It’s that time of year, once again. BPL Staffers are among the most picky and critical backpackers you’ll encounter. Which items lived up to and exceeded their lofty expectations? This isn’t an “Editor’s Choice” or a formal endorsement, just a list of gear we like – and use on a regular basis.

This time around, we asked the staff to include one item related to UL backpacking, one item that relates to another outdoor activity, and one lifestyle item not necessarily related to backpacking, but that they enjoy everyday. The results shed some light on our individual personalities beyond the usual gear junkie facade.

Don’t forget to add your own favorites in the forum below!


BPL Staff Member Favorites
Ryan Jordan Altra Lone Peak Shoes Hornbeck Blackjack Canoe Detachment
Will Rietveld Trail Designs Caldera Keg Cooking System Vegetable Gardening Diet and Exercise
Roger Caffin Exped Synmat UL-7S plus Pillow Pump MYOG Winter Stove Adept CNC Machining Center
Damien Tougas Rab Xenon Sole Runner FX Trainer Apple iPad
Dave Chenault Dimension Polyant DX40 fabric Daiwa Soyokaze 27SR Tenkara Rod Unibroue La Fin du Monde beer
Ray Estrella NEMO Equipment Siren 30 Quilt Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad The TrekSta NestFIT Last
Doug Johnson Snow Peak SnowMiner Headlamp CoMotion Periscope Tandem The Beach Swing at Cape Alava
Daniel Paladino Jetboil Sol Stove Dynafit Vertical ST AT Binding Subaru Rust Bucket
Kevin Sawchuk ULA Circuit Pack Garmin 310XT A Hot Shower

Ryan Jordan – Bozeman, Montana


Staff Picks 2012 - 1

Altra Lone Peak Shoes I wrote about the Altra Lone Peaks in Considering Minimalist Footwear for Backpacking and touted their benefits relative to so-called minimalist shoes advocated by the running-without-a-pack community. Specifically, I like what they bring to the table for backpackers: a reasonably aggressive sole, a little bit of longitudinal stiffness, and some cushioning, while preserving what I think are two valuable attributes of minimalist footwear: zero differential and maximum toe splay. My son and I live in our Lone Peaks, whether waltzing around town or trekking across a 10,000 foot pass in the Spanish Peaks.

Weight: 11 oz/shoe (Men’s Size 9.5)
MSRP: $105

Staff Picks 2012 - 2

Hornbeck Blackjack Canoe At twelve pounds, our Hornbeck Blackjack is an absolute joy to paddle. What a far cry from the old days, where the constant clanging of paddle on the gunwale, sore back, and agonizing portages relegated canoeing to one of the lowest forms of outdoor recreation for me. The Hornbeck Blackjack requires so much less effort than a more traditional sit-on-top aluminum canoe that it has completely restored my love for canoeing. Sitting inside the canoe, paddling with a kayak paddle, being able to carry it with my fingertips – and even sailing it with a Wind Paddle sail – what an example of a piece of gear getting out of the way so you can enjoy the natural world around you, like the sound and spray of waves lapping just inches from your elbows while the canoe glides silently through the water.

Weight:12 pounds
MSRP: $1,695

Staff Picks 2012 - 3

Detachment As much as I enjoy owning and using cool gear (see above!) I enjoy – just as much – detaching myself from those things that I do not love. Whether it’s unused gear that’s been in storage too long, clutter in our crawl space, time frittered on activities I no longer enjoy, or even junk mail – detaching myself from the obligation required to own or manage those things has given me immense satisfaction through the years. In 2012, new circumstances and intentional choices further increased my detachment from material possessions, awkward relationships, and old time commitments, and I’m looking forward to the opportunities this detachment brings as we move into 2013.

Weight: Depends on your burden…
MSRP: Pick the cost of not detaching…

Will Rietveld – Durango, Colorado


Staff Picks 2012 - 4

Trail Designs Caldera Keg Cooking System The Caldera Cone has made cooking with alcohol or Esbit as reliable as canister fuel, even more so when you consider it’s wind protection and heat transfer efficiency. The entire kit weighs just 6.3 ounces, so if you want to go ultralight, this is a must have. The latest version includes some significant upgrades, including a durable Titanium cone connection and cook pot reinforcement. I prefer to use alcohol because its clean burning, but Esbit will boil water in this system in half the time.

Weight: 6.3 oz / 179 g
MSRP: $59.95

Staff Picks 2012 - 5

Vegetable Gardening When I’m not out backpacking and hiking I love to be outside working in the yard and garden. I have been a gardener since I was 10 years old, and perhaps that’s what influenced my career choice. I love vegetables, both growing them and eating them. I grow all the usual stuff, and our freezers and cellar allow us to enjoy organic produce the year around. We also keep our friends and neighbors pretty well supplied too. (Minimal cost, a labor of love, value—priceless!)

Staff Picks 2012 - 6

Diet and Exercise Paying attention to both has been my mantra since my 20’s. The reward is being trim, fit, and able to pursue my wanderlust. I’m sure most backpackers can relate to that. I don’t subscribe to any particular diet, just whole foods and low fat. (Doesn’t cost any extra; I love being able to keep up with the younger guys; I plan to make it to 90, at least.)

Roger Caffin – Berrilee, NSW, Australia


Staff Picks 2012 - 7

Exped Synmat UL-7S plus Pillow Pump While labeled ‘short’, this mat is not. It is 163 cm x 52 cm and 7 cm thick (64″x24.5″x2.8″), which is quite long enough for us. It has an R-value of 3.7 – 2.5, depending on inflation. This is much higher than an empty airmat of the same thickness due to the synthetic insulation inside it. I found it very comfortable down to sub-zero conditions (on snow grass), but I have since lost it to my wife. Very sad! It was included in our SOTMSurvey of Air Mats.It should be noted that the combination listed includes an Exped ‘pillow pump’. You see, if you blow up an airmat with your lungs you quickly get a whole lot of water condensed inside the mat. This is seriously ‘not-good’. Instead I use the Exped pillow pump shown in the picture – or rather Sue uses. It inflates the mat quite fast, and then makes a very nice pillow for me later on.

Weight: 15.4 oz / 436 g (Synmat), 134 g / 4.7 oz (Pump), 570 g / 20.1 oz (total)
MSRP: ~$145 (mat), ~$35 pump

Staff Picks 2012 - 8

MYOG Winter Stove Works with standard screw-thread canisters, French Campingaz canisters, and Coleman Powermax canisters, all in full winter mode. This means I can use it virtually anywhere around the world. It does not accept French Bleuet puncture-style canisters (which I regard as dangerous), nor does it accept the fly-spray cans of butane used in table-top wok stoves.The canister connector is the black bit. Safety on/off valve at canister (the white bit is the on/off valve.) Flow control valve at the stove – the wire handle. This valve controls the flow of gas, not of liquid, so I get really good fast fine control. The hose connections all rotate for ease of use. In the unit shown I have cheated and used the burner top from an FMS-116T stove, although I do also have a titanium burner head I made myself. Boil time for either burner head is similar to that of a standard upright canister stove – which depends of course on how wasteful you are of gas. Cooking for the two of us on a recent 6-day trip in the mountains required about 26 g of gas per day. In the right hand photo you can just see some yellow ‘things’ below the stove: they are Ti wire micro stakes with yellow heat shrink at the top hook. (The yellow colour helps me find the stakes when they fall in the grass.) These are optional, and serve to hold the legs of the stove down. Obviously on a table surface they are not used. I use them on the ground because the stove is now so light that it can skitter around rather easily. Fortunately the tendency to do so is reduced by the much lighter fuel hose used: it’s quite flexible. Manufacturing was by CNC machining (see the next item). This must be model/design 100 I think!

Weight: 88 g / 3.1 oz

Staff Picks 2012 - 9

Adept CNC Machining Centre As requested, this ‘favourite’ is not exactly a walker’s item. However, it is how I make the bits for the stove, along with lots of other ‘toys’. It is a combination 3-axis mill and lathe unit, built extremely solidly for teaching use. It is far more than a simple 2.5D router. I program it myself in g-code rather than use a CAD/CAM package, in order to take most advantage of the machine. Price is vague. The original units were made in Australia some years ago for the tech-school market, but the idea was a flop as the teachers did not have the skills to handle it. The company listed below buys them from schools, upgrades the electronics and the software, and resells them. I find the machine to be very robust: I guess it needed to be to withstand students!

Damien Tougas – Gaspė Peninsula, Quebec, Canada


Staff Picks 2012 - 10

Rab Xenon No other item in our gear closet elicits more praise than puffy insulation – my wife practically writes poetry about it. This past spring I picked up a synthetic puffy jacket from Rab called the Xenon. Warm, durable, light, and it fits well too. They even managed to squeeze in a full zip and hand warmer pockets and still keep the weight at 10.5 oz (300 g) for a men’s size medium. Coupled with a quilt and my BPL cocoon pants, it is the foundation of my three-season insulation system. When not on the trail, the Xenon never gets put back in the gear closet, as I always find myself reaching for it any time the temperature starts to drop. At $260 retail price, it isn’t exactly a low budget piece, but for something so light, practical, and versatile, it has been invaluable to me this past year.

Weight: 10.55 oz / 298 g
MSRP: $260

Staff Picks 2012 - 11

Sole Runner FX Trainer I am a firm believer in building foot and ankle strength and flexibility in order to minimize injury. That is why on the trail I am a proponent of wearing minimalist footwear – as minimalist as I can get away with while maintaining the grip and protection I need. I also believe that conditioning the feet happens as much (if not more) off the trail than on the trail. My favorite off-trail shoe for everyday use – whether it be running, or running errands this year has been the Sole Runner FX Trainer. Slightly more protection than barefoot, a nice high-volume last, and a paltry 5.2 oz (147 g) per foot (in a size 43). They are durable too. Designed in Germany, made in Europe, they retail for $80.

Weight: 5.2 oz / 147 g
MSRP: $80

Staff Picks 2012 - 12

Apple iPad I feel so cliche by saying that the iPad had changed my life. But it really has. I am a geek at heart and by trade. In the past I have always lugged around some form of laptop/notebook/netbook but it always felt unnatural and awkward in situations where people would pull out a book/magazine to kill some time. I also liked to keep notes and todo lists on my computer, but could never make that work easily when out-and-about. While smartphones were better, they weren’t great for doing a whole lot of reading or writing using the small screen (maybe that is why Twitter was invented – so people with smartphones could be “bloggers” too?). Now with my iPad I have my books (for pleasure and for reference), my email, my notes and todo list, my RSS, the web, maps, … pretty much anything I need in a handy book-sized device. Where have you been all my life!?

Dave Chenault – Kalispell, Montana


Staff Picks 2012 - 13

Dimension Polyant DX40 Fabric DX40 is not my perfect pack fabric, but it is the closest I’ve yet found. Cut resistance, relevant when carrying skis and bushwacking, is outstanding. Waterproofing is, as would expected of a D-P laminate, exceptional. Straight abrasion resistant is very good, even compared to heavier fabrics, but could be better if the face weave were tighter. This face fabric also absorbs water, though the amount is quite modest, and it dries quickly. For a pack which will be used hard in wet environments, nothing better currently exists, save (perhaps) some purer dyneema weaves whose prices make 30 bucks a yard seem cheap. Beyond the pure performance of the fabric, the real pleasure I’ve gotten from DX40 this year has been working with it. The hand is markedly softer than VX21 or WX40 yet still holds a crease, and given it’s dyneema content it is easy to cut (use a sharp rotary cutter). Most importantly, I’ve had the satisfaction of using DX40 and years of fiddling to make a pair of packs that work well and have gone on many grand adventures. The only obstacle for the home user is finding some. Currently none of the usual suspects carry it. Your best bet is emailing a friendly cottage manufacturer who builds with it and asking nicely.

Weight: 7 oz / 198 g per yard
MSRP: $30 per yard

Staff Picks 2012 - 14

Daiwa Soyokaze 27SR Tenkara Rod There was a lot of noise this summer over what was and was not a tenkara rod, mostly as members of the billowing tenkara industry scrambled to take market share from TenkaraUSA. I’ve been happily using my TenkaraUSA Amago since they were introduced, and was only seduced into buying a second rod buy the relative cheapness of the 9 foot long Soyokaze and the fact that it is so different from the stiff, 13.5 foot Amago. It turned out to be some of the most enjoyable money I spent all year. I don’t care about the definition of tenkara. As a fair-weather fisherman, I do care about the 3-4 months a year I can use dry flies to stalk freestone streams and rivers for native trout. In my mind this is right up with skiing powder through widely spaced aspens, pedaling endless domes of Navajo sandstone, and soloing exposed 5.3 alpine granite as one of the most fun and fulfilling outdoor experiences possible under human power. The Amago has shown me that tenkara is the best way to do this, and the little Soyokaze took the intimacy and exactitude of tenkara and applied it to the tiniest of headwater streams. The same river-tugging thrill a 22 inch bull trout gives the Amago can be had with a 6 inch cutt hooked with a Soyokaze, and the nine foot reach is enough but not too much in truly small streams. On many days this summer I found myself catching 20+ fish an hour, hidden in the bushes within a mile of crowded, hallowed fishing grounds. Hunting wild trout, seeing no one while doing it, all while being 10 minutes from the truck? That is just cheating. The Soyokaze isn’t perfect. I find the grip a bit too thin for all-day casting, and the general build quality is a step below the Amago, but the price is competitive and the length, action, and stiffness combine into a great package for truly small stream fishing. Tenkara is one of those rare things were you really can believe the hype.

Weight: 1.6 oz / 45g
MSRP: $75

Staff Picks 2012 - 15

Unibroue La Fin du Monde Beer The microbrew craze in the USA mercifully shows no sign of slowing down, and the cultural backwater of Montana is even turning out some impressive products, but none of them hold a candle to this exceptional libation. The ability of beer to enhance most things in the world has been axiomatic since the days of Socrates, and for me this is the best beer on earth. To quote Wittgenstein, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

MSRP: Between $9 and $10 per 750mL bottle

Ray Estrella – Moorhead, Minnesota


Staff Picks 2012 - 16

NEMO Equipment Siren 30 Quilt NEMO has entered the sleeping gear market in a big way and being a backpacking-quilt fan my favorite item is their Siren 30 quilt. Using top-notch materials like 0.77 oz/yd2 (26 g/m2) 10-denier nylon and 850-fill power down it is the nicest retail quilt I have seen to date. With loft to as much as 2.5 in (6.3 cm) I think it is accurately rated at 30 F (-1 C), but I took it lower by adding a down sweater into the mix. I think what I like the most about it is just the fact that a large manufacturer is noticing, and catering to, us quilt users.

Weight: 18 oz / 510 g
MSRP: $349.95

Staff Picks 2012 - 17

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad The original NeoAir sleeping pad was the biggest step forward in sleeping pad design in many years, and has been wildly popular, grabbing a ton of market share in the category. So how do you follow the largest sleeping pad success is recent history? By making it about 15% lighter while increasing the r-value (warmth) by 28%. It certainly works for me. Coming in at an r-value of 3.2 now my Large model saw use in 5 states with many nights at or below freezing, all with a quilt, meaning I was right on top of the pad. With at least 26 nights on it since last spring (that I can remember) I have had no problems with it at all.

Weight: 16 oz / 460 g
MSRP: $179.95

Staff Picks 2012 - 18

The TrekSta NestFIT Last I just discovered TrekSta shoes at the end of summer and said, “Why hasn’t this been thought of before?” They made the last that their shoes are built on in the shape of a real foot, not a club with an ankle. I got a pair of their Evolution GTX Mountain Trail runners in time for a tough 10 days, 137 miles (221 km) of hiking in California and came away quite impressed. I have a weird foot as my toes are wide, yet my heel is narrow, so I can’t buy a wide size. Too-narrow toe boxes are always the problem for me and the NestFIT seems to be the ticket. I plan to get a lot more use next year and may look into boots too.

Weight: US 11: 15.4 oz / 47 g each
MSRP: $150.00

Doug Johnson – Redmond, Washington


Staff Picks 2012 - 19

Snow Peak SnowMiner Headlamp The Snowminer is both a headlamp and a lantern. With two small magnets, the silicone globe collapses, putting the lens close to the LED emitter, This makes a headlamp that works really well for backpacking, even when scrambling off-trail at night. When the globe is lightly pinched, the magnets release, creating a wonderful diffused light. A hidden hook in the strap makes it easy to hang and the regulated electronics bring the lantern from very bright to less than a single candle. Despite the fact that the headlamp is fairly large and spills a bit of light to the sides and the silicone can pick up some dirt, this is a beautiful piece of gear. It serves both purposes well and adds a lot of cheeriness to my camps.

Weight: 3.5 oz / 99 g
MSRP: $55.95

Staff Picks 2012 - 20

CoMotion Periscope Tandem I own five bikes, and I use all of them. But I use our CoMotion Periscope tandem WAY more than the others. With crank shorteners, pedal blocks, and a slammed seat, it fits Henry (age 6) perfectly and an iBert safe-T-seat fits Lily up front (sleeping in this picture, age 3). Together we explore our neighborhood, the San Juans, and everywhere else we can. With a 10 minute adjustment, my wife Amy can ride on the back and we can talk for miles and miles. I love our tandem!

Staff Picks 2012 - 21

The Beach Swing at Cape Alava Backpacking with kids = playing. I love playing outside with my kids. This summer while backpacking on the Olympic Coast, we discovered this great rope swing just north of Cape Alava. Between building sand castles, checking out seastars, and studying whale bones at the Makah ranger station, this swing was the best part of the trip.

Daniel Paladino – Bozeman, Montana


Staff Picks 2012 - 22

Jetboil Sol Stove Following Will’s excellent review, I decided to try out Jet Boil’s lightweight integrated canister stove, the Sol. Saying farewell to my trusty (and often frightening) jet engine liquid fuel stove, the MSR Whisperlite International, was easy after taking the Sol out for a test run. Boiling times are incredibly fast, and this thing absolutely sips fuel, stretching canister life to a remarkable degree. From quick overnighters to weeklong car camping trips in the desert, the Sol is my first choice. For group cooking, the larger Sumo cup is the way to go.

Weight: 11 oz / 312 g
MSRP: $120

Staff Picks 2012 - 23

Dynafit Vertical ST AT Binding No longer will I drag cement blocks (Marker Dukes) up the hill. Simple, lightweight, and reliable, the Vertical ST binding allowed me to reduce the weight of my backcountry touring set up by nearly 4lbs. The toe-pin system reduces underfoot mass on the ascent, and the releasable heel and low height inspire confidence on the way down – no matter how demanding the terrain.

Weight: 18.3 oz / 520 g
MSRP: $449.95

Staff Picks 2012 - 24

‘93 Subaru Rust Bucket After a long, emotionally draining, and expensive addiction to performance Subarus, I decided to sell my beloved Impreza WRX. The accumulating debts of college and a new-found lightweight mindset shifted my priorities (Do I really need 280 horsepower?), and led me to simplify my life, shrug off a precious material burden, and instead purchase a beat-up 1993 Subaru Legacy, courtesy of BPL’s own Sam H. Each body panel has its fair share of rust, dents, and scrapes, and I absolutely love it. The mileage could be 70,000 or 370,000 – I’ll never know. It gets me to and from the trailhead and the mountain in rust-bucket dirt bag Subie style, is unquestionably reliable, simple to maintain, and easy on gas. All wheel drive plows through deep puddles in the summer and dominates unplowed roads in the winter. The time I would have spent tinkering under my WRX and stressing over reliability issues is now spent worry-free on the trail or the slopes. The experience has taught me how rewarding it can be to reduce material possessions, no matter how seemingly precious, and do more with less.

Weight: 3,200 lbs and dropping as rusty bits fall off
MSRP: Cheaper than the skis on the roof. (Thanks Sam!)

Kevin Sawchuk – Alamo, California


Staff Picks 2012 - 25

ULA Circuit Pack This is my go to pack for trips from 3-7 days. It has a great balance between lightweight and durable–it’s not the lightest pack on the market but I’m not afraid of taking it through heavy brush or scraping it on the wall of a tight granite gully. It has a great set of usable features–its waistbelt pockets keep the calories I need to keep moving close.

Weight: 28oz (currently 35oz) / 794 g
MSRP: $225

Staff Picks 2012 - 26

Garmin 310XT My favorite training tool. I can gauge my pace, heart rate and distance while I’m out running. With the Garmin I can turn any road or trail into a controlled workout space. Keeps my training in the beautiful outdoor spaces I enjoy. When I download my Garmin data to Strava I get additional information about my performance and can virtually “race” others on popular segments.

Weight: 2 oz / 57 g
MSRP: $250

Staff Picks 2012 - 27

A Hot Shower Many of the best “things” in life are not things. To me these include the happy energy of the kids I coach, being indoors and warm when it’s raining and the health I currently enjoy. In that vein a hot shower is high on my list of daily simple pleasures. Think about how amazing it is to have perfectly heated water conveniently delivered to wash away the dirt and sweat from my workout and get me relaxed and ready for bed. Feel the enjoyment!

Previous Years’ Staff Picks:

What are your three “Picks” for 2012?

Join us in the forum below and let us know what your favorites are from 2012!