It’s been March for ten months and that means it’s the holidays. All the big newspapers are publishing their gift guides. More and more these have entire sections devoted to hiking and camping and the outdoors. Which is great! But most of the gear they recommend is… not great. Not inspired. Not cutting-edge. Not going to make the hiker in your life smile. And actually most of it is just downright shit and if you bought it for me I would leave it in a hikerbox.
So with that in mind, here’s my 2020 gift guide. For the thruhiker. For the outdoorlord. For those who want to buy a dirtbag something beautiful.
The overwhelming concern for backpack is comfort. This means you need to try before you buy. If you want to get someone a pack, give them an IOU. Full stop.
Before you do this, realize that packs rarely cost under a hundred dollars, and can cost three or four hundred. Fairly warned.
EDIT: Since people asked, I use two packs. For short trips – or warm-weather thrus that have very regular resupplies – I use an MLD Exodus. For heavy thrus I use an HMG “Porter” 5400 – but one that I had heavily customized. Living up the road from the Hyperlite factory hath its privileges :-)
People can get so damn weird about their tents. (Not me. I fucking hate my tent. Keeps things simple!)
As a result, it’s really hard for me to recommend buying a tent for someone else. Much better to get them an IOU.
Tents range in price from under a hundred bucks, up to a few thousand. Caveats abound.
But if you absolutely must; here are my recommended gift-tents:
ULTRALIGHT THRUHIKING TENT: ZPacks “Duplex”. A far better tent than my Solplex. Far lighter than almost anything else on the market. Durable. Easy to set and strike. And now it comes in six different colors, which, jelly.jpg
ULTRALIGHT BIVY: Tarp Tent “Protrail”. One third the price of the Duplex… but also about one third the size.
LIGHT BACKPACKING TENT: Big Agnes “Copper Spur” HV UL2 EX (or any number of comparable Big Aggies, Nemos, Six Moons, Tarp Tents, Marmots, MSRs, ad infinitum, God there are a lot of ruddy tents)
BOMBPROOF WINTER TENT: Hilleberg “Saivo”. There are many imitators, all of which I am sure are wonderful – but the Hilleberg is the sangreal. The only other winter tent I’d recommend is the Black Diamond “FitzRoy”, which is kind of like if a tank was harder to set up – but also harder to kill.
This is mostly a matter of personal comfort and so the best thing you can do is try them out in-store. However, for the vast majority of hikers, the answer is going to be Therm-A-Rest NeoAir.
For thruhiking and backpacking, get the Crinklemaster 3000 – I really thing that the UberLite is just not durable enough, let alone warm, let alone a good night’s sleep. For winter camping, of for those who really need their comf, get the Toasty Boi. For those who cowboy – especially in cactus-heavy environments – I recommend using an Egg Carton under your inflatable pad. (Now in six colors. This is a good trend, let’s keep it going.)
Buying a sleeping bag for someone else is easy. So long as you know their size (height, width), bag style preferences (mummy, quilt, hybrid, sleep suit), warmth requirements (what temperatures they’ll be sleeping in, how warm or cold they sleep, the warmth of the rest of their sleep system), material requirements (down or synth; thickness of silnyl); and don’t forget the color. Or colors. Oh God.
The best gift you can give is a custom order. I swear by Enlightened Equipment. I own three EE bags. Not the least because they also sell puffy accessories – hat, mittens, booties, and even jacket and leggings – which you can then color-match. If that is your thing. Jesus knows it’s mine.
Also you can stack EE quilts, which is, indeed, the bestest.
It’s mostly about fit. My Ghost Whisperer is cut like a zentai, whereas my Patagonia UL is cut like a dump truck. Neither is what you’d call ideal. Try b4 u buy.
After that comes warmth, which is mostly a matter of how much you’re willing to spend, balanced by how much you’re willing to sacrifice of weight or durability. Or geese-murder.
The best thing you can do is get someone an IOU. If they want down, you might suggest they order a Feathered Friends “Helios”; if they want synth you can recommend the Enlightened Equipment “Torrid”. Otherwise, go to REI and wile out.
I can’t tell you how much I recommend puffy pants. As with puffy jackets, the choice is mostly about fit and fill. Some are warmer than others. Some are lighter. Some are synthetic and thus water-resistant (and poultrycide-free). Some are more MC Hammer looking than others. And the fits vary to a preposterous degree – and one brand’s puffy jacket might fit you, while the same brand’s puffy pants do not.
If you want to do a custom order, Feathered Friends (down) and Enlightened Equipment (synthetic) both do great work. I myself am almost annoyingly happy with my Mountain Hardware “Ghost Whisperer” Pants.
Honorable mention goes to the Skhoop. I like can’t imagine that it keeps you very warm – but as an occasional kilt-hiker, A for effort!
Some hikers swear by synthetics. They’re tough, they dry fast, and you can wash them any which way without a worry. But they smell. Especially when it’s 100 degrees, 100% humidity, and 100 years since your last shower – let alone laundry. That’s why I only hike in merino.
There are a number of great merinomakers. Icebreaker, SmartWool, Minus33, Ex Officio, The Wooly Clothing Company, Ibex, Woolx, Meriwool, Merino365, as well as store brands from the likes of Arc’teryx and Pradagonia and REI.
Products range from the ultra thin (120 grams per square meter, such as Icebreaker’s magical “featherweight”) to the ultra heavy (420g/m3, such as Minus33’s insane “Expediton”) – though most products range from 150 to 250 weight merino.
As you can see from the Minus33 line, merino products include tops and bottoms – from base layer to outer layer – as well as all manner of accessories. And as you can see over at Icebreaker, products range from functional minimalism to très chic.
So while my answer of “what to buy” is “anything from any of these guys, really” – here are a few standouts, in my ‘umble.
HOT WEATHER HIKING SHIRT: Icebreaker 120 polo (hike in a collared shirt and get +20 to hitchhiking. But actually tho.)
COOL WEATHER HIKING SHIRT: SmartWool 150 Hoodie (the hood is just incredibly wonderful. The new model has a hip pocket!)
COOL WEATHER HIKING LEGGINGS: Icebreaker Zone (sweat control!)
GLOVE LINERS: New Zealand brushtail possum (If you want to risk going no-brand, Amazon has like 10 color options)
BALACLAVA: Minus33 (the colors!) – or in lighter or heavier weights
FOR WEARING AROUND CAMP: Anything by the comically comfy Glowing Sky
This is another Intensely Personal Decision that you probably shouldn’t mess with beyond an IOU. Some hikers swear by Injinjis, some by light little PhDs. I exclusively wear DarnTough socks. But when it’s hot I’ll wear li’l Hiker Quarters; when it’s cool I’ll wear the all-around marvelous Bill Jarvises; and sometimes (usually when it’s the end of a thruhike and my feet are like bruised canteloupes and the end of my legs) I’ll hike in thicc ass Mountaineering Socks – which basically no other hiker does, but dammit, I swear by it, they are like clouds for feet.
I will also shout out that DarnTough makes everything else, from no-shows to dress socks to thigh-highs – all backed by their lifetime guarantee.
Most thruhikers carry a head torch. Some of us even never take them off ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Petzl and Black Diamond are the best; everything else is the rest. They each have extensive lineups. You’ll need to know the hiker’s specific needs in order to narrow it down.
EDIT: Someone on reddit shoutouted the Nitecore lineup. That NU35 is the intriguing to this here dirtbag. Outstanding.
For car- or base-camping, you might consider something a bit more heavy-duty. I swear by ThruNite, especially their marvelous rechargable models – The T2 for EDC, TN42 as a thrower, and TN50 when you want to blind an astronaut. And feel free to consult r/flashlight if you want one of the internet’s great rabbit-holes.
Hikers are rarely allergic to battery packs. I own half a dozen, from a wee 5000mAh to a Bond Villain-y 26800. But the new kid on the block has integrated wireless charging, which is great for when your phone gets too wet to take a charge – so like, everywhere constantly forever.
Depending on their plug-shape requirements, the ultralighter in your life might love a teensy tiny USB cable – I think they go down to 3″.
I like wired headphones, because they’re one less thing needs charging. RHA MA390s have great audio quality, strong cables, and very strong jack connectors (which is where cheap headphones usually break mid-hike). I can’t speak to wired headphones, or Apple Crap.
Every hiker needs a PLB. (All my friends from the 4600 miles before I got a PLB just rolled their eyes so hard that their skulls popped open.)
For my money, the only answer is the Garmin InReach Mini. But it requires a monthly subscription fee, so factor that into your gift-giving. Some hikers will not pay the $15 a month to keep it active, when that money could get them 75 packets of Top Ramen instead.
The Mini also has a Dive Case, for those who are planning on going under water (or are on a “hiking trail” that has a canoeing section. Cough cough Whanganui.)
Some hikers don’t carry a knife at all. Some ultralighters carry a single razor-blade. And many women carry neck knives – for more on that, listen to the Queen.
Some carry tiny folders like Samior, Spyderco Bug, Opinel No. 2. Some carry minimalist stillettos like the Deejo or The Elko. Some carry outdoor-specific knives like an Opinel Survival. Some carry modest EDC knives like the Benchmade Mini Bugout. Or check out r/knives. Which on a good day is only 90% Bugouts. 95% tops.
Backpackers often carry multitools, from the mini Style (with scissors or pliars), to the modest Skeletool, to the more zaftig Signal. And people car-camping might well want something egregious, such as a Fox kukri, Gränsfors Hand Hatchet, or Helko Werk “Vario 2000” Splitting Axe.
For the gram-conscious but not full-on Weight Weenie, I’d probably recommend a Spyderco Ladybug 3 (or take the weight hit for a ClipBack). Any of their “Salt” line will use H1 steel which is phenomenally corrosion-resistant. The rains of Tongariro taught me the difficulties of high-carbon steel in a thruhike. (I’d also ask them to make me one in Not Yellow, but, y’know, HYOH.)
I would strongly advise against fancy-pants steels which lack corrosion resistance, or Swiss Army style knives with have just so many places for dirt and grime to take up residence.
Some thruhikers carry journals. Get them a small dry bag to go along with it, and you’ll be a hero.
It is impossible to have too many dry bags. Silnyl, such as Sea To Summit or Osprey, are fine. Dyneema are double fine. Specialized DCF boxes, like Hyperlite’s Crampon Bag and Ice Screw Case, are not useful until they are. Dyneema luggage is terrifically pointless.
For food storage – get a Bearikade. I use the biggest, but most people very much would not.
Most thruhiker will use a breathtakingly small amount of cutlery to consume a horrifyingly large quantity of food. I’m no exception. Any thin titanium spoon will do. Some people like sporks, some hate ’em; I’m the latter. I also swear by Titanium Chopsticks – variations abound. Not only are they really useful for ramen and noodles, but they’re great dual-use gear. My chopsticks spent the last week of the Arizona Trail as tentstakes. Hikertrash for life.
There are some really beautiful pieces of light backpacking kitchenwear. Keith, Vargo, and Fire-Maple are fine brands; Snow Peak is luxy as all hell. Examples include the Titanium Sake Bottle and Cups, Titanium Coffee Set, Tea Set, Hip Flask – and new and more, seemingly every day.
As far as stoves go, the ultralighter’s answer is always the Ubens BRS Ti – about twelve bucks on Amazon. The ultraheavy answer is an MSR expedition stove, such as the WhisperLite Universal (burns canisters fuel and most liquid fuels) or XGK EX (burns everyfuel but does not accept cans). Add a fuel bottle or two and a cleaning kit. And maybe a windscreen. Or a cooking bag.
When I’m car-camping, nothing says luxury like keeping things hot or cold. For this, Zojirushi is king.
I can drone quite on about traditional wristwatches for hiking. Suffice it to say that most watches will suffice, from an SNE039 to an SPB121 to an SBDB018. I recommend 100m of water resistance, a sapphire crystal, and a NATO strap – so basically 100% of r/watches.
Beyond that: Titanium is super light. Bronze is super heavy but will get an incredible patina during a thru. If you’ve got the Infinite Money cheat, ceramic is wonderful in extreme temperatures. I use my dive bezel all the time when cooking on a camp-stove – though a chronograph would work even better. A GMT hand would be very useful. An altimeter would be so much fun to play with. “Compass bezels” are the least useful complication in watchmaking – and boy is that saying something.
FOOD DROP FOOD
If you want to buy food for a hiker, or send food to a thruhiker mid-trail – ask them what they want. For real tho.
My personal favorite I’m-not-the-one-paying-for-it trailsnacks are:
And I would never suggest that thruhikers like edibles, nosiree.
Have a hiker in your life? Ask them what they want.
Maybe send them this list – for their inspiration.
The goal is to enjoy the outdoors. Anything that lets you enjoy the outdoors the more, is a good thing – and anything that reminds you of the outdoors when you’re living your day-to-day, is just plain wonderful.
Either that or get them a pack animal to slackpack them. Nothing says “I love you” like a Bactrian camel.