Whether we think of them as essential tools or just cool gizmos, the gear we use makes our outdoor activities safer and more fun. Technological advances have brought us equipment that past generations could hardly imagine—and it gets smaller, cleverer, and more effective all the time. Here’s a look at some gadgets and gear that will enhance your outdoor adventures.
Personal solar power has come into its own, and you can now use your very own photovoltaic cells to recharge your devices, as long as the weather cooperates. The PowerLight Solar Charger and Lighting Kit from BioLite includes a 10 x 8" panel that soaks up free energy from the sun and stores it in a device that does double duty as a lantern and a power pack. The dimmable 200-lumen-output LED lantern casts ample light for any campsite, and if you need a more directed beam, two more LEDs in the base of the lamp work like a flashlight. There’s also a USB port where you can plug in a phone or other device; when fully charged (by sunlight or plugging in), the 4,400-mAh battery should have enough juice for three phone charges, with enough left over for illumination.
Action cameras are great for capturing memorable moments on your adventures. The Cotton Carrier POV System makes sure your GoPro, POV, or compact point-and-shoot or mirrorless camera is facing the same way you are, while leaving both hands free. Its Strapshot attachment connects to one of the straps of your backpack, and a bracket on the Strapshot holds the camera at the ready. Unlike other chest mounts, the Cotton Carrier lets you swivel the camera side-to-side and even turn it around and tilt it up to record your own reaction to the drama of the day.
A knife may be the most obviously necessary piece of outdoor gear—both the Swiss Army multi-tool style,a great selection of which is available at B&H, and fixed-blade knives. The Swedish Fire Knife from Light My Fire is a fixed-blade model with Scandinavian flair and a cool surprise: hidden within its grippy synthetic rubber handle is a fire steel. Scrape the back of the knife along the magnesium rod to create a shower of 5,400°F sparks, even in the rain. Designed by the renowned knife maker Mora of Sweden, it comes with a sheath in a range of neon-bright colors.
When it comes to portable stoves for camp or trail cooking, there are many choices, from multi-burner butane stoves for car camping to canister gas burners that take up little space in a backpack. Then there’s the Esbit Alcohol Burner Stove. Tiny, simple, and effective, this disc-shaped brass burner uses widely available denatured alcohol and creates a neat ring of cooking flame. It has a screw-on lid so you can carry unused fuel inside for the next fire. It lights simply with a match, and you can control the flame with a sliding regulator cap. You do need a stand, either purpose-made or improvised, on which to set your pot or cup.
Untreated water can spoil a backcountry outing (or a vacation overseas). You can lug in clean water, or you can carry the SteriPEN Classic 3 UV Water Purifier—a 7", 6-ounce, battery-operated “pen” that renders water safe to drink with UV light. The SteriPEN will kill 99.9% of the bacteria, viruses, and protozoa in a half liter of water in less than a minute, with no chemicals or unpleasant aftertaste. It comes with a pre-filter to strain out the larger unpleasant bits, which would otherwise interfere with the UV light doing its job.
Some backpackers have had it with sleeping on the hard ground! They’ve chosen instead to snooze and sway while suspended between two trees. Modern hammocks are lightweight and easy to carry, and offer a more restful sleep, their fans say. The Grand Trunk Ultralight Travel Hammock weighs just 12 ounces and packs down to about the size of a Nalgene water bottle, but sets up in minutes for a good night’s sleep in the wilderness or a pleasant nap in the backyard. It can support up to 200 pounds; if you need more capacity, consider the Grand Trunk Single Parachute Nylon Hammock, which supports 400 pounds.
Everybody needs a flashlight—and we’re not talking about that flimsy plastic tube full of aging D cells in your kitchen junk drawer. Consider upgrading to the Nitecore EC11 Explorer Flashlight, a 2.9" aluminum powerhouse with a maximum output of 900 lumens. It’s got five brightness settings, three strobe settings (SOS, blinking beacon, and disorienting flash) and red light that won’t disrupt your night-acclimated vision. The EC11 is designed to survive being dropped to the ground from a height of five feet or submerged as deep as six feet for 30 minutes.
A cell phone can be a handy accessory for a cyclist, as long as you don’t have to hold it in your hand. The GripTight PRO Bicycle Mount for Smartphones from Joby, the folks who brought you those Gorilla flexible tripods, holds your phone securely so you can shoot video or consult your GPS while you ride. The phone can be mounted in portrait or landscape mode, and it can be rotated and tilted as you like.
GPS technology can be everything from a convenience to a lifesaver. After all, it’s a handheld device with maps of the whole world and your position in it—a device that doesn’t rely on a mobile phone signal. Use it to find an unfamiliar address, to track your progress on a hike, or for the intriguing and increasingly popular sport of geo-caching. The Garmin eTrex 10 GPS Unit makes use of the GPS and GLONASS satellite positioning technologies, for a faster, more accurate read on your location. It’s highly water resistant, runs on two AA batteries, and comes with multiple profiles you can set up for different uses (geo-caching, fitness, automotive, etc.)
Carrying a bladder-style reservoir of drinking water is an old idea and one that afforded many a cyclist and hiker hands-free hydration. But the folks at Source Outdoor offer a different approach, one that takes the weight of the water off your back and moves it down to your hips: the Hipster Hydration Belt with Detachable Harness. Along with a 50-fluid-ounce / 1.5L reservoir, the Hipster has pockets for your phone, keys, energy gels, bike tools, and rain gear. In case you still want your back and shoulders to help carry the weight of your water and gear, the Hipster comes with a detachable harness.