As the holidays approach, it’s time to start thinking about what to gift your family and friends who love the outdoors. No matter your budget, we’ve put together some of the best outdoor gift options from inexpensive merino wool hiking socks and water bottles to high-end, lightweight backpacking tents for those who really like to get after it. This list includes 5 gift ideas under $50, more than half our picks are under $100, and there are some fun premium options toward the bottom as well. In the spirit of giving, we’ve also included brief information on a few leading conservation organizations that are helping to protect our cherished outdoor places.
It might seem a little boring to start this list with socks, but we can tell you from personal experience that no other piece of gear gets more use than our Darn Toughs. The merino wool Micro Crew Cushion is the company’s leading model, and works great for a variety of activities including hiking, biking, and everyday wear. The $21 price tag is more than you’ll spend for most wool socks that are lower in build quality and materials, but our Darn Toughs are extremely comfortable and seem to last forever (they’re backed by a lifetime warranty to boot). And the cherry on top: all Darn Tough socks are knit in the U.S.A. at their Vermont factory. The Micro Crew socks also are available in a women’s version.
If you haven’t tried a Hydro Flask yet, you’re missing out. This sleek water bottle is made with stainless steel and has double-wall insulation, meaning that it will keep your cold beverages cold and your hot drinks hot. We’ve left ours filled with ice water at a sweltering Utah trailhead, and came back from a long hike to the cubes still floating (our non-insulated bottles were warm to the touch). More, the Hydro Flask comes in 9 colorways that range from standard white and black to more fun mint and mango. In terms of sizes, this 24-ounce bottle is good for most uses but Hydro Flask does make larger 32 and 40-ounces versions. All are heavier than comparable plastic water bottles but make up for it in design and temperature regulation.
Once you go with a serious mug like the Yeti Rambler, it’s hard to go back to anything else. Similar to the Hydro Flask above, the Rambler has an insulated, double-wall build that keeps your drinks hot or cold for extended periods of time. With a 20-ounce capacity, it’s a great multi-purpose cup for camping. For those on the road, the tapered design fits in most cup holders (it also has a very functional lid for when you’re driving). We’ve found that we use ours around the house too—it’s a nice option for hot summer nights in the backyard. Yeti may be best known for coolers, but the Rambler is one of our favorite items from the Austin-based brand (it's a lot cheaper than those pricey coolers too).
Headlamps have a lot of uses, from sitting around the campfire to hiking, biking, running, or climbing at night. More, we always like to have a headlamp ready in our utility drawer for power outages and potential emergencies. The Spot from Black Diamond is our top overall headlamp, combining impressive brightness, easy-to-use functionality, and a reasonable price. It was updated for 2017 and now projects a strong 300-lumen beam along with touch-sensitive housing for quick adjustments. It’s true that the Black Diamond Storm, also updated for 2017, is brighter and dustproof, but it is heavier, less comfortable, and pricier than the Spot. For most people and uses, this is the headlamp to get.
We’ll start by saying that $50 is a lot to spend on a coffee mug. Some may even say that it’s irrational. But for people who spend a lot of nights in the outdoors, your cup matters. The ultra-premium Snow Peak Titanium 450 weighs only 4.2 ounces and the folding handles help it pack down small. A double-wall design keeps your beverage insulated, although adding the lid ($6 and sold separately) is recommended. Of note: we recently took out the Snow Peak Titanium 450 single-wall mug and came away impressed. This version wins out both in price ($30) and weight (2.4 oz.), with the sacrifice being the lack of insulation. If you’re like us and drink your beverages reasonably fast, the single-wall design should do just fine.
Hammocks have become increasingly popular in recent years, with options ranging from heavy-duty loungers to lightweight models for backpacking. Enter the Eno DoubleNest, which hits a nice midpoint between the two. At 1 pound 3 ounces, it’s light and compact enough to carry into the backcountry, and the build and 400-pound weight limit make it a viable option for sharing. With a reasonable price tag of only $70, the DoubleNest is a fun holiday gift that won’t break the bank. For those heading out solo, the Eno SingleNest weighs exactly 1 pound and costs $10 less. Or, check out a full-on backpacking model like the REI Quarter Dome Hammock, meant for overnight sleeping and replacing your tent altogether.
Something just feels right about gifting the “America the Beautiful” National Parks Pass. For $80, the recipient gets access to over 2,000 federal recreation sites across the country, including every national park. But what we like most is that this pass provides motivation to get outdoors and enjoy some of the most beautiful places in the country. Given the recent talk of raising the entrance fees for a number of high-profile parks, getting an annual pass makes a lot of sense (not to mention you’re locking in the $80 for a year, which isn’t a bad thing these days). Keep in mind that the pass is valid for one year from the month of purchase and covers entrance for 1 car with up to 4 passengers.
REI has expanded their duffel offerings of late, and the Big Haul offers a ton of features for less than $100. We like the 40-liter version best as it’s versatile enough to be used as a carry-on, yet offers enough space for most weekend trips. In terms of carrying options, you get traditional handles along with backpack-style straps that easily can be stowed away, and the 400-denier material is plenty tough for the rigors of travel. For those looking for a more streamlined option, the REI Roadtripper costs considerably less at $40 for the 40-liter version, but lacks the bells and whistles of the Big Haul.
If there’s one type of outdoor apparel Patagonia dominates, it’s fleeces. The popular Better Sweater Quarter Zip offers a whole lot of cozy warmth for under $100, which is a rarity from this company. The sweater-knit face on the outside of the jacket looks great for wearing around town, and the inside offers all the next-to-skin coziness you need. In terms of durability, Patagonia is known for premium build quality and materials and you can expect this fleece to last as long as any. The Better Sweater is offered in full-zip and hooded versions, but we like that the pullover style keeps the cost down. Of course, Patagonia makes a women's version of the Better Sweater Quarter Zip too.
We often get asked about rain jackets (we do live in Seattle afterall), and the PreCip is the model we recommend to friends and family most. For everyday use and hiking, it offers good waterproofing and breathability, a comfortable fit and feel, and a nice feature set. The sleek design and multitude of color options means that it wears well around town, but the jacket also happens to stuff down small into its own hand pocket for forays into the backcountry. It’s true that a jacket like the Marmot Minimalist is a higher-end offering, and for those counting ounces there are rain jackets that weigh less. But for its versatility and price, we like the PreCip. You can see the women's Marmot PreCip here.
Osprey is pretty much synonymous with packs these days, and the Stratos is their high-end hiking model. We’ll start by saying that this pack is extremely comfortable—the peripheral hoop frame and substantial belt are designed to carry weight on your hips, and a large mesh panel conforms nicely to your back. In addition, organization is excellent and the pack has a built-in rain cover. All in all, the Stratos checks off everything that we look for in a feature-rich daypack. For another pack option from Osprey, the Talon 22 has less cushioning and a more streamlined design, but weighs less and is $20 cheaper. And the women’s-specific version of this pack is called the Osprey Sirrus 24.
Snowshoeing is a great way to exercise outdoors in the winter, even for those lacking in experience. MSR’s basic Evo is a very capable recreational shoe for beginners and intermediates. For under $150, you get durable hard plastic decking, impressive traction with solid toe crampons, and side rails made of steel. The snowshoes are on the short side for powder at 23 inches, but optional 6-inch tails can be attached to the back to improve performance in softer snow. For those who plan on hitting the backcountry, MSR’s Lightning Ascent snowshoe is incredibly grippy, comes in longer sizes, and has more comfortable bindings, but at more than double the cost of the Evo.
Hiking footwear continues to trend towards light and nimble, and the Salomon X Ultra 3 Low GTX is a perfect example. The previous version of this shoe was our favorite lightweight hiker, and Salomon follows the same concept here: a comfortable fit, high levels of protection and waterproofing, and a relatively low weight that will help you feel light on the trail. From our experience, this is one of the best all-around hiking footwear purchases you can make. For those who want more stability, the X Ultra 3 also is offered in a higher “Mid” version for $165, or you can forego waterproofing with the X Ultra 3 (no “GTX”) for $120. You can see the women's-specific Salomon X Ultra 3 GTX here.
Synthetic jackets are all the rage, offering greater breathability than down, along with the ability to keep insulating when wet (not to mention they’re cheaper than down). You can go with a more technical synthetic jacket like the new Patagonia Micro Puff, but we love the everyday appeal of the Nano Puff. It’s a really nice option for light outdoor use, as a midlayer for skiing, and for travel. And with many of last year’s colors on sale, the Nano Puff may be available for much cheaper than its $199 MSRP. For a full list of options in this growing category, see our article on the best synthetic jackets. And you can shop for the women's Patagonia Nano Puff here.
For skiers and snowboarders who get to the mountains a lot each winter, your snow goggles matter. Our top pick for 2017-2018 is the Smith I/O, which features an interchangeable-lens system with superb optics, an extremely comfortable fit, great ventilation, and premium build quality. The “ChromaPop” moniker refers to the HD-like color quality that translates to the slopes with fantastic clarity in a wide range of conditions. With two lenses included, just about any serious winter sports enthusiast will be excited about the Smith I/O. In terms of fit, this goggle should work well for most people, but Smith also makes an I/O S for small faces while the I/O X has the largest fit of the bunch.
If you’re gifting for someone who loves backpacking but has a heavy or outdated tent—and if you’re willing to spend for it—the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 is a really nice option. With a minimum weight of just 2 pounds 12 ounces for the 2-person model, the Copper Spur is the whole package. It’s ultralight, decently roomy on the inside with lots of mesh for stargazing, and easy to set up. One of the only real knocks on the Copper Spur is the thin materials, which require some extra care. In this category we also like the Nemo Dagger (3 lbs. 5 oz. and $400) and MSR Hubba Hubba NX (3 lbs. 7 oz. and also $400). All are premium lightweight tent options that should make even the most discerning backpackers happy.
If nothing on the list wets your whistle for holiday gift giving, there is nothing wrong with a gift card to popular outdoor retailer REI (we always are excited on our birthdays when an REI gift card from our in-laws hits our inbox). The electronic version arrives within a few hours of ordering, or you can get free delivery on a biodegradable paper gift card within 7 days. Both options give you a plethora of fun designs to choose from, and given REI’s extensive collection of outdoor gear across sports and activities, the recipient should have little trouble finding what they want.
The Season of Giving
With all of the gifting and spending that goes on during the holidays, it’s a nice idea to take a step back and think about contributing to a greater cause. There are a number of organizations that play critical roles in supporting and protecting the outdoors, from national environmental groups to local land trusts and search and rescue operations. Many accept one-time donations of $10 or even less, and many are tax deductible 501(c)(3)s. If you want to keep research to a minimum, here’s a quick few recommendations of organizations that we at Switchback Travel support. The Conservation Alliance is making huge efforts to protect public lands across the country, something every outdoor enthusiast can get behind. For skiers and snowboarders, check out Protect Our Winters, an organization that is mobilizing the outdoor community against climate change. And if you’re gifting for a climber, consider donating to the Access Fund, a national advocacy organization committed to keeping climbing areas open and healthy.