One of the most frequent questions I am asked goes something like this:
"Why should I spend 150 more dollars on ____ tent instead of just getting the cheaper ____ one instead?"
"But since I have ____ pairs of specialized shoes, doesn't that mean they will all last longer?"
My response is always, "It depends."
Purchasing outdoor gear can be a really fun, but also a really expensive and intimidating, process. There is a very fine line between ending up with low-quality, short-lifespan gear because you are being cheap, and spending way too much because you think more expensive gear is always better. While it is less common to find equipment and apparel prices jacked up solely from brand identity (unlike in other consumer markets), it can be very challenging to weigh the pros and cons of spending more now.
I really wish I could answer those questions by simply saying, "Definitely get the more expensive pair," but that isn't always the case. A balance must be determined base on each person and what type of gear they are considering (for advice when you're deciding on different types of outdoor gear, visit my Outfit pages).
As someone who spends over half of my year living in the outdoors, I have been through my fair share of different clothing, sleeping, and cooking systems. Based on all of those experiences, I have come up with three guidelines to follow: purchase gear to last, create versatile systems, and buy it how you use it.
Purchase Gear to Last
Each piece of gear has a lifespan that is dependant on four key factors:
#1- How Well Was It Made?
This is one of the primary factors which determines initial purchase price. Here are two different 3-season, 2-person tents you could purchase: the Eureka Apex 2 tent for $100, or the Marmot Limelight 2 for $220. Each type of gear has it's own set of price point differentiators. You can learn more about specific tent differentiators on my shelters page. After you sift through weight comparisons, material choices, construction techniques, and design decisions it all boils down to this -- high price ALMOST always means longer-lasting gear.
#2 - How Well Do You Care For It?
Even if you went with a cheaper option, how you care for your gear still has the most significant impact on overall longevity. Treat your gear like you'd treat its worth as a pile of cash. Don't set up your tent on pointy sticks. Don't throw your backpack around on rocks. Don't leave your sleeping bag sitting wet over the entire winter. If you are ever unsure how to properly care for your items feel free to send me an email, tweet, or ask Google.
#3 - Where Do You Use It?
Even if you care for your gear as if it were your firstborn, sometimes the terrain still takes its toll. Places with abrasive rock do a lot of damage quickly to footwear, the desert sun destroys tent fabric, and wet climates make your sleep bag's loft get all out of whack. It happens -- just do your best to keep your stuff in good repair.
#4 - Does the Manufacturer Stand By It?
Ahhh... Now here's a big one. While quality of construction plays a very big role in pricing, overall manufacture warranty options does as well. It is a good idea to do a quick search to see what warranty options are available before you purchase something.
For instance, Eureka has a very ambiguous warranty for the "life of the product depending on normal wear and tear". Chances are good that it's probably not worth it to spend money shipping your tent back. Marmot, on the other hand, clearly states that their warranty covers common tent issues such as sticky zippers and broken toggles, but it is still vague about wear and tear. A few brands, such as Outdoor Research, Arc'teryx, and Osprey, stand as gleaming beacons of awesomeness for anyone who is an owner of their products. They completely stand behind their product and, while it may cost a bit more up front, they will repair damage indefinitely (as long as it isn't from misuse).
So you need to decide what your expectations are from that item and purchase accordingly. Don't expect the Eureka tent to last 10+ years. If that's what you're looking for, choose something of higher quality.
Create Versatile Systems
It would be great to have a specialized backpack, pair of shoes, and shelter for each different type of trip you go on. However, there are two fairly important reasons why this just doesn't happen.
1) Specialized stuff is always more expensive, and since it's specialized that means you need many more items to cover the range of activities, seasons, and locations you visit, ie. WAY MORE MONEY.
2) Mountains of gear means the packing process takes a lot longer as you try to anticipate exactly what you'll need, ie. WAY MORE PACKING TIME.
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Buy It How You Use It
The reason there is so much variety in apparel and equipment is because different people are drawn to different types of systems. You should focus on trying out a variety of things and decide what works best for you.
Here's an example:
I'm a pretty low stress guy; I rarely get hangry, overly tired, or anxious. One thing that I absolutely cannot stand though is bugs trying to bite me in the face while I'm sleeping. Don't ask me why, I am perfectly happy dealing with them throughout the day, but I have never been able to sleep through bug biting. Even when my students and co-workers are sleeping soundly nearby, I am thinking of new and cruel ways to get back at the bugs.
What that means is that I spend the extra money and carry the extra weight to make sure I have adequate bug protection at night. While others might be happy sleeping in a tarp-tent, I will be hidden away behind a beautiful layer of protective mesh.
Let's look at it another way.
Going back to the question about shoes from the beginning of this article -- aren't multiple pairs of specialized shoes better?
While this question can be answered with my #2 guideline (create versatile systems), here is an exception. If you know that having a dedicated pair of shoes specific to the terrain or activity keeps your feet happy throughout the day, then by all means spend the money on those extra shoes. I personally cycle between three different types:
Other than that, I have ONE pair of climbing shoes (currently La Sportiva Mythos), and ONE pair of mountaineering boots (currently Asolo). That covers everything for me. Most rock climbers have 2-4 pairs of shoes depending on the terrain, but I find (based on my uses) that one pair of all-around shoes gets the job done for me.
So next time you are pondering whether to invest in a higher quality product or get by with the cheaper option, remember: purchase gear to last, create versatile systems, buy it how you use it, and don't impulse buy. Start looking for gear way in advance so that you can wait for a sale to come around. Maybe while you're waiting, you might decide you don't actually need that item after all...
Do you have a piece of gear or a brand that you are especially happy with? Leave me a comment below and let me know what it is!
-Multiple links in this article are affiliates where I get a commission for each purchase. This in no way affects which items I am promoting, but does serve as a great way to help support me in this project.