatwater, easy whitewater (up to Class 2), day trips, and multi-day trips. Canoe & Kayak Magazine says, “If you could have only one canoe to serve all your needs for the rest of your life, the Spirit II would be one of the very few candidates.” Even if the new price of the aramid-fiber version of this boat is too steep, consider giving a loved one a coupon and using the winter to seek out a used Kevlar tripping canoe. The patient buyer perusing Seattle.Craigslist.org or Portland.Cragslist.org can find this or a similar Kevlar canoe that is in excellent condition for half the new price.