Buying Gear? Read This First
By Michael Lanza
Are you in the market for a new pack or boots for hiking or backpacking, or a new tent or sleeping bag? How do you find something that’s just right for you? What should you be looking for? How much should you spend? These are questions I’ve heard from many friends and readers over the years as they’ve waded through the myriad choices that are out there. Here are my five top tips for buying gear that’s right for you, gleaned from lessons I’ve learned from two decades of testing and reviewing gear and helping people find gear they love.
No matter what you’re shopping for—boots, pack, tent, bag, other gear or some major piece of apparel like a jacket—consumers grapple with largely the same, general questions that I wrote above. They’re trying to narrow the daunting array of choices out there, but they’re not quite sure how to do that.
I’ve listed below five steps to follow in the decision-making process for buying gear. At the bottom, I’ve provided links to my stories offering specific tips on buying a new pack, boots, tent, and bag. You can also see a menu of all of my gear reviews, or reviews sorted into categories like hiking gear, backpacking gear, daypacks, backpacks, hiking shoes, backpacking boots, backpacking tents, sleeping bags, and kids’ outdoor gear by clicking on these links or scanning the tag cloud in this site’s left sidebar.
No. 1 Decide What It’s For
A friend asked me once to recommend boots he could buy for backpacking that would also work well for climbing glaciated peaks (in the Pacific Northwest); I told him that was a little like shopping for a dump truck that would also give him good mileage as a commuting vehicle. If you set out in search of a pack or boots for every dayhike or backpacking trip you ever take, then you may wind up with just that—which may serve your needs in a general way, but not be quite right for anything. Focus on how you intend to use that item most of the time, and buy something that’s good for that purpose.
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No. 2 Decide What You Need
Do you need solid ankle support, or do you prefer really lightweight, nimble footwear? Are you a big guy who needs a roomy tent, or a parent backpacking with a young child with a top priority of minimizing gear weight? Do you want the lightest bag you can afford, or do you get cold easily and need a bag that’s a little fatter and warmer than the average person uses?
The reason for the almost infinite number of choices in gear is the infinite variability in the wants and needs of consumers. That can seem confusing but it’s ultimately good for you. Your first step in the buying may simply be writing down your customized answers to numbers one and two in this list of tips and using that as a guide as you begin winnowing your short list.
No. 3 Get the Fit Right
Especially with footwear, packs, and performance apparel, fit and personal satisfaction go together like chips and salsa. You can be happy with boots or a pack that are not quite what you wanted, but are what you could afford; but you’ll never be happy with the top-of-the-line, expensive boots or pack that don’t fit you well. A poorly fitting pack can make you miserable, while poorly fitting boots can end a trip. With those gear items for which fit becomes critical, boots and packs, narrow your list to at least three options, and perhaps up to six or seven, based on steps one and two (above). Then go try them on and you will find the model you like.
No. 4 Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute
The best way to spend more than you want or need to spend, and be forced to settle for something that’s not quite what you wanted, is to wait until the last day or two before a trip and rush out to buy something.
You wouldn’t buy a car or a house that way, because you want to take the time to find something that feels just right for you. Treat buying boots, a pack, tent, bag, or other major gear or outdoor-apparel item the same way—those aren’t like batteries or stove fuel that you dash out to pick up at the last minute. Plus, shopping around weeks or even months in advance gives you time to wait for sale prices.
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No. 5 Spend What You Can Afford
This last nugget of advice goes both ways: If you can only afford an entry-level pack or other piece of gear, look for the best-quality item that’s within your budget and get it. (Tip: Pick a brand name known for high quality, because they will usually bring the same dedication to quality to their affordable gear as they do to their pricier gear.) Maybe it won’t be as comfortable or last as long as the high-end gear you coveted, but it will enable you to get out there and have fun and may last you until you can afford something better. (See my “5 Tips For Spending Less on Hiking and Backpacking Gear.”)
By the same token, I always tell friends or readers seeking advice: If you can afford the best, why settle for something that will be less comfortable, or heavier, or not fit or perform as well as pricier pieces of gear or apparel that are within your budget? Measure the value in terms of your enjoyment and comfort as well as the cost per mile or day of use, because higher-quality gear, while pricier, often proves much more durable than cheaper stuff. It’s money well spent.
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See my specific buying tips in these stories:
See also my stories “The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun,” “5 Tips For Spending Less on Hiking and Backpacking Gear,” “Why and When to Spend More on Outdoor Gear” and “Ask Me: How Do We Begin Lightening Up Our Backpacking Gear?”
NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See all of my reviews by clicking on the Gear Reviews category at left or in the main menu.
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