Let’s face it…outdoors enthusiasts are all about the toys. When hubby says “Honey, I really NEED that $400 tent; it’ll take 4 ounces out of my pack weight!”, what he’s really saying is “That thing is SO cool, and I want to play with it!” It makes them easy to buy for…a gift certificate to LL Bean, EMS, REI, or a million other places will allow them to indulge. But what if you want to actually have a package for them to open?
The real problem is that anyone who is contemplating buying a gift for an active outdoors enthusiast is putting themselves in real danger of getting it wrong. You can buy something that isn’t outdoor related and watch them try to think of something polite to say (“What a lovely new tie…I can use it to hang my lantern!”). Or, you can buy something outdoorsy—with the attendant potential for getting it wrong. There’s a flip side, too; enthusiasts who buy “agenda gifts” to try to encourage non-believers to get more active are walking on dangerously thin ice (trust us, we speak from experience on this, and have the scars to prove it). If you are going to buy an outdoorsy gift for someone, make sure it’s something they, not you, would like.
Here at EasternSlopes.com, we get to test a whole bunch of new gear (heaven for a gear junkie). And, we have lots of long-proven gear as well. So here are our carefully considered suggestions to avoid gift-giving disasters. Chances are, most active outdoors enthusiasts would use and enjoy these and picking them isn’t as difficult as choosing something highly specialized like a tent or backpack or skis. And, for the AO enthusiast that wants to subtly encourage someone to get out there, some of the items are “everyday life friendly”; who wouldn’t appreciate a way to keep bugs away, or a light they could carry in the car and use in their hands or on their head?
Trekking Poles ($50 to $120): If the active outdoors enthusiast you are gifting is still using old ski poles for hiking, or isn’t using poles at all, consider giving a pair of modern, adjustable trekking poles. It’s hard to describe how much difference they can make. When the going gets rough or slippery, they are a remarkable aid to balance, saving you from many a fall. On long downhills they help ease your knees. They can serve as an emergency tent poles and fishing rods. And when you don’t need them, they collapse down and ride on your pack (or in your car, where they can literally be a lifesaver when you have to navigate an icy parking lot). There are many poles on the market and all of them are better than old ski poles. Our personal favorite is the Leki Corklite Makalu Ultralite ($120). They aren’t cheap, but they have comfortable, versatile grips, an easy-to-use external locking system and snow baskets are a cheap ($8) add-on. A great budget choice is the Gabel Mont Blanc Lite ($75), which has external locks and includes snow baskets. And, for the backcountry ski enthusiast, the Easton CTR-65 ion($99) is an ultralight, 2-piece external lock pole with an extended grip; perfect for when they’re skinning up a steep hill.
SteriPEN($50-100): Safe drinking water is essential for all outdoor activities. All untreated water sources are suspect and can carry a host of diseases. You have two choices when playing outdoors: either carry the water you need or treat the water you find. Of all the water solutions we’ve tried, the SteriPEN is the lightest, most compact, and easiest to use. It takes just moments to purify a liter of water with the ultraviolet light. Instant safe drinking water from almost any source, anywhere!
Waterproof Camera ($100 and up) The newer ones cost more, the older designs still work. Taking pictures make any outdoor adventure more memorable and these are wonderful cameras for taking along anywhere they can get wet, and the newest models are shockproof as well. You can pick up a refurbished model on eBay or Amazon with a warranty for relatively cheap money and not worry about how abused it gets…that’s a great option for your budding Eagle Scout. For the more serious photographer, new models from Olympus, Canon, Nikon, and all the other big names have 12 megapixel and up sensors and will take photography-contest quality photos in the right hands (if your outdoorsman doesn’t have the skills, think about a gift certificate to a local photography workshop!).
Bheestie Bag ($20): Speaking of electronics, most of us have lost at least one piece of e-gear to water damage, and probably more due to long-term corrosion. This slick little item reminds you to drop your phone, camera, iPod, whatever into it after you’ve been in wet or snowy conditions. It’s got a pouch of superabsorbent beads that suck any humidity out of it. Get caught in a unexpected rainshower when running? In goes your music player, and it has a chance of surviving. If you’re a parent, this is a stocking stuffer that could pay for itself many times over!
Clever Wraps ($10-15, packs of 5): We tend to stick our phones, etc., into Ziploc baggies, which works in most conditions. But, if you want a more tailored option, or want a little extra protection for that rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, these do work. We wouldn’t use them for sticking in our bike jersey pocket on a daily ride; they’re pretty pricey for that use, and definitely overkill, but they’ll give you some extra security on a big, wet day.
LED Headlamp: ($15 to $100): The most useful, versatile light we’ve found for the outdoors in general and especially for the long nights of cold-season camping is an LED headlamp. You can use it hands-free or carry it like a flashlight. And, if your enthusiast has one that’s more than a couple of years old, virtually ANY new one will be a big improvement…the technology has changed a lot. Two notable new models for winter are the Black Diamond Storm ($50) and the Underwater Kinetics Vizion Arctic ($45). Both have technology designed to recycle heat from the LED to warm the batteries; that translates to significantly longer battery life in the cold. The Black Diamond is the tech freak’s dream: 2 sets of white LEDs that both have infinitely variable output, and maximum blowtorch level of 100 lumens, plus red LEDs for close up work that preserves your night vision. The Underwater Kinetics is the absolute opposite; it has two levels (65 and 35 lumens), and uses a rotating filter to diffuse the light or give you red output. BUT, it’s about as bombproof, bulletproof, waterproof, and idiotproof as it gets, and has the added advantage that the light capsule comes out of the housing and doubles as a lantern so you can play cards in your winter cabin.
Streamlight Knucklehead (from about $65, depending on model): Here’s a great one for the non-outdoor enthusiast that just MIGHT get borrowed. Hands down, the best light we’ve ever seen to keep in the car. The 360 degree articulating head means you can aim the light wherever you want it. The magnet means you can stick it on your car’s fender and aim it backwards as a warning strobe, or aim the light to where you’re changing your tire, or even stick it on the hood to use as an emergency headlight when yours short out. If you’re feeling wealthy, get the rechargeable version with the clip; you can mount it permanently in the car and ALWAYS know you have light when you need it, plus can attach it to your belt if you’re working away from the car.
Swiss Army Knife ($20-$50): We’ve had a Swiss Army knife of some sort made by either Wenger or Victorinox in our pockets almost every day of our adult lives and wouldn’t consider going for a hike without one. Choose a basic model like the Wenger Commander ($25) or Victorinox Tourist ($23) or something a little fancier like the Victorinox Camper ($30) or Wenger Traveler ($45). Either way, it’ll get carried and used. Particularly if you get a model with a corkscrew…
Insect Shield Bandana ($8-$12): We doubt we’ll ever leave the house again between April and October without one of these. When the bugs aren’t out, it rides in your pocket like any other bandana and serves all the same purposes. When the bugs show up, use it as a headscarf or neckerchief, and the bugs stay away from your face. Protection lasts for 70 washings—give another one for next year! Of course there’s a whole lineup of Insect Shield clothing, too, which we’ve tested extensively and reviewed; everyone loves socks for Christmas, and what better than a pair that will keep ticks away!
GSI Pinnacle Dualist ($60) We find it hard to imagine anyone who plays outdoors who wouldn’t enjoy this compact cooking/eating kit for two. It’s just plain cute, and very very functional whether you want hot soup on a picnic or are cooking in a backcountry camp. Pair it with a tiny canister stove and one of those Swiss Army knives that will fit inside it, and you have a totally self-contained system for eating anything everywhere. We keep it in the car for impromptu picnics; give it to your favorite non-AO enthusiast, and maybe they’ll start wanting to picnic farther afield (or, perhaps you can borrow it once in a while…)!
Dr. Drip ($8.99/5 pack): Got a java junkie on your list? For years, we’ve searched for an easy way to make quality coffee in camp, and finally found it. Dr. Drip is a single-serving all-in-one coffee/filter/carrier setup. Open one, put it over your cup, put hot water through it, and you’ve got cafe-quality coffee in minutes. We carry a few inside a Primus EtaSolo on backpacking trips or day-long snowshoe jaunts (yes, we know that hot cocoa is more traditional for that, but some people HAVE to have their coffee); pull over by the side of the trail, and in 5 minutes you’ve got your hot caffeine fix!
Windbloc Fleece Hat ($20): Fleece hats are good: lightweight, warm, comfortable. But Windbloc Fleece is even better, especially if you are out for a long time. Many companies make windstopper versions. Look at the L.L. Bean Wind Challenger Fleece Hat ($19.50) as a great example. Even warmer, the Arctic Shield Fleece Beanie($14) uses a radiant barrier to hold heat in (weakness: it doesn’t breathe as well as plain fleece, so isn’t as good for highly aerobic activities).
Highgear Traildrop ($50): Sort of an electronic Swiss Army knife, the Traildrop is a watch, thermometer, electronic compass, stopwatch, and level in one neat little package, allowing you to replace multiple items. We’ve used it for checking temperatures to determine sleeping bag ratings, to time how long isobutane canisters run in real-world conditions, how long it takes to boil water, you name it. Being throwbacks to the dinosaurs, we’re still not fans of electronic compasses, but having a backup is always a good thing. The level…well, we haven’t figured out a trail use for it, but it’s handy for setting up the gas grill for tailgating. It’s always clipped on one pack or another, ready when we need it.
Air Grill Blower ($10): One of our favorite “luxuries” when we’re backpacking, the imaginatively named “Blower” does exactly that…blows air. Anyone who has put their head sideways on the ground to blow at the base of a fire knows how miserable that is, and how quickly you start to feel dizzy, even when the fire isn’t blowing smoke in your face. This nifty tool weighs almost nothing (4.1 ounces), and allows you to blow a steady, controllable stream of air exactly where you want it. In dry conditions, it’s great; in wet, invaluable. Useful for backyard grilling, too!
Sterling Knife Sharpener($15): We’re freaks for sharp knives, and have tried pretty much every tool to get them sharp and keep them that way. But with all those toys, we doubt there’s been a single backpacking trip in the last decade where we didn’t carry a Sterling with us. Small, light, ridiculously easy to use, it’ll sharpen your knives in the field or the kitchen. There’s nobody who can’t use one or more of these; 30 seconds, and you can go from dull to sharp on virtually any knife. One in the kitchen, one in the backpack, one in the car or tool kit…you get the idea. At this price, you can own several, and you can’t go wrong. A simple, brilliant design with a lifetime warranty.
Small, Medium, Large . . .
Road ID ($20-30; ): It can (and does) happen: You are out for a bike ride or other outdoor adventure and end up in the emergency room—and no one knows who you are, who to contact, or what special medical needs you might have . . . Road ID solves that nicely and is comfortable enough to wear 24/7. The Elite is the highest end model; there are other models for wrist, shoes, you name it.
Little Hotties Toe Warmer Insoles ($15 + heat packs): These can be hard to find (they aren’t even on their website), but are worth it for any kind of foot travel in cold weather. These are NOT the disposable heater insoles, but a thick, supportive foam insole with a plug where you can insert an adhesive toe warmer and walk, skate, or ski in comfort.
Kahtoola microSpikes® ($60) By far the best traction aids ever devised for hiking on icy trails (or sidewalks). One step down from crampons, miles ahead of other slip-on traction aids when the going gets nasty. If you hike in the winter, you need these. (For the non-outdoors enthusiast, a pair of YakTrax to keep in the car shows that you really care about their safety.)
Lightweight Longies($25-$80) Whether you choose polyester or wool, lightweight longies tops and bottoms are essential equipment and no one can have too many sets. We’re now totally hooked on the superfine merino wool versions from Icebreaker and Minus33, but we’ve happily used cheaper polyester from EMS, Marmot, Patagonia, Hot Chillys and others for years. The waffle pattern cotton ones at the local discount store? Free is overpriced for them.
Any of these under the tree will warm the heart (and other parts!) of your favorite outdoors enthusiast or not-so-enthusiast. Don’t forget birthdays, either…and if you’re the hopeful recipient, you can always print this, highlight a few favorites, and leave it around the house!