Some Great Gear For Year-End Gifts For Adventuring In National Parks

With shopping days dwindling before the year-end holidays arrive, getting a late start is better than no start. Here are some great gift ideas for heading into the national parks well-equipped.

* SPOT's Global Phone

Satellite phones can literally be life savers. But don't consider purchasing one with the thought that you'll be able to call anyone from anywhere you go in the backcountry of the National Park System, or any other remote area, for that matter. They're not cellphones, tying into a system of cell sites (aka towers) to relay your calls. They, as their name implies, rely on satellites to put your call through. And in some locations, the landscape simply is not conducive to good satellite connection.

For the occasional backcountry traveler, the cost of this phone could be considered exhorbitant and out of the question. But measured against the cost of a 0-degree sleeping bag, a four-season tent, or even a collection of boots, rain gear, and warm clothing, the cost also could be considered reasonable, particularly if you ever run into trouble in the backcountry.

The SPOT Global Phone, outside of special deals, sells for $500. And then there are the monthly data charges that quickly drive that price higher. They start at $25 a month, which gets you 10 minutes of call time with additional voice minutes running $1.99, voice mail $4.99, and "express data compression," which you need for emails, another $4.99

The plans, which require 12-month contracts, peak at $1,800 a year.

If you head frequently into the outback, and like knowing you most likely can reach someone if you encounter an emergency, the SPOT Global Phone is definitely worth considering.

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The DryZone 20L from Lowepro in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park. Kurt Repanshek photo.

* Lowepro's DryZone camera bags

Water in a national park, whether you're encountering the white-water variety, or a relatively smooth lake, or even pools of water while canyoneering, can wreak havoc on cameras and other electrical equipment. They need protection. True, some point-and-shoot cameras can handle relatively short dives (say 20-30 feet), and there are water-proof cases you can place your camera in. But if your preference is to work with digital SLRs, you need to keep them out of the water. And Lowepro's new collection of DryZone bags can help you accomplish that task.

The DryZone 40L (MSRP $229.99) is a backpack with a somewhat larger capacity that would come in handy on canyoneering trips where you might need to cross pools of water or encounter waterfalls. Again, though, this pack carries an IPX-6 rating, which means dunking could jeopardize your gear.

If you're looking for something that can stand going underwater a few feet for a short time, consider the DryZone 200 (MSRP $329.99), a backpack Lowepro promotes as a "drysuit for your gear" that carries an IPX-7 rating, which means it can keep the contents dry for up to an hour under 3 feet of water.

But for canoe or kayak trips, the DryZone 20L is a great bag for protecting your gear.

* Helly Hansen's Oden Guiding Light Jacket

In Norse mythology, "Odin" was considered to be the father of all gods. In Helly Hansen technology circles, "Odin" is attached to a line of outerwear that is suitable for just about all situations, from mountains down to the coastlines. To cover all those situations, this collection is more than one or two pieces. There are baselayers and outer layers, jackets that will shield you from rain, and others designed to stand up to the wear of climbing harnesses and pack straps.

The Odin Guiding Light Jacket (MSRP $400, sale prices on occasion) is a solid shell jacket that will keep you, and any intermediate layers, dry from whatever the weather tosses at you. The hood is integrated into the jacket's collar -- no snap-on, snap-off -- to provide better coverage and protection from the elements.

* Sierra Design's Cloud Layering System

When you go out and buy a tent, no matter the manufacturer, it typically comes with an integrated rainfly, and you often can also pick up a ground cloth to match the tent's footprint. So why not consider an integrated layering system when shopping for outerwear? Think of it: clothing items that are specifically designed and manufactured from the start to work as a system.

Sierra Designs has taken that approach in creating its “Cloud Layering System.” New this year, the layering system offers you three pieces (MSRP $119-$250) of outerwear to keep you warm, dry, and comfortable on your national park adventures. The three key parts of the system are a light "windshell," and even lighter "airshell" that is waterproof and breathable, and an ultralight jacket featuring Sierra Designs' proprietary 800-fill hydrophobic DriDown™ insulation that has been treated not only to repel water, but also to dry-out more quickly than untreated down insulation once it's wet.

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The LuxuryLite cots are quite compactible. Kurt Repanshek photo.

* LuxuryLite cots from Therm-a-Rest

Finding a comfortable position sleeping on the ground can be challenging, what with rocks, roots, and the general lack of a perfectly flat piece of turf. For those conditions, you just might want to consider adding a cot to your gear bag.

Therm-A-Rest offers two models (MSRP-$230-$240), the LuxuryLite Ultralite Cot that weighs in at 2 pounds, 12 ounces, and the somewhat heftier LuxuryLite Mesh Cot that weighs a pound more.

Design engineers are crafty folks, as evidenced by the way these cots are both packed and assembled. The support rods and poles are aluminum shafts that quickly assemble, the "feet" are plastic, and the cot surface is either a laminated, waterproof nylon (Ultralite) or a breathable mesh. The rods and cot surface fit inside the plastic feet, creating a portable package 16 inches long by 6 wide.

Assembled, the Ultralite measures 6 feet by 2 feet, while the Mesh version is 6 feet by 2 feet, 2 inches.

* Tubb's Wilderness Snowshoes

Winter's snows reveal who went before you when you're exploring a national park. Snowshoe hare tracks are as distinctive as those of a magpie or fox. Venture into snow-bound Yellowstone, Grand Teton, or Glacier national parks and you might happen upon the tracks of a wolf or, as I was fortunate enough to spot, the feathery outline of a raven that came down to snatch a morsel from the fluffy snow's surface.

Many national parks turn into wilderness wonderlands through the months of December, January and February, and often remain so through March.

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The men's version of Tubbs' Wilderness 25. Kurt Repanshek photo.

They are snow-covered expanses that invite discovery. But when snow depths move past 5 or 6 inches, a good pair of snowshoes can be invaluable for negotiating both the increasing depths without 'post-holing' up to your knees or more, as well as providing traction on slopes and across any ice you might encounter.

Tubbs can help you negotiate these snows with a pair of their Wilderness 25 snowshoes (MSRP $200). The Wilderness 25 features a circular carbon steel toe crampon under the ball of your foot, as well as two toothed crampon bars running beneath the heel of your boot for added traction on slopes and ice.

The Wilderness 25, which also comes in a woman-specific model, also offers what Tubbs calls its ActiveLift heel lift. This is a metal bar that you can raise up under your boots' heels when you're climbing steep trails. The bar helps ease the strain on your Achilles tendon and calf muscles. It really does do the job, though it puts you in an awkward posture when the slope levels out. As a result, if you're heading up a trail that rises and falls, you could find yourself raising and lowering that bar a lot...or simply leaving it down.

* Sierra Design's Mirage 2 Tent

Basecamping, whether you do it in front-country national park campgrounds, or along a dirt road somewhere in the farflung realm of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, calls for, well, a good basecamp, and that's what the Mirage 2 provides. It is just one of the options ready to confront you if you're searching for this type of shelter; The North Face, Marmot, Big Agnes, Mountain Hardware, and REI all offer these models in various configurations and price tags.

Ideally, your basecamp tent will be big. How big depends on not only your entourage, but the toys you bring and the comforts you desire. The three-season Mirage 2 (MSRP $600) is intended for two people and their gear, there's also the Mirage 4, and other tent makers have models intended for as many as six sleepers.

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The Mirage 2 at work in Capitol Reef National Park. Kurt Repanshek photo.

There is no floor to this room, which makes sense if you're planning to haul bikes or other potentially muddy or heavy gear in out of the elements.

We found that having a separate ground cloth was great, if for no other reason than to cover any wet ground you might find at your campsite. The sleeping area, which measures a decent 32.25 square feet and does have a floor, has two doors, one from the anteroom, the other to the outside. That's a nice touch if you don't like having to climb over your partner in the middle of the night.

Plus, this sleeping compartment is actually suspended with clips from the top of the tent to the ground, so you can simply remove it if you just want a single large area.

* Xplorer Maps

Now, you're not likely going to take these hand-drawn maps into the national parks with you, but they're handsome enough to hang on the wall of your den or family room and admire while you're thinking about your next national park adventure.

The maps, drawn by Chris Robitaille, are rendered using an antique, old-world style. Along with being geographically accurate, the maps (Starting at $25 for just the map, considerably more if you order it framed; discount offered for NPT members) contain tidbits of interpretive information on natural resources and wildlife to prepare you for your trip.

Currently the company offers just eight park maps -- Olympic, Yellowstone, Glacier, Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Bryce Canyon and Zion in one map, and Canada's Banff National Park -- but others are on the planning board.

Bring some joy to your adventuring partners. Outfit them well!