Our Favorite Backpacking Gear Selections for 2021
It’s been another weird year, with more pandemic and more fires, new permit systems and crazy weather. But we still managed to get out for some good trail time and try out some of the latest backcountry gear. Here’s our picks for favorite gear of 2021.
Sea to Summit Alto TR1 UL
We spent many of our early summer backcountry outings in this ultralight solo shelter and loved it. The interior of Sea to Summit’s Alto TR1 UL boasts almost 20 square feet of area, with an impressive 42 inches of headroom, making it extra-roomy for a 1P tent. The extra space comes from its asymmetric floorplan and side alcove, which is great for gear storage and added elbow room. Plus, the 84-inch length is also great for taller occupants. The Alto’s semi-freestanding design makes if fairly quick and easy to set up, with a rain fly that can be configured for partial or full coverage. The Alto packs up in a unique multi-sack system, with separate bags for tent, fly and poles, which is advantageous if there’s limited space in your pack. For more room, or camping with a partner, check out the Alto TR2. $399
Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2 MtnGLO Solution Dye
This third iteration of one of our favorite Big Agnes tents may be their best yet! The Tiger Wall UL2 MtnGLO SD keeps the same structure and ultralight weight (2.6 lbs.) as previous models, but adds new features that make it better than ever. Start with the integrated gear bin that’s perfect for stashing gear and clothing, giving you a less-cluttered living space. Add to that the integrated MtnGLO lighting system that runs on just a couple AAA batteries, and provides a warm light for after-dark activities. Setup remains quick and easy with a single, hubbed DAC pole system, with improved rain fly attachment points and new UL Dirt Dagger stakes. And it comes with extra feels for its solution-dyed manufacturing, which conserves energy and water, while making it more durable to the elements. $449
Sierra Designs Get Down 35
For a comfortably reliable 3-season bag that won’t break the bank, we went with this lightweight bag from Sierra Designs. Unlike their more unique Cloud Bag and Backcountry Bed (both favorites), the Get Down 35 is a traditional mummy bag with a 20D ripstop polyester shell and responsibly-sourced (RDS), 550-fill DriDown insulation. Our favorite feature of the Get Down is its 2-way half zipper. This allows you to zip the bag fully closed, then when it gets too warm, unzip a bit from the lower end for a temperature regulating vent. The contoured hood cinches from both the top and bottom for a customized opening for personal comfort. The Get Down 35 weighs in around 28 ounces, and compresses small enough for easy packing without being bulky. Available in regular and long sizes. $179–$199
Big Agnes Sidewinder SL 20
Is it possible to have more than one favorite sleeping bag? We say yes. And this year we added Big Agnes’s super-comfy Sidewinder SL 20 to our list. Ergonomically-designed for side sleepers, this 650-fill DownTek mummy bag takes backcountry sleeping comfort to a whole new level. Our favorite feature is its internal-access Pillow Barn that lets you stuff your pillow in from either side, and keeps it in place. The Sidewinder’s jacket-style cinchable hood helps keep the warmth in, while moving with you as you toss and turn through the night, and the center half-zipper makes it easy to get in and out of. It’s not the lightest or most compact bag (36 ounces, and fairly bulky when compressed), but the comfy sleep it provides makes it worth packing along. Available in men’s and women’s styles. $279–$299
Montbell Seamless Down Hugger WR 900 #3
Can a baffle-less bag really keep you warm? That’s what we wondered, too. But wow, were we impressed. Out of the bag, Montbell’s Down Hugger WR 900 #3 feels unlike any other bag with its silky Gore-Tex Infinium Windstopper shell. Packed inside that seam-sealed shell is a spiderweb-like quilt of 900-fill Power EX down, with a comfort rating of 32 degrees—which we tested and were quite cozy in, from the High Sierras to the soggy Olympics. The WR 900 features a weather-resistant half-zip side, with anti-snag slider and extra-long toggles for easy zipping from inside or outside the bag. And the contoured hood cinches easily for those extra-chilly nights. Packed up, it compresses nicely to about the size of a football, and weighs just 20 ounces. Available in regular and long sizes. $449–$499
PADS & PILLOWS
Klymit Insulated Static V Luxe SL Pad
When you’re ready for king-sized sleeping comfort, without the bulk of oversized sleeping pads, pack along the Insulated Static V Luxe SL Pad from Klymit. Constructed of durable, 30D polyester, it measures a whopping 27 inches wide and 3.5 inches thick. It features a cushy, V-shaped structure to cradle your pressure points for maximum comfort, and sports unique side rails to help keep you from sliding off in the middle of the night. Plus, its huge 6.5 R-value rating makes it comfortable year-round for keeping you warm and off the ground in below-freezing temps. Weighing in at 31 ounces, it’s not the lightest sleeping pad around, but it compresses nice and small for easy packing, and the comfort you enjoy from sleeping on it is well worth the extra bit of weight—at least, we thought so! $139
Big Agnes TwisterCane BioFoam Pad
We don’t often use closed-cell foam pads for sleeping, much preferring the cushy sleeping comfort of inflatable pads, but when we heard about the unique design of the TwisterCane BioFoam Pad from Big Agnes, we had to give it a shot. It’s not the lightest foam pad (14 oz.), or the most compact (20 x 72 in.), but the concept behind it is admirable enough to concede to the extra weight and size. The TwisterCane is constructed of renewable, sugarcane-based EVA foam containing more than 60% sustainable materials. With a 0.5-inch thickness and an R-rating of just 1.7, it’s primarily a summer season pad. But it can be combined with an inflatable pad for shoulder- and cold-season use. If you like feeling good that you’re supporting responsible gear manufacturing efforts, give this pad a try. $49
Rumpl Stuffable Pillowcase
This little gem came in one of our monthly Nomadik gear boxes. Rumpl’s Stuffable Pillowcase can be crammed with anything you have handy (puffy jacket, sweater, etc.), and features a super-soft, polar fleece side for resting your head after a long day on the trail. It zips closed to keep your stuffing in place so your head stays supported and you can sleep soundly all night long. Just make sure there are no zippers or buttons facing the fleece side. For packing, just fold it up and tuck it into itself for a tight little package that weighs less than 4 ounces. Made of 100% recycled materials. $35
Therm-a-Rest Air Head Down Pillow
Good sleep on the trail is essential for long-distance endurance. That’s why we never hike without a good pillow in our sleep kit. It’s way more comfortable than a wadded up jacket—and totally worth the extra few ounces in the pack. The Therm-a-Rest Air Head Down Pillow packs up to about the size of a softball, and weighs just 5 ounces (reg. size). Just inflate it to your desired firmness and rest your head on a warm, insulated pillow for a good night’s sleep anywhere you go. After your trip, the down slipcase is removable for washing. Available in regular 15.5-inch, and large 18-inch sizes. $60–$70
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Hyperlite Mountain Gear Junction 2400
This pack was new in 2020, but it took us a while to get it into our testing lineup. Touted as a “transition” backpack, Hyperlite’s 1.9-pound Junction 2400 is designed to help long-distance hikers shift from conventional backpacking to ultralight backpacking—without having to jump into the full minimalist concept in one breath. We like the ease of the roll-top-loading main compartment, and the big side pockets for bottles, poles, etc. The large, exterior mesh pocket is great for rain gear, camp shoes, etc., and the huge waist belt pockets are fantastic for keeping small items accessible.
The harness system is where you learn to work with less, as it consists of a simple foam back panel and fairly basic shoulder and waist straps. While the Junction 2400 boasts a 40-liter, 40-pound load capacity, we found it to be more comfortable keeping our load weight much lower, thus keeping it from feeling too heavy with its minimal harness system. The Junction is constructed of Hyperlite’s durable, signature Dyneema waterproof fabric, so no need for an extra rain cover. Also available in a larger size as the 55-liter Junction 3400 for bigger, longer ventures. Unisex. $320–$355
Gregory Katmai 65
This midweight long-distance hauler was one of the most comfortable and breathable packs we hiked with this year. Weighing a modest 4.7 pounds (M/L size), Gregory’s Katmai 65 features a contoured, flexible harness that supports loads up to 45 pounds. This comes in the form of an antimicrobial mesh FreeFloat 360 back panel for superior ventilation and breathability, and adjustable auto-rotating shoulder straps and 3D Comfort Cradle hipbelt. All of these are adjustable for a fully customized fit that helps the Katmai move with you as you twist and turn down the trail.
The Katmai’s large main compartment can be accessed via the top load opening, the lower sleeping bag compartment, or the wide side zip opening. This gives you access to whatever you need at any time. It can easily accommodate a bear canister if needed. There’s also plenty of pockets for keeping gear organized and accessible, including large exterior stretch and zip pockets, generous hipbelt pockets, and a floating lid with three zip compartments. Our favorite feature: the angled bottle holster. For bigger waist sizes, check out the Katmai 65 Plus. Men’s. $280
Osprey Aether Plus 70
For most of our bigger hikes this year, we hit the trail in Osprey’s Aether Plus 70. This beefy pack has everything you need to go the distance—and then some! With more pockets and stash spaces than we could fill, the Aether Plus is the gear organizer’s dream. The huge main compartment has a sleeve for a hydration system, and is expandable for larger loads (including carrying a bear canister). Our favorite feature is the Aether’s removable DayLid daypack. This detaches from the main pack and is perfect for peak-bagging and side trips. A rain cover is included and stashes underneath.
When fully loaded, the Aether Plus 70 can accommodate loads up to 60 pounds. This is thanks to its LightWire Frame system, with ventilated AirScape back panel and Fit-on-the-Fly hipbelt and shoulder straps. Out of the gate, we found the Aether Plus to be a little stiff. But this eased up once we started packing on the miles, and it eventually became quite comfortable for a heavy, 6.2-pound pack (L/XL size). The Aether Plus is available in sizes ranging from 60L for shorter treks, to 100L for the big, long hauls. A similar model is available as the women’s Ariel Plus, in 60L to 85L sizes. $340–390.
Mountain Hardwear PCT 65 (W's)
If you’re going to go and name your backpack after the famed Pacific Crest Trail, you can expect us to give it a once-over—and we did just that! Mountain Hardwear’s new PCT 65 features many of the details you would expect in a long-distance pack, along with some innovative new features. Most we liked. A few took a little getting used to. First, we give it props for being constructed of 100% recycled ripstop nylon fabric, which helps keep its weight down to a light 2.6 pounds (S/M size). Loads are supported by its pivoting hipbelt and ventilated back panel, which are tailored specifically for men or women users.
It took a few passes to efficiently load the PCT 65, as its pocket configuration is quite unique. The main compartment is large enough for most of the big stuff, and huge dual-entry side pockets can accommodate tents and sleeping pads—in addition to other things! On the front is a compressible, multipurpose stash/zip pocket for essentials or other items, and the floating lid features two zip compartments. The sweetest feature is the removable hydration sleeve which doubles as an ultralight summit pack. Available in men’s and women’s sizes and styles. $280–$300
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