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December 29, 2011

The Keeper List: Running and Rambling Gear of the Year 2011

Before today’s post, an overdue announcement of sorts: over the holidays, I was pleased to see a small spike in sales of my running book. If you don’t recall my book, I can’t really fault you, because I do a lousy job of actually promoting or marketing the thing.

Each time a sale came in this month, I thought to myself, you know, I should announce some sort of reminder on the website about this – the book might make a good Christmas gift. And then in typical slacker fashion, I kept postponing or forgetting about doing so, until Christmas came and went and I completely missed the holiday shopping wave.

But since we still have a decent supply of books available, and since New Year’s is about doing the stuff you want to do rather than worrying about pleasing everybody else, I may as well mention it again here: Hey, I have a book for sale! It’s mainly geared toward novices and anyone who wants insight into life as a runner, but in my humble opinion there’s stuff that anybody will enjoy. And if you order from our website – where it’s less expensive than Amazon.com for some reason – we can autograph it or do any other special requests you’d like.

With that, I’ll stop the pandering – but today’s post is all about grabbing some additional stuff to make your running life more enjoyable.

It won’t particularly come as a news flash to anyone when I say that I get a lot of gear to review. What might surprise some newer readers is that I review even more stuff than you see here on this website.

Most of my shoe reviews end up here, as minimalism has become a nice little niche I’ve settled into, but I also contribute to other websites and magazines after testing apparel or other trail running gear. The biggest portion of this extracurricular product testing goes to FeedTheHabit.com, with whom I’ve partnered for more than two years now.

I recognize that I’m in an enviable situation, so I pay my good fortune forward as often as possible by giving almost everything away. Running partners, family, and non-running friends have all been the recipients of gear from top (headlamps, hats) to bottom (socks, shoes) and everything in between (clothes, food, watches). They get free stuff, my wife gets her closet space back, and I feel good about sharing the wealth; it’s a winner for everyone involved.

Here’s my caveat, though: if there’s a piece of gear that I love, or one that I get a ton of great use out of, I keep it for myself. Accordingly, my Gear of the Year review should rightfully be called the Keeper List, because it’s all about the stuff that’s too awesome for me to give away.

However, my Keeper List differs from other annual ratings in one important way: the best gear isn’t necessarily from 2011. Rather, my list is a Jeopardy-style competition where the only way to become champion is to defeat the current champ. (Completely tangentially, it’s the same way I choose my wines.) Sure, the newer stuff will tend to be better – but if I have a Ken Jennings-like piece of equipment that crushes all potential challengers year after year, there’s no reason to take it off my Keeper List. And yes, there are a couple of those items included below.

Finally, before we proceed, a note on formatting: The first link of each entry will go to my original review of the product, and the second will go to a purchase link from Amazon.com or one of my other affiliate partners. Remember, affiliate sales support Running and Rambling, so, you know … help me help you, and all that. Now let’s get to the list; these are my keepers for 2011.

Part 1: Gear and Apparel

Headlamp for roads: Black Diamond Sprinter. A 68 lumen headlamp in front with a blinking red LED in back for an unbeatable combination of visibility and safety. The entire lamp weighs a mere 3.5 oz, and the lamps are completely rechargeable. Black Diamond is updating this product for 2012 (yes, I’ll have a review), but until then you can get the current version for $64 at Amazon.com – it’s the best investment you can make in your safety this winter.

Compact headlamp: Petzl Tikka XP2 with CORE rechargeable battery pack. There’s nothing better than a headlamp that’s bright enough to light the trail before dawn, and small enough to tuck in a pocket afterward. This category has stiff competition, most notably from Black Diamond’s Spot, which is a little bit brighter. However, what tips the scales for me is the rechargeable capacity of the XP2 with the CORE pack: it’s eco-friendly, easy to recharge, and saves a ton of money in the long run. The headlamp sells for $41 from Amazon.com, and the CORE pack sells separately for $39.

Headlamp for ultras: Black Diamond Icon with rechargeable NRG battery pack. I don’t think twice about it anymore: if I’m running through the night, the Icon is on my head. It’s relatively lightweight (6.6 oz), super bright (100 lumens), with enough battery life to burn high all the way to morning. Best of all, if you purchase an NRG battery pack, it’s completely rechargeable – and just to remind you, I love being green. Black Diamond is also updating this lamp next year, and I’m very curious to see if or how they can improve it. The current Icon is discounted to $55 from Amazon.com, and the NRG pack sells separately for $25.

Nightlife at Western States 2011: Black Diamond Icon, Nathan Endurance vest, and one very fast ultrarunner (hint: not me)

Jacket: Patagonia Nine Trails. You’ll see this name again further down the list as well; basically, 2011 was the year that Patagonia became my go-to ultrarunning brand. I wore the Nine Trails jacket at three ultras and during countless training miles last winter and spring; for lightweight weather-resistant insulation, there’s nothing better. Unfortunately, it’s not currently available on the Patagonia website, but TravelCountry.com has a closeout price of $60 on remaining stock.

Shorts: Patagonia Nine Trails. Are you sensing a theme yet? My first ultra in the Nine Trails shorts was the Miwok 100K in May, and I never looked back. Anytime I’m running for more than 4 hours, these are the shorts I’m wearing. Like the jacket, the shorts aren’t currently available from the company, but TravelCountry.com has a few pairs in size small available for $60.

Shirt: Patagonia Capilene Silkweight. I never reviewed this shirt, but here’s a true story: Back in the spring, when Soft Star offered to put their logo on any shirt I wanted to use for my upcoming ultra calendar, I told them to buy this Patagonia shirt. I have a couple other capilene shirts from past races; they’re not only the most comfortable items in my collection, but they’re remarkably durable after multiple runs and washings. So my official Team Soft Star kit this year featured Patagonia shorts, shirt, and jacket – a nearly clean sweep in the apparel department (the only exception was my socks). The shirt is available for $39 from the Patagonia website – and if you’d like your own Soft Star logo on it, I’m sure the Elves would be happy to oblige.

At the Tahoe Rim Trail 100: Patagonia shirt and shorts, Ultimate Direction Uno waist pack 

Gloves: Sugoi Firewall LT. Sorry, no review link on this one either: I did a glove comparison for Ultrarunning magazine this fall, and these ended up being my favorite from the bunch. It’s a nice upgrade from the previous Firewall gloves, with similar water resistance and slightly better insulation. $35 from Amazon.com.

Small hydration pack: Ultimate Direction Uno. I’ve had my current model for years – and before that, I used an older version for several years as well. It fits me well, I like the upright bottle position, and the separate pockets give surprisingly ample storage for such a small pack. I use it anytime I’m running between 90 minutes to 3 hours. $17 from Amazon.com.

Large hydration pack: Nathan HPL 020. How awesome is the 020? Not even Nathan can beat it. This year they released the Endurance, a similarly-designed and very strong vest that I wore while pacing at Western States (see WS photo above, and see my Endurance vest review here) – but when it comes to selecting one pack as my gold standard, I still prefer the 020. And when you consider that they’re available at the extreme discount price of $53 at Amazon.com, there’s no reason this vest shouldn’t be in every ultrarunner’s gear closet.

Break time in Zion National Park with the HPL 020

Tights: Salomon Trail III. Full disclosure: I don’t wear a lot of tights - fortunately in California, I don’t have to. So my list of contenders in this category isn’t huge, but these tights have been the most comfortable of those I’ve tried over last winter and this fall. Available for $69 at Amazon.com.

GPS: Soleus GPS 1.0. This review just posted a couple of weeks ago, so I don’t need to rehash things here, other than to say that I’m a big fan. It’s basic, high-quality, and extremely affordable at $87 from Amazon.com.

Socks: Drymax. This is the true Ken Jennings of the group: I’ve probably tested a dozen other brands over the past few years, and none compare to Drymax. I wear their lite trail model ($12 from Amazon.com) for training, and the max protection model ($31 from Amazon.com) for ultras. The Drymax reign continues.

After 50 rainy, muddy miles at Woodside in Soft Star RunAmocs and Drymax max protection socks 

Part 2: Footwear

As you might expect, my shoe list can be broken down into several categories – in this case, I went by primary use, starting with …

Minimalist road shoe: Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS. Vibram came up huge this year with the advent of their LS models – laced versions of popular models that made the footwear easier to use and more accessible to a larger variety of people. From its inception, I’ve labeled the Bikila my gold standard for minimalist road running shoes, so you can imagine how impressed I was when the company managed to improve it this year without sacrificing anything that made it awesome in the first place. Right now they’re discounted to $70 at TravelCountry.com, so grab ‘em while you can.

At play in the Salinas Valley in Bikila LS

Minimalist all-purpose athletic shoe: Vibram FiveFingers KomodoSport LS. I’ve worn mine for running, basketball, tennis, floor workouts, and just plain goofing around. They’re getting very popular with CrossFit and Paleo workout enthusiasts as well. If you have multiple activities to do and only enough money for a single pair of Vibrams, this is the one. They’re currently discounted to $80 at TravelCountry.com.

Minimalist trail running: Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove. 2011 may well be remembered as the year Merrell triggered a seismic shift on the minimalist landscape with its Barefoot line of footwear. In my review I called this shoe minimalism for the masses, and since then I’ve recommended it to a lot of trail runners. They retail for $110 from TravelCountry.com.

Minimalist hybrid trail/road running: Altra Adam. They’re not the ultimate trail shoe, or the ultimate road shoe, but they’re a pretty solid combination of the two. They normally retail for $100 on the company website, but if you use this link you’ll get them for a 10% discount.

Minimalist hiking: Vibram FiveFingers Trek LS. My first-generation Treks had defeated all challengers as my favorite hiking shoes until Vibram topped itself with the Trek LS. Rugged leather, durable outsole, crazy comfort. They’re also nice enough to pass as dress shoes if you so choose (but I don’t – see below). They’re currently discounted to $112 from TravelCountry.com.

Rock scrambling at Lava Beds National Monument in Trek LS

Minimalist dress shoe: Merrell Barefoot Tough Glove. This shoe took out one former champion (the VIVOBAREFOOT Oak) in my collection, and has been an almost-everyday shoe since April. It looks sharp, it’s super comfortable, and it’s got all the right mechanics. It retails for $120 from TravelCountry.com.

Minimalist kids shoe: VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Kids. I was lucky enough to have several brands of shoes for my children to test, and the Neo Kids emerged victorious. Their minimalist construction is unbeatable, and the styling is ideal for kids to use like good old-fashioned sneakers. They retail for $75 from the VIVOBAREFOOT website.

Transitional trail shoe: New Balance Minimus Trail. Yes, it’s odd that the shoe with the most minimal-sounding name is actually the least minimal of the group mentioned here, but there’s no question that New Balance means business when it comes to cruising light and low to the ground. The Trail version of this shoe (also called the MT10) has a slipper-like feel, lightweight flexibile construction, and rugged traction underfoot. Its principal drawback to pure minimalists – the 4mm heel to toe drop – is precisely what makes it ideal for transitioning from a structured, supportive shoe to the minimalist end of the spectrum. The 2012 version will have a flat platform, but in the meantime you can get the 2011 Minimus for $100 from TravelCountry.com.

Do you have enough items for your shopping list yet? I’m already waist-deep in reviews for 2012, which I’ll collectively preview sometime next week. There are some very strong offerings from most of the heavy hitters mentioned here; it will be interesting to see if any new products wrestle the title of “keepers” away from the current roster. Time (and miles) will tell, I suppose – so let’s meet back here again next year and I’ll let you know for sure.

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Structural Self-defense Club, LLC 12/29/11, 10:09 PM  

I'm confused...you've been such a fan of Soft Star Shoes, yet they didn't make your list at all. Closest thing is an honorable "mention" or "cameo" with the RunAmocs pictured with the Drymax, but not on your list? WHY?!?!?!?!

Donald 12/29/11, 10:15 PM  

Structural: good observation. I touched on that point in this post - basically, Soft Stars are my favorites for a lot of intangible reasons, but from a performance standpoint, they're not as good as the others on this list in any one specific area. They're definitely keepers, though :)

Andy 12/30/11, 2:10 PM  

Great list and very helpful!

Thanks Donald! Keep up the great writing and here's to a great 2012!

Happy New Year!

Peace and Love,


Boris Terzic 12/30/11, 8:36 PM  

Great post, you're giving me some good ideas for this coming year and what footwear to get.

Mamarunsbarefoot 12/31/11, 6:58 AM  

Thanks for the awesome list!! I'm looking at the Bikilia for my marathon!

Quick Release 1/1/12, 12:57 AM  

This reminds me of my athletic side and how adventurous I am before I worked. Thanks for inspiring other people as well. Great post and list!

Happy New Year and God bless!!!

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