Best Last-Minute Outdoor Gifts – 2023

 by Andy Dappen

The author out testing.

Is the clock still ticking on getting an outdoorsy family member or friend a Christmas present that will be highly valued?  If so, we can help with these last-minute suggestions that will accommodate outdoor enthusiasts regardless of your budget. These suggestions are not just last-minute possibilities to consider, they’re also all very good products. We’ve tested them all and they impressed us.

Seeing the light. For starters, it’s the time of year when a good headlamp will greatly extends one’s outdoor activities. Whether the desire is to hike in the dark hours before work, train after work on a run, ski up Mission Ridge during the dark hours when the resort allows uphill travel, or take a Saturday ski tour that might run late, a good headlamp is one of the more valuable tools of winter.

From left to right: OLight i3E EOS, Petzl IKO Core, coffee (to wake up or stay awake), NiteCore NU25 UL.

Two of our favorite LED lights over the past few years have been the Petzl IKO Core ($100) and the Petzl IKO ($75). These lights can both run on AAA batteries (alkaline or rechargeable metal-hydrides) and are identical except the more expensive ‘Core’ comes with a rechargeable (but removable) lithium-ion battery pack that gives longer energy output in cold temperatures and produces a brighter beam on its maximum power setting (500 lumens vs 350 lumens).  The real magic of both these lightweight headlamps (3 oz. with batteries) is the AirFit headband which so quickly adjusts to different head sizes yet is absolutely stable once the band is cinched tight. Meanwhile the swiveling head of both lights will not thump against the forehead while moving erratically yet places the beam exactly where it’s wanted when hiking, trail running, climbing, skiing, or mountain biking. We also love that the light can be locked to prevent accidental ignitions when the headlamp is out of use.  We found the main drawback of the IKO is that the same head band that makes the light such a pleasure to use is also bulky compared to other lights of similar weight. That bulk is immaterial for evening adventures or day trips that might run into darkness, but for multi-day trips compactness matters to some. The cost of these lights is also steep and might cause heart burn for some.

If either of the drawbacks of the IKO (bulk or cost) is a deal breaker, consider NiteCore’s NU25 UL ($37). This light came to our attention through local backcountry skiers Mike Rolfs and Jamie Tackman, who are both converts and who helped us see the light as well. This ultralight beauty (1.6 ounces, which includes a non-removable lithium-ion battery) is outfitted with a shock-cord headband and is a tiny package – a valuable quality whether you’re tucking the light in a pocket before heading out on a run or packing it in a ditty bag with your Ten Essentials. When needed, however, the light produces plenty of illumination (400 lumens) for most any outdoor activity or a fainter glow (down to 6 lumens) for camp chores. Other benefits:  lots of different spot light or flood light configurations for varying activities, red light mode for reading maps at night without bleaching one’s retina, and a lockout to prevent accidental ignition when the light is in the pocket or pack.  The main drawback of this light is the non-removable lithium-ion battery. The light has respectable burn times (2.66 hours at max output, 45 hours at the lowest output), but once the battery is depleted users are toast. Unlike the aforementioned Petzl IKOs, fresh batteries cannot be plugged in.

Of course a lesson that anyone who frequently adventures through the dark hours will eventually learn the hard way is that it’s foolish to trust one’s night vision entirely to a single light. Because batteries die, bulbs burst, and circuitry fails, people should always carry at least one spare and maybe even two spare lights on night trips.  Our favorite spare light is the OLight’s i3E EOS, ($10), a tiny, aluminum, nearly weightless (0.6 oz. with battery) wizard using one AAA battery and producing a very respectable 90 lumens of light. With a makeshift headband made of 2mm shock cord that can be taped to the barrel, this is a tiny but functional backup light should the main torch blink out. One off these lights with 4 fresh AAA batteries buys a person good insurance against the evils of Murphy’s Law at the cost of 2 ounces.

Staying in touch. The Rocky Talkie ($110 each or $220/pair) is a play on words for a walkie talkie designed and made by a Colorado-based company (Rocky Mountains, ha ha) that is extensively used by rock climbers. But these 2-way radios benefit more than climbers. Groups of hikers, skiers, canoeists, mountain bikers also have the annoying habit of splintering and spreading out, so having a few reliable walkie talkies in a group (at the head and tail of the group) often pays huge dividends in preventing miscommunications that waste time, create confusion and angst, or endanger people.  Other simple two-way radios made by Motorola or Midland primarily use a half-watt output that doesn’t stack up to the range and clarity of the Rocky Talkie’s 2-watt output. The cheaper units also fail to stack up in battery life, or ruggedness.  The Rocky Talkie has the strongest possible output (2 watts) before a ham-radio operator’s license is required. More powerful units are also bigger and heavier and have a sizable learning curve to master. This leaves the Rocky Talky in a sweet spot delivering decent range, great battery life (even in cold temperatures) and excellent ease of use. The units are also amazingly rugged – we’ve watched reviews like this one where testers chuck the units off cliffs or drive over them with cars. Most of the units still work after such abuse.

For a different level of communication — specifically for communicating with people back home or activating a rescue in an emergency  — we’ve previously evaluated and extolled the virtues of the original Garmin InReach Explorer, a satellite communicator that can keep adventurers in touch with the world even when there is no cell service.  The original unit we evaluated has been downsized with the advent of the Garmin inReach Mini 2 ($400 MSRP). The Mini 2 performs the same way (communicating through an affordable subscription service using the Iridium satellite network) and has all the same functionality as the original Explorer but is nearly half the size and weight. This makes it a no-brainer to make the Mini 2 a permanent fixture of one’s pack … just in case the ‘fit hits the shan’. Some adventurers object to the intrusion of connecting so easily to the outside world, but it’s been our experience that, when families back home know their loved one can communicate or activate a rescue, there is much more peace of mind and domestic harmony. Such metrics are priceless.

Subscriptions, Memberships, Gift Certificates. Wenatchee may be a small town but it is possesses a climbing gym that is the envy of many cities. Since the Riverfront Rock Gym (RRG) opened in Wenatchee in 2016, it has become a favorite training area and social center for rock climbers, mountaineers, peak baggers, and aspiring climbers. Also, a surprising number of people who don’t intend to climb outdoors have discovered they enjoy the gymnastic, strength-oriented workout of indoor climbing and have become enthusiastic users of this gym.  Any friend or family member who overlaps these categories might enjoy several day passes ($20 each) or a month’s membership ($85) at RRG. Gift cards here.

Regardless of the outdoor activity, people who are not using digital maps along with their smartphone’s GPS capabilities are missing out on the easiest and most accurate navigational tools. Most of the best mapping systems are subscription based and need annual renewing. So whether you’re considering a mapping system for a new user or a renewal subscription, access to these systems is a valuable and appreciated gift. When it comes to mapping systems that are particularly valuable for trail users – hikers, trail runners, mountain bikers, equestrians – Trailforks is the recognized standard. Whether one is accessing trails in this country or abroad, Trailforks delivers on showing all the surrounding trails, rating their difficulty, noting conditions and dangers, and more.  Furthermore, once on a trail, a person’s smartphone will access GPS satellites to pinpoint one’s location. It’s fantastic and affordable ($36 for a year’s subscription). Gift card here.

A screenshot of CalTopo in use on a smartphone. The user added waypoints and route information to this particular map.

Outdoor enthusiasts who spend considerable time on trails but venture off-trail extensively while hiking, mountaineering, scrambling, snowshoeing, or backcountry skiing may be better served by digital map systems accessing USGS 7.5-minute maps. Two of the go-to systems for geo-referenced maps in this arena are Gaia GPS ($60/year) and CalTopo ($20/year for Legacy Plan, $50/year for Pro Plan). Both are superb systems. At WenatcheeOutdoors, we rely on CalTopo to produce many of the maps for the website and we continue to find this system excellent and slightly easier to use.  CalTopo was also first to have a filter depicting slope angle that were particularly valuable for winter travel and avoiding avalanches. Gaia GPS now has such filters as well and is considered to be the better choice if you need access to international map sets.

Chemical Warfare.   When it comes to physical threats one might encounter in the backcountry — weird people, dogs, bears, cougars, mountain goats, or even overly assertive raccoons – bear sprays made by either Counter Assault, or UDap both provide good antidotes to the problem. Both manufacturers use a pepper spray derived from capsicum that is shot out of a canister in a concentrated mist to a distance of 30 to 40 feet. The pepper spray is a severe irritant to the eyes and mucous membranes. It leaves all mammals crying, coughing, and temporarily dazed, allowing users to exit dangerous situations and almost always sending the aggressor in the opposite direction. Depending on the brand, size, and belt-holster provided, cost ranges from $40 to $60.

Miracle repairs in a tube (Seam Grip and Aquaseal) and miracle deterrent in a can. This canister of bear spray is tucked into a black belt holster allowing instant access to the spray.

Meanwhile, when it comes to chemical warfare against holes, tears, rips, punctures, abrasions, weaknesses, and leaks in boots, packs, raingear, tents, tarps, sleeping mattresses, sleeping bags and more, either Aquaseal FD or Seam Grip WP are universal fix-it solutions. These solutions come out of tube as a viscous gel that bonds well to almost all surfaces and hardens into a clear, rubbery, waterproof patch. A $9 tube can save hundreds of dollars in salvaged and repaired gear. Both these solutions are made by Gear Aid with the main difference being that Aquaseal is a thicker, more viscous formulation than Seam Grip.

Good Reads. Training for the New Alpinism (House & Johnston, $35) – regardless of whether a person is training for long climbs, trail runs, Nordic or backcountry skiing tours, or epic bike rides, this is a bible for getting the body ready. No shortcuts here, just hard truths about training for maximum impact.  Classic Cascade Climbs – Selected Routes in Washington State (Nelson, Sjolseth & Whitelaw, $35) – contains the complete guidebook details needed to tackle 100 of the highest quality alpine routes in Washington. The photos make the book worthy of a spot on the coffee table and thumbing this guide often will inspire action. Washington Scrambles (Peggy Goldman, $25) – a worthy guide for bagging 80 of the state’s most worthy, non-technical peaks. Day Hiking Central Cascades (Craig Romano, $22) – while WenatcheeOutdoors provides free access to the maps and details of many of these hikes, keeping this guidebook on a visible shelf where it’s bumped into often helps stoke the fires of ambition.

Featherweight Deuce of Spades (left) and grippy MicroSpikes.

Tools of the Trade. Covid brought on hordes of new outdoor users, many of whom were not properly versed in how to keep their own messes from messing up the woods for everyone else. The Deuce of Spades ($15-$20) is a featherweight aluminum trowel and it (or some facsimile) should be nestled into the pack of every outdoor adventurer, regardless of their sport, to properly handle human waste in the field. Along with the trowel, give the recipient a copy of this article so they’re up to snuff about handling their stuff.  Finally we finish with MicroSpikes made by Kahtoola ($75) a long-time favorite and still every bit as valuable a tool for enjoying our winters as when we first reviewed them 15 years ago. Snap MicroSpikes onto hiking boots, or a walking shoes and users have no-slip claws for snowy slopes, icy trails, and grassy hillsides. Team them up with a pair of ski poles (providing added stability on uneven ground) and winter is no longer a cold curse to survive but a beautiful season to enjoy.

Note: Not all of these products are available locally, but many are. If any of these suggestions strike your fancy, please give our local retailers a call first:  Arlberg Sports (509-663-7401); Der Sportsman (509-548-5623), Hooked on Toys (509-663-0740); Performance Footwear and Outdoor Gear (509-662-2910); Trek Bicycle Wenatchee (509-888-2453).

This post was originally published 12/20/2023. 

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