Gear Up: High-Tech Sleeping Bags, Tents, Backpacks & Camping Stoves

Sleeping bags that resist the moisture that typically ruins traditional down models, tents that are lighter than ever before and active-suspension backpacks that allow for more freedom of movement lead the list of the latest camping-gear innovations.

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Waking up outside is one of the best feelings in the world, but it can be ruined if the plumes that are in your down sleeping bag get wet and collapse into a soggy mess that doesn’t retain any heat. In the past 2 years, 12 manufacturers introduced sleeping bags that are made out of hydrophobic, or water-resistant, down that’s treated with polymers to prevent it from absorbing water.

Mind you, sleeping bags that have hydrophobic down aren’t waterproof. We found that they still get soaked if they’re exposed to a downpour or if you hold them underwater. However, we found that these models resist the typical moisture, such as sweat and condensation that’s inside of the tent, that causes the plumes that are in traditional-down sleeping bags to collapse. We expect most manufacturers to switch most of their traditional-down products to hydrophobic down in the next few years.

“[Hydrophobic] down is definitely here to stay,” says David Clucas, who is the deputy editor of SNEWS, which reports on outdoor-industry news.

What’s best of all is that sleeping bags that have hydrophobic down typically cost only $30 more than do sleeping bags that have traditional down. So you’ll shell out a little more money, but we believe that you’ll get a product that performs better in a wider variety of climates. We expect that price gap to narrow by about $15 in the next 2 years.

Sleeping bags aren’t the only camping products that were improved via a dose of high tech. The latest tents are lighter to carry and are more stable in the rain and wind. The latest internal-frame backpacks have suspension systems that are designed to provide more freedom of movement. Finally, we found that manufacturers now make women’s gear that actually accounts for the differences between a man’s and a woman’s body shape.

LIGHT IS RIGHT. In the past 5 years, all manufacturers modified their tent designs in all price ranges to require less material and, thus, to weigh less. Instead of a rectangular floor shape, the latest backpacking tents are narrower at the foot than at the head. They also have a shorter height and, therefore, shorter tent poles. As a result, today’s backpacking tents are lighter and less expensive than ever before.

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Tent poles also are lighter and stronger. Most tents now use tent poles that are made out of lightweight, thin aluminum. However, three manufacturers, Easton, Fibraplex and TentPole Technologies, now make tents that start around $300 that use carbon-fiber tent poles. We found that carbon-fiber tent poles weigh typically half as much as do aluminum tent poles and provide just as much stability in high wind and inclement weather. The manufacturers tell us that carbon-fiber tent poles deliver four times as much material strength (read: more stability) as do aluminum tent poles, but we didn’t find any independent testing that confirms that claim. We found that aluminum poles bend and snap more easily than do carbon-fiber poles when they’re placed underneath something that’s heavy or when they’re stepped on.

In the past 3 years, nine companies introduced ultralight tents that start at $150 that use trekking poles instead of tent poles to frame the tent. We found that this design cuts down on backpack weight by at least 10 ounces. The drawback, however, is that the tents aren’t freestanding; they must be erected by using guylines and tent stakes. We found that when the ground is frozen, hard, rocky or sandy, staking a trekking-pole tent is difficult. Therefore, if you believe that you’ll have to pitch a tent on a tough surface, you should avoid buying a trekking-pole tent.

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