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Summer Outdoor Retailer: Pads, Packs, Pants, a Platinum Tent, Magnetic 'Biners

In sleeping pads, air is the new self-inflating foam.

Therm-A-Rest, creator of the self-inflating open-cell foam pad which enjoyed enormous popularity among backpackers for decades, will mark its 40th anniversary in 2012. Yet even that iconic brand is putting plenty of effort into its air pad offerings.

Imagine: Its original air pad, the game-changing NeoAir, was introduced in early 2009. That original design will be mothballed in 2012 and replaced by 3 new models.

Other air-pad makers have updated designs on deck, too. Even REI will introduce its own backpacker's air mattress next year. What makes them so popular? They're light, cushy and pack small. If you don't yet own one, maybe 2012 is your year. Here's what's coming in January:

REI's Rick Meade checks out a NeoAir XLiteTHERM-A-REST

NeoAir XLite: The full-length (72" version) cuts weight by rounding the corners around the head and tapering the foot section. It retains the 2.5" cushion of the original NeoAir, cuts the weight to 12 ounces (from 14) and ups its insulating capability with an R-Value of 3.2 from 2.5. How? With an upgraded reflective film barrier that separates the top and bottom air chambers, according to Doug Jacot, Therm-A-Rest vice president. The 47" version, by the way, is listed at just 8 ounces. Note: R-Values (insulating capacity) for pads range from 1.0 (low) to 9.5 (very high).

Women's NeoAir XLite:  It measures 66" long, 2.5" thick, weighs 12 ounces and includes 2 reflective films (in the middle and near the bottom) to create 3 air chambers and an R-Value of 3.9. A print pattern on top offers slight slip resistance.

NeoAir XTherm: Targeted for cold-weather use, the XTherm includes 4 reflective films (and thus 5 air chambers) for an R-Value of 5.7. Jacot says it has been tested at -20F in Denali. The 72" version, with 2.5" thickness, is listed at 15 ounces.

Therm-A-Rest will also offer a limited-run 40th Anniversary Edition self-inflating foam pad. Jacot says it includes a new foam core (2" thick) "that is the lightest ever." Available only during 2012, the pad (in the brand's throwback rust-orange color) offers a retro Therm-A-Rest logo, a glow-in-the-dark valve, matching stuff sack, repair kit and an individual serial number. Men's 72" version: 24 ounces, with an R-Value of 4.0. Women's 66": 23 ounces (4.8 R-Value).

Are foam pads soon to be obsolete? "I don't believe foam's on the way out," Jacot said, "but air is absolutely becoming a major player. The foam mattresses, I believe, are still a more stable sleep surface. Some people don't like the little bit of bounce and rock you tend to get with air mattresses. The foam design has been proven over 40 years. These are really durable products, and that's because the foam is bonded everywhere to the fabric. I think there's a big market for air pads, but I don't think foam's dead."


Len Zanni with a Q-Core padQ-Core: The story here is the 3.5" cushion, the thickest so far of any backpacking air pad, on a 72" mattress with a respectable weight (21 ounces) and surprising packability.

The Q-Core features a top surface with a quilted appearance. Garth Evans, Big Agnes sales manager, says that's due to a seam-welding process that integrates vertical and horizontal tube architecture. "You get the firmness of horizontal tubes, the comfort and cushion of a vertical and back support because of the quilting."

The edge horizontal tubes are 4" thick, a potential boon to restless sleepers who sometimes roll off pads. R-Value: 4.1. A reflective silver filament is woven into the pad's interior layer of polyester insulation to boost warmth.


Downmat UL 7: Swiss-based Exped, headed by founder Andy Brun, adds a winter-oriented mat to its ultralight lineup. The Downmat UL 7 measures 2.8" thick (that's 7cm; hence the number in the name) and weighs in at 20 ounces for a 72" model. Insulated with 750-fill-power goose down, the pad's R-Value is 5.9. An accompanying photo offers a cutaway view of a Downmat chamber, showing that the chambers are packed with down. "When you squeeze a chamber for the first time, you think there's nothing in there," said Kaj Bune, Exped's North American marketing director. "In reality, there's lots of down inside."

Side view of Downmat UL 7The UL version saves weight by swapping out the integrated hand pump (found on Exped's larger Downmats) with a large, drybag-like stuff sack that Exped whimsically calls its schnozzle pump back. "We called it the schnozzle when we were developing it, and we just decided to name it that," said Bune. Attach the nozzle to the pad's valve, capture a bag full of air and push it into the pad via the schnozzle. Bune estimates 2 or 3 bursts can fill a Downmat UL 7.

Be aware, Bune emphasizes, that the Downmat UL 7 is an ultralight product, The exteriors of Exped's original Downmats, the Downmat 7 and Downmat 9, use a beefy 75-denior nylon; the UL version uses 20-denier fabric.

"When you take that fabric weight down you lose durability," Bune said. "It's the same in tents. You reduce the weight and the fabric's UV resistance goes down. So the UL mat definitely does not make the standard Downmats obsolete by any stretch of the imagination.

"On a mountaineering expedition to Antarctica that's 3 weeks long, you would want to invest in the beefier shell fabric," he said. "If, on the other hand, you're trying to minimize your pack weight to the lowest weight possible, like doing a quick summit, climbing Mount Rainier or doing an overnight backcountry skiing trip, the UL pad is for that person. It has that great R-Value, so people trying to go light and fast on snow now have an option."

VIDEO: For a video of the Exped Downmat UL 7 and other products listed in this post, visit REI's YouTube channel.

Osprey Poco Child Carrier

Osprey Poco PremiumAvailable exclusively at REI in January, the deluxe Osprey Poco child carrier offers 3 designs:

Premium: Adjustable torso length (simple to switch the harness to fit mom or dad), adjustable hipbelt, adjustable child's cockpit (accommodates children up to 45 pounds), shoulder-strap buckles that attach out of a child's reach, detachable day pack, diaper change pad, hideaway sunshade; $299.

Plus: Same as above without the change pad or the detachable pack; $259.

Basic: Same as the Plus with a little less storage, no adjustment in the hipbelt and no sunshade; $199.

For a closer look, view REI's video guide to the Poco. Check out the hideaway sunshade.

Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 Platinum Tent

It's an eye-popper: a freestanding 2-person tent with a feathery trail weight of just 33 ounces (1 lb. 13 oz.). It's price also gets a person's attention: $499.95. But in the unending race to shrink the weight of 2-wall tents, the innovative folks at Big Agnes whittled down the ounces by making the canopy nearly all mesh and reducing the remaining fabric to a infinitesimal denier rating known only to the wizards at BA.

Co-founder Bill Gamber is the wisecracking wizard-in-chief at Big Agnes, and he declines to divulge the exact specs that make the Fly Creek 2 Platinum so light yet backcountry-worthy. The well-received Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 uses lightweight 20-denier nylon for its floor, and Gamber says the Platinum uses even lighter fabric. Just how much lighter he isn't willing to say.

"They make lighter fabrics than 20-denier that are very durable and strong, and expensive," Gamber said. How about that gossamer-like mesh, Bill? "It's not 15-denier," he said with a conspiratorial expression, "and 20's heavier." He does concede that the 4-ounce footprint is 20-denier. "It really didn't make that much sense to make a $110 footprint that saves you maybe half an ounce," Gamber said.

Bill Gamber inside a Fly Creek 2 Platinum tentThe poles—thicker diameter, thinner walls—also knock off a few ounces. "Diameter is a big factor in stiffness and strength," said tent designer Bob Swanson, "and the wall thickness relative to that is a little less important, so if you go with a larger diameter/thinner-wall design you can save around 15% in weight."

The Platinum and the Fly Creek UL2 (86" long and 56" at the head end of a tapering design) share the same floor plan, which means both tents present a really cozy fit for 2 adults. Plus, interior space is optimized only if the foot-end corners are tautly staked out. Can a sub-2 pound tent hold up?

"Absolutely," Gamber said. "We sent it with our buddy Trauma (urban name: Justin Lichter, of Northern California) on his 3000-kilometer Himalayan traverse. So he was camping in it at 20,000 feet in snowstorms. Obviously it's not intended for that use, but it was a great test for it." Any problems? "There was one little issue that didn't affect performance," Gamber said. "It's insanely durable for how light it is. You've got to care for it, no doubt.

"This is as trim as it gets," Gamber said, "but I've said that for 3 years in a row on different designs. But this blew us away; 1/13. It's lighter than the Fly Creek UL1 (1/14), and that's light. It's something else."

MORE VIDEO: Videos of several other products mentioned in this post can be found at REI's YouTube channel.

MSR MicroRocket Stove

Steve Grind, product manager of stoves and cookware for MSR/Cascade Designs, introduced me to the new MSR MicroRocket, created, he said, "to address some concerns we've heard expressed over the years about the PocketRocket, most notably pot stability. Some people feel the PocketRocket's pot supports are a bit wobbly."

MSR MicroRocketIn response, the MicroRocket's supports (made of stainless steel, same as the PocketRocket) are 20% thicker, stiffer and shorter. "There's noticeable improvement in pot stability," Grind said.

The MR, which a smaller valve body and an aluminum fuel mixer tube, weighs 2.6 ounces. The PR, with a brass tube, is 3 ounces.

The MR and PR are equals in a lab setting for boil time (1 liter in 3.5 minutes). "In the field, in demanding conditions, the MicroRocket does a little better with wind resistance," Grind said. That's due to the geometry of the burner head."

An interesting twist with the MicroRocket: It comes with the handheld piezo igniter. It's better, Grind says, "because the igniter is not living in the flame. Those that do experience regular hot/cold thermal cycles, which are largely responsible for piezo-electric failure. That's because the internal ceramic starts to crack. Then you get sparks where you don't want it and the stove does not ignite. It's also a little better in wind because there's a small chamber that collects gas when using it, and that protects that gas from the wind."

With a fancier carrying case, Grind says the goal was to make the MicroRocket "a little more premium and a nicer product for a slightly more demanding user." The MR will sell for $59.95. The PR will still be available for $39.95.

SteriPEN Freedom Purifier

SteriPEN Freedom next to original SteriPENSteriPEN, which uses UV light to deactivate pathogens in drinking water (a process used in many municipal water districts), rolls out its smallest purifier yet this fall. It measures 5.1" and weighs 2.6 ounces.

It runs on a rechargeable lithium battery similar to those used in cell phones. It can be recharged via USB cable or and AC adapter. Its estimated time to treat a half-liter of water: less than a minute.

Kuhl Liberator and Bandita Convertible Pants

If you're under 30, would you wear convertible pants?

No way? Way, says Kevin Boyle, co-founder and head designer of the independent-minded clothing label Kuhl. He believes he can convert younger people to convertibles.

Kevin Boyle in Liberator pants"There are so many people who say they wouldn't be caught dead in convertible pants," said Boyle. "But when they see these pants they say, 'Wow, I'd wear those.' "

Boyle is referring to the Kuhl's Liberator for men and Bandita for women, both available in January. "It's young. It's hip. It's very stealth," Boyle said while modeling the Liberator. "It doesn't look like you're wearing a zip-off."

Boyle, who co-founded Kuhl decades ago with Conrad Anker and another fellow climber, says a sizable design team collaborated on the Liberator/Bandita project, integrating 3D engineering and kinetics into the design process.

"If you were to take apart our seams, every seam is either convex or concave," Boyle said. "When they're sewn together, that creates a shape with a 3D effect. It's not just a look. It's art, engineering, style and science all combined to execute this product."

The fabric is 77% nylon (durable, quick-drying) and 23% cotton (used only on the exterior face for a soft touch). Flex points above and below the knee permit the trim-cut legs to articulate freely; the shorts feature a long inseam (for a younger, hipper look) while the upper leg is angled forward to so quads can lift easily when the shorts are in hiking mode.

"No one is going to look like a tourist wearing these pants," said Boyle.

Black Diamond's Magnetron GrodLock and RockLock Carabiners

Black Diamond magnetized carabinerThe Big Wow in climbing gear at this year's OR goes to these BD's locking carabiners with the magnetic gates. Squeeze the orange magnetized "wings" on the gate to open and close. Dexterous climbers should be able to open and close the gates with 1 hand. Offering simpler, quicker access than a traditional locking carabiner, these are 'biners with a buzz.

Check out REI's video preview of these 2012 carabiners.

Mountain House Low-Sodium Freeze-Dried Meals

For backpackers aiming to minimize their salt intake, Mountain House will roll out a trio of low-sodium freeze-dried meals: New Orleans-Style Rice with Shrimp and Ham; Chicken Alfredo and Chicken and White Bean Chili. All have less than 300mg of sodium per serving. Freeze-dried meals, of course, routinely include 2 or more servings per package. Following your low-sodium dinner, your sweet tooth has a few new options...

Probar Fruition and Halo Bars

Halo barsProbar will expand its product offering with 2 new items. Fruition, touted as a "superfood snack," promises a serving of fruit in each bar, "rich" in raw food, all natural sweetners and 160 calories per bar.

Halo is pitched as a "sinfully healthy snack" (a Probar rep calls it the brand's dessert bar) with flavors such as S'More, Rocky Road, Nutty Marshmallowand Honey Graham.  Both will sell for under $2.


Merrell Road GloveNew looks in natural-motion footwear due next year:

Merrell Road Glove: "It's a takeoff of our barefoot line," said Merrell rep Josh Stoll. "It does not have the compressed EVA plate in the forefoot, which makes it a little bit better for running on roads." The color combo shown in the men's model photographed here: black and lime zest.

Vibram Spyridon LSVibram Spyridon LS: The Spyridon represents Vibram's commitment to trail running, says Georgia Shaw, marketing manager for Vibram USA. "It has a more substantial upper, because we want to protect the foot from brush and roots and twigs," said Shaw. "More importantly, it uses a multiplied lug pattern, and wider lugs with a textured base and lots of edges to really dig into the ground."

A reinforcing textile is woven into the sole, something Vibram calls its "3D cocoon," which buffers the foot from rocks; "It also distributes mass when you land on something sharp," Shaw said. "Usually Vibram is about less is more when it comes to technology, but we think this one is worth it. Unlike other rock-stopper technologies, the shoe remains flexible and pliable and true to what Five Fingers is, which is close to barefoot."

The name? It's a nod to Spyridon Louis, the Greek shepherd who won the marathon in the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens, the first modern-day Olympiad. "That was not marathon on a paved course," said Shaw points out. "It was run on a multi-textured surface, a little like trail running." The LS part? It means the footwear includes a lacing system. "Nothing technical," said Shaw.

VIDEO: For videos of several products mentioned in this post, visit REI's YouTube channel.

Photos, top to bottom: REI's Rick Meade checks out a NeoAir XLite pad; Big Agnes president Len Zanni holds a Q-Core pad inflated (the actual surface cover will be silver, we're told) and packed; a crosscut view of an Exped Downmat UL 7 down-filled chamber; the Osprey Poco Premium child carrier;  Bill Gamber of Big Agnes laying down on the job inside a Fly Creek 2 Platinum tent; the MSR MicroRocket stove; the SteriPEN Freedom purifier (below) sits next to an original SteriPEN; Kevin Boyle demonstrates the forward-angled design of Kuhl Liberator convertible pants; a Black Diamond Magnetron carabiner; Halo bars by Probar; Merrell Road Glove; Vibram Spyridon LS; REI's Rick Meade takes a test rest on a NeoAir XLite.

Posted on at 5:13 PM

Tagged: Big Agnes, Exped, Kuhl Outdoor Retailer, Merrell, Osprey, Probar, Therm-A-Rest and Vibram

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Rob V

Will the Women's Xlite be offered at REI? It is supposed to be released 4/15 or so, and I would like to purchase one.

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