Field Test: Best New Backpacking Gear for 2014

Field Test: Best New Backpacking Gear for 2014


As our bush plane bounced and rolled through the thick turbulence of a warm spring day in the Idaho backcountry, I stared several thousand feet down on the mountainous terrain and tried to prepare myself for what lay ahead.

After flying in to a remote wilderness landing strip in the Northern part of the state, a friend and I would hike some 30 miles out to the nearest trailhead and hunt black bears up and down the jagged canyon walls along the way. We'd have as our only guide the mighty Selway river, roaring with the new life of snow melt and marking the way to our final destination.

The trip was epic. We finished the six-day journey without a bear, but it was still one of those rare trips of a lifetime you won't ever forget. It was also a great opportunity to test some of the best new camping and backpacking gear for 2014. When you're 50 miles from the nearest road or motorized anything, there's a ton of pressure for gear to perform — and not a lot of room for failure. Fortunately, you can read about how the gear did before ever setting a foot in the wild.

Everything we've listed here was a top performer and would make an excellent addition to your gear portfolio. Here's to your next adventure.

MSR | Reactor Stove

The MSR Reactor stove is one of the fastest, most fuel efficient ways to boil water. That\'s great news for backpackers because it allows you to bring less fuel and spend less time waiting on water to boil. The stove comes in 1, 1.7 and 2.5 liter versions, and allows you to boil 1 liter of water in less than three minutes. The fuel canister attaches to the radiant burner, which tucks into the base of the pot for increased fuel burning efficiency. The Reactor stove is also fully self-containing — the burner and fuel tank pack into the pot, which is fastened by a plastic lid — making it a perfect fit for backcountry trips.

One of our favorite accessories was the Reactor coffee press, which weighs next to nothing (1.9 ounces) and allows you to make a mean French-pressed coffee in the middle of nowhere.

Price: $190 (1.0 L stove), $20 (coffee press)

Platypus | GravityWorks 4 Liter Water Filter

Gone are the days of standing by the creek pumping water until your arms fall off. The Platypus GravityWorks water filtration system is exactly what it sounds like — a water filtration unit that lets gravity do all the work. We packed the 4 liter version with us for a week in the backcountry and could not have been more excited about the product. It\'s as fast as advertised (4 liters in 2.5 minutes) and the whole unit packs down to a meager 10.75 ounces. I\'d also recommend the 4 liter version for backpacking trips because it limits the amount of time you\'ll spend fetching water, and it weighs just 3 ounces more than the 2 liter version. This may be one of our favorite backpacking gear picks of the year.

Price: $120

Mountain Hardwear | BMG 105 Backpack

The Mountain Hardwear BMG 105 backpack was designed for professional guides on the toughest peaks, so you know it\'s made to carry a serious load. With a maximum capacity of 6,400 cubic inches (small/medium size), the BMG 105 had more than enough storage space for a weeklong trek with gear and food to accommodate. The multi-strap system allows you to tighten everything down for ease carrying heavy loads, and the back and shoulder padding keeps you comfortable on long, strenuous hikes.

The other great feature on the BMG 105 is that you can carry monstrous loads (50 to 100 pounds) or you can take out the aluminum frame bars and plastic back support, thus making it a lightweight, compact daypack. This is great when you\'re setting up base camp and then hunting (or hiking) from there. It also gives you the option to pack out an animal in addition to all your gear.

Price: $245

Backpacker\'s Pantry | Meals

When you\'re backpacking light and trying to keep your footprint minimal, there\'s really no better option than a lightweight stove for boiling water to make dehydrated meals. Backpacker\'s Pantry has been in the game for a long time, and its Pad Thai meal with peanuts and peanut butter may be the creme de la creme. After a long day chasing bears and pounding the trail-less backcountry, the best my pack mate and I could do was scarf down our meal and groan with culinary delight.

There are plenty of options for meals, too, including single and two-person variations and surplus canned food you can measure and pack yourself. We tried everything from Huevos Rancheros to beef stew and weren\'t once disappointed.

Price: $7 to $15

Gerber | Outrigger Knife

Gerber has long been known for producing quality knives and tools. They've hit another home run with the Outrigger knife, a fine edge folding knife that weighs just 1.9 ounces and clips nicely into the corner pocket on a pair of pants. The center of the aluminum handle features cutouts to reduce weight, while a SoftGrip overmold wraps around the outside for improved grip and comfortable feel. The Outrigger has dual thumb studs for easy opening and a plunge lock (push button) to secure and release the blade. It really is a perfect fit for pocket carry, especially in backcountry or survival situations where weight is always a factor. It's also great around the home and office, however, because you barely realize it's there until you need it. And the Gerber name means you're getting a sharp, reliable blade that's backed by a lifetime warranty.

Price: $49

Lowa | Ranger II GTX

The Lowa Ranger II GTX boots are a slightly updated version of the original Ranger line, which was hugely popular and gained a reputation for reliability over the years. The German-made Ranger IIs aren\'t incredibly light (30 ounces per boot), but the extra weight brought on by additional protective features is a worthwhile trade-off. A one-piece Nubuk leather upper gives you great durability even when you beat the snot out of your boots, and while it\'s heavier than other synthetic materials, it\'s also going to last longer. A rubber rand runs around the base of the boot for added protection against misplaced trail rocks and boulders.

I took these boots on a six-day, 45-mile backpacking trip to Idaho through some of the harshest territory in the Lower 48 and came back glowing about the Ranger IIs. I took them on climbs up and down 1,000-foot vertical mountainsides with a 50-pound pack and trekking poles — some of the most difficult ground you\'d ever wish to cross — and the boots cradled my feet so well I came away without blisters or sore feet. They were comfortable mile after mile on the trail and rather enjoyable to hike in. That might be the ultimate wear test.

Price: $300

ProBar | Meal

There was a point in my life when I\'d given up hope of a packable food bar ever tasting like, well, real food. That was before I sunk my teeth into the ProBar Wholeberry Blast meal bar. Surprisingly, it tasted like fruit and nuts, which are exactly what it\'s made of. The ProBar meal is packed with 8 grams of protein, 51 grams of carbs and 16 grams of healthy fat, all totaling 360 calories. After a week eating nothing but dehydrated meals and several other brands of unnamed trail bars, the ProBar was a welcome relief to the taste buds. Personally, my favorite combination was a noon-day trail stop with a Wholeberry Blast ProBar and French-pressed coffee from our MSR stove. When you\'re 50 miles from civilization and several days into a mammoth trek, that really does hit the spot.

Price: $35 (12-pack)

Stio | Kirby Windshirt

If you need a do-it-all outdoor shirt that is rugged, good-looking and keeps you cool, check out the Kirby Windshirt from Stio, an outdoor lifestyle and clothing company from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Not only is the Kirby Windshirt fast wicking and quick drying, it's also dang good looking. It's made from 100 percent nylon weave and is made to wear everywhere from the backyard to the backcountry. It features two chest pockets and a shirttail that can be worn tucked in or out. Trust us, you will love this shirt.

Price: $115

Helly Hansen | Loke Jacket and Pant

If you're planning an excursion into the wild, rain gear is a must. While it's not that difficult to find a set of jacket and pants to get the job done, it is pretty difficult to get quality rain gear without dropping more than a few Benjamins. That's what makes the Loke jacket and pant from Helly Hansen so great: You can get a quality rain suit for under $200.

The Loke jacket is fully seam sealed and features Helly Tech Performance technology, a wind and waterproof construction that allows for breathability. The jacket also conveniently folds into the pocket for storage. The Loke pants have zippered pockets and an adjustable waistband, as well as zippers at the bottom of the legs. Both jacket and pant pack down nicely and are lightweight enough to throw in a pack.

Price: $80 (pants), $100 (jacket)

Platypus | Big Zip LP

Hydration systems have been around for a while, but they've never been this well designed. The Platypus Big Zip LP comes in three sizes, from 1.5 to 3 liters, and fits nicely into the pouch on hydration-compatible backpacks. The key feature is a zip top bag that is secured by a rigid plastic bar. Once you've filled your Platypus with water, you simply slide the blue bar across the zip-lock system and hang inside your pack. Even with the bag flipped upside down and pressure placed on the sides, the bag seals completely.

A low-profile design allows the Big Zip LP to ride flat in your pack, while a quick-release hose and shutoff valve make drinking and refilling easy. With multiple sizes you can bring the right bag for your next adventure, whether that's a short summer hike or a weeklong backpacking trip deep into the backcountry. The bag is also BPA-free, has a silver-ion antimicrobial treatment to keep it fresh and folds down into a compact, lightweight package for storage.

Price: $35 to 37

Eddie Bauer | First Ascent Accelerant Jacket

If you're looking for an ultralight, highly functional jacket that can be worn nearly year round, the First Ascent jacket is about as good as it gets. The jacket is made from a 100 percent nylon outer layer and filled with 40 grams of strategically placed PrimaLoft synthetic insulation to keep you warm wherever your journey takes you. It also has strips of breathable, stretchy material along the sides of the torso and under the arms to promote a wide range of motion and allow your body to control its temperature naturally without overheating. A super-soft hood zips up around your face for those frigid mornings on the mountain, and thumbhole cuffs can be worn or tucked in as you have need. You can wear the Accelerant jacket as a mid or outerlayer as the weather dictates, and a StormRepel (DWR) finish whisks away light precipitation. This may be one of the most versatile and useful jackets you\'ll own.

Price: $180


If you\'re looking for an emergency water filtration tool that\'s light and effective, especially in the North American backcountry, LifeStraw is a great option. At just 2 ounces, the LifeStraw is easy to pack or hang around your neck with the attached lanyard. When you want to take a drink, all you have to do is place the flat end of the LifeStraw in water and suck through the mouthpiece. The device is supposed to filter 1,000 liters (264 gallons) and removes 99.99 percent of waterborne bacteria and protozoan cysts (Giardia, among others). It\'s also relatively cheap compared to other filtration units, which makes it practical to keep in a survival kit in your car, home or backpack.

The obvious drawback for backpacking is that you can\'t take the stream with you, and when you do drink, you\'ll be laying down on your stomach to do so. The unit is fairly easy to draw water through, however, and comes in handy as a backup to whatever filtration system you\'re packing.

Price: $20

Big Agnes | Mystic SL 15

You had me at "Big Agnes." Based out of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Big Agnes claims to be "The Mother of Comfort," and after testing the newly updated Mystic SL 15 sleeping bag in the wild of Idaho, it\'s hard to argue. The bag is constructed with 800 fill DownTek water repellant down, rated to 15 degrees and features the classic Big Agnes system. The Q-Core SL insulated pad fits in a compartment on the bottom of the bag, and the overall rectangular shape allows more room for your head and shoulders than a traditional mummy bag. A superwarm hood and no-draft collar wrap around your head and neck for improved insulation.

The Big Agnes Mystic SL 15 is everything you could want in a sleeping bag...and probably more. There\'s no more rolling off your pad and barely making it through a sleepless night with this Mother of Comfort offspring. The Mystic is extremely light (2 pounds, 4 ounces), even more comfortable, and packs down to a ridiculously small size.

Price: $580

Icebreaker | Merino Wool Socks

We wore Icebreaker merino wool socks for the bulk of our mileage — a choice I don\'t regret in the least. Merino wool is probably the most reliable material to pair with hunting or hiking boots because it naturally wicks away moisture, offers premium padding and insulation, doesn\'t retain odor, and keeps your feet from blistering even when wet. Depending on the thickness of your sock, it can also be worn in all seasons.

Icebreaker makes some of the best merino wool products on the market. Not only did the socks protect our feet from blistering and excessive aching, they also kept our feet dry in both extreme cold and scorching heat.

Price: $15 to$35

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