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SectionHiker.com’s Readers’ Choice Hiking and Backpacking Gear Awards for 2014

SectionHiker.com Reader's Choice Hiking and Backpacking Gear Awards 2014

Early this year, I decided to collect gear recommendations from my readers, collate them, and start publishing an annual list of the gear that you use and recommend. I got tired of reading product reviews from magazines and other gear review sites that looked like they’d never used the gear they were recommending. So I decided it would be good to turn the tables, and let the people who have to buy the gear, ie. my readers, have their voices heard for a change.

The products listed below are ones that multiple readers have recommended time and again as best-in-category in reader polls and comments on SectionHiker.com. I’ve only included products where there was a clear reader consensus, and if there are missing categories below, it’s because no such consensus was expressed. While I use some of the products listed here myself, these are your gear recommendations, not mine. Still, I think these are all quality products, tried and true by the hiking and backpacking community, and best buys.

Best Backpacks

Best Tents, Shelters, and Hammocks

Best Sleeping Bags and Quilts

Best Sleeping Pads

Best Hiking Rain Gear

Best Hiking Boots and Trail Runners

Best Camping Stoves

Best Hiking Socks

Best Headlamps

Best Water Filters and Purifiers

Best Underwear and Base Layers

Best Hiking Pants

Feel free to leave a comment below if I missed any gear that you feel should be added to this list of reader recommended products!


  1. Interesting that Zpaks didn’t make it in any category.

    • This is what readers recommended enmasse. I don’t have anything against Zpacks.com packs or other products personally. I’ve owned them. I think what you’re seeing is that the majority of SectionHiker readers aren’t pure ultralight backpackers, which is fine with me because too much emphasis on gear weight gets rather tiresome.

      • Agreed! Weight is part of a three sided equation for me. My first priority is utility, then it’s a contest between cost and weight.

      • Exactly. That’s how I see it too. The trick is figuring out what counts as utility for your specific needs. That’s where it can get tricky.

      • I prefer a 4 sided approach. Weight, Cost, Utility and Comfort. I’m not going to sacrifice comfort to save 2 oz

  2. Some products can make my wallet ultralight… but that’s not really utility for me since I don’t take my wallet on the trail!

  3. I see you put my Sahara pants recommendation on here! Love those pants! I find it funny that I own a good amount of this stuff lol. All great products, I have the water filter, pants, BA sleeping pad, headlamp…I guess I made some good decisions in my purchases. I try to buy good quality stuff once and not gather a bunch of useless junk in my closet that I’ll either never use or will break. Quality over quantity.

  4. I have at least seven of the items mentioned here and am now perusing a few others… gotta keep that wallet ultralight!

  5. Interesting that the Asolo TPS 520 hiking boots are on the list because I keep hearing about problems with the sole coming off in less than a year and that the quality in these boots is not what it used to be.

    • These are all reader recommendations. I think people like the fit of the Asolos. Don’t know if have quality issues now though. Perhaps a current owner can comment.

      • The reviews I’ve read say it’s a really comfy boot and fits well, just some quality issues with the sole. Might try a pair to see how heavy they are.

      • I’ve had the same pair of Asolos for five years. They are my winter boots for walking and snowshoeing. Aside from the laces I have had zero problems.

    • I currently wear these Asolos, I’ve had this pair for 2.5 years and about 375 miles. They’re a very comfortable fit for me and I’ve had no problems with the quality. Only thing that’s needed repairs so far is the laces.

      • I’ve owned 3 pairs – but that was a few years ago. They are MOST popular boot in the White Mountains. Everyone who wears boots wears them or custom Limmers.

  6. Good Afternoon: Being on a budget I was happy to see I came close on a couple of items; Sawyer Mini, Darn Tough Merino Wool Micro ( I have been wearing them during training. Very comfortable) Marmot Aegis Jacket is awesome stood out in a Florida downpour for 5 minutes and stayed dry as a bone.

  7. Wow, It’s amazing that the Osprey Atmos 65 is even on the list. It’s the worse pack I’ve ever owned. It’s the only item I’ve ever returned to REI. It’s heavy, has WAY too many zippers and useless pockets, and it is impossible to get a water bottle into or out of the side pockets. The hip pockets are so small and poorly designed that the pack would be better if it didn’t have hip belt pockets. This pack is the epitome of marketing over function.

    The ULA Circuit, however, is the best pack I’ve ever owned and it’s what replaced the Atmos. Simple, functional design without useless gimmicks. It does what it’s suppose to do and it does it well.

  8. Whew had me worried there for a moment thinking i got sucked in by the Marketing Maggots, but what a relief as I kept reading…..Thanks Philip….I agree about your observations about those Magazines and websites…I’ve been kicked off a number of them for “outing” them a number of times. It was odd that on a couple of occasions they were allegedly camping in almost the same spot I was on the PCT…and I never saw or heard them, nor were they signed into the trail registeres…..Remember though, those Magazines and Sites only exist due to the Money the Marketing Departments “award them” for going along with thier B.S. otherwise as I understand some minor blackmail was going on a number of years ago,,either change your reivews or lose our advertising and well you know who won out…..and that is why I call them Marketing Maggots..low lifes…and why I jumped on you due to the verbage on another post this week….Sorry about that…

  9. I like the version of the Patagonia capilene silkweight crew from several years ago with the seam at the top of shoulder. The newer versions drop that seam down about an inch. That places the seam on my collarbone where my pack shoulder strap crosses it. The new position chafes significantly between the collarbone and the shoulder strap. The old position across the top doesn’t chafe under the strap.

  10. I have the Atmos and am about to give up on it. I don’t care about the zippers, but agree that the side pockets are completely aggravating, almost useless. Clearly, Osprey designed it with bladders in mind more than bottles, but I generally prefer bottles while backpacking. The hip pockets are fine for my purposes – camera in one, cliff bar and lip balm in the other.

    I may give up on it because the fit somehow bothers me, mostly in the hips. It’s has a rigid rounded shape around the hips and I find it makes my ass sore.

    I had an Aether before – too heavy and I didn’t like the shoulder straps. My favorite pack, by far, is my Osprey Kestrel 38. I’ve loaded that thing down with way more load than it should have, for backpacking, ski hut tours and other activities. The comfort is perfect. But it’s too small for multi-night trips.

    • ” The hip pockets are fine for my purposes – camera in one, cliff bar and lip balm in the other.”

      Mark, you would love the hip pockets on the ULA Circuit. I can fit my camera, mini tripod, map, compass, a pair of gloves, a fleece beanie, my phone and my keys in ONE of the pockets.

      It’s also over a pound lighter. But yes, those side pockets are incredibly useless. I even emailed Osprey about them and they said they were designed for tent poles, not water bottles. However, they will sell you a water bottle holder for some extra cash and half a pound of weight. Yep, it’s a pack designed to not hold water bottles.

  11. This is a great post. I love how it gives voice to the reader’s preference. Phillip, I would also love to see your top choices each year. Kind of like a “best of”. I feel like you probably test more gear than anyone out there and you are extremely honest with your reviews (you have no advertising so there isn’t pressure from marketing). I’m just really curious what your personal picks would be.

    • Oh yeah. I’ll do that too. Been trying to decide how to format it, since I so many different kinds of trips.

      • Maybe do 2 sections, one for winter and one for 3-season with day hike and backpacking categories. I know the 3-season is much more applicable to me down here in NC. Most of the winter stuff recommended I never need.

  12. I’m surprised that more people don’t recommend the ExOfficio Give’n’go boxer briefs (or the women’s versions of the underwear – they even make lacey ones, which I hear are still quite comfortable). These underwear dry quickly, don’t smell, and I’ve never had a chafing problem in them. Otherwise, some decent recommendations (and a number of questionable ones, but I roll a little differently than the typical backpacker).

  13. I like the list. I own more then a few of the items. Plus I’ve seen a few more items I own in the comments. Its good to know that I ended up with respectable equipment.

  14. Asolo is one of the manufacturers that caters to narrow feet. That’s why I swear by the Asolo 520s for cold weather and bushwhacking/ mudwading. I have happily started using some Salewa Firetails (“approach shoe”-like) for lightweight three-season good weather shoes with nice grip on rocks, but they are awful in mud, lugs not designed for mud.

    Here’s a second recommendation for the Ex-Officio underwear, in my case, the women’s briefs. After having hiked with soggy rained on cotton undies (prune butt), I decided that I needed to have some quick-drying undies.

    Big Agnes Q-core insulated pad is ridiculously warm and cosy, though a bit heavy (R value ~5). Use this gadget to inflate: http://www.tahoemountainsports.com/product/camp-tek-microburst Works best with lithium batteries.Takes about 5 minutes.

    Osprey Ariel 65, the women’s version of the Atmos, comes in XS adjustable to 14″ torso length. It is true that there are a few too many bells and whistles, but the thing sticks to my back and feels decent, and it has a front panel access zipper so I can reach camera lenses. I will see how well I like it this winter. Not a lot of choices out there in 14″ torso length, other than youth packs, and of the packs that were in stores (for fitting), Ariel and Gregory Wander were best.

  15. The zpack hexamed duo is the best person tent I have ever owned and I have had most of the brands on your tent list. It has room, it has two vestibules, it has two doors and is extremely light. Cuben fiber is great in the rain because it doesn’t sag or stretch.

  16. This is an excellent list. Well done. I’ve been following SectionHikers.com closely and have purchased one of the items in just about every category. The exceptions are my MSR Hubba 1 tent and WrightSocks escapes. My Enlightened Equipment Enigma quilt is close to your listing. Again, well done.

  17. I agree: good list, Philip. The gear your readers collectively write about carries more weight (pardon the pun) than isolated reviews. And being lightweight–not ultralight–keeps the gear in the “sane” category.

    Here’s three surprising pieces of gear that have revolutionized my backpacking:

    1) Prana Stretch Zion pants ($80, but $50 on sale). That 3% spandex makes ALL THE DIFFERENCE in comfort! I wear these pants everywhere: hiking, backpacking, work, church! They make me look classy while being so comfy and practical. I don’t even miss the zips. Occasionally I roll them up and use the “wading height” snaps on the calves.

    2) Merrell Glove Ascend Gore-Tex shoes ($160, but $50 on clearance). I got a pair of Gloves just for river crossings but started wearing them everyday, and to my surprise, my feet–which have been encased in boots for decades–adjusted just fine! Now I am nimble and amazingly, my feet NO LONGER HURT, even after backpacking 35 miles in the Wind River Range. The Gore-Tex version kept my feet dry during rain storms (but some water did come in over the lowcut heels). They dry incredibly fast. Sadly, Merrell has discontinued the Ascend line, but they are coming out with a new GTX “semi-minimal” shoe next year, they tell me.

    3) ZPacks quilt ($450). Okay, yes, this one will also lighten your wallet! But at 57, having had back surgery a year ago, I decided the time had come to seriously lighten my pack without giving up comfort. This hoodless bag unzips like a quilt. I use a balaclava and zip it shut around my neck on really cold nights. 10 degree rating for 23 oz (for the wide & long, even though I’m only 5′ 8″–the extra room is so worth it). Compresses down to almost nothing.

    Other light gear included the Granite Gear Crown VC 60, ThermaRest XTherm, and Tarptent Double Rainbow. Shaved about 8 pounds off my already decent base weight (and $1000 off my bank account…but worth every penny). I learned about the Crown VC and Double Rainbow from this website!

  18. As a woman with deformed feet, it has been a chore to find something fits and accommodates my bunions and hammertoes. Recent foot surgery has corrected much, but as I am still in a post-op boot, I am not going amywhere anytime soon. The doc has said that I will continue to need shoes and boots that are wide enough without being too long. Here is my vote for the MEN’S Merrell Ventilator Moab -a sturdy yet flexible shoe, with great traction. The women’s version is much too narrow for me and men’s version easily accommodate’s my posted orthotics with metatarsal pad. I take a men’s 8 1/2 or 9, and they have been fine for 3-4 hour hikes. Just my two cents!

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