I am married to a consummate gearhead, a weight weenie, a hiker who can speak of the grams and deniers and R-values of every item she owns like it’s her first language, her love language.
I am, well, the opposite, so relatively agnostic to those attributes that gear decisions are sometimes the last ones I make before a big adventure. This, of course, makes giving her gear as gifts (which is what she always wants, natch) not just hard but kind of terrifying, too. What if I buy the wrong length or last year’s best brand or, worst of all, something too heavy? And when it comes to modern hiking equipment, with jackets and tents and sleeping bags that can cost a month’s rent or more, the mistakes can be costly. No one wants to tote bad, bulky gear for 3,000 miles out of romantic obligation.
If you feel this trepidation about the hiker in your life, I’m here to help for the holidays with a list of five items—all under $20, all made by independent companies—that I put in my backpack every time I head to the trail. Most of this stuff is not made by the straight white beardos (guilty!) you might associate with hiking companies; in fact, empowered by online distribution networks like the wonderful Garage Grown Gear, there’s a quiet revolution happening in the outdoor industry led by small makers who don’t look like stereotypes or hold on to old values.
“The cottage space has removed many of the barriers to entry for the outdoor industry,” Marek Bowers, a trans man who founded the miraculous massage-ball maker Rawlogy (read on for more) simply because he wanted to use a better product for his aching muscles, told me. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what you look like, where you went to school, who you love, how you identify, or what year you were born. You just need curiosity, commitment, and resilience.”
I swear by the stuff below. And if your hiker doesn’t agree, I’ve offered an off-trail alternate for each of them. Hey, I know what it’s like to love a weight weenie.
BoglerCo Ultralight Trowel (From $18)
Just how familiar are you with this hiker? If they’re a new love interest and you are not yet the keeper of their most intimate secrets, maybe skip this idea, unless you really want to accelerate the pace, perhaps even to an awkward end. For the rest of you, there is perhaps no better backcountry tool for your backside business than the BoglerCo Ultralight Trowel—essentially, a piece of aircraft-grade aluminum capped with colorful plastic, available in a rainbow of choices, to make gripping while digging “catholes” less painful. (Hey, we’re often in a hurried emergency out there, OK, and that hole needs to be at least six inches deep.) Designed by mechanical engineer Ben Bogler, it can withstand at least 42 pounds of force but weighs just .48 ounces. It’s not only lighter than its popular poop peers but also a skosh cheaper. And its wide bevels mean it fits most anywhere, from a fanny pack to the sliver of space alongside my water bottles. (That’s just dirt, folks.) Bogler says he was striving for a “perfect balance—size, strength, weight, cost, durability, features, and again weight.” So far, his BoglerCo only makes one thing, but at least they got that shit right.
And If They Don’t Want to Hike With It: Put it in the car, and one day, it will salvage some road trip down a desolate road.
Rawlogy Cork Massage Ball ($16)
Some of the time, most of the time, all of the time: let your hiker choose the qualifier that suits their pain best, because distances of any sort will inevitably, if not invariably, hurt. If you’re only out for a day or two, the alien tug of your backpack’s weight and the repetition of your stride will ache at day’s end; if you’re hauling yourself between far-flung borders, knots will take hold and trigger points will scream. In fact, Rawlogy founder Marek Bowers worried that running had caused so much back and foot pain that he’d never really hike again—until he found he could roll the pressure and pain away with a rubber lacrosse ball. Knowing that was too heavy to tote up a mountainside, he prototyped a cork ball and soon found a receptively beleaguered market in Pacific Crest Trail hikers.
Rawlogy’s classic 2.4-inch-diameter ball (big enough to not get lost in a backpack) is now my indispensable tool for day’s end. I put it under my back to roll the soft tissue beneath my shoulders and along my spine, then toss it into the bottom of my sleeping bag to grind it against my ailing heels until I fall asleep in a state of tension-released bliss. Stiff hip flexors? Tight quads? Screaming glutes? Get inventive enough on your sleeping pad, and one of these ingenious balls can find just the spot.
And If They Don’t Want to Hike With It: Wherever there’s a clear patch of ground and a muscle that’s sore, Rawlogy works just fine.
Westbound Gear Shoulder Pouch ($20)
If you’re not a hiker yourself, you might imagine that we go to the woods to escape our cellphones, shoving them away in the bowels of our backpacks to commune with nature. That sounds quaint, and maybe it’s true for some idealistic Thoreau disciples out there. But in most cases now, it holds our maps, camera, books, records, and compass; even without service, it’s a multi-tool, meaning we reach for it often. I’ve yet to find a better place to holster it than one of Westbound Gear’s colorful shoulder pouches, which attaches twice to your pack’s straps and keeps a profile so low you may forget it’s there.
On hikes with her family, Eliza Bui noticed how a cousin always complained about wanting a better place to stash his phone and his insistence that fanny packs were corny. (Note: WEBO Gear’s fanny packs are instead a colorful marvel, so buy that if you want to splurge.) She did him one better, crafting a water-resistant shoulder pouch that is not only lighter than its competitors but also somehow more spacious and cheaper. Some of Bui’s competitors hold the phone like a second skin, making it difficult to access. Hers is more like a shapely bag, also capable of holding headphones or a charging brick in the main pocket and three snacks or so in a small front sleeve. It’s the pouch of my dreams and needs. A bonus: Each pouch comes stitched with a front tag that proclaims “Handmade by BIPOC LGBTQIA+ in the USA.” Want to find political allies on trail? Want to antagonize a conservative who thinks all acronyms are communist plots? This wondrous little pouch fits those dreams and needs, too.
And If They Don’t Want to Hike With It: Return it for the fanny pack, a brightly colored and perfectly designed accessory for life on or off trail.
CNOC Outdoors’ Vesica Collapsible Water Bottle ($13)
If a liter of water is a liter of water, a one-liter water bottle is a one-liter water bottle, right? Sure, but what if one of those bottles could disappear when you don’t need it? OK, CNOC Outdoors’ Vesica doesn’t quite have invisibility superpowers, but its soft sides and hard top and bottom mean that it not only collapses but tucks into itself when it’s not full, vanishing into any available corner of your backpack. When I started hiking long distances, I dutifully toted two Smartwater bottles like a newbie out of central casting.
But unless you’ve got a particularly dry or sweltering stretch ahead of you, a single liter will do just fine; don’t take up unnecessary space with a bottle that you’ll need to replace eventually, anyway. Your lucky hiker likely has one of CNOC’s esteemed Vectos or something like it, and the Vesica stems from the same commitment to get short-lived plastic bottles off the trail, according to founder Gilad Nachmani. That’s a fringe benefit for this vessel—durable enough to have now lasted 4,000 miles with me, mind you—that’s in my pack on day hikes and thru-hikes alike. A vanishing bottle that can save your hiker’s life or, at least, day? No hard sell required.
And If They Don’t Want to Hike With It: I mean, they drink water, right?
Soom’s Dark Chocolate Tahini with Sea Salt ($7)
At least for me, there’s no more consistent economic variable in hiking than food. If you’re content with packets of tuna and Propel, mountains of Pop-Tarts and ramen, you can function on a few dollars a day. Or you can spend $20 on a single dehydrated dinner and splurge on instant coffee so luxe you might as well hitch into town for a latte. Given that most hikers aren’t in the woods to platinum-blaze, and given that few things are more enjoyable during an endless activity than calories with taste, put a little luxury in their food bag.
I don’t mean to brag, but I do think I recently found the perfect hiking indulgence—Soom’s Dark Chocolate Tahini with Sea Salt. Concocted by three sisters rightfully obsessed with tahini’s spectacular possibilities, it lands like a cross between the creamiest peanut butter I’ve ever had and perfect fudge, with a dash of coarse sea salt (hey, electrolytes!) that gives it a delightful crunch. I’ve eaten it for a tent breakfast, slathered it onto tortillas and English muffins for lunch, and downed a dangerous amount for my nighttime dessert. High in protein, potassium, and iron, the stuff is made for life outside. If carrying a plastic jar freaks out the weight weenie in your life, Soom now puts this manna (and other flavors) in one-ounce packs.
Two other recent fancy but affordable favorites with a decent shelf life, both in bar form: Arizona’s Huppybar, which packs loads of calories and nutrients into a tiny bar that doesn’t chew like cardboard. And the GreensPlus +PlusBar (they loved plusses!), which has a proprietary blend of superfoods but, again, somehow doesn’t taste like health food.
And If They Don’t Want to Hike With It: Put it on ice cream, and chuckle knowingly when they instantly order another round.
Read More: 5 Hiker Gifts for Less Than $20