One Gear Tester's Favorite Gear from 2016

Testing out a mountain bike in the Basque Country of Spain.
Testing out a mountain bike in the Basque Country of Spain. Drew Zieff
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“Your Job is What?”

What the heck does a gear tester even do? It’s a question I get on chairlifts, airplanes, and bar stools, one often paired with sideways looks blending curiosity, jealousy, and skepticism. There’s a short answer, and a long one. The short answer is a cheeky one. “Well, we test gear…”

The long answer is that gear testers chase adventure with the latest and greatest gear in tow. We ruthlessly abuse gear in search of strengths and weaknesses, we analyze features, and we compare products to both their predecessors and competitors. And we have zero fun in the process.

Just kidding.

2016 was one of the most fun years of my life. I tested gear in Colombia, Spain, Morocco, Portugal, and Canada—not to mention Utah, Colorado, Washington, California, and Oregon. A few highlights? Car camping and surfing from Seattle to San Francisco, backpacking through Canyonlands, mountain biking in Basque Country, and splitboarding and snowboarding all over the Rocky Mountains. Throughout these travels, I had my paws on literally hundreds of pieces of gear, both from top brands to obscure up-and-comers. I tested gear for Outside Magazine, Backcountry Magazine, Top 10 Reviews, and Active Junky. Fun was had, gear was obliterated.

And in the process, I learned what gear I want, what gear I need, and what gear I never want to see again. Below, you’ll find some of my favorite pieces of gear from 2016—ranging from mountain bikes and snowboards to camera tripods and stoves. Each piece of gear included here eclipsed the competition, and earned a permanent spot in my personal gear hall of fame (AKA my closet).

Eddie Bauer MicroTherm StormDown Hooded Jacket

All smiles in the Eddie Bauer MicroTherm StormDown Jacket.
All smiles in the Eddie Bauer MicroTherm StormDown Jacket. Drew Zieff

Tested in: The PNW, British Columbia, Colorado

MSRP : $229.00

This is my go-to puffy. Unless conditions are brutal and a heavy-insulated parka-style puffy is requisite, I rely on Eddie Bauer’s MicroTherm StormDown Hooded Puffy as a modular insulator. From splitboarding in British Columbia to scoping surf along the frigid coastline of the Pacific Northwest, this puffy has been a constant companion this year. The mini baffles and low profile fit are perfect for layering, and the jacket packs down well. Also, the down hasn’t leaked after months and months of unforgiving use and abuse. The DWR-treated down is a modern spin off Eddie Bauer’s heritage, as it handles the moisture of the Pacific Northwest better than most. Pair it with a technical shell and a breathable baselayer and you can take on the world.

Pedco UltraPod GRIP Tripod

Tested in: Utah, Colorado, and the PNW

MSRP: $24.99

The photographer’s conundrum: I fill up memory card after memory card during my travels, but I also like to keep my pack light. For a while, I didn’t bother bringing my tripod when backpacking—I just couldn’t justify the extra weight and bulk. The Pedco UltraPod GRIP Tripod has revolutionized my adventures, as it’s a negligible size and weight (Dimensions when folded: 7 inches x 2 inches x 2 inches // Weight: 3.2oz.) and can still hold a DSLR up to six pounds. And though the tripod is tiny, the combination of rubber grips and velcro straps allows you to mount it to tree branches, railings, etc. Definitely a recommended play for on-the-move photographers.

Klymit Litewater Dinghy

Tested in: The PNW and Colorado

MSRP: $169.95

If you’ve always thought that a packraft would be a blast but couldn’t justify the big spend on something you won’t use very frequently, look no further. The Klymit Litewater Dinghy is, while not as durable as other packrafts on the market, remarkably cheap and packs down to the size of a sleeping bag. It takes a bit of awkward paddling to get used to, but once you do, bringing along the Dinghy has the potential to revolutionize your hiking, backpacking, and fly fishing adventures. Stable enough to take down mellow class II rapids, the Dinghy allows you to do everything from cross rivers without getting (too) wet, set up camp on islands, and fish the best spots deep in the backcountry.

Orbea Occam TR M10 29er

Mountain biking in the Basque Country of Spain.
Mountain biking in the Basque Country of Spain. Drew Zieff

Tested in: Basque Country

MSRP: $5,599

On a mountain bike trip to Spain with the Basque MTB Guides, I had the opportunity to demo an Orbea Occam TR M10 29er. The Spanish build galloped uphill and floated down, thanks to gorgeously designed, ultralight but still strong Orbea Monocoque Race Carbon frame, Fox Float suspension (Fox Float DPS Factory 3-Position Adjust EVOL Kashima custom tune184x44mm shock and Fox 32 Float Factory 120 FIT4 3-Pos-Adj QR15x110 Kashima fork), and Shimano XT components. I expected the bike to perform well on long, cross-country rides, but was surprised when I loved how the bike handled on enduro-style shuttle runs.

Salomon MTN Lab Helmet

Tested in: British Columbia, Colorado

MSRP: $200

Salomon’s lightweight MTN Lab Helmet is certified by both mountaineering and skiing standards, which makes it a preferred method of protection for many backcountry skiers and ski mountaineers. The helmet is shockingly light (300g) and surprisingly comfortable—to the point that skinning or bootpacking up a couloir while wearing it doesn’t cause you to overheat. Plus, if you do start to sweat, the removable, washable merino wool liner does a remarkable job of regulating temperature and managing moisture.

Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2

Tested in: Utah

MSRP: $429.95

Many backpacking tents focus so much on trimming fat and shaving grams that they don’t possess a level of livability that transfers into the realm of car-camping. The Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 is a lightweight backpacking tent (3lb 2oz) with steep walls and a high ceiling (42”) that makes for comfortable nights outside wherever you decide to pitch it. If I had to pick a single tent to use for every occasion, this versatile, comfortable, lightweight, and spacious tent from Big Agnes would get my vote every time.

Gnu Eco Choice

Tested in: Crested Butte and Aspen, CO

MSRP: $579.95

In the past year, I’ve ridden a mind-numbing number of snowboards—and the Eco Choice by Gnu is by far my personal favorite. It’s an asymmetric twin shape that’s got plenty of flex in the tip and tail for jibbing, buttering, and popping, but it’s stable enough underfoot to carve corduroy and straight-line through crud. Plus, it’s one of the most environmentally-friendly shapes to come from a major snowboard manufacturer, as its calculatedly crafted with recycled sidewalls and non-toxic materials.

Jetboil Stove Genesis Basecamp Stove System

Sautéing some veggies in Utah with the Jetboil Genesis Basecamp Stove.
Sautéing some veggies in Utah with the Jetboil Genesis Basecamp Stove. Drew Zieff

Tested in: Utah, Oregon, California, Colorado, Washington

MSRP: $349.95

Jetboil is renowned for their ultra-compact, fast-boiling backpacking stoves, but they blew my mind with the Genesis. For a road trip, this stove is delightful, as it conveniently packs into the large pot for easy carrying. The simmer feature allows you to whip up meals roadside that taste as if they came out of a professional kitchen. While simmering away on one burner, you can quickly boil water on the other thanks to the 5L pot interface, which secures snugly to the burner. The included ceramic-coated frying pan is a game changer, as is the ability to connect the Luna Satellite Burner via a fuel output valve—this increases your cooking space as you can utilize your Jetboil backpacking pot to boil water or make coffee. Note: I’ve heard about folks complaining about stove failures, but after a solid year of use I’ve had no mishaps with my Genesis.

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