By Michael Lanza
You need a new backpack, backpacking tent, rain jacket, boots, or a sleeping bag. You’ve read 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?
This story will explain 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.
Over the past three decades of reviewing gear, including the 10 years I spent as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog, I’ve learned what separates the expensive from the moderately priced from the cheap.
Should you always spend more? Certainly not, and this story will explain why and when it’s worth spending more and when it’s not. The insights below will help you make smarter buying choices, stretch your gear budget farther, and feel better about it when you do spend more. And my “10 Tips for Spending Less on Hiking and Backpacking Gear” shares specific strategies for saving money—even sometimes without compromising on quality.
Before you spend another dollar, read on.
Please share your thoughts on my tips or your own, best gear-buying advice in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
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.
• Special 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 or down jacket with the lightest and warmest insulation? 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.
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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.), and through 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 convenient, external pockets on the hipbelt and elsewhere.
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.
Get the right pack for you. See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and the “The 10 Best Hiking Daypacks.”
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 piece of gear 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. (However, the cheapest tents are typically built to be inexpensive, not to last very long, so they’re not worth the money if you’ll use a tent regularly.)
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.
Get the right tent for you. See “The 10 Best Backpacking Tents”
and “5 Expert Tips For Buying a Backpacking 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 if you simply don’t see all that much rain.
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 a leading waterproof-breathable membrane like Gore-Tex.
Stay dry, happy, and safe. See “The 5 Best Rain Jackets for Hiking and Backpacking” and “5 Pro Tips For Buying the Right Rain Jacket for the Backcountry.”
Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton, and other parks using my expert e-guides.
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. 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 you 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 actually saves you money while giving you better performance for your style of hiking.
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.
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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.
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, down rated 800-fill or higher, and water-resistant down 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.
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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 inferior 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 reviews of backpacks, daypacks, backpacking tents, outdoor apparel, rain jackets, hiking shoes, backpacking boots, sleeping bags, down jackets and insulated jackets, and backpacking gear and hiking gear at The Big Outside, plus “5 Smart Steps to Lighten Your 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 my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside for categorized menus of all of my reviews and my expert buying tips.