My gear closet is, for the most part, stocked with gear from big-name outdoor companies like Patagonia, Marmot, Outdoor Research, Mountain Hardwear, Black Diamond and so on. There's a reason these companies have achieved big-name status: Their gear works well and (usually) lasts. It also tends to cost an arm and a leg -- but don't worry, you can often shop your way around that.
Take the Kelty pack and Atlas trekking (actually, snowshoeing) poles in the picture. Both have been with me for a while now. They're not as pretty as they used to be, and they're both clunkier than the latest competition -- but they still do their jobs just fine. (The baskets on the poles look shiny and new because they are -- I managed to lose the originals.)
That off-brand tent that started forming condensation from my body heat the moment I zipped it closed in the store, though? Not such a great buy, even if it only cost $50. The "waterproof" jacket that's only rated for 1,000 mm (less than the force of wind-driven rain)? Great in mild conditions, but you usually buy waterproof gear to protect you from the harsh stuff. Cheap-o gear might seem like a bargain in the moment... but when it's either torn to pieces or only doing the job halfway, you realize that you've just been throwing your money away, a little at a time.
Bottom line and my point for the day: Quality gear that lasts is (usually) worth every penny. That's not to say that only expensive, name-brand gear is worth having, or that every single name-brand whirligig is worth the price; I just hope you'll take the time to consider how much actual use you'd get from a bargain-priced off-brand before you jump at a seeming bargain.
On the upside, shopping for good outdoor gear at great prices works pretty much the same as any other type of shopping. Here are some of my favorite strategies:
- Shop in the off-season/shoulder seasons. So right about now is a great time to start looking for bargains on winter hats, gloves, etc., for next year. This can be especially helpful if you have kids -- buy a size or two up now so that they'll have something that (hopefully) fits next year.
- Hit outlet stores and clearance centers whenever you can. For those of you that live close to actual name-brand, brick-and-mortar outdoor clothing/gear outlets -- I'm terribly jealous! If you're in my situation (far, far away from most brick-and-mortar outlets), you can do well with strategic online shopping.
- Don't be afraid of returned items, seconds, and used goods. Who cares what it looks like as long as it does its job well? Even if you're in a situation where you can't return what you've purchased (think Craigslist, the REI Attic, gear swaps, etc.) it may be worth your money -- just make sure you know what you're looking for (and at) before you commit.
Photo © Lisa Maloney: Trekking poles stowed and ready for hands-free hiking (across the living room, from the look of that carpet!)