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Outdoor Gifts for Christmas

First, let us say you needn’t buy into the great greed fest that Christmas has become. How a religious holiday got purloined by capitalism is confusing—maybe even upsetting. The holidays may upset others on the environmental front: Is there another day of the year surpassing this one in its excesses and waste? So if you want to keep the holidays truer to their spiritual roots and less of an environmental travesty, forget our article and glean some ideas from this article about a stuff-free holiday.

Of course, not many of us actually yearn for a stuff-free holiday. Most of us like our outdoor toys and Christmas is a time to tuck a few more treasures into the quiver. So excuse us for trying to rain on your parade and let us redeem ourselves by suggesting some truly excellent gifts that outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes will appreciate.

Gorilla vs. the Duck

Duck (duct) tape was once the all-star tape that outdoor types loved for its ability to temporarily fix everything. Now the duck has been benched by the gorilla. Yup, when the going gets tough, you want Gorilla Tape to patch holes in raincoats, nylon pants, and tarps; to splint broken ski poles, tent poles, and frame packs; and to hold bandages to bodies, skins to skis, and padding to packs. The gorilla is more highly evolved, sticks better, lasts much longer, doesn’t go all gooey with age, and adheres to more materials than duct tape. But at $9 per 30-yard roll, it’s also about three times more expensive than cheap duct tapes and a few dollars more than the best high-thread duct tapes. So it’s good to keep both tapes in the arsenal. Use the bird when you need an easy, temporary fix and the ape for tough applications intended to last. Get Gorilla Tape at Stan’s Merry Mart, Clifford’s Hardware, Home Depot, or Wal-Mart.


A keychain microlight (you know, one of those single-bulb, LED lights powered by a squeeze and a watch battery), it’s a safety item every backcountry traveler should always keep in his or her pack. Why? Because they way next to nothing, take up almost no room, and yet they’ll see you out of a dark place on that day when injury, miscalculations, or poor navigation has you benighted. These keychain lights really do cast enough light to get you safely down the last few miles of a trail after dark. Or they help you find wood, start a fire, and settle in for the evening if it’s clear you’re not getting out of the woods before morning.

Many brands of microlights are available and most outdoor, department, and hardware stores sell them at prices ranging from $6 to $15. Ideally you want a light with a white bulb (forget the colored bulbs), a locking switch to keep the light on for extended periods (cheaper lights only have a thumb-depression switch), and the ability to replace the battery (cheaper lights are usually disposable).

Pure Water

While we’re talking about emergencies, another essential that should always be carried into the backcountry trip, short or long, is some form of water purification. A tiny bottle of iodine tablets (e.g. Potable Aqua) is the lightest solution going but Aquamira Drops, using the chlorine dioxide purification process many municipal water systems employ, are only a little heavier and have many advantages over iodine (they work in icy water and leave only oxygen and salt in the water after a chemical reaction purifies the water). The drops cost $14, will purify 30 gallons of water, and are available at a number of our local outdoor shops including Mountain Air and Arlberg Sports.

Another water purifier for day tripping is the Aquamira Frontier Emergency Water Filter System, a straw that attaches to a filter submerged in the water you’re drinking. This straw/filter retails for under $10, weighs ¾ of an ounce, and lets you drink water you happen upon immediately without the wait time required for tablets or drops. 

Map Library

The 7.5-minute topographic maps made by the U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS) are the gold standard for backcountry navigation, and the statewide CD map sets made by either TOPO! National Geographic  or Maptech Terrain Navigator arm you with every 7.5-minute map in the state.  That’s over 1,300 maps for $100. Both products seamlessly stitch together maps on a home computer (Windows format for Maptech, Windows or Mac for TOPO!) and clearly print the area you define on a cheap color printer. We think these CD maps are among the very best outdoor products of the computer age.

Paper maps covering the entire state would cost over $7,000. Through the associative properties of perverse logic, we’ll claim that investing in these maps is like getting your computer free. Furthermore, you can do more with digital maps than paper maps – like stitch multiple maps together in those pesky four-corner areas onto one page, calculate distances super fast, automatically display the elevation and latitude/longitude coordinates of any point, display the bearing between two points, tweak the scale so your route fits on one sheet of paper to be carried in your pocket… 

 Fast Food
If you’re frequently preparing for outdoor jaunts moments before your departure, you understand the hassle of preparing lunch for the day ahead. A solution: Keep a stash of energy bars next to your pack so you’re ready to grab and go. There’s a supermarket of choice available in this arena, but a recommended newer entry in the game is Probar. These bars have lots of marketing yada yada behind them: They use only natural whole food nutrients, are 100% vegan, use no preservatives, and are blended rather than baked. Not being Birkenstock wearers we’ll confess we like them because they taste good, taste different than the old faithfuls (PowerBars, Balance Bars, etc), and because they’re twice the size (3 ounces) of most energy bars. If you’re fussy about the fuel you feed to your body, Probars are a worthy choice, even if they are outrageously expensive ($3 per bar). If you think of yourself as a multi-fuel stove that can burn anything, ask your shopper to visit Prospectors or Grocery Outlet in Wenatchee and purchase an assortment of name-brand and off-brand energy bars (weighing 1.5 to 2 ounces each) at the more palatable price of 3 or 4 bars per dollar.

Miracle Cure

Urethane compounds that are squeezed from tubes and harden into rubbery substrates might be best described as ‘liquid rubber.’ Better-known brands of liquid rubber sold in department and hardware stores are Shoe Goo and Goop. These two brands, however, pale next to SeamGrip ($7 per one-ounce tube) in their ability to bond securely to so such materials as fabric, nylon, leather, metal, plastic, or wood. SeamGrip, which is available at specialty stores like Mountain Air, Arlberg Sports, and Hooked on Toys, is runnier than Shoe Goo and can be applied easily over seams you want to waterproof. You can also dam up the material and use it to patch holes in boots, tarps, tent floors, raingear, air mattresses, gloves, and fishing waders. Or use it to glue the delaminating soles of mountaineering boots or approach shoes. Once you start using it, you find all manners of outdoor and indoor equipment to fix with it.

Uncommon Socks

Gifting Bridgedale’s Wool-Fusion socks is a non-consumeristic, environmental present. Sort of. Here’s why? The yarns in the Wool-Fusion series of socks (many styles and thicknesses of socks are part of this series) are made by wrapping nylon around merino wool. The wool delivers one quiver of benefits: cushioning, warmth, moisture control, and odor control. The nylon makes the socks super durable. Durable enough that they’re guaranteed to last and keep you happy for three-years. We’ve put a pair Bridgedale’s through the woods, wash, and wringer. We’ve also used it daily as a slipper.

Two pairs of all-wool Smart Wool socks we tested in the same way sprouted holes within months, but our WoolFusion socks are plump in the heels and under the balls of the feet after a year of rugged use. The Smart Wool socks make you feel conspicuous and guilty landfilling them so soon. However the Bridgedale socks (costing $15 to $20, depending on the model) help you understand that a product designed to last makes you less of a consumer and more of an environmentalist.

Silkweight Capilene

When it comes to products that just keep on ticking, we also give a two-thumbs-up rating to Patagonia’s Silkweight Capilene (long underwear). Now referred to as their Capilene 1 base layer (the lightest of 4 different Capilene layers that Patagonia makes) this polyester long underwear has been well-loved and well-used by throngs of users over the past decade. And to Patagonia’s credit they don’t continually phase out great products every few years just to keep you tossing the old and coveting the new. Anyway, Capilene 1 long underwear (long sleeve top $38, bottoms $36) is as light as anything available (5.5 ounces for a large top) yet remarkably tough. Some of us have used the shirts for years and they remain in excellent shape, have not stretched, and show no evidence of pilling. They also hold little water when wet, dry fast, and wick well.

Jet-fast Boils

Four years ago when we first saw the Jetboil Stove with its heat exchanger and attached pot cozy, it seemed gimmicky. That impression evaporated quickly when we fired up the stove--it boiled water so efficiently we joined the Jetboil jihad. Recently the company has produced a larger pot letting the stove service three- and four-person groups. With the standard pot (servicing one or two people), your complete kitchen with pot, stove, one fuel canister and two cups weighs 21 ounces (less than a quart of water) and takes up less space than a Nalgene bottle. In winter we like the fact that carrying the stove and melting snow is lighter and more versatile than carrying an extra quart of water.

Here’s what else we like: the Jetboil turns on an off easy, simmers well, and uses its fuel extremely efficiently. About the only thing we dislike, and this applies to all canister stoves, is that the spent fuel bottles are not recyclable.

Too Light to Leave

Here in Central Washington where the skies are usually blue, it’s easy to get lulled into visiting the mountains under-prepared. You rarely need true storm wear, so you start resenting the weight and leaving this important essential behind. That’s why it pays to have storm gear that’s so light and compact you’re never tempted to be stupid, even if you’re just out for a short winter’s walk with a fanny pack. A raincoat fitting the bill that we’ve tested and like is Outdoor Research’s Helium Jacket (7 oz, size large). Made of Pertex Shield Fabric and using a waterproof-breathable PV laminate, the product does a good job of keeping you dry whether it’s raining hard or you’re exercising hard. Despite its minimalist weight and design, the Helium ($140) has an excellent hood, a waterproof zipper, drawstrings to snug up the coat and hood, and is cut long enough to cover your bottom. And for being so light it’s also fairly tought.

Our recommendation for lightweight lower-body protection is GoLite’s Reed Pant (6 ounces), a no-nonsense nylon pant using a waterproof/breathable polyurethane coating and costing $70. These pants will spend 95 percent of their life hibernating in a pack, but when you need them they’ll cut wind, repel rain, shed snow, and conserve warmth.

Good Zzzzs

The Exped Synmat 7 backpacking mattress offers superior comfort for outdoor sleeping. Doesn’t matter if you’re sleeping on small roots, cement, a granite slab, or pine cones…this mattress makes all of it comfortable. The synthetic microfiber in the baffles stabilize the air pumped into this mattress so you don’t get the cold spots of an uninsulated air mattress. The insulative R-factor of this mattress is 4.9 (higher than ultralight and standard weight Therm-a-Rests, which are about the same weight as the Synmat). The mattress also has a built-in pump. This makes inflation fast and it keeps lung moisture from your breath out (moisture eventually damages the product and reduces its insulative value). It takes a few minutes to master the palm-on-palm-off technique of covering the pump’s hole, but once you get it, it takes about 70 seconds to inflate the full-length mattress.

Exped’s Downmat 7 has exactly the same comfort benefit and an even better R-value than the Synmat, making it an even better mattress if you’re off-kilter enough to like winter camping. But the Downmat lacks a built-in pump and retails for more than the Synmat 7 Pump ($140 vs. $85).

Read our full review here.

Superior Traction

The MSR Lightning Snowshoe are a go-anywhere product and are the the best-gripping snowshoes tested —the crampon is aggressive, two bars with serrated teeth run across the width of the shoe, and the underside of the entire metal frame has teeth cut into it. The binding hinges nicely but is torsionally stable; when you’re traversing steep slopes, the binding keeps your heel from torquing sideways off the shoe. The binding is easy to adjust, regardless of the footwear you’re using, and the releases for the over-the-foot straps are excellent – you can get these puppies on and off easier than most of the competition. The metal frame is solid aluminum and the Hypalon deck providing the flotation is durable—these snowshoes aren’t going to fall apart unless you unwittingly back the car over them. Finally few snowshoes this technical are so light.

If price isn’t a deterrent (they retail for $230), you won’t go wrong with the Lightning. This one product can service everyone in the family or in your friendship circle--hardcore winter climbers, winter backpackers, winter daytrippers, winter trail runners…

The Gift of Conservation

If the person you’re buying for already owns all of the best gear, buy them a Chelan-Douglas Land Trust Membership.  Help protect open space, healthy rivers and access to the recreation areas they enjoy.  A gift membership starts at $25 and includes a welcome packet with the following: winter note card with gift message, Wenatchee Foothills trails map, The Good Neighbor Handbook, a wildflower brochure and a Land Trust sticker.  A membership means year round benefits as well such as the Land Trust newsletter, access to member only outings and events and e-news updates.  You can purchase a membership or download and print a form to mail in here.

Not enough?

If you need more suggestions for that hard-to-buy-for person on your list you may want to check out Big Outside Blog.  On the homepage you’ll find reviews of all of Michael Lanza’s favorite new gear of 2010.  The list includes (but is not limited to) the Aku Suiterra Sued GTX boot, Black Diamond’s Soloist Glove, Kahtoola Microspikes, Mountain Hardwear’s Microstretch Zip Tee and the North Face Primero 85 backpack.