I still remember the first jacket I tested when I got started in the outdoor industry. It was a custom Eddie Bauer Microtherm Stormdown, a jacket they’d made for a long time but had begun allowing people to customize. I had never owned anything that fancy for hiking, so I spent hours trying to create a color combination that was both unique and practical—something that was the sort of “loud” that still manages to match everything. Eventually, I settled on burnt orange with panels of race-car red, which, admittedly, is more the sort of loud that shouts “you will never lose me in an avalanche or a crowded parking lot.”
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When I got that jacket, I was told it would be the first of many in my career as a gear tester, and that I wouldn’t always get attached to gear because it would come and go so quickly. I didn’t believe it at the time, as I was quite a penny-pinching 24-year-old deep in student debt, and I couldn’t fathom having outdoor gear to spare. But they were right—when you’re a product tester writing reviews of hiking and camping gear, you test an awful lot of stuff. So when something stands out and becomes a non-negotiable staple for your camping kit or your suitcase, that means it’s really, really good.
Here are a few of those reality good things—some of my all-time favorites. These jackets, shoes, backpacks, and accessories aren’t new—and that’s what makes them great. In many cases, I’ve been traveling with these things for five or more years, walking hundreds if not thousands of miles. If they weren’t so durable, I’d wear them straight into the ground. But in spite of being shoved into and pulled out of backpacks and suitcases for years on end, these items are still going strong.
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I’m constantly evaluating whether an item deserves its weight in my suitcase. I want clothes that are truly versatile, clothes that serve at least two purposes. So, I’ve become a bit of a merino wool evangelist. I can’t remember the last time I traveled without my black Ibex Women’s Essentials Cami, which I will happily wear for two weeks straight without washing it. It’s merino wool and extremely comfortable. It’s great as a baselayer or a sleep top, and it gets away as a business-friendly or club-friendly top when paired with the right skirt or pants. My Ibex Shak Jacket, as well as my Fjällräven Sörmland V-Neck merino wool sweater, are also indispensable for the same reasons—so cozy, yet so practical.
I’ve packed the Toad&Co Sunkissed Maxi Dress nearly everywhere I’ve gone for the last four or five years, thanks to its lightweight, quick-dry, wrinkle-resistant material and clever pocket construction (the right-hand pocket has a secret zipper compartment where you can store keys and credit cards without worrying it might fall out of your pocket). I also rarely travel without my Cotopaxi Teca Windbreaker, which packs down roughly to the size of a deck of cards and is a super-cheery splash of color.
Ever since I hiked part of the King’s Trail in Sweden on the Fjällräven Classic last summer, my go-to travel uniform has become my Abisko Trekking Tights Pro and Keb Fleece Hoodie over that Ibex cami—easily the two most flattering pieces of hiking apparel I own, because they just fit so well. Having a trail outfit that’s also comfy on long flights and train rides is fantastic, because it cuts down on what I need to pack. All of these repel odors, so you can travel or hike for several days without worrying too much about getting smelly.
It’s really, really hard to beat a good pair of Birkenstocks. I just recently replaced my first pair, the Mayari style with a toe loop, which lasted me for five years of very hard use. I’m also a huge fan of Chaco ZX/1 Cloud sandals, which are a do-it-all outdoor shoe, and Glerups, which are Danish wool felt slippers. They quickly mold to your feet and, because they’re made of breathable wool, will keep your feet quite happy temperature-wise nearly any time of year. You might think they’d be sweaty, but they’re not—they’re a great house shoe, travel shoe, or camping shoe.
On the trail, I find it really hard to beat my Danner Mountain 600s, which felt great as soon as I took them out of the box and have carried me thousands of miles on at least three continents for the last six years.
Must-Have Accessories and Camping Gear
My Fjällräven Totepack No. 1 (yes, I know, I really like their stuff) is the ultimate travel accessory: It’s a carry-on bag, it’s a shopping tote, it’s a daypack if you rearrange the straps, and it has a surprisingly large capacity. When empty, it rolls up nicely to store inside a suitcase or duffel if you don’t need it for transit.
I’m also a huge fan of the collapsible Vapur water bottle, which has a much better spout than most other flat-pack water bottles I’ve tried, and MiiR’s tiny, 8 oz Tumbler. The tumbler is probably the least practical thing on this list, because it doesn’t have a lockable lid, but even still, I use it all the time and it travels with me everywhere. I adore it.
Finally, as for camping, I love the Revel Gear Trail Hound string lights, which are USB-powered and great for lighting up a campsite. You’ll need to buy a power pack separately, but the lights themselves pack down roughly to the size of a deck of cards. I love stringing them up inside a tent so I can read without a headlamp.I’ve been camping with a Campforter sleeping bag from The North Face since 2015. It unzips into two separate pieces, so you can use part of it as a blanket by the campfire or convert it into a flat-ish blanket for two if you’re sharing an air mattress with a partner. They don’t make my exact model anymore, which is tragic, but for a similar effect I can highly recommend the Rumpl Down Puffy Blanket. It’s a great sleep setup for two people on a warmer night of camping, and it’s also cozy to use around the house.