Why and When to Spend More on Gear, Part 2: Rain Jackets, Boots, and Sleeping Bags
By Michael Lanza
You need a new rain jacket, or a pair of boots, or a sleeping bag—or more than one of those major outdoor gear expenditures. 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?
As I wrote in the first story in this two-part series, 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 rain jackets, shoes and boots, and sleeping bags. For my advice regarding packs and tents, see “Why and When to Spend More on Gear, Part 1.”
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 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—and 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 a user 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 don’t 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.
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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 heaviest 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, spending more on a bag comes down to—besides your budget and the bag’s temp rating—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.
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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.
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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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