Why and When to Spend More on Gear, Part 1

Posted On December 15, 2015 at 11:02 am by / Comments Off on Why and When to Spend More on Gear, Part 1

By Michael Lanza

You need a new backpack or backpacking tent. You’ve read some reviews. You’ve winnowed your short list to a handful of possible choices—and are looking at a significant range of prices. That’s when you struggle with the question any consumer would consider: Why should I spend more?

Over the course of two decades of testing and reviewing gear, 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 (and the answer depends on what type of gear or apparel you’re buying). Before you spend another dime, read on.

In this story, I’ll focus on general tips as well as specific advice regarding packs and tents. In Why and When to Spend More on Gear, Part 2, coming tomorrow, I’ll talk about rain jackets, shoes and boots, and sleeping bags.


Upper Lyman Lakes, Glacier Peak Wilderness, one of my 25 favorite backcountry campsites.

Upper Lyman Lakes, Glacier Peak Wilderness, one of my 25 favorite backcountry campsites.

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.



Bill Mistretta descending from Paintbrush Divide to the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.

Above the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.

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 annually, the hours spent wearing and using a pack add up. As anyone who’s upgraded knows, having one that’s comfortable and designed for the way you use it greatly affects your enjoyment.


Sunrise at Cooper Spur campsite, Timberline Trail, Mount Hood, Oregon.

Sunrise at Cooper Spur campsite, Timberline Trail, Mount Hood, Oregon.


Why They’re Pricey Backpacking tents have arguably seen the most innovation in recent years. (Backpacks, 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—meaning 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. (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.

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Why Spend More?

Lastly, 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 just appreciate it that much more.

But if you’re an avid outdoorsperson and you can afford good gear, why settle for anything inferior? 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.

The Big Outside is proud to partner with sponsor Osprey Packs. Please help support my blog by liking and following my sponsors on Facebook and other social media and telling them you appreciate their support for The Big Outside.

See all of my reviews of backpacks, daypacks, and backpacking tents, 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
My 10 Most-Read Gear Reviews
Ask Me: How Do We Begin Lightening Up Our Backpacking Gear?
10 Smarter Ways to Think About Your Layering System

NOTE: I’ve been testing gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See all of my reviews by clicking on the Gear Reviews category at left or in the main menu.

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