Back to the Woods

Whatever’s left of winter has started to melt, and, for those who’ve been hibernating, the outdoor world awaits. Since you won’t want to leave behind all the comforts of home, E has unearthed a host of new products that make hitting the trails (or the streets and subways) a little more civilized. Bicycle Packing


BICYCLE PACKING

The lightweight Novara Commuter Pannier ($80) is a backpack designed for the unsung environmentalist who travels to work by bicycle, but we found it handy for all kinds of hands-free roughing it. The main compartment, hinged on top, can handle a change of clothes, spare shoes and your laptop, too. A $16 polyurethane-padded laptop organizer offers protection for units with up to 14.1-inch screens, as well as mesh pockets for incidentals. The pannier has secure top and side pockets, and its zippers are water-resistant. An included seam-sealed raincover protects your cargo to a very high standard. And the pack’s reflective piping makes sure you’re seen at night.

CONTACT: REI (800)426-4840. —Jim Motavalli


TWO WAY TALK

The Motorola T9500 Talkabout Two-Way Radio ($80) is a great accessory that could also be lifesaving for those outback trips when you’re traveling out of cell phone range. The easy-to-use Motorola Talkabout has 22 channels and communicates over a potential range of 25 miles. Our testing showed it worked well, though with something less than telephone voice quality, at least five miles out. A very useful feature is National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) dispatches and four marine weather channels to keep you updated on changing conditions. The vibrate mode is handy. The yellow-and-black Talkabout comes with two radios, two belt clips, a dual charger and charging adaptor, and two nickel-metal-hydride battery packs. —J.M.

CONTACT: Motorola


HERE COMES THE SUN-POWERED BATTERIES

The Solio Hybrid H1000 Solar Battery Charger ($80) is so intuitive we’re surprised it doesn’t have many competitors. For those times when you’re miles from the nearest wall outlet, this is an indispensable and easily portable device. It’s only seven and a half inches long, and weighs just over a pound. But set it in sunlight and it will get your cell phone up to full strength, or run your MP3 player for 10 hours. Even a one-hour charge will yield 15 minutes on your cell. A built-in rechargeable battery (lithium-ion) stores solar power for up to a year. The unit comes with three tips to handle iPhones, iPods, and a variety of Motorola, Blackberry and Nokia cells (though not our LG unit). The quick start guide could be easier to decipher (our 13-year-old had to help us set it up), but once we got with the program we used the bright orange unit with the see-through innards for several solar-powered recharges. —J.M.

CONTACT: Solio, (510)526-7654


ONE TOUGH COMPUTER

Need to access your e-mail during skydiving practice or create spreadsheets while conquering Everest? Have we got a high-tech solution for you! The ultimate in dur-able computers (yet weighing just 2.6 lbs.), the case of the Panasonic Toughbook 30 Laptop ($4,249) is made of magnesium alloy to withstand just about any shock you throw its way. This fully rugged 1.66-gigahertz, Intel Core Duo L2400 laptop has been through exacting U.S. government-derived drop and vibration tests with its shock-mounted hard drive spinning, and is water-and dust-resistant. It can withstand extreme low and high temperatures with ease, survive high altitudes and the cargo hold of military aircraft. The 10.4-inch screen boasts outstanding outdoor readability. Just try to upset the composure of this highly capable computer. —J.M.

CONTACT: Panasonic


THE COMFORTS OF HOME BREWED

We believe in bringing some of the comforts of home on the road, but we never thought to pack our easily breakable French press coffee maker. But thanks to the REI Double-Shot Press Coffee Mug ($28), fresh-pressed coffee for two is yours anywhere there’s access to hot water. We got excellent results. The REI stainless-steel mug comes with a top that incorporates a single-cup press. A second commuter-style cap holds the brewed coffee secure with a sliding sip-hole closure and a screen to keep grounds out of your mouth. Built into the base is an airtight compartment to hold the second cup’s measured coffee. —J.M.

CONTACT: REI, (800)426-4840.


AN OLD WOOLEN STANBY

Fleece and other synthetic fabrics are now popular alternatives to the old standbys cotton and wool for outdoor clothing, but the classics still have their place. Seattle-based Filson has been making rugged and epically long-lasting wool garments since 1897. Yes, wool is kind of scratchy, but it’s also warm and absorbs 30 percent of its weight in water without losing its insulating properties. This 100 percent wool Filson Mackinaw Wool Western Vest ($109.50) takes the chill off while leaving your arms free. Four front pockets are sized to hold cell phones or pruning shears. The deep collar can be turned up to protect your neck when the weather turns. —J.M.

CONTACT: Filson, (866)860-8906


FOR GOODNESS SAKE

The shop World of Good, online at www.worldofgood.com, and available through kiosks at Whole Foods, campuses, bookstores and natural food stores nationwide, works with artisan groups in 32 countries to bring beautifully handcrafted jewelry, scarves, housewares and other items to an American audience. Besides being a place to find a great-looking glass bead necklace or ornate oven mitt, World of Good gives consumers a new purpose in shopping—supporting fair wages, safe work environments and environmentally sustainable practices in the developing world. Ten percent of the company’s profits go to World of Good’s nonprofit development organization, Project Good, which strengthens standards for handcrafts in the fair trade industry. There are ruffled silk bags made by disabled artisans from Cambodia, sparkling placemats from Vietnam woven with discarded candy wrappers and dazzling glass bead bracelets from India. Each product tells a story of a better, more ethical world. —Brita Belli

CONTACT: Project Good; World of Good


BOOKS

DANGER SIGNS

Earth under Fire: How Global Warming is Changing the World (University of California Press, $34.95) by Gary Braasc

h was a long time in the making. The internationally ranked nature photographer has made it his mission to document climate change, starting in 1999 with his traveling exhibit "World View of Global Warming." His startling photos also illustrated E‘s own Feeling the Heat: Dispatches From the Frontlines of Climate Change in 2004. Earth under Fire is so pretty to look at that you might be tempted to leave it on your coffee table. But it’s a significant text for our times: beyond the striking photographs are clearly written essays by major scientists such as Stephen Schneider, Paul Epstein and Thomas Lovejoy. Braasch’s dogged work in all corners of the globe leads him to document shrinking polar bear habitat, disappearing islands, migrating birds, melting glaciers and bleaching coral reefs. It’s hard to remain skeptical about climate change after reading Earth under Fire.

Younger readers can learn about global warming in a more palatable form from the new book How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate (Dawn Publications, $17.95). A collaboration between Braasch and children’s author Lynne Cherry, the book offers information drawn from Earth Under Fire, aimed at younger readers with a style that never talks down to them. How We Know gives readers a solid grounding in all the major climate issues—and offers visits to world hotspots, from tropical rainforests to the melting Arctic. Kids will especially appreciate the success stories of young climate activists. —J.M.


THE NEW OLD WIND

Before nuclear reactors, coal-fired power plants and the internal-combustion engine, there was wind. Wind the World Over by Irene Boland and Vanessa Kellogg (Bright Sky Press, $14.95) follows Ruby and Ian, two kids from Texas chasing breeze-swept clues through the history of wind power. Through their eyes, readers meet a Persian barley-grinder, a Chinese rice farmer, a Dutch miller, a French baker and an early American cowboy—all working with wind. Boland and Kellogg’s fictional tale is written for children, but it’s full of nuance. Ruby and Ian’s mysterious race through time is illustrated as a "paper trail," a light reminder of the bureaucratic labyrinth of energy politics. The kids begin and end their trek climbing their backyard tree, showing us that easy answers do in fact exist in our own backyards. —Erin Barnes


HYDROGEN HOPES

The Hydrogen Age: Empowering a Clean-Energy Future (Gibbs Smith, $24.95) by Geoffery B. Holland and James J. Provenzano makes the case for this lighter-than-air element as the key replacement for oil, which is jointly beset by global warming challenges and diminishing supplies. Hydrogen is not directly a fuel, but a clean and renewable energy carrier. The Hydrogen Age, which is both beautifully laid out and amply illustrated, details how hydrogen has been vital to the workings of the universe, and how it can serve as a clean energy commodity for the 21st century. Holland and Provenzano dismiss the naysaying of critics like Joseph Romm, author of The Hype About Hydrogen, in a chapter called "Misconceptions." Reading their book, you"ll wonder why we’re not already entering the hydrogen age. Bringing costs down—for both hydrogen gas and the vehicles that will convert it to electricity—remains the key hurdle. —Carl Pino


THE ROAD TO ETHANOL

Alcohol Can be a Gas: Fueling an Ethanol Revolution for the 21st Century by David Blume (International Institute for Ecological Agriculture, $47) is a phonebook-sized collection jam-packed with political cartoons, historical images and how-to articles. Ethanol has a fascinating past. In the early 1900s, it was called ethyl and every farmer in the bread basket used it to power machinery. In the 1930s, Prohibi-tion destroyed the distilleries, making way for the oil economy.Modern ethanol made inroads as a gasoline additive in the 1970s, but was replaced during the Reagan Admin-istration with MTBE, which was eventually banned for contaminating groundwater. In the 1990s, ethanol was back, both as an additive and as E85, a blended pump fuel for millions of "dual-fuel" vehicles. But the U.S. still has only 1,200 ethanol stations, and overcapacity has depressed ethanol prices. Alcohol Can Be a Gas makes the case that biofuels are best made by small farm-based systems, not derived on an industrial scale. —Remy Chevalier