It’s SectionHiker.com’s 10th anniversary this year. During that time, I’ve hiked a lot of miles and written a lot of backpacking gear reviews, including gear that could now be considered vintage, since it’s no longer made. I find it fascinating to trace the evolution of different backpacking and hiking gear designs over time and see how they evolve as manufacturing materials and processes change. I took a lot of art and architectural history classes in college and was always enthralled by that sort of thing. Here’s a selection of some of most historically significant products I’ve used and reviewed, with links to the original gear reviews.
Brooks Range Mountaineering Rocket Tent
The Brooks Range Mountaineering Rocket Tent was a 22 oz, 2 person, trekking-pole winter tent made with aluminized cuben fiber. It was pretty innovative for its time, but ultimately failed because of manufacturing and material defects. Priced at $549, it was considered very expensive in 2011. Compare that to the price of DFC (formerly called cuben fiber) tents today, if you want a laugh.
The Original Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Sleeping Pad
The original Therm-a-Rest NeoAir kicked off the inflatable air mattress/sleeping pad revolution in 2009. Backpacking has never been the same since. That first NeoAir weighed 14 oz, it had an R-value of 2.5, and was 2 and a half inches thick. Before the NeoAir, most backpackers still slept on foam or self-inflating sleeping pads. The original NeoAir was subsequently end-of-lifed and replaced by the NeoAir XLite, which weighed 12 oz and had an R-value of 3.2.
Zpacks Blast 32 Backpack
The ZPacks Blast 32 was a precursor to the current generation of ZPacks Blast external frame backpacks that the company sells today. It had a pretty standard ultralight backpacking design with two side mesh pockets. The interesting thing about this pack was the fact that it had external cuben fiber stays in the corners that you could add to the pack to help prevent torso collapse when carrying heavier loads. They worked rather poorly actually and always popped out of their velcro holders, but they were an early iteration of ZPacks external frame concept.
The Tarptent Squall 2
The Tarptent Squall 2 was one of the first tents made by Henry Shires at Tarptent.com. It was a spacious and well-ventilated single-walled, two-person trekking pole tent that weighed 34 oz and cost $230 in 2009. The Squall 2’s design embodied many of the design elements that are common in ultralight backpacking tent to this day, including a front beak, floating floor, and catenary cut ceiling. Tarptent halted the Squall 2’s manufacture a few years ago, but you can still download Henry’s plans to make a similar tent from thru-hiker.com.
The Sierra Designs Mojo 2
The Sierra Designs Mojo 2 was a 2-person hybrid single wall/double wall design that looked like something out of Tolkein, but was actually quite a livable tent. It failed in the market because mainstream buyers were freaked out by the exposed portion of the inner tent. While the 3 lb 2 oz Mojo 2 was made with conventional materials, Sierra Designs also had a few prototypes made up in cuben fiber. Compare this to the ho-hum dome-style tents made by Sierra Designs today.
The REI Dash 2 Ultralight Tent
The REI Dash 2 is still the lightest weight tent ever sold under the REI brand at 2 lbs 7 oz and was quite similar in outward appearance to the Sierra Designs Mojo 2, described above. It had two vestibules but was still a tight fit for two people. It never gained much traction in the market though, probably due to its odd appearance and partially exposed inner tent.
Garmin Geko 301 GPS
The Geko 301 was a great little monochrome-screen GPS sold by Garmin that could fit in the palm of your hand. While it was rudimentary by today’s standards and could only store 500 waypoints or 20 routes, it was a great way to get a position fix when used with a map. I especially liked the feature that would let you switch between country-specific coordinate systems (the equivalent of UTM coordinates) when I hiked across Scotland the first time in 2010 and could use OS Grid coordinates the confirm my location. I bought mine refurbished back in 2009 for $99, but you can find them for even less today on eBay.
Six Moon Designs Starlite Backpack
The Six Moon Designs Starlite Backpack was my first ultralight backpack and had a strong following in the ultralight backpacking community. It had an adjustable length torso, an internal sleeping pad pocket located behind the shoulder pads, a large stretch mesh front pocket, a long side tent pocket (like the Gossamer Gear Mariposa) and large hip belt pockets. I hiked mine to death. It’s too bad that Six Moons killed the design. It’d probably do very well today with updated fabrics and materials, and a male and female build. Six Moon Designs is the one of the only UL backpack manufacturers that’s consistently offered backpacks with adjustable length torsos, when there’s such a crying need for it.
The Kelty Cloud Backpack
The Kelty Cloud was ahead of its time. This all white backpack was made with Spectra fabric, an ultra high molecular weight polyethylene, similar to Dyneema DCF (formerly called cuben fiber). Kelty made numerous versions of The Cloud, which have since become collectors items. The model shown above was highly modular, with different external pocket configurations that could be mixed and matched for different needs. It had a base weight of just 20 ounces, which was pretty impressive for a 66L internal frame backpack made in the 1990’s.
Jetboil Sol Ti Backpacking Stove
The 9.9 oz Jetboil Sol Ti was Jetboil’s attempt at including titanium in its product line of camping stoves. If you’ve ever used one of their stoves, they use aluminum cook pots that have an aluminum heat exchanger welded to the bottom. This helps retain the heat of the flame to make the burner more efficient, and acts as a sort of wind shield. The Sol Ti stove was different because it had a titanium cookpot, to reduce the weight of the system, which was welded to the aluminum heat exchanger. JetBoil had to pull the product from the market for safety reasons because the welds holding the heat exchanger would melt if the cook pot got too hot. This could happen if you cooked or boiled something besides liquid water in the pot. While Jetboil supposedly warned people not to do this, they did it anyway. People are like that.
Therm-a-Rest Haven Sleeping Bag
The Haven was one of Therm-a-Rest’s earliest attempt to create an ultralight quilt, but one that stayed true to the hooded mummy design pattern. It was lightweight but tight-fitting and hard to get in and out of. Alas, the world wasn’t ready for a hooded quilt-style sleeping bag and the product failed.
Inov-8 Terroc 33o Trail Runners
The Inov-8 Terroc 330 Trail Runner was a backpacker favorite in the UK until Inov-8 changed turned it purple and completely changed the product design. It was the first trail runner I switched to from hiking boots and I went through many pairs of them. It was perfect for hiking in Scotland because it drained quickly and had excellent sticky traction
The reason manufacturers keep the same product names when they change a product, often drastically, has to do with Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Once a name gets lodged into Google’s search index and people’s heads, the marketing people want to keep it alive because they know people will keep searching on the term, even if it’s a very different ‘updated’ product in every other respect.
Scarpa Omega Mountaineering Boots
Scarpa’s Omega Mountaineering Boots were one of the only plastic boots available that were not shaped like cinder blocks, but like real boots. They weighed 5.2 pounds and ran for $360/pair back in the day. Plastic boots were popular before the advent of lighter weight winter footwear and traction-aids like Kahtoola Microspikes came on the scene because they were super warm (down to -35 below zero), and completely waterproof.
The Omegas were popular with walkers as well as ice climbers because they were so agile and had the requisite front and rear welts required for step-in crampons. The boots consisted of an outer plastic shell and a separate insulated liner, made by Intuition. I wore mine for about 5 winters until I blew out the liner. By then Scarpa had dropped most of their plastic boots and stopped selling replacement liners, in favor of lightly insulated Gortex mountaineering, integrated with a high insulated gaiter/overboot for extreme cold. I still have my Omega shells buried in my gear closet, but I wear very lightweight, waterproof, insulated boots for winter hiking now, like virtually everyone else.