The Best Outdoor Gear: Reviews & Guides by Outside Magazine – Outside

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Help. After a winter of commuting by bike, my helmet stinks. I wear a helmet cover in the cold so sweat tends to accumulate and my head sweats a lot. I have tried washing it with antibacterial soap, but that only helps a little. I afraid of spraying Febreeze or other chemicals on the helmet’s interior because I don’t know if they would effect the safety of the helmet. And now my wife says that my head is beginning to smell as bad as my helmet. Before I either have to get a new helmet or sleep in the garage, is there anything I can do to get the smell out? Kevin Dalton Calgary, Alberta
I’m a woman with very small wrists and have had great difficulty locating an altimeter watch that I can actually wear. Are there any smaller altimeter watches out there designed for women? Tally Rockford, Illinois
What sort of cookware will I need on two- to four-night backpacking trips in the Appalachian backcountry? Kenny Birmingh, Alabama
Is Gortex XCR a form of Activent that has been taped and se-sealed? Activent is a great product, totally windproof and highly water resistant, but wouldn’t this have been waterproof too if it had been se-sealed? Herb Morganville, New Jersey
Dear Gear Guru, Here is a question that no one ever talks about: the dreaded first aid kit. Of course, you’d never get injured, but in case you did, what do you recommend packing in the way of first aid for weeklong wilderness trips? I have looked around and can’t find a pre-packed kit that seems very comprehensive. Andrew L. Salt Lake City, Utah
I was out hiking in the west Texas desert a few months ago during a delicious spate of rainy summer weather. I was wearing a light pair of boots and found myself slipping and sliding all over the wet rocks. Crawling on my hands and knees over boulders is not my idea of fun, and it really ruined my week. I’m now in the market for a pair of light “day hikers,” with soles that’ll give me some traction on wet rock. Any suggestions? Paul San Antonio, Texas
I’m looking for a pair of waterproof, breathable pants that will keep me dry and also withstand the rigors of off-trail bushwhacking (K-9 search-and-rescue work). The cheaper the better, ideally less than $200. Durability is key and full-side zips would be nice. I’ll be using gaiters, so built-in gaiters on the pants aren’t necessary. Thanks for your insight, Gear Guru. Eric Portland, Oregon
Please help! I recently bought a new lead climbing rope (Bluewater Accelerator 60m 10.5 mm) and I did what I have always done: mark the middle with a Sharpie marker. Then the other day someone told me this significantly weakens the rope at the marking, enough in fact to cause the rope to break in a relatively mild fall. I wasn’t sure about this, because I thought it only marked the sheath and didn’t affect the core of the rope. Should I throw the rope out? I would rather not due to the expense, but I will if it’s gonna cost me my life! Mike Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
I want to buy new liner socks to use for backpacking. Since my last purchase of these, many more choices of fabric type and combinations have become available. What have you found to be the best buy? Dennis Bender Hilton, New York
So, after a year or so of ultra-light backpacking, my wife and I are starting to bring my son along, which means I need a huge pack to haul accommodation for three. Should I splurge and get a high-volume expedition pack like a Bora 95 or Gregory Denali, or are one of the new generation of external-fre packs (like Kelty’s 50th anniversary edition) better value? We’ll be mostly on trail, but I’m not sure if the lower-priced packs will provide enough comfort over a few days. Robert Granada Hills, California
I’m curious to hear your opinion about Osprey’s line of Ariel backpacks, particularly their Ariel 75. I can’t seem to find any reviews on anything other than the Aether 60. I loved the Osprey Luna 75, but I’m looking for something slightly lighter. My main concern is whether the suspension of this smaller pack will hold up under a 40-pound load. I don’t want to sacrifice good load transfer and stability simply for the sake of a lighter pack. Erica Boston, Massachusetts
I’m planning an Appalachian Trail through-hike for 2003. I’ve poured over all the gear columns/ratings/etc. And with a bit of your wisdom have narrowed down most of my gear. But…I’m thinking of going stoveless. What’s your opinion and do you know any recipes for easy/light/nutritious stoveless meals? Tim Moose, Wyoming
Hailing from sunny California, this is my first year in college in Boston. Here’s my situation: New England weather is windy, chilly, and often wet. I need a jacket that will get me through the winter but also look good around town. However, once I buy this jacket, I’ll still need money to eat. What can you recommend that won’t break the bank, i.e. as close to $100 as possible? Kyle Boston, Massachusetts
All-Knowing Gear Guy, I’m looking at buying a Marmot Pinnacle down sleeping bag and can’t decide whether I should get it with the regular shell or with Dryloft. I enjoy sleeping outside (on a pad) when I can, and concerned about dpness if I were to do this over many days. Yet if I were to use it (unzipped!) in humid environments, I’m afraid a Dryloft shell might not provide enough breathability for the bag to stay dry and mildew-free over time. Any suggestions? Zach Isaacs Glendale, California
I bought a Marmot Massif XL sleeping bag because I’m somewhat claustrophobic and wanted a high-quality down bag with ple room. While it indeed has plenty of room, the extra space makes it far less heat efficient—it’s rated at ten degrees and I’m barely warm enough at 25 degrees. What kind of liner would you recommend to add warmth for colder nights but not defeat the purpose of getting a larger bag? Neal Pratt Portland, Maine
Oh, Gauis Gear Guy (bet you haven’t heard THAT one before), I have a multitudinous problem. I wrote to you years ago about detached toenails, and you delivered the goods shiningly. My problem is still with my feet. The last two trips I’ve taken in my Zberlans boots have left me hobbled, with huge Susan B. Anthony pus-bubbles on either heel. I went to a clinic and was informed that my feet were “problematic” and that I was wearing the wrong boot. My right foot while standing is about a quarter inch longer than the left. My feet are wide and low profile, with anemic arches and narrow heels. Oh yeah, I also have weak ankles. Now I have June trips planned in the Grand Canyon and the Sierra. I’ve bought the Superfeet shrink-to-your-dogs prosthetic insoles, but I need a new boot. What do you recommend, outside of foot-transplant surgery? Thanks, Thomas Perkins Alexandria, Virginia
Can you recommend a lightweight digital camera for backpacking? I was ready to purchase the Yashica T4 that you talk so highly of, but digital cameras are so compact and I don’t need to carry all that film. Also do they make water-resistant digital cameras? Dan Hearty, Missouri
What’s the difference between a bivy bag and a tent? Which would be a better investment (I’m thinking of room for two people here)? Noel Muscutt Louisville, Kentucky
I’ve read that good husbands buy gifts for their wives after the birth of a child. So, being a good husband, I’m thinking of getting a cyclocross bike—for me. Hear me out. Because of the recent arrival of our beautiful little miracle, I’m not going to mountain bike (that’s one bike) or commute (that’s another) as much as I used to, and probably won’t be doing a whole lot of road riding (a third bike I was hoping to get), either. Plus, the missus would like me to pare down my belongings to make room for strollers and such. So, can I get by with one cross bike (sub $1,000)? I’m sure my wife will thank you. Michael Minneapolis, Minnesota
What do you think of the new mohair socks on the market? Are they as warm as wool socks? Are they itchy?” Alexander Do Toronto, Ontario
I’m completely new to backpacking and worried about buying gear from just anywhere. Here in Canada, MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) supposedly carries nothing short of the best quality equipment and the thought of going to just one place for all your needs sound really nice. Would you, with all your experience, trust MEC for all your needs as much as everyone here seems to? Or do I have to shop around for everything separately, looking for reviews and such, and then spend tons of money in U.S. stores due to the crappy exchange rate? Your answer is greatly appreciated. Tatiana Calgary, Alberta
I enjoy weekend hiking and overseas travel. At the se time, I want to look good when I dress casually. Because of this, I spent $400 on a Patagonia XCR Gore-Tex jacket when Patagonia opened its first branch in Hong Kong last year. It’s a very expensive outfit, but I do like it. However, after reading all your gear recommendations, it seems I could have bought something similar or even better. So, I’m now thinking of buying a fleece jacket for cold weather. Do you have any cheaper recommendations? June Hong Kong
I’m going hiking on the West Coast Trail, and my boots have Vibr soles that are very slick on wood when it’s wet. Since it constantly rains on the West Coast and I’ll be traversing many wooden bridges and ladders, I was wondering if you could suggest a boot with a sole better suited to wet conditions. Dan Ottawa, Ontario
Hey Gear God, Help me find the perfect scrambling boots! I love my old Asolo backpacking boots. They never needed breaking in, and after years of conforming to my feet, they’re about as close as you can get to slippers and still be boots. Alas, they don’t edge worth a darn. I need a 3/4- or full-shank boot that is made for wide, high-volume feet and is crampon compatible for alpine scrambling. I bought a pair of Solomon Super Mountain 9s online because they were a great price. Dumb move! They perform great and are the right length but they squeeze my feet like sausage casings. Is there a happy medium between my slipper Asolos and those sadistic Solomons? Julie Busse Seattle, Washington
I just bought a pair of glacier glasses on eBay that don't have a brand, but they do have side shields and the lenses seem quite dark. However, I don't know how powerful they are at blocking ultraviolet light. Would these be suitable for a trip to Mexico's Pico de Orizaba? Eric Plymouth, New Hampshire
I a member of Vail Mountain Rescue Group and have been nominated the “gear girl” in charge of finding a good windstopper fleece jacket for our te. We are looking for something comfortable, flexible, and warm, but that’s not too bulky and stands up well in the cold (one of our members complained that the Lowe Alpine version gets very stiff in the cold). Any suggestions? Leslie Vail, Colorado
What’s the deal with waxed cotton raincoats manufactured by Barbour in England and Filson in Seattle? Although they don’t breath well and would not work for high output activities, I have run into users who rave about their water repellency and durability, tempting me to buy one for around town and short hikes carrying minimal loads. Steve Albany, New York
I looking for an internal fre pack that will handle solo weekends, and group week-long outings, but most importantly, comfortably fit my petite (105-pound), feminine fre without breaking the bank. What do you suggest? y Walsh Tallahassee, Florida
I’m looking for a recommendation for hydration packs as Christmas gifts for my brother and his girlfriend. They live in the Bay Area and do a lot of outdoor activities such as trail biking, hiking, and climbing. Would you recommend the se model for each of them, or different ones? Verna Washington, DC
I’m looking for an ultra-lightweight three- to four-season ski touring tent for spring in the Sierra, though it’d be nice if it could handle some winter weather also. I HATE carrying a lot of weight ski touring. Any ideas? David Hunn Long Beach, California
My summer bag is an Integral Designs Andromeda Strain (40-degree, Primaloft); my three-season sack is the North Face Cat’s Meow (20-degree, Polarguard Delta). Both are sweet bags. My question: can these bags be combined (summer bag inside three-season bag) to make a winter bag? Will I gain much, or will the inside bag be unable to loft up and therefore not provide much additional benefit? Thanks! Bill Stell Charlottesville, Virginia
Do I need to replace my 1994 Oakley sunglasses? I wondering if the 100 percent UV protection in the lenses breaks down over the years with repeated exposure to the sun. If so, are glass and plastic lenses equally vulnerable? Joel Las Cruces, New Mexico
I have an opportunity to buy a Tempest 23 tent from The North Face (retail $675) for $400. It is brand new and it looks bombproof. I have asked all over and searched the net for info about this tent and have come up empty. I heading to Mount Shasta in June and would like a good mountaineering tent. On the other hand, I also need to upgrade my old duct-taped, three-season tent. I not sure what to do, buy this single-wall tent and buy a good three-season, or look into a convertible tent. I don’t want to miss out on a good deal. Brian Holt Detroit, Michigan
I planning a trip to Belize this spring. I own a MSR Superfly and have already used it many times. Can I bring the stove—minus fuel canisters—on an airplane? I really don’t want to purchase another stove. Brett Skraban Chicago, Illinois
What’s a good trail-running/adventure-racing shoe for an over-pronating runner like myself? I need to buy a new pair of shoes quickly! Rob Indianapolis, Indiana
In September I’m headed to a lodge in the stey Amazonian rainforest, so I’m looking for a poncho or raincoat that will be light, packable, waterproof, breathable, and cool. But everything I’ve looked at so far has liners and seems more suited for warmth in mountain winds than for a humid rainforest. What’s my best bet to stay both dry and cool? Patrick Jonesboro, Arkansas
I recently saw The Seat from ERGO, LLC advertised. The makers claim that this seat does away with numb-butt syndrome and sexual dysfunction (real important). Can you confirm or deny these assertions? Dennis Hilton, New York
How can Limmer and other high-quality boot manufacturers send your boots to you sight-unseen, without ever seeing your “dogs,” let alone sizing them? Jim Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
What’s the best handheld altimeter for mountaineering? I have looked at the Suunto, Brunton, and Thommen models, but not sure which has the best features for high-altitude Alaskan climbing? Ron Toronto, Ontario
How do I get the nasty smell out of my old footwear? I like to buy quality boots and shoes that will last a long time, but inevitably, long before they are worn out, they start to stink (my feet tend to sweat a lot). Any suggestions as to removing the offensive odors and bringing these old friends back into service? Bill Charlottesville, Virginia
After straining our eyes for years (and believe me, the years have gotten to me) my wife and I have decided to consider a spotting scope for our field trips. I new to scopes and confused at to the benefits between a straight versus angled lens and as to what optical power is most beneficial for nature viewing. Can you recommend a few bombproof spotting scopes (we take our fair share of spills and falls on the trail) with quality optics to view and appreciate nature with. Mr. Magoo Galveston, Texas
Are soft shells for real, and can they adequately replace a 300-weight fleece as an insulating layer for mountaineering? Would they give me the benefits of a windproof, waterproof, and breathable layer before the hard shell is donned when the weather gets really nasty? Matt San Ron, California
I own a 1994 Isuzu Trooper SE that has a moon roof and a factory luggage rack. I looking for a roof rack system to carry bikes. I’ve looked through Thule and Yakima online, and wondered if I could use the existing luggage tracks and buy towers to go with them and then the bars. I really want something for the roof, not a tire or hitch mount. WD Ray Columbia, South Carolina
As a frequent trail runner, I looking for a backpack designed with running in mind. I would like something with ple storage for additional layers and supplies, certainly larger than a lumbar pack. Any suggestions? Connor Ann Arbor, Michigan
I’ve been looking to buy a (first) sea kayak. I’ve tried a number of different models and types and have come up with a tentative short list: the Synergy by Northwest Kayaks, the Corona by Perception, the Sirocco by Current Designs, and the Cortez by Dagger. (I haven’t tried the last one out yet but I’ve included it because of Outside’s recommendation.) If you were a six-foot, 190-pond guy (and maybe you are) what boat would you consider to be the best value? I’m only considering plastic boats but I want to get the skinny on workmanship, materials, and design. Are these four companies equally regarded? Are the boats? Brian McCarthy Glendale, California
I have a new Dana Design Shortbed pack, but after packin’ for a long ten miles, I noticed that my hands and fingers were swollen. Was this just a bad pack fit, or was it too much weight for the long haul? Ray Kuna, Idaho
Can you recommend a sturdy sack that will protect a backpack (with tent and sleeping pad strapped on) when it’s checked as luggage on an airplane? David Oakland, California
I looking for a cold weather running jacket that is extremely breathable and wind-resistant (waterproofness is not a necessity). I’ve been using Lowe Alpine’s Adrenaline jacket, which is great for hiking but stes up quickly when I running hard. I usually buy The North Face and Patagonia products but I not sure that they make the best stuff for running. What do you think? Nick Kogevinas Washington, D.C.
I looking to buy a new tent for canoe tripping in the barrens of Canada’s Northwest Territories. I expect lots of wind and rain so an expedition tent would be best. But what is an “expedition tent” anyway? Robert Guelph, Ontario
I camp in the desert in the winter when temperatures can range from zero to 90. My main concern is the wind, which can be downright chilling but also kick up sand. I'm looking for a tent that will shed wind and also not flap like the sail of a 12-meter yacht when it tacks. I'd really like to sleep without the noise. Can you suggest a suitable three- or two-person tent, preferably something on the roomier side? Chip Cairo, Egypt
I'm planning a mountaineering trip to Bolivia in June. I have a pair of Koflach Degre boots, which have been fine on Mount Hood and when winter climbing in New Hampshire. Will these be OK for climbing Bolivia's 19,000-foot peaks? Do I need Alveolite liners? Brian Augusta, Maine
I’m planning a three- to seven-day mountain biking trip this summer. If I’ll be riding up to six hours per day, what tent, sleeping bag, and backpack will I need? As always, your advice is very welcome. Mark New York City
What’s the best way to clean my hands in the wilderness prior to handling contact lenses? My waterless hand sanitizer warns against eye contact and I don’t want to use stream water.
I have a narrow foot (11B), and find most hiking boots are D-width or wider. Any suggestions for boots that come in narrow widths? John W. Stafurik Los Alos, New Mexico
Thanks to a little bicycling accident last fall—which resulted in four brain surgeries—I’ve decided to take up hiking. I’m considering a staff or trekking poles to help with my balance. I believe trekking poles would be overkill for me, and that a single staff would be fine, particularly since I’ll be sticking pretty closely to trails. Do you agree, and if so, which staffs would you recommend? Roley Davidson, North Carolina
We have a cabin tent that leaks, mostly from the bottom corners and stake-out loops. I have sprayed the tent and sealed the ses, but it still leaks. Is there anything else I can do besides trash this store-brand tent? As for new tents, the Eureka Getaway 9 or Coleman Sasquatch both fit size-wise; I don’t want to spend over $250, though. Lastly, why do air mattresses always deflate while you’re sleeping? Do they have a low life expectancy? Sarah Granite City, Illinois
I have one of the new MSR MiniWorks EX water filters, my first, and it works great. One of my buddies tells me to filter water from a still pool, but another says to filter from fast-moving water: Do you think it matters much? Personally, I just try and go for the clearest water I can find. Mike Eldorado, Illinois
What sort of cookware will I need on two- to four-night backpacking trips in the Appalachian backcountry? Kenny Birmingham, Alabama
In the piece on Sno-Seal you said, “I’m confident it’s the only product to appear in both the 1943 and the 2003 REI catalogs.” I wonder if that’s true. I think it would be really cool to see a listing of the items that were in the first REI catalog that are still in the current one, and the price differences. Don Denver, Colorado
After a few cold nights at high elevation I interested in investing in a 0-degree bag. My research has directed me towards a down bag, possibly with a Pertex or DryLoft shell. I have been considering the Feathered Friends Tern, but know little about the company. I’ve also looked into the Mountain Hardware Universe SL, but don’t know the effectiveness of the shell. I would greatly appreciate your input. Carissa Colorado Springs, Colorado
One quick question—how do I pick the right length for an ice axe? Thanks, you’re the man! Paul Anacortes, Washington
What’s a good bike light to buy for my boyfriend so that he can mountain bike at night? Something inexpensive but good quality, which will probably get used once or twice a week in good weather. Julie Boulder, Colorado
Please help! I recently bought a new lead climbing rope (Bluewater Accelerator 60m 10.5 mm) and I did what I have always done: mark the middle with a Sharpie marker. Then the other day someone told me this significantly weakens the rope at the marking, enough in fact to cause the rope to break in a relatively mild fall. I wasn’t sure about this, because I thought it only marked the sheath and didn’t affect the core of the rope. Should I throw the rope out? I would rather not due to the expense, but I will if it’s gonna cost me my life! Mike Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Hello Mr. Gear, I’m going to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge late August/early September this year. Since the place is beyond the Arctic Circle and the timing is going to be late, I wonder if my insulating jacket—a Wild Things primaloft sweater—is going to be warm enough. Also, what’s the difference between a three- and a four-season tent? We’re trying to decide on a tent to take along, but I wonder if I should take a four-season tent. Last year we took a Sierra Designs Meteor Light to Alaska, but it really didn’t perform under the gusty conditions. And this year, we’re expecting very very windy conditions as well. Is there any three-season tents that can live up to gale force winds, or I’m just stuck w/ the dead weight of a four-season tent? Blanche Ingr Brisbane, Australia
I’m looking for an internal-fre backpack in the 4500- to 5500-cubic-inch range for less than $250. I need one with a torso length of at least 23 inches. Do you have any suggestions? Dennis McAllister Cleveland, Oklahoma
Not really a gear question, but can you tell me about all the pre-packaged trail food on the market? What have you tried? What’s the best? Also, do you know of any Web sites with a good selection of trail recipes, especially vegetarian? Melissa Greenwood, Delaware
I’m gearing up for an ascent of Denali in May 2002. Could you advise for clothing and size of compression sacks appropriate to bring? I weigh 114 pounds so I want to minimize what I have to pack. Jeanne Stawiecki Charlton, Massachusetts
Can you recommend a good cross-country skiing package that’s suitable for both groomed trails and backcountry use? John Duluth, Minnesota
I'm looking for a sleeping bag to use mainly for summer backpacking in the Northeast, something that's less than two pounds with a temperature rating down to about 30 degrees; I'd also really like a full-length zipper, so I can unzip the bag on those warmer nights. I've always enjoyed your gear wisdom, so I'm looking forward to any suggestions you might have. Kevin Boston, Massachusetts
I know you’re not supposed to store your sleeping bag stuffed, but I need something to contain it in while I not using it. Will a garbage bag work, or should I buy some kind of mesh bag for it? Sarah New Canaan, Connecticut
Much of my clothing made with high-performance fabrics, such as Coolmax, states that you should not use fabric softeners or dryer sheets. Why is that? If they are accidentally dried with a dryer sheet will they return to normal after the next wash or are the performance aspects ruined? Joe Helm Canal Winchester, Ohio
What types of materials in gaiters are best for snake protection? I know of Teflon, but is a heavy canvas also suitable? (If you’re wondering how my question has any relation to where I’m from, it doesn’t. I’m moving to Australia.)—Karen, Vancouver, British Columbia
Are there any high quality heated mittens on the market? My girlfriend suffers from Raynuad’s and needs the warmest possible solution for skiing. You help is greatly appreciated! Chris Arlington, Massachusetts
Is there a proper way to save your tent, short of taking it down, in winds over 50 mph? I had one fail, and I wonder if it was because I kept tightening the guylines, and maybe even over-tightened them. Joe Midland, Texas
Are their any compressible synthetic sleeping bags that won’t leave you shivering and suffering? I mildly allergic to down, and I often carry a ton of work-related gear, so the space I have in my pack for a sleeping bag is limited. What are the best, most-compressible bags in the 15- and 0-degree ranges? Ben Higginboth Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
As the years go by, my wife and I find ourselves looking for lighter and lighter hiking and camping equipment, especially in terms of our shelter which takes up a significant portion of our pack weight. What's the word on Henry Shires' Tarptents? Their Squall weighs only 24.5 ounces and offers two people a roomy 44 square feet of space. Could this be the lightweight remedy to aching backs and our three-season shelter needs? V. Tran Galveston, Texas
I’ve finally decided to buy a GPS unit. My problem? I don’t know which one. Your last review that I can find is three years old, but obviously a lot has changed since then. Rick Lebanon, Tennessee
I’m so confused by the different possibilities and terminology when it comes to rain jackets for biking. I bought a “waterproof” one, but it wasn’t and I got soaked. I bought another and sweated so much that I wished I had the previous jacket. What’s a good lightweight jacket for cycling that will keep me dry in moderate rainstorms? Mary Itasca, Illinois
As a longtime reader of your column, you have helped me in the past. Now I need your advice again. I’m considering purchasing a canoe for family camping trips, something stable for small lakes and smooth rivers, nothing too extreme. What do you suggest in terms of size, length, and weight? Also, what type of carrying rack will I need for a shell-equipped Toyota pickup? John Springville, Utah
Is it necessary to waterproof Gore-Tex boots with something like Nikwax’s Aqueous Wax Waterproofing? Mike St. Paul, Minnesota
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