There will be no trumpets heralding this year's outdoors gift guide. We're saving up for a fur-lined kayak with Bose sound system and flat-screen TV instead.
This year, Outdoors Girl enlisted one of her favorite adventure buddies, Biker Guy, to help with gear reviews (he handled, predictably enough, the biking category). We tested everything listed. Not appearing in the guide is the stuff that stunk -- who wants to read about that? Some gifts can be found most anywhere outdoors gear is sold. Where we could, we steered you to company websites or ones that had the product in stock.
I caught heck a few years back from older anglers who didn't like the idea of someone messing around in their tackle boxes. I stand by my holiday suggestion. Sneak your angler's tackle box out of the house and to a reputable retailer such as Tochterman's, All Tackle or Clyde's Sport Shop. Have the salesperson help you choose new lures or gear to replace old ones. Put all the old stuff back in its place. Wrap new stuff. Present on Christmas day. Pure genius.
Give your favorite angler a day or a half-day on the water with one of Maryland's premier guides. The best ones will fill up their 2011 dance card early, so don't delay. Your local tackle shop can help fill a specific need. But anyone's Chesapeake Bay list would include -- alphabetically -- this six pack, certified captains all: Mike Benjamin (410-920-8921), Brady Bounds (301-862-3166), "Walleye" Pete Dahlberg (410-586-8340), Richie Gaines (410-827-7210), Tom Hughes (410-747-9431), and Skip Slomski (410-746-6907). In Ocean City, Monty Hawkins (410-520-2076) and Mark Sampson (410-213-2442) are the go-to guys.
Craft's Thermal Split Finger Glove ($49.99; amazon.com) may make you look like Mr. Spock, but they are designed to allow your fingers to share the warmth while allowing flexibility for braking and shifting gears. A windproof outer shell is backed-up by a removable fleece liner ensuring that your digits will live long and prosper.
To get even stranger looks from passersby, put a pair of Bar Mitts ($64.95; barmitts.com) on your bike. The neoprene pockets attach to your handlebars and look like giant oven mitts. They are windproof, waterproof and allow you to wear a thin liner glove in the coldest conditions for more dexterity. A wide cuff makes them surprisingly easy to get in and out of.
In the past I have used neoprene booties over my biking shoes in the winter and I have often had a problem with the toe slipping of the front of the shoe and have torn two sets while mountain biking. Louis Garneau tackled this problem by building the bootie into its 0 Ergo Grip shoes ($179.99; louisgarneau.com). A rugged outer body of high density nylon and neoprene encases a leather inner shoe with pull-tight laces. A wide toe box allows for thicker socks or toe warmers and keeps my toes from getting cramped.
Cycling doesnÃƒÆ’Ã‚â€šÃƒâ€šÃ‚¹t have to be all about Lycra, particularly when it is 50 degrees outside. Oregon Cyclewear ($84; oregoncyclewear.com) celebrates fashion and function with its retro-style merino wool jerseys. The soft, moisture wicking jersey is incredibly comfortable and looks great both on and off the bike. Your neighborhood club name can be added for a few bucks more.
Maybe papa needs a brand new bag. Or mama. Or the kids. REI has something to keep the younger ones covered: the Nodder +25 kids sleeping bag ($69.50; rei.com), which grows as your youngster does. The mummy bag is marketed for campers ages 6-10, so test it at the store first. The comfort level is about 25 degrees, a pocket in hood can be stuffed with clothing to make a pillow and the stuff sack is attached to the sleeping bag to keep from being left behind.
For the adults, try Mountain Hardwear's Switch 20 ($120; amazon.com). It's a roomy bag that really will keep most folks warm down to about 20 degrees. The mummy shape -- a drawback for those who don't like a snug fit -- can be modified with something called the Quantum Expander that adds eight inches to the girth. It's not the lightest bag around, but if you're car camping, that doesn't matter much. It will keep you warm in three seasons, even when things get damp.
For car camping with the whole family, check out REI's redesigned Hobitat 4 family tent ($269; rei.com), which offers the same great space with one less pole and a much easier setup. You donÃƒÆ’Ã‚â€šÃƒâ€šÃ‚¹t have to be a Halfling from middle-earth to appreciate the six-foot ceiling and huge front door. The optional Hobitat Garage ($99.50) lives up to it name by providing room for all of your gear and even your bikes.
We're way past the era of hand-crank telephones. But the time has come for hand-crank flashlights, like the Eton American Red Cross Clipray ($15; amazon.com). About the size of a soda can, the flashlight produces a steady light when cranked and stores the juice you don't use. The rubberized body and well-designed crank feel good in the hand. Self-produced electricity can also give life to a dying cell phone through a USB charger connection for an emergency call or two (or squeeze some tunes from an MP3 player). Clipray is perfect to keep in camping gear, in the car or on the boat. It's great for power outages at home, too.
Stormy Kromer wool hats are as tough as the old bird himself. More than a century ago, the retired semi-pro baseball player and railroad engineer had his wife sew earflaps on his wool cap to keep out the freezing winds of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It worked then, and it works now. The hats come in wool, waxed cotton and cord ($34.99; stormykromer.com) or brimless ($31.99). There's the Ida Kromer for women in eight snazzy colors, and for hunters, there's Blaze Orange ($34.95) or RealTree with a ScentLok lining.
While made for the slopes of some far-off alpine peak, REI's Shuksan Jacket ($299; rei.com) proved to be just what Biker Guy (AKA Jerry) needed while biking to work during Tropical Storm Nicole. The waterproof, breathable eVent fabric does a fantastic job of keeping me warm and dry without overheating. On cool days, he can actually see sweat vapor rising from the jacket after a hard ride. The oversized hood is made to fit over a mountaineering helmet, but has several cinches that make it adaptable to any sized noggin.
When it comes to socks, there's just two brands for Outdoors Girl, both made in family-run factories: Darn Tough of Vermont (darntough.com) and FITS Sock Co. of Tennessee (fitssock.com). The Darn Toughs are just that -- and wicked warm, too. The Fits have a deep heel pocket, perfect for folks who hate socks that slide around, an ample toe box and they're soft inside. I buy both brands on line from Campmor (campmor.com), New Jersey's crazy-best camping store.
After a hard day of whatever, wrap your cold feet in little puffy jackets with a pair of Keen's Howser ($60; zappos.com). The shoe/slippers have water-resistant nylon uppers, microfleece lining, non-marking natural rubber outsoles, removable memory foam footbeds and elastic side panels so you can slide in and out with ease.
Vasque Mindbenders ($75; zappos.com) are very stable trail runners with synthetic leather and nylon mesh uppers that are breathable, abrasion resistant, lightweight and flexible. The shoes have a wide toe box, which works for high-volume feet and folks who like thicker socks. If you need a little more shoe, try the Kayland Crosser Mesh ($100; us.kayland.com), designed by shoemakers in the Italian Alps. The Crosser provides good traction, decent ventilation and comfort, and durability.
After ditching my favorite model and making a couple of shoes I didn't like, Merrell has come up with a pair Outdoors Girl loves: Chameleon Arc Wind ($100; zappos.com). Like most Merrell's, there's out-of-the-box comfort here. The mesh upper and lining provide terrific ventilation. An extended rubber toe cap keeps scuffing to a minimum and the bellows tongue keeps pebbles and other annoying trail stuff on the outside. These light hikers have a pretty grippy Vibram sole. And "canteen" is a great understated color. This girl may have to buy another pair -- maybe with a Gore-Tex liner -- for rainy days.
We are fortunate in the Middle Atlantic region that except for a few days, we don't need massive goose down parkas that make us look like the Michelin man. For the rest of the winter, Outdoors Girl often reaches for Patagonia's Nano Puff if she's going for a walk. Windproof and water-resistant, the jacket is filled with PrimaLoft One, a synthetic insulation that keeps its warmth when wet. The jacket slips under a shell if it's raining and can be used as a base layer in really cold places, like Lake Placid, N.Y. It comes as a pullover ($149), zip-up jacket ($179) and a hoody ($199).
We like our lights flexible. We love the Pelican 2365 ($28), a powerful little LED spotlight on a 15-inch gooseneck that has a magnetic holder that attaches to any metal surface, from a galvanized iron dock cleat to a Weber grill. It runs for up to seven hours on two AA batteries and weighs 9.3 ounces.
Why did Outdoors Girl put the flashlight in the bucket of water and hold its head under water? To find out if Stanley's Dip-It, Drop-It, Dunk-It Spotlight ($59) really is waterproof. It is. The bright yellow light floats, runs for up to 10 hours on a single charge and can be dropped from about 10 feet without coming apart at the seams. Available at most hardware stores.
The Bose SoundDock is a terrific music box, but we'd never think of taking such a delicate instrument to the beach or putting it in the family tent. With its rubberized aluminum body, the Eton Soulra ($200) is a better bet. The sound won't make you forget Bose, but it has a solar panel to keep it powered away from civilization and a splash guard to give it and your iPod or iPhone a little shelter from the elements. It weighs a touch under three pounds and packs up nice and tight for travel.
Adventure Medical Kits SOL Origin ($60) is a palm-sized waterproof box that contains a folding knife, LED light, fire starter with windproof/waterproof tinder, rescue whistle with one-mile range, signaling mirror, compass, stainless steel wire/nylon cord, and a fishing kit/sewing kit. It's so small, there's no reason not to have one in your backpack, kayak of tackle box.
Need a liter of pure water? The SteriPEN Sidewinder ($99.95) is a hand-crank unit that destroys waterborne bacteria, viruses and protozoa in 90 seconds. The battery-free unit is about the size of a water bottle and weighs 16.6 ounces. It's perfect for family camping trips and college students traveling abroad.
You're asking for trouble if you carry that iPhone, iPod or BlackBerry loose in a pack or even a dry bag. The Pelican i1015 ($30; amazon.com) is cheap insurance that will keep either handheld unit dry and bump free. To test it, Outdoors Girl put one (empty) under her truck's back tire and backed over it. Except for a tire track, it was none the worse for wear. An external headphone jack supports the microphone control feature for iPhone and iPod Touch and a carabiner makes clipping it to something else a snap.
Stuff happens. If you love your hunter, get him or her a first aid kit. AMK sells a zippered pouch that includes a wound care kit for deer camp and a detachable field trauma kit for when things really go downhill. It contains a first aid manual written by a real doctor. The Hunter Kit ($54) is equipped to handle emergencies for a group of seven people for a trip of up to a week. Pair it with AMK's 3.5 ounce Heatsheet Emergency Bivvy ($16) and you can keep yourself or a friend safe until help arrives.
It's small, but few jobs can slow the Buck PakLite Skinner Fixed-Blade Knife ($20/$25; Bass Pro Shops). The 2 1/2-inch steel blade is married to a grippy, skeletal handle to save weight. It comes in black and silver, with a vinyl carrying sheath. The knife is made in the U.S.A. by one of the nicest families in the business.
The days of a woolen union suit with the trap door is but a scratchy, smelly memory. Homegrown Under Armour and long-time outfitter Patagonia lead the way in staying warm and odor-free under the camo. Under Armour's Basemap ($60 top; $45 bottom) has good ventilation and wicking properties. Ditto Patagonia's Capiline 3 ($50 each piece).
Pete Bodo has written about hunting and the outdoors for the New York Times and other publications bigger than this one. A bow and gun hunter, Bodo decides the time has come for him to bag a buck with a rack big enough to qualify for the Boone and Crockett records. Whitetail Nation: My Season in Pursuit of the Monster Buck ($25; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is a travelogue and hunting diary by a bodacious storyteller. It will help chase cabin fever away.
If JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater had gotten knocked in the noggin with the Pelican 1510LOC ($240; amazon.com), he never would have grabbed a beer and activated the emergency slide. He would have been unconscious. If you need an absolute armadillo of an overnight bag/laptop carrier, this is it. The 13.6-pound rolling case is watertight, crushproof and dust proof. It rolls smoothly on polyurethane wheels with stainless steel bearings.
At the other end of the scale is Briggs & Riley Travelware's BRX line. For weekend trips, my husband and I love the Exchange 26 Duffle Bag ($160; briggs-riley.com), which really is more of a soft-sider than a duffle. At 3 pounds, it's easy to handle, especially with the backpack straps unzipped from their little pouch, and can be stuffed to the gills without fear of a blowout. Zip expansion provides 3 inches of extra packing space. The duffle has clips that allows you attach it to one of their roller bags to cut airline baggage fees in half (I've done it). Briggs & Riley is a little pricey but its guarantee is simple: if one of its bags is ever broken or damaged, even if it was caused by an airline, repairs are free.
If you still haul enough gear on your back to make a turtle cringe, Airbak Focus Tech Backpack ($100; airbak.com) might be the answer. The pack uses an inflatable air cushion system to protect still and video cameras and a laptop. The adjustable air bag provides cushioning if the bag is dropped and also protects the user's back from the stuff inside.
If you know someone who loves all or just one of Maryland's 47 state parks, get him or her a 2011 Maryland State Parks pass ($75; shopdnr.com) that allows free day-use entry for up to nine people in a vehicle, free boat launching at all state ramps, and a 10 percent discount on state-operated concessions and boat rentals.
On the federal side, $80 gets you the America the Beautiful ÃƒÆ’Ã‚â€šÃƒâ€šÃ‚â€“ National Parks and Federal Recreational Annual Lands Pass. The annual pass admits the holders and a carload of family or friends to more than 2,000 recreation areas, including national parks and wildlife refuges. Available on line (store.usgs.gov/pass/annual.html) or by phone (888-275-8747, option 1).