Why and When to Spend More on Outdoor Gear
By Michael Lanza
You need a new backpack, backpacking tent, rain jacket, boots, or a sleeping bag. You’ve read some reviews. You’ve winnowed your short list to a handful of possible choices—with a significant difference in prices. That’s when you struggle with the question that pushes the frugality button in all of us: Why should I spend more?
Over the course of more than two decades testing and reviewing gear for this blog and Backpacker magazine, I’ve learned what qualities separate the expensive from the moderately priced from the cheap—and when it’s worth spending more, and when it’s not. Before you spend (or waste) another dime, read on.
In this story, I’ll show you why some gear is more expensive and give you specific advice on buying five big-ticket items: packs, tents, rain jackets, shoes and boots, and sleeping bags.
Read this and I think you’ll make smarter buying choices and stretch your gear budget farther.
What Makes Some Gear Expensive?
• Lightweight: Lighter gear is often more expensive because of the materials used, like wafer-thin but strong fabrics in jackets, tents, and (sometimes) packs, and carbon fiber or high-grade aluminum tent poles.
• Construction: Superior workmanship, materials, and technologies raise the price tag. Expect to pay more for, say, cutting-edge waterproof-breathable membranes in jackets and footwear, boots with one-piece or full-grain leather uppers, a super comfortable backpack suspension available in multiple sizes to achieve an optimal fit, or lamination used instead of stitching in jackets and footwear. But that also translates to high-level performance and, often, improved durability.
• Features: You want a rain jacket hood that stays in place in strong wind and when you turn your head? A pack with multiple backpacker- or climber-friendly features? Shoes with sticky outsoles? Or a sleeping bag with the lightest and warmest down feathers? Open your wallet.
• Durability: Sometimes a higher price tag equates with materials and construction that translate to greater durability, but not always. Some lightweight materials are very strong, and some are not. Especially with big-ticket items that receive heavy wear and tear—your pack, tent, shoes, and rain shell—low weight is sometimes achieved through, for example, the use of thinner fabrics that will tear more easily, or zippers that are less burly and will break sooner. Find out why one product is lighter than another, and choose based on whether you’re willing to swap durability for lower weight.
Why They’re Pricey The top pack makers—whose backpacks and daypacks generally cost the most—compete with one another primarily to make the most comfortable packs to carry. Beyond that objective, they try to distinguish their products through specialization (packs for specific purposes like climbing, ultralight backpacking, distance trail running or ultra-hiking, etc.), features, weight, and certainly superior construction that results in greater durability.
When They’re Worth the Price How important is comfort on the trail to you? How important is weight? How about specific features? Yes, you can make do with a pack whose fit is imperfect or that lacks a supportive hipbelt, a zipper offering quick access to the main compartment, or hipbelt and other external pockets.
But if you hike a lot of miles, the hours spent wearing and using a pack add up. As anyone who’s upgraded knows, once you have a backpack that’s comfortable and designed for the way you use it, you’ll never go back to an inferior pack.
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Why They’re Pricey Backpacking tents have arguably seen the most innovation in recent years. (Backpacks have seen a lot, too.) Much of this progress has focused on making them lighter without greatly compromising strength, space, and durability—objectives that inherently compete with one another.
When They’re Worth the Price Besides your backpack, your tent is the heaviest single item you will carry—thus it offers the greatest potential for reducing your total pack weight. The lightest tent may not be your best choice if, say, you need a tent to endure dozens of camping nights a year, or you routinely camp in unusually severe weather or terrain that’s abusive to tent fabrics (sharp rocks, thorny plants), or you just don’t want to spend a lot for a tent that’s less durable than a mid-priced model. (Warning: The cheapest tents are typically not built to last very long, so they’re not worth the money if you’ll use a tent frequently.)
But if your top objective is reducing pack weight to make your trips more enjoyable, and you’re an avid backpacker or climber, you will get your money’s worth out of a pricier tent.
Why They’re Pricey Think of it this way: You can pick up a simple, totally waterproof rain slicker for a few bucks and it will keep you dry—as long as you’re not heating up inside it. But throw in exertion and the need to move sweat from inside to outside and, basically, you add cost. With a hard shell or soft shell, you essentially pay more for “performance” values, which means a high degree of breathability as well as protection from rain, features like a fully adjustable hood with a brim that keeps blowing rain off your face, and a nice fit and feel to the garment.
When They’re Worth the Price If you tend to avoid going into the backcountry in wet weather and only encounter it occasionally, then a basic, less expensive, waterproof-breathable rain jacket may work just fine for you. Those usually have a proprietary waterproof-breathable technology, meaning it’s exclusive to that manufacturer (but not a unique technology—it’s often a simple fabric coating). They aren’t as breathable as high-end jackets and lack the features, but that may have little impact on you.
But if you commonly head outdoors in wet weather, and especially cooler temperatures, you may spend a lot of time in your rain shell—in conditions ripe for causing hypothermia. So not only is your jacket’s ability to keep rain out important—and that includes the functionality of the hood—but its breathability becomes critical: If it fails to move the moisture you create inside the jacket to the outside, you will become wet and cold. You’re someone who will benefit from a high-end rain shell, most of which are made with one of the leading waterproof-breathable membranes, Gore-Tex or eVent.
Shoes and Boots
Why They’re Pricey Unlike with most other gear categories, the way footwear is made hasn’t changed radically: Manufacturers still use mostly the same materials and techniques they have long used—with some exceptions, like lamination in uppers and recent advances such as Gore-Tex Surround, which many reviewers acknowledge has improved breathability of footwear. The primary differences you’ll find between models of outdoor footwear are the quality of materials (including the outsole), construction, and especially the fit. The other major factor in price is whether a shoe or boot is waterproof-breathable, and like jackets, whether it employs Gore-Tex or eVent or a less expensive, proprietary membrane.
When They’re Worth the Price What kind of hiking do to do and where? For starters, if you generally hike in dry conditions, get footwear with mesh uppers and no membrane, which will always be more breathable—and keep your feet cooler—than any footwear with a membrane. That saves money.
In wet conditions, though, especially in cooler temperatures, most hikers prefer shoes or boots that keep their feet dry. The best footwear for staying dry are models with Gore-Tex (the most common membrane in footwear) or eVent, and uppers made of suede, leather, or synthetic material (like polyurethane) that repels water, with few seams. Price often correlates with durability, too. Waterproof-breathable shoes or boots with fabric uppers breathe better than suede, leather, or polyurethane, but may not last as long, especially if you often hike in terrain that’s wet and muddy or quite rocky and rugged. Plus, the outsoles of lighter footwear won’t endure as many miles as heavier footwear. So depending on how much and where you hike, you may save money initially with less-expensive footwear, but find yourself replacing them sooner. Alternatively, if your top priority is lightweight footwear, they’re usually also less expensive.
Why They’re Pricey Sleeping bags vary in price depending primarily on the type and amount of insulation used and the shell and interior fabric material; but more-expensive bags are also made with better construction techniques that translate to more durability. Lightweight fabrics help reduce a bag’s weight and bulk—and your bag is one of the bulkiest and among the heavier items you carry—and are typically more comfortable. Quality synthetic insulation like PrimaLoft and down rated 800-fill or higher, and water-resistant down (a more-recent innovation) cost more money—as does a lower temperature rating on the bag (for colder temps), because that means there’s more insulation inside. With sleeping bags more than some other categories, the reasons for a higher price are usually very simple and transparent.
When They’re Worth the Price As with some of the above categories, besides your budget and the bag’s temp rating, spending more on a bag comes down to personal preference on how much weight and bulk matter to you. You can certainly stay warm and sleep well in an inexpensive bag. If you frequently sleep outside and can afford a higher-quality bag, in my book, it’s worth the money, and will usually last long enough that the price per night spent outside in the bag looks very reasonable.
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. Get email 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.
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Why Spend More?
If you can’t afford more-expensive gear, just get cheap stuff and get outside. You’ll be fine. If you can afford better gear later, you’ll appreciate it that much more.
But if you’re an avid outdoorsperson and you can afford good gear, why settle for less? No, price does not always correlate directly with quality—but it often does. Whenever a friend who can afford good gear asks for my advice, I always say that he or she would be foolish to buy cheap, because they don’t need to put up with lesser comfort or performance.
And ultimately, if you’re out regularly and buy good gear, the cost per day of use over the life of that gear will be low, more than justifying the enjoyment you gained from it.
See all of my reviews of backpacks, daypacks, backpacking tents, outdoor apparel, rain jackets, hiking shoes, backpacking boots, and sleeping bags, and all of my reviews of backpacking gear and hiking gear at The Big Outside.
See also my related stories:
“The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun”
“Buying Gear? Read This First”
“5 Tips For Spending Less on Hiking and Backpacking Gear”
“Ask Me: How Do We Begin Lightening Up Our Backpacking Gear?”
“10 Smarter Ways to Think About Your Layering System”
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 at The Big Outside.
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