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Peak Gear Awards: The gear that changed our time outdoors in 2014

Peak Gear Awards

There’s nowhere like the Blue Ridge region for gear testing — heat, rain, mud, tough rooted trails, steep winding roads, and rugged peaks dominate the landscape. We asked top outdoor adventurers who regularly use and abuse gear for their top picks—gear that changed their lives, or at least their perspective. Every piece of gear here has been used hard and put to the test by hardcore athletes and adventurers, including Chris Gragtmans, Sue Haywood, Will Harlan, Jess Daddio, Jedd Ferris, Clay Abney, Cameron Martindell, Doug Schnitzpahn, Travis Hall, and Jennifer Pharr Davis. Meet the winners.

1. Osprey Exos 58

Osprey set a new standard for ultra-lightweight packs in 2008 with the introduction of the Exos Series, which became a standard on the Appalachian Trail and with ultralight enthusiasts still in search of comfort; and the company redesigned the series this year integrating Osprey’s Superlight AirSpeed suspension system and new Exoform harness and hipbelt. It is a minimalist pack still packed with features that make long trips enjoyable.

Why It Won. Less than three pounds in a 60-liter pack for under $250, with 40 years of innovation and quality standing behind it. When you’ve tried an Osprey pack, whether for climbing, backpacking, or biking, it’s hard to go back to anything else.

Where We Took It. Sections of the AT and connector trails through Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia; the mountains around Asheville, N.C.; and many peaks and trails west of the Mississippi as well.

2. SPY Angler and Happy Lens Technology

$99.95 – $149.95;
This year SPY came out with a lens that is not only extremely stylish, but also makes you happier, the company says. SPY’s color and contrast enhancing Happy Lens is the first sunglass lens technology designed to allow in the sun’s “good” rays (long-wave blue light) that studies suggest “create an uplift in mood and alertness,” while still blocking the sun’s “bad” rays (short-wave blue light and UV rays).

Why It Won. Quality, style, functionality, technologically advanced…what else is there?

Where We Took It. Daily wear from Virginia, to the UK, to Colorado, and back. Lots of stand-up paddle boarding down the Rivanna River outside Blue Ridge Outdoors headquarters. We even sent a pair to the winner of our Instagram photo contest, so who knows where all they’ve been!

3. Dagger Mamba 8.1

The new Dagger Kayaks Mamba Creeker edition is beefier and fully redesigned with more volume since its introduction in 2012. This trusted river-running and performance creeking kayak has well-known predictability while pushing its capabilities to tackle technical creeks and big water, now with safety improvements such as a repositioned bow grab handle, an additional grab handle near the cockpit, and a molded-in stern wall brace.

Why It Won. We love the fact that the Mamba is simultaneously very sporty and very stable. It has a large planing hull that lends fantastic primary stability and bow rocker that goes up and over anything in its way. The Mamba snaps in and out of eddies because of its unique edges. Many testers consider the Mamba a one-boat quiver, and that’s saying something.

Where We Took It. Rivers throughout North America. The 2014 Whitewater Grand Prix in Quebec; two seasons at the North Fork Championships in Idaho; one of the best steep creeks in the world, the California’s Upper Cherry Creek; and of course the Southeast classic runs.

4. Goal Zero Sherpa 100

“Knowing that I would be spending four days with three teenagers backpacking in the Andes, I knew I needed a power source for their iPods and iPhones, which served as their primary cameras for the trip. The Goal Zero Sherpa 100 Power Pack was our group’s solution,” explained one expert tester. “For three months before the trip I took it with me daily on my trail runs and hikes to ensure that my iPhone with my fitness and tracking apps remained charged. With a single charge, the Sherpa charged my smartphone multiple times before the battery indicator dropped below 100 percent. With the addition of the Nomad 20 Solar Panel and AC Inverter (both sold separately), I was able to adequately provide fully charged devices (which included three iPods, four iPhones, an iPad mini and camera batteries for DSLR camera) for my crew throughout the trip, and I didn’t even utilize the solar panel until the third day.”

Why It Won. It’s the best way to ensure a large dose of power for your portable electronics out in the wilderness. Whether you charge by solar or through an outlet, this thing is bomber and does its job.

Where We Took It. Backpacking the North Rim trail in Yosemite. Countless weekend warrior trips throughout the Southeast. Training in the mountains of North Carolina.

5. Yeti Roadie 20

The Roadie 20 is a smaller, portable Yeti model that offers a freezer-modeled seal and bear-proof protection. “The Roadie came with me to multiple festivals and campgrounds this summer. The compact size found a comfortable nook in the back of my VW van, and the super-tick insulation never let me down when it came to keeping food and beer cold for multiple days. It’s a little short on space. but the longevity of the chill is worth it.”

Why It Won. The compact size found a comfortable nook in the back of a staff member’s VW van, and the super-thick insulation never disappointed when it came to keeping food and beer cold for multiple days. It’s a little short on space. But the longevity of the chill is worth it.

Where We Took It. The Roadie journeyed to multiple festivals all summer, including the Red Wing Roots Music Festival and Roosterwalk. Another staffer has the larger Yeti 60 as a permanent fixture in his camper van.

6. Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight Watertight .5 Medical Kit and Pocket Survival Pak

The Pocket Survival Pak is waterproof, extremely compact, and comprehensive: pretty much everything we look for in such a preparedness kit that you can throw in any pack or bag.

Why It Won. It’s not every day that a pre-packaged kit is so tightly put together and comprehensive, whether for first aid or survival. This is a throw-it-in-and-forget-about-it type product—often the best kind of emergency gear. The Pocket Survival Pak is good for SHTF situations as well as everyday boo-boos and blunders.

Where We Took It. On every trip, from long weekends van camping in the Smokies, the beach, to backpacking in the Pacific Northwest. Pretty much anywhere except in a carry on.

7. Leki Micro Vario Carbon Trekking poles

Even when minimized, many trekking poles still extend beyond the top of a pack and catch on low-hanging vegetation and limbs often found along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Not so with the Leki Micro Vario Carbon trekking poles. These lightweight carbon poles weigh just under a pound (per pair), feature 110-130cm adjustment, with a 15-inch pack size. A spring in the lower shaft compensates the length automatically. Conveniently stow-and-grab anywhere on your pack.

Why It Won. With lots of great choices when it comes to trekking poles—a piece of gear we consider critical on technical or lengthy hikes—Leki consistently goes the extra mile. The breakdown system on these poles is the best out there.

Where We Took It. Backpacking trips and peak bagging throughout the Appalachians and Rockies; as well as the Andes.

8. Otter Box Preserver Series case

With everything from your maps to your camera now housed in your smartphone, protecting these devices as we play outside has never been more important. It’s an everyday item that needs extraordinary protection without restricting functionality, and that’s Otter Box.

Why It Won. It’s a backcountry, camping, climbing, paddling, biking essential; and one of the best on the market, specializing in outdoors users. The Preserver is protective (military-grade drop protection) and waterproof (submergible up to 6.6 ft. (2 m) for 30 minutes) and is made for most top smartphone makes and models.

Where We Took It. Where didn’t we take it?

9. K2 Shreditor 102

We were looking for a one-ski all-mountain quiver and found it in the Shreditor. They performed equally well both uphill and down. They served us well on choppy days and mixed condition runs. At 102 underfoot, they are a really good balance between a big freeride ski and a versatile touring/front-side ski. If you’re looking to ski more powder or bigger hills, jump up to the 112.

Why It Won. A do-it-all ski is pretty rare. With a 92, 102, 112, 120 (the Pettitor) and 136 (the Powabunga) in the line, the Shreditor literally has something for everyone.

Where We Took It. At least five of the top ski areas in the country and some of the best backcountry terrain around Summit County, Colo.

10. Salomon GTX Active Shell Jacket

Salomon is a lightweight alpine specialist with years of serious product testing behind the brand. While designed for running in cold and wet conditions, the Salomon GTX Active Shell Jacket proved to be the ideal jacket for hiking and backpacking as well.

Why It Won. This lightweight, breathable shell was easily packable for storage on the go. The active fit jacket proved to be the ideal selection for the rainy spring of the Blue Ridge.

Where We Took It. The high passes of the Smokies, city bike paths, suburban trail systems, multi-day AT hikes, the Inca Trail.

11. Eddie Bauer Men’s Flannel

With classic Eddie Bauer style and quality, this flannel features FreeDry technology in its fabric that breathes better and stays warmer, with a hollow-core poly for lightweight packability.

Why It Won. Stylish and great for travel and everyday wear with just the right amount of tech. A Blue Ridge staple.

Where We Took It. Fall festivals, lots of travel days, cool Virginia nights.

12. MSR Hubba Hubba NX 2

The Hubba Hubba has become a mainstay backpacking tent of Peak Gear testers—recently redesigned to maximize space yet still extremely lightweight at 3 lbs. 7 oz. “The Hubba Hubba feels like enough tent but it’s all about simplicity: lightweight, extremely easy to pitch and compact, so it takes up minimal pack space,” said one.
Why It Won. The new Hubba Hubba is a lightweight (3 lb., 7 oz.), three-season backpacking number with symmetrical geometry and a unique non-tapered floor to maximize space.

Where We Took It. Overnights in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park and the George Washington National Forest; as well as in the Cascade’s along the PCT.

13. Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2

Pearl Izumi has found the sweet spot between speed and support in this minimalist that weighs in at 9.9 ounces. With a 4mm drop, this lightweight, low-profile shoe has enough oomph for long ultras but is still nimble and lively for gnarly local trails.

Why It Won. It’s a trail runner that can do everything well: it had no problem eating up rugged, rocky, root-strewn singletrack with mud, slickrock and creek crossings. It digs in for steep climbs and descents. One contributor has also taken them on the road and, hey, won some races. They’re quick enough to notch personal records but burly enough to handle the toughest trails.

Where We Took It. The mountain tops and river bottoms of southern Appalachia, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

14. La Sportiva Hyper Mid

This classic Italian mountaineering footwear has stood the test of time and progressed with it as well, maintaining comfort and performance, versatility and quality. If you want to buy just one pair of hikers for a wide range of adventures, you can’t do better than the Hyper Mid.

Why It Won. They’re stable and tough enough for serious backpacking, light and spry enough for scrambles over talus fields, and just sticky enough for spidering over class 3 terrain. But what really won us over was how good these Italian made kicks felt straight out of the box.

Where We Took It. Day hikes and backpack trips across the country. Backpacking, bushwhacking and scrambling in California’s Desolation Wilderness. Climbing 14ers in the Collegiate Peaks. Canyoneering in Ceda.

15. Sea to Summit Lite Line

Simple, lightweight and effective gear will always be at the top of our lists. This line is the perfect lightweight solution for drying clothes on long distance trips. It also works perfectly beneath hammocks to hang clothes and headlamp while you sleep.

Why It Won. “It’s adjustable, easy to rig, and relatively sturdy. This backcountry clothesline is a staple on my gear list,” said one tester.

Where We Took It. Seven months on the road throughout the Blue Ridge: Grayson Highlands State Park; Cranberry Wilderness in W.Va.; Middle Fork Trail.

16. Redington Sonic Dry Waders

Redington’s Sonic Dry Waders feature something perfect for the Blue Ridge climate: an active carbon particle permanently embedded in the fabric to capture and release moisture from the inside out, reducing heat and clamminess during long days on the river. Plus the high-tech “ultra-sonic” welded construction and double taped seams ensure complete dryness from the outside for years on end. The fit is ergonomic from knees to toes and it’s got all the details that make a wader rise to the top.

Why It Won. “Best waders I have ever used, hands down,” said one Peak Gear tester. At least two of our editors feel the same way. What else can we say?

Where We Took It. Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Virginia’s Jackson River; the Colorado, Blue and South Fork of the Platte rivers in Colorado.

17. Specialized Demo 8

Through the years, Specialized has become more committed to downhill, and it shows in the athletes who ride this bike. Riders on the Demo 8 have captured multiple World Cup Overall titles through the years, and took 2nd and 3rd this year.

Why It Won. Because it’s one of the best out there. It has an insatiable desire for speed. A low bottom bracket and raked out head tube angle mean that it rails corners like no other downhill bike and can also descend the steepest terrain.

Where We Took It. Whistler, British Columbia; Snowshoe; Highland Bike Park (N.H.); Pisgah.

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