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Pack the Proper Active Apparel

Stay warm, dry and comfortable on your wilderness adventures

spinner image two people walking on trail between trees
Getty Images

As a 50-plus active traveler, I know that proper gear makes all the difference, whether I'm skiing in Crested Butte, Colorado, mountain biking in Whistler, British Columbia or snorkeling above the coral reef off Kāʻanapali, Hawaii. If I'm outfitted improperly, I’ll depart unsatisfied with my experience or, worse, with blisters and sunburn.


Shop off-season

Your own enjoyment of the great outdoors will benefit directly from your level of preparedness, right down to your socks (which, by the way, may now be heated!). This gear can be pricey, however, so the off-season may be the best time to buy: Think ski boots in the spring or e-bikes in the dead of winter. And because manufacturers release new e-bikes, kayaks and other recreational equipment every year, you can often buy used gear in excellent condition on resale websites like eBay, Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist.


Stay warm

To layer or not to layer is an age-old winter sports question. Nowadays, a wide variety of electrically heated clothing provides an updated answer. Rechargeable or regular batteries power the heating elements in the garments. A typical garment offers three temperature settings for up to 10 hours of warmth, and can be adjusted by remotes in out-of-view special pockets.

You can now don heated apparel ranging from an Ororo jacket ($149) right down to LightInTheBox long underwear ($60) and ActionHeat socks ($49). Gloves like the Sureshot Heated Softshells from Outdoor Research ($259) can be seen all over ski hills this winter.

Still, many of us dislike overheating more than we mind a little chill, so wearing layers instead of an electric sweater may suit us just fine. Others prefer a single layer of insulated outerwear because it is less bulky and wards off chill entirely.

Merino wool and synthetic base layers maintain warmth and provide wicking (removal of moisture). Among the many options for building such layers are the Patagonia Capilene Midweight Crew ($99), Smartwool Classic Thermal ¼ Zip ($115) and Columbia Omni-Heat Infinity Baselayer Tights ($75). Base layers and mid-layers can be a onetime investment you wear in various combinations according to your chosen winter activity, including cross-country skiing, fat-tire biking, snowshoeing and more.


Protect your feet

The technology used to make faster, more energy-efficient running shoes has changed hiking boots too. Vectiv tech is a patented system designed by outdoors company The North Face to propel the wearer forward, saving the hiker’s energy. Other brands like Hoka, Altra and On Cloud have used their own patented technology to make shoes and boots that are comfortable and supportive for backpacking, hiking on trails or scrambling up mountains. And thanks to new synthetic materials in both the sole and the body, today’s boots are lightweight as well as durable. The website rates a variety of brands and provides prices.

We can’t talk about shoes without considering socks. What’s important is that they have enough cushioning, provide wicking to keep away sweat, and offer the proper fit for your chosen sport. Hiking socks, for example, should come from just above the ankle to below the knee. They are available with varying degrees of cushioning from companies like Bombas, Merrell and Darn Tough. Skiers and snowboarders might consider uniquely targeted cushioned socks like Ski Zero and Vans from Smartwool. Other specialized socks cater to trail and road runners, while cyclists might wear waterproof socks from Sealskinz and Showers Pass.


spinner image man riding bike on pavement
Battery-powered e-bikes can help make riding more acccessible for people with mobility challenges.
Sara Shaw

Consider an e-bike

Over the last decade, cyclists have been benefiting from technology that has made bike frames lighter and tires safer. But for us older cyclists, the most exciting development may be the popularity of electronic bikes, or e-bikes. Battery power provides an assist whenever the rider finds it necessary — say, on challenging hills or tough terrain — which opens up cycling to those with knee, hip, foot and other challenges. E-bikes may be heavier to lift onto a rack or into a trunk — the batteries can weigh up to 20 pounds — but they make the ride more enjoyable, even for experienced cyclists, and may encourage new riders to give the sport a chance.

E-bikes have been improving, too, with increased battery life and lighter motors. Importantly, they’re now available in a broad range of prices. The Ride1Up Roadster v2 ($1,245) weighs 33 pounds and travels up to 30 miles per charge. The Haibike AllMtn 3 ($4,640) mountain bike from REI weighs 55 pounds with a range of 20 to 40 miles, depending on how much pedal assistance you use. Heybike’s Cityrun e-bike ($1,299) weighs 62 pounds with a range of up to 55 miles. And as in other technology sectors, startups continue to appear — a good sign for e-bike innovation and consumer pricing.


Paddle away

Kayak design has changed to provide a bit more ease for paddlers. The Lifetime Kenai 103 Kayak ($700), L.L. Bean Manatee Angler Kayak ($529) and Seaflo 8.8 Kayak ($299.99) are among the many sit-on-top kayaks that are great for beginners who may feel uncomfortable trapped inside a hard-shell kayak that could fill with water or flip. Plus, sit-on kayaks are easier to get into, with no awkward slide-down-or-up-into-the-seat maneuvering. Shifting one’s body and legs every few minutes is also easier in a sit-on kayak, which takes less of a toll on arthritic knees and other joints.

There’s been progress in the design of inflatable kayaks and stand-up paddleboards as well, which makes them more accessible to occasional recreationists who may need easy portability and stowability. Generally, once paddlers arrive at their destination, they can inflate these boats and boards with a pump about the size of a bicycle pump. And since no roof rack is needed, lightweight, inflatable kayaks and paddleboards are usually easier to take to hard-to-reach launch points.


Safety first

Trekking poles have joined the ranks of hats, glasses and sun protection as accessories that we once packed as an afterthought, but should not leave home without today. We may think we can still "billy goat" up a rock- and root-strewn trail, but if we’re honest, taking careful steps with the aid of trekking poles will allow us to hike longer over more varied terrain.

spinner image people hiking up terrain in a line using hiking sticks
Trekking poles can help with stability and balance and take the pressure off your knees while hiking.
Crai S. Bower

Most trekking poles are retractable and manufactured in either aluminum or carbon fiber. The essential differences between the aluminum Leki Journey Lite Trekking Poles ($90) and REI Co-op Flash Carbon Trekking Poles ($149) are durability and weight, respectively. Lightweight, collapsible trekking poles are not new, but manufacturers continue to introduce stronger and lighter versions yearly, though carbon will usually cost more. Another option to consider: L.L. Bean Access trekking poles ($50), which are great for both summer and winter activities.

Katherine Lalangan, a marketing specialist with SA Expeditions in San Francisco, says her company’s tour guides highly recommend poles for all of their walking tours. “They assist in stability and balance, help save energy and take the pressure off the knees," she says.

As for the sun, wearing protection from the rays is as important as wearing a parka outside during a blizzard. Given what we now know about skin cancer, innovations in ultraviolet-radiation-blocking sun shirts are more critical than shaped skis or light hiking shoes. Most of these garments contain thicker weaves and are treated with zinc oxide and other sun-blocking minerals. The Outdoor Research Spectrum ($59), NRS Baja ($76) Sun Shirt or Lands’ End Crew Neck Swim Tee ($48) are three options, whether you’re exploring a tropical environment or trimming tomato plants in your garden.


Pack smart

For years I carried a medium canvas duffel bag with a shoulder strap. I liked that I could compress this luggage to use as a carry-on or expand it to fit additional items and check it. My shoulders paid the price, however. When I realized I was packing lighter as a result and was thus less prepared for my trips, I compromised with a rolling duffel bag. I quickly discovered how much they had changed.

Duffel bags have evolved, with improved wheels that roll smoother and last longer. They also feature separate shoe bags to stow those muddy or dusty hiking boots, and mesh interior pockets for worn clothes and electronics. If you’ve ever watched your luggage get soaked on the tarmac as you sat helplessly in 17F, you’ll be happy to know there are water-resistant duffels too.

The Ogio Terminal Travel Bag ($239) includes multiple internal and external pockets for easy organizing over the long haul. The Osprey Transporter Wheeled Duffel 90 ($340) is water-resistant. REI makes its Co-op Big Haul Recycled Rolling Duffel ($269) from recycled and bluesign-approved materials, a positive trend in outdoor gear.

Like selecting luggage, choosing a backpack depends on the itinerary. Low-volume, roll-up backpacks are light but have limited capacity. They're easy to pack as checked or carry-on luggage, have enough pockets to keep a water flask separate from cameras and tablets, and are comfortable enough for a multi-hour hike or bike. The North Face Jester Daypack ($75), Arc’teryx Aerios 45 ($250) and Deuter Speed Light 23 ($120) hold a day's worth of supplies and come in men's and women's versions. They’re also light and compress easily.

Larger backpacks continue to improve by providing more lumbar support, better weight distribution and technological conveniences like interior USB charging stations. There are so many styles available that it may help to make a list of your most important backpack criteria before visiting your outdoor retailer.


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