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.
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.
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.
Do you like The Big Outside? I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by a USA Today Readers Choice poll and others. Subscribe for updates about new stories and free gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box at the bottom of this story, at the top of the left sidebar, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook and Twitter.
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.
See a categorized menu of all of my reviews of hiking gear, backpacking gear, daypacks, backpacks, hiking shoes, backpacking boots, backpacking tents, sleeping bags, and kids’ outdoor gear and these stories at The Big Outside:
“5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack”
“Pro Tips For Buying the Right Boots”
“5 Tips For How to Buy a Backpacking Tent”
“Pro Tips: How to Choose a Sleeping Bag”
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 categorized menus of all of my gear reviews.
This blog and website is my full-time job and I rely on the support of readers. If you like what you see here, please help me continue producing The Big Outside by making a donation using the Support button at the top of the left sidebar or below. Thank you for your support.
4 thoughts on “Buying Gear? Read This First”
I appreciate your tip to not wait until the last minute to buy your camping goods and tools. I agree that being able to buy camping tools with plenty of time is a good way be able to save money and find the right equipment that you want. One time my wife and I decided to go on a last minute camping trip and we ended up spending too much money on supplies since we didn’t have enough time to shop around.
Thanks for sharing that, Abel. It’s very true.
Another great post! This is largely the same advice I give when someone asks about bikes, electronics, cameras, computers, etc.
I think the best part about No. 1 is how deciding what it’s for helps you prioritize your life. I always want the best tool for the job, like the perfect boots for hiking to see the lava flows when we visit Hawaii, but then I end up with something I only use once, while on that trip.
When I bought my boots (after help from elsewhere on your site!), I prioritized my favorite hiking activity, long family day-hikes in the mountains and along the coast, carrying our toddler in our Kelty Pathfinder. Now that I have boots that motivate me to get out and do what I love when I am at home!
We go on long hikes more consistently, and more more comfortably, than before. Prioritizing what I really needed from the gear has flow-on effects on all our family adventures that are invaluable.
Thanks JZ, and good points yourself.