Tested: Buying Factory-Direct Outdoor Gear

Can a no-name imitation work as well as pricier outdoor gear? Our tester heads to Amazon to find out.
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Can a no-name imitation work as well as pricier outdoor gear? Our tester heads to Amazon to find out.
discounted web gear

Save a thru-hike’s worth of laundry money by shopping online discounters. Photo by: Jenny Jakubowski

Amazon surfers may be tempted by a growing market of outdoor gear at prices that seem too good to be true: $7 backpacking stoves, $25 tents, and $45 sleeping bags to name a just a few. Typically, the cut-rate equipment comes from unfamiliar names, and some display no brand affiliation at all.

These copycat products are sometimes sold directly by an overseas manufacturer (usually in China), cutting out everything from sales reps to customer service in order to keep prices low. How can you tell the difference between a great value and a big mistake? We ordered a full kit from Amazon to find out. Spoiler: For the most part, the prices are too good to be true, but we did find one bargain that lived up to its promise. Here’s what we learned on a three-day backpacking trip in northern Colorado.

Shop savvy

Read product reviews carefully to gauge in-the-field performance. Are happy customers using the equipment as you intend to? (Upon closer inspection, we saw that the positive feedback for the NTK tent came from people who’d bought it as an indoor playhouse for kids).

Consider your size

If you’re an average American, you’re a giant by Chinese standards. You may not fit comfortably into super-cheap tents, sleeping bags, and packs that are produced in Asia without attention to U.S. norms.

Search hiker forums to see how cheap models perform over time. Some research revealed that many hikers have reported good long-term use out of the $7 stove, even if its self-ignitor tends to fail early on.

Check the fine print: Most third-party sellers on Amazon set their own return policies—and customer service isn’t always their priority. Read the Returns and Refunds Policy section of the seller’s profile page. Alternative: Amazon’s A to Z Guarantee allows you to file a claim for a return, but you’ll likely have to show the product is defective.

NTK Panda 2 Tent

The Good The thick blue tarpaulin floor is durable.

The Bad All over, craftsmanship is terrible: Huge, sloppy seam allowances create bunched fabric in the tent corners, and visible stitch holes in the canopy leak (as does the tiny vent in windblown rain). The fiberglass pole segments frequently pop apart.

The Verdict It’s for indoor camping. $25; 3 lbs. 2 oz. 

Nevados Boomerang II Low Hiking Shoe

The Good The sticky lugged sole delivers adequate traction on dry rocks and trail.

The Bad They’re not waterproof or very breathable. And some seams separated after just one weekend of wear.

The Verdict
Lack of durability doesn’t justify even this low price. $36; 1 lb. 14 oz. (w’s 6.5)

Kenox Outdoor Internal Frame Backpack 60L

The Good The suspension (using two vertical metal stays) ably carried a 30-pound load.

The Bad Over-stuffing causes the backpanel to barrel outward, the non-adjustable torso only fits 5-footers, and the lid-pocket zipper and mesh bottle pocket seam failed.

The Verdict While it’s surprisingly light for the capacity, durability is a deal killer. $41; 2 lbs. 6 oz.

Naturehike Ultralight Sleeping Bag

The Good Compressed, it’s soccer-ball size.

The Bad It’s barely long enough for a 5-foot tester (who found the cut too narrow). The insulation is wafer-thin, drafts entered along the zipper, and the seams created cold spots—our tester shivered through a 37°F night despite the 32°F comfort rating.

The Verdict A good night’s sleep is worth the extra dough. $45; 2 lbs. 6 oz.

Ultralight Backpacking Stove**

The Good This no-brand mini cooker looks a lot like pricier stoves on the market, and it worked about the same: firing up reliably and boiling water like champ.

The Bad The pot supports are small, making it essential to choose a stable surface and to balance pots carefully. The piezo ignitor likely won’t last.

The Verdict So far, this stove has delivered solid performance for a lot less. $7; 3 oz.

Test gear: Tent +Boots + Pack + Bag + Stove = $154

Total savings = $446*

*Based on average retail price for similar products approved by BACKPACKER testers

**Full name: Ultralight Backpacking Canister Camp Stove with Piezo Ignition