Last year, Hoyt introduced the best carbon riser in years--the Carbon Matrix. It has now refined that design in the Carbon Element, a bow that melds ingenious form, space-age material, and meticulous craftsmanship. It starts with weight: The Element's hollow-tube carbon riser is featherlight (3 pounds 10 ounces) yet balances wonderfully in the hand. Surprisingly, for a light bow, it offers almost no felt hand shock or vibration as it sends a 437-grain hunting arrow at 280 fps. The Pro-Fit grip is slender and easy to grasp, and the Silent Riser Shelf--which prevents the arrow shaft from contacting the riser and was made for use with drop-away rests--is one of those nice touches that separate the great from the good. Another impressive feature was the offset stabilizer mount, which helps balance the weight of a sight, quiver, and other -accessories. --Scott Bestul Manufacturer: Hoyt (hoyt.com) Price: $1,199.
Best New GPS: Bushnell Backtrack D-Tour
If you want basic navigation and cool route functions but don’t want to spend a fortune or read a manual, the BackTrack D-Tour GPS is the unit for you. It can mark up to five locations–camp, the trailhead, an elk wallow, a clearing, or a rendezvous point–and guide you back to any of them, pointing the direction and giving the distance left to go. Hit the Trip button as you begin your hunt, and the D-Tour will log up to 24 hours of data including distance, speed, elevation, and temperature. Plug it into your PC or Mac with a free downloadable app, and with a single button click, it will display your path on Google Maps while graphing speed, elevation, temperature, or distance. Just four buttons do everything on this -diminutive unit. –Jock Ellio
Manufacturer:** Bushnell (bushnell.com) Price: $120
Best New Decoy: Carry-Lite Bob ‘N Tail Tom Turkey
Carry-Lite prints high-definition photographic reproductions of animal skin on cloth coverings slipped over soft-plastic bodies. The new Bob’n Tail Tom decoy adds a movable tail fan. Not only are the colors and feather reproduction amazingly realistic in both sunny and cloudy conditions, but the adjustable tail-fan assembly reproduces the movement of a gobbler as he fans back and forth in front of his hens. The Bob’n Tail does require some fine-tuning to properly adjust the counterweighted tail-fan system, and assembly is a bit tricky in the dark. However, the work is worth it because this deke draws a hot gobbler right into range. Once you’ve mastered its intricacies, you’ll find that the decoy easily disassembles for storage in a mesh carry sack. –Bruce Matthews
Manufacturer:** Carry-Lite (CarryLiteDecoys.com) Price: $50
Best New Safety Harness: Tree Spider Speed Harness, Live Wire Descent System
As I get older, I find myself obsessing about stand safety, so anytime a new safety harness appears, I pay attention. But my former life as a safety scofflaw taught me that such gear has to be simple and comfortable, or it stays in the truck, where it never saves a life. This system is so good I consider it one of the top products to emerge from this year’s ATA Show. First, the harness. The Tree Spider is one of those rare harnesses comfy enough to make you forget you have it on. The three-point attachment system consists of metal clips that somehow aren’t noisy but give that satisfying little click that lets you know they’re locked. The Live Wire Descent System is also slick. As treestand veterans know, even if your safety system prevents a fall, you’ve got a new set of problems if you can’t reach your stand or a step. The Live Wire solves that lethal issue by gently lowering your quaking carcass to the ground on 30 feet of webbing. –S.B.
Manufacturer:** Tree Spider (TreeSpiderSafety.com) Price: $150, $190
Best New Boots: Magnum USA Sidewinder HPi in MultiCam
I wore a pair of Sidewinders during the spring gobbler season in Montana, where you roost a tom in a misting twilight rain, set up for him in 2 inches of overnight snow, and hike out of ridges at noon under a merciless sun. These proved to be the toughest, lightest and, once broken in, most comfortable three–season hunting boots I’ve worn. Field-tested for over a year by the British Special Forces in Afghanistan, they sport a hard Vibram tread designed to stand up to the grinding of sand and sharp rocks, along with an innovative ion-mask coating that binds to the leather and nylon uppers, repelling moisture without affecting breathability. Other features include a removable, shock–absorbing memory-foam insole and a locking-lacing system that simplifies getting–and keeping–the right fit. –Keith McCafferty Manufacturer: Magnum Boots (magnumbootsusa.com) Price: $250
Best New Outerwear: Columbia Sportswear Omni-Heat Electric Wader Widgeon Interchange
Electrically heated clothing isn’t new, but electrically heated clothing that isn’t bulky, isn’t heavy, and doesn’t run out of juice after a couple of hours is, at least in my experience. The Omni-Heat Electric Wader Widgeon is two jackets, an inner zip-off reflective lining that contains the heating mechanism and a waterproof–breathable shell with a hood. The package comes with charging cables, electrical adapters, and an instruction manual that looks as complicated as Montana’s big-game regulations, but operation is as simple as pressing a button. Heat is adjustable, with up to six hours of continuous output at the lowest setting. Operate it intermittently and you can stay warm all day and recharge the battery packs overnight. –K.M. Manufacturer: Columbia (columbia.com) Price: $1,200
Best New Hunting Pack: Cabela’s Bow and Rifle Pack
The first thing that strikes you about this durable backpack is its weight. At less than 3 pounds, it felt like a feather compared with the other hunting packs we tested–a serious plus for hunters who tackle tough terrain where every ounce counts. After that, you begin to notice all the smart details that make the Bow and Rifle Pack so great–and worth your money. If you want to lighten your load for a simple day hunt, the front detaches to serve as a daypack. When you’re thirsty, you can take a sip from the included (and removable) 70-ounce reservoir. After you stuff all 2,200 cubic inches of the main compartment, the frame balances the load nicely while the ergonomic, mesh-lined back panel keeps you comfortable. Then there’s the pack’s slick namesake feature: adjustable straps and a foldout bow-cam or -rifle-butt support pouch that securely hold your compound bow, rifle, or crossbow. It comes in four camo patterns as well as a Scent-Lok version ($170). –Colin Kearns
Manufacturer:** Cabela’s Price: $150
Best New Shotgun: Remington Versa Max
Remington’s Versa Max won Best of the Best by making a weak impression–on the shoulders of the test team, who rated it the softest-kicking semiautomatic of all. Add reliability and versatility to the soft recoil and you have a winner. The Versa Max handily digested every test load we fed it, from 3 1⁄2-inch high-velocity steel down to 7⁄8-ounce reloads. The 12-gauge is able to function with such a wide range of loads through a simple, unique system: In place of a valve that bleeds off excess gases, there are seven gas ports in the gun’s chamber. The length of the shell determines how many ports are closed off by the hull and therefore how much gas bleeds off to run the action, which consists of a gas block and two short pistons. Cleaning is easy. –Phil Bourjaily Manufacturer: Remington (remington.com)
Price: $1,399 – $1,599
Best New Muzzleloader: Traditions Performance Firearms Pursuit Ultralight
This .50-caliber break-action muzzleloader has new and time-tested features that will help hunters load quickly, obtain better accuracy, and save significant time when it comes to cleaning. The breech plug can be removed in seconds without a tool, making the rifle easy to maintain. A CeraKote finish on the barrel and receiver provides significantly more corrosion resistance than stainless steel. The rifle tested had a crisp, factory-set trigger with a pull of 31⁄4 pounds and a 26-inch fluted barrel. Its groups would rival those of many higher-priced centerfire rifles. Loading was a breeze, and bullets could be seated with little effort. The 5.15-pound Ultralight handles well and is easy to shoot, even with 150-grain magnum loads. –Brad Fenson Manufacturer: Traditions Firearms (traditionsfirearms.com) Price: $295 – $435
Best New Crossbow: TenPoint Carbon Fusion CLS
Great companies never stop innovating, and TenPoint’s Carbon Fusion CLS is proof. The venerable Ohio maker brought its A game to bear on this crossbow. The wow factor started with the frame, which at 381⁄2 inches shouldn’t weigh only 7.3 pounds but does, thanks to a woven–carbon–fiber barrel. The Acudraw draw–assist mechanism (which cranks the string back to load the bow) was easy to understand and whisper quiet. Other standout new features were the dual–safety system and user–friendly GripGuard shield that prevents fingers from creeping up on the rail. Price is for a package that includes a scope, a monopod, six bolts, a four-arrow quiver, and an airline-approved case. –S.B.
Manufacturer:** TenPoint (tenpointcrossbows.com) Price: $1,999
Best New Shotshells: Winchester Blind Side
By making hexa-hedral (dice-shaped) pellets that stack in a hull more efficiently, Winchester has been able to increase steel pellet counts for improved performance in the field. There is even enough room left in the hull to load a compressible hinged wad, which softens felt recoil -somewhat. To counteract the inclination of Hex Shot to pattern openly, Winchester developed a Diamond-Cut shot cup to hold the shot charge together a few feet out of the muzzle. The result is a load that gives broad patterns with Improved Cylinder and tightens to yield good 45-yard patterns with Full. Blind Side may not be the final answer to the question of how to make steel more lethal, but it is a fascinating step in the right direction. –P.B. Manufacturer: Winchester Ammunition (winchester.com) Price: $24 for 25
Best New Muzzleloader Bullet: Powerbelt Aerolite
The new AeroLite muzzleloader bullet is longer than other PowerBelt bullets; the design improves the aerodynamics so it shoots flatter and faster for improved accuracy at longer ranges. But the real difference is that it has a much larger hollow-point cavity, which maximizes expansion capability while reducing weight from the bullet’s core. The polycarbonate tip is vital to getting proper expansion, and this uniquely tapered projectile will provide velocities of 1800 fps with a standard 100-grain charge. It can be used with magnum loads of up to 150 grains. The test team shot dozens of rounds, and accuracy was consistent and impressive with a variety of muzzleloaders. –B.F. Manufacturer: Powerbelt Bullets (powerbeltbullets.com) Price: $30-$32 for 15
Best New Trail Cam: Primos Super Model Game Camera and Photo Viewer
Primos sets the standard for ease of setup and use with the Super Model trail cam. Strap it to a tree and it will take infrared night photos or color videos of game. Slip it out of its tree-mounted bracket, and it becomes an in-the-field handheld viewer for instantly reviewing shots on a 21⁄2-inch color screen. Full-color onscreen switches, waterproof buttons, and a waterproof display on the camera back make setup fast and intuitive, so much so that you don’t have to take the manual into the field with you. A 0.3-second “instant” trigger captures fast-moving game that other cameras miss. Photos, which record moon phase, time, date, and temperature, can be captured at 7, 5, or 3 megapixels, and videos at 640×480 or 320×240 pixels. Four or eight AA alkaline, lithium, or rechargeable batteries will provide up to a year of service. –J.E. Manufacturer: Primos (primos.com) Price: $230
Best New Blind: L.L. Bean Stowaway Hunter’s Blind
Turkey hunters, especially those who practice run-and-gun tactics where they may need to move several times in a morning’s hunt, need a blind that’s lightweight, quiet, and quick to set up. Bean’s Stowaway Hunter’s Blind hits the 10-ring in all three categories. And the blind can be transported fully assembled over short distances, which is really handy when a gobbler decides to head in another direction and you need to reposition in a jiffy. –B.M. Manufacturer: L.L. Bean (llbean.com) Price: $129
From a dead accurate factory rifle and hunting boots inspired by the demands of mountain warfare on the far side of the world to futuristic self-warming clothing and an ingenious treestand safety harness, this year’s winners will help any hunter improve his game.
The Gear Tests
Before a product earns recognition as Best of the Best, it must undergo field testing by our experts. In all, 150 products were tested, and 26 were deemed fit enough to earn Best of the Best honors. Here are some of the testing procedures we used:
Rifles and Shotguns
• Guns were inspected for overall fit and finish, and trigger pull weights were verified. Barreled actions were removed and inspected with a borescope. Rifles were shot from a benchrest, three shots at 100 yards, with three different types of ammo, to determine accuracy. Shotguns were fired from a low-gun start on the trap and skeet field with a variety of hunting and target ammo to assess responsiveness and function.
• Penetration and weight retention of big-game bullets were examined using the Ballistic Buffalo, an ingenious instrument created by Rifles editor David E. Petzal (fieldandstream.com/ballisticbuffalo).
• Knives were tested for edge holding, initial sharpness, and ease of resharpening. Special-purpose knives were tested by cutting wood, parachute cord, and seat belts.
ATVs and UTVs
• ATVs and UTVs were loaded with gear and driven hundreds of miles through narrow wooded trails, rock fields, and mud pits.
• Optics were submerged (riflescopes had turret caps removed) in 1 foot of warm water for a full minute, then placed overnight in a chest freezer at 10 degrees to test fogproofing. Then they were left out for another night and again checked for any signs of internal moisture. In addition to examining optical quality in varying light conditions, our experts tested the riflescopes with live-fire exercises.