I cringe at calling this a gift guide. I loathe traditional gift guides. Retailers sell placements to brands. Bloggers monetize their posts through affiliate links. This means items either end up being extremely generic, or unique items with high price points and egregious markups (inflated due to a bit of elevated, gift-y packaging). It’s not about helping you find a thoughtful gift. It’s about capturing your sale when you’re burnt out on shopping, at a total loss of what to get for your uncle, and shopping last minute when you’re running out of time.
Gift giving is my love language. I’m good at identifying people’s needs and wants, and finding a way to pack a lot of value into my gift budget. So as much as I love another pom pom beanie or Better Sweater, I’ve made my own list of gift ideas for the holiday season to jumpstart your shopping list:
Puffy Pants ($60 to $340)
Think puffer jacket, but for your legs. Most people don’t own a pair of these. I get invited on 2-3 trips per year where they’d really be necessary, so I usually just decline. But if I owned a pair, I’d probably wear them all winter. In other words, they’re not an essential, but they’re great to have on hand. And they work for every type of outdoorsperson. Hardcore climber or ski mountaineer? They fit the bill as belay pants or essential high camp layers. Relaxed car camper? Extend the season year-round and enjoy warm freedom beyond the campfire and inside of your sleeping bag. You can wear them under waders to fish and to stay warm through fall hunting seasons.
Hot tip: Go a size or two up from what you think the recipient wears. Insulation works by trapping warm air, so a pair of pants with a roomy fit will be much warmer than a pair that’s a little tight. That also leaves room for layers.
Premium down options:
- Feathered Friends Volant: Includes a waterproof breathable membrane in the face fabric and 5.6oz of 900 fill down. Full zip for easy on and off.
- Feathered Friends Helios: Highly water, wind, and abrasion resistant face fabric and 4.4oz of 900 fill down. Full zip.
- Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer: These aren’t quite as value packed as the Feathered Friends options, but they’re available in a women’s-specific cut, more colors, and more inseam options. There are a lot of last season’s units on sale for under $200.
- Kuiu Super Down Pro Pant: 850 fill down, full zip sizes. Seat, knees, and cuffs are heavily reinforced, making this one of the most durable options on the list. It’s also the only one that comes with pockets.
Mid-tier and budget options:
- Mountain Hardwear Compressor Pants: Synthetic fill insulation, so they won’t pack down as small and light for a weight weenie. But their synthetic fill makes them a better fit for regular washing. If you’re gifting these to someone who’s going to wear them around the house and sitting in front of a campfire, synthetics make a lot more sense. They also have full zips and reinforcement on the knees and seat.
- Columbia Sweet View II Pants: No frills synthetic pant. 25% less insulation than the Compressor. Plain weave face fabric is less durable than the Pertex or ripstop options. But the lack of side zippers makes them lighter and less bulky if you think they’ll become part of your giftee’s around-the-house attire.
- Tapasimme Down Pants: Low price point Amazon dupe. No readings on fill weight or face fabric material, but the reviews are mostly positive. Note that these are dry clean only .
- Tentock Down Pants: There are several versions of this pant with just the logo changed. The reviews across all styles are largely favorable, and they’re a 700 fill pant with a basic nylon face fabric and full zippers.
A Gear Demo Day
A gift card might feel generic, but you can personalize it by a thoughtful note with how you envision them using it.
For skiers, they can test out different skis on the market either at their resort, or their local ski shop. Note that demos will cost more than the baseline rental when you’re checking pricing and selecting the monetary amount. Demo days are great for all types of skiers that have at least a 3-4 days under their belts. For progressing skiers, it’s a great way to take a test drive before sizing up on their intermediate setup. Skiers riding an all-mountain ski can splurge on a powder ski to make the most of a deep day. And gear nerds can check out the hot ski of the season without making a purchase.
Demo days are also an option for mountain bikes, although the demo fleets tend to be smaller. But it’s still a great option to have if someone has an older or hardtail bike that’s a little overmatched on some trails. Some shops also include e-bikes in their demo fleets, which could come in handy for one of the longer rides on their bucket list.
Any Gear Nearing its Expiration Date
Harnesses, beacons, ropes, and helmets should all get swapped out if they’ve taken a compromising fall or hit a certain age. This does require talking to the recipient and takes away from the element of surprise. But it’s a great gift since these purchases suck. Experts recommend swapping out a harness after 7-10 years of gentle use, and mine’s coming up on the 7-year mark. It looks in good shape and functions fine, so I’m tempted to stretch it another year or two. But I also know it’ll need replacing at some point regardless and that I shouldn’t jeopardize my safety over delaying a $100 charge.
Gifting these sorts of items means you’re giving them something you know will get use, and it also takes the mental calculus about the cost out of the equation.
Socks ($16 to $30)
I know, socks used to be the lamest Christmas presents, but your outdoorsy friend can never get enough. Skip ski socks. Most non-skier relatives grab the thickest pair they can find because thick equals warm, and skiing is cold. But skiers sometimes wear their boots super tight while others have more room, and the ski socks need to play nice with the amount of volume a skier has in their boot.
Beyond that, Darn Toughs are elite. I have a few pairs going on year 7 and the only signs of wear are some sagging in the elastic. We need tall socks to wear with boots and short socks for trail runners. Heavy cushion is nice for my rigid sole boots, while light cushion comes in handy for hot days and low volume shoes. There are no wrong answers. I would say whatever pair you buy will get worn to shreds, but Darn Toughs have a lifetime guarantee and I’ve yet to put a hole in one.
Insulated Booties ($50 to $120)
This fits in the same category as the down pants: not an essential that everyone owns, but once you get them, you find a lot of uses for them. The biggest trade offs are between packability and the burliness of the tread. Price and fill material also work against each other.
- Feathered Friends Down Booties: If your gift recipient cares about weight and pack space, these are the way to go. They have a water and wind resistant outer shell with a minimalist sole. The down insulation is in an inner “sock” that comes out so you can wear the warm part to bed without wearing shoes in your sleeping bag.
- Outdoor Research Tundra Aerogel Booties: Similar to the Feathered Friends booties, but a cheaper synthetic option. Baffin and Bloch both make similar options down to the ~$50 range. The Bloch version also comes in fun prints, while Baffin offers kids’ sizes.
- Full Tilt Apres Booties 2.0: These are Uggs for ski bros. Light and water resistant, but a moderately substantial sole. Great commuter boot for to-and-from the ski hill.
- The North Face Thermoball Traction Booties: Similar offering to the Apres Booties, but a lower cuff and cheaper price.
Monocular or Binoculars ($30 to $45)
I know you probably got binoculars as a kid from a weird uncle and that you never used them, but they’re really a good gift now. Price varies with quality and level of magnification. The right level of magnification depends on the recipient’s sports and interests. Stargazers, sea kayakers, and hunters need a pretty powerful pair, and they cost enough that I wouldn’t buy them without conferring with the recipient. But most hikers, climbers, skiers, and drivers can get an affordable option to get an eye on their route and overhead conditions, or get a closer look at wildlife and scenery when they’re on a pretty drive.
- Brunton Echo Pocket Scope Monocular: My friend Ian keeps a monocular in his pack similar to this, and it’s great for ski touring and glacier travel to see the route ahead of us and keep an out for other parties. It’s under 2 ounces, meaning weight’s unlikely to be a deal breaker, and at $30, it can be a great stocking stuffer or smaller gift on its own.
- Celestron Nature 10 x 25 Monocular: Little bigger and heavier than the Brunton monocular, but it’s also more powerful and waterproof.
- Bushnell H2O Waterproof/Fogproof Compact Binocular: This compact pair of binoculars weighs about 2/3 of a pound and is a solid multi-purpose option. The waterproof option makes them handy for boating and fishing, and they have enough magnification for light birdwatching. (Serious birders will want something like an 8×32 or 8×42 binocular for greater field of vision).
A Gear Tune Up
We all know the person who is wildly content with the gear they own, almost to a fault. They never want anything new, even if the gear they have is holding on by a thread. For these types, give them the gift of extending the life of their gear. These gifts are also really helpful for people who lack enough space or tools to do a lot of gear maintenance on their own.
- Ski wax: A basic wax runs $20-30 and is important for keeping your bases moisturized. Casual skiers should wax their skis at least once a year, ideally putting storage wax on at the end of the season and scraping it for use when they’re ready to ski. Frequent skiers are recommended to go 8-10 days ski days between waxes. Some people have the tools and space to wax their own setup, but a mess-friendly garage or basement is helpful, and a good vacuum cleaner for cleaning up the wax scrapings. Great gift for small apartment dwellers.
- Ski tune: A more substantial tune up involves sharpening edges, grinding the bases flat with a stone grind, and filling in any gouges that scrape into the wood core of the ski. These run $50-80, depending on their condition. Some people do their own work here too, but it takes more skill and an do more damage than a rookie wax job.
- DPS Phantom Treatment: For around $100, skis can get this treatment where they never need routine waxing again.
- Bike Tune Up: Bikes require regular cleaning and maintenance. Bike tune-ups can range from $70 up to $400, depending on which components are disassembled, cleaned, and re-assembled. Rates can climb even higher if any componentry needs to be replaced.
- Specialty Apparel Laundry: Washing raingear and down layers is more complex than typical laundry. Down needs to be washed in a front-loading washer without an agitator. Both need special detergents that are ~$10 for 3 loads. Take their stuff to a specialty operation like Rainy Pass Repairs and let them do the chores. They also do repair work for anything that needs patching or new zippers and buckles.
A Blanket ($20 to $169)
Like socks, you can never have too many blankets. We’ve got a good sized quiver, and they’re so handy. Some are good emergency layers to keep on hand for winter driving. Some pack well for a place for the dog to sleep with while camping (or for ourselves as a sleeping bag alternative camping during those heat waves). Some are good for campfire cuddles, and others keep us from destroying the seats in our car.
- Rumpl Puffer Outdoor Blanket: This one’s the warmest and most packable, but it’s also super slide-y.
- Burrito Blanket: Super soft, quite warm. Very enjoyable to anyone with pets to whap them into a purr-ito.
- “Authentic” (?) Mexican Blanket: MVP of keeping our car from being destroyed by a muddy puppy and dirt-covered mountain bikers.
- Pendleton Yakima Camp Blanket: This one’s dry clean only, so not the best for smokey campfires or leaving in the car. But it’s warm, durable, and can serve double duty inside and out with a much more refined aesthetic than, say, a burrito blanket.
There are 2 main categories here:
- A beginner class with rentals that introduces the giftee to a new sport and lets them dabble at no cost to them: Beginner ski or snowboard lessons (pro tip: get the 3 pack), surf lessons, belay lessons (also might be called an intro to indoor climbing), fly fishing lessons, sea kayaking lessons, sailing lesson series.
- Classes that add to the activity skills or safety skills for a sport they already do: I’ve talked to so many women who would love to take a private, advanced ski lesson. AIARE avalanche courses, lead climbing or rock rescue courses. A WFA or WFR certification. Map and compass navigation courses.
Camp Food ($7 to $15)
Dehydrated camp food is expensive. Some people try to avoid them due to cost, taste, or nutritional value, but it’s always great to have them on hand just in case you jump on last minute plans. REI will also reliably run out on major summer camp weekends, like before the 4th of July or Labor Day, so it’s nice to have a few of your own in stock.
- Always check the reviews and go with options rated 4 stars or more. There are some real dogs out there. I found my first meals by going to the REI website sorting by the review score, and selecting ones that also had a high review count.
- This is also a great chance to support a small business while Christmas shopping, especially if the giftee has dietary restrictions. A lot of smaller brands have popped up to serve different diets, or to add more options to the market with better nutritional value. Plus, you’re giving the recipient something new to experience, not just another Mountain Hose Mac & Cheese. For smaller brands, check out: Mary Jane’s Farm. Outdoor Herbivore. Packit Gourmet. Paleo Meals to Go. Heather’s Choice. Next Mile Meals. Good to Go. Nomad Nutrition.
- Add in a GSI Long Spoon to the package to tie it all together. These are great for dehydrated meals since you can get to the bottom corners of the bag without fisting your beef stroganoff, and the rubber-spatulta-style edges make it possible to get every last calorie out of the bag when you’re ravenous.
- Avoid the Mountain House multi-pack. It might have some solid options, but no one likes the eggs.
A Casual Looking Base Layer Top
I’m usually not fussy about base layers, but it’s nice to have 1 piece that passes as casual wear. Maybe you squeeze in some extra ski laps between your hotel check out and your flight home. Or you’re trying to get a dawn patrol in before you 9:30 Zoom call. These pieces help you find a little extra time in your schedule to spend time outdoors.
- Kari Traa Rose Half Zip: It’s a weird intersection of ski culture meets cottagecore, but it works. This is one of Kari Traa’s best selling wool pieces and a style that helped put them on the map with women. Style it with jeans and a cute puffer vest and no one on your flight will know you just got off the slopes. (And thanks to wool’s natural anti-odor properties, they won’t be able to smell you either).
- Burton Midweight Rugby Shirt: “Me? Sneak out of the office early to mountain bike? This shirt has a collar. So definitely not. Couldn’t be me.”
- Smartwool Merino 250 Hoodie: The raglan cut and patterned sleeves make this top interesting enough where styling the rest of your outfit is super simple.
- Athleta Foresthill Merino Ascent Turtleneck: The most affordable of the bunch, and it comes in plus sizing. The style is simple, but the fit makes it look really sophisticated. Torn on color? Go with black or cream. Pair it with some of their stretchy, comfy work “slacks” and simple gold jewelry and people won’t even guess you’re an outdoor cat.
- Patagonia Capilene Air Crew: Buy this one a size up – it’s a little see-through when the fabric is under tension. It’s also available as a hoodie, and both styles are also made for women. I’d also steer towards darker colors for the women’s line and matching the color of your undergarments to help it from being obviously sheer.
- Kari Traa Smekker Wool Long Sleeve: Like the Athleta turtleneck, I think you could style this sweater-y shirt in a way where no one would know it’s activewear.