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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Prof. Hike: Gearoholics Anonymous

Are you overspending on gear? Here's how to get the right stuff at the right price.

by: Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

(Photo by Genny Fullerton)
(Photo by Genny Fullerton)

If you’re like me, receiving the latest Campmor, EMS, or REI catalog in the mail is like a 10-year-old receiving buckets of candy on Halloween night. And like a kid who’s gorged on Snickers until he’s sick, those pages of shiny tents, backpacks, and nifty kitchen gadgets (my special weakness) tempt you to splurge beyond your limit. So how do you focus on what you actually need…and can afford? Before you end up at the Gore-Tex-version of Shopaholics Anonymous, you need to prioritize your needs. That’s why I devoted an entire chapter in my book to buying, organizing, and maintaining your kit. Whether you’re prepping for a big trip, cleaning out a closet, or paging through another mouth-watering catalog, the first step to mastering your gear is to inventory everything you own. Download one of Backpacker’s online checklists as a guide, and start sorting your gear into these four lists:

Inventory: Working, usable gear you own
Replacements: Upgrades to replace broken, failing, or outdated gear
Necessities: New gear you need right away—usually for a specific hike or trip
Wish List: The nifty items you want but can’t justify at the moment

If you fill them out honestly, these lists will help you determine which products are essential, merely helpful, or completely extraneous (but perfect for a birthday request). Plus, planning ahead will prevent you from discovering a week before a trip that you need 10 items that you thought you owned.
Backpacker magazine often gets criticized (sometimes rightly) for encouraging readers to buy new stuff. But you, me, and everyone else knows that isn’t necessary. Well, maybe not everyone. A few years ago I met a man who buys a small, medium, and large version of every jacket, shirt, and pair of pants he owns. Why? Because with all three sizes in his closet, he can layer his clothing for a perfect fit—like choosing a large soft-shell jacket to wear over a medium fleece. So everyone except that guy (whose purchases probably paid for the REI staff yacht) should realize that not all hiking and camping gear needs to be purchased new. Before spending a mint, check your closet and basement for overlooked sports apparel, plastic water bottles, long underwear, wool sweaters and socks, backpacks, sandals, winter hats and gloves, foam pads, and emergency gear.

You can also buy used items on Craigslist, or build it yourself. The DIY ethic is responsible for many outdoor innovations from headlamps to hydration bladders. Two easy projects are a plastic tent footprint and homemade firestarters.  Discover more DIY ideas at Jason Klass’s Gear Talk website, and add your own favorite websites and creations in the comments section.

Let’s say that after drafting the four lists, you decide on certain Necessities (like trekking poles for an upcoming mountain hike) and Replacements (a water filter to supplant one on its last dregs). Before you buy, consider borrowing gear from friends or co-workers to double-check that you absolutely need it. Also, avoid purchasing the newest models of complex devices like stoves and water filters. Not only will you pay top price, but first-run products can contain defects missed during testing.

Of course, you don’t always need to wait until gear breaks to replace it. Sometimes gear designers make amazing breakthroughs—I’m thinking of Jetboil-style canister stoves and the LED headlamps—that transform the way people hike and camp. If a new generation of gear will significantly reduce the amount of weight you carry or improve your quality of life, you might consider upgrading. Gear categories benefiting from recent improvements include super-efficient cooking stoves, smaller water filters, stronger sleeping pads, brighter headlamps, and lighter backpacking tents.

Once you decide to buy from either a retail store or website, keep these money-saving tips in mind:
  • Plan ahead to shop during the off-season, like buying snowshoes and long underwear in May and hiking shorts in November.
  • The best deals and discounted items are usually placed at the back of retail stores, or on the outlet pages of the REI, EMS, and Campmor websites.
  • The top two months for outdoor gear sales are December and April. Also, shop in less-busy months like October and January and you’ll find some great deals.
  • Purchase floor models from shops, or “seconds” with cosmetic defects from websites.
  • If something doesn’t feel right, don’t buy it—gear doesn’t magically fit better on the trail.

Tune in next week when I’ll describe how you can make the best of any bad situation.

—Jason Stevenson

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Star Star Star Star Star
Apr 07, 2014

Good article although the singular mentioning of Campmor struck me as odd. There are much more cost effective online gear sites although Campmor does a pretty good job.

My go to is Sierra Trading Post. If you learn how they operate, and sign up for their email specials, you can save a TON. A lot of last year's models but they have new stuff too. And do I really care if a color has been discontinued when I'm saving 50% off retail?

Larry F
Jun 08, 2011

I have 3 different stoves I use when camping. I have two MSR stoves which have used quite a bit, and a no name stove that I prefer over the MSR. It is designed like the MSR windpro, except it is a little heavier because of its size. It is much sturdier, can handle heavier pots and you can simmer with it. What I am trying to say is that you can find product that is not name brand, for alot less money, and like it better than the expensive ones. I also have an alcohol stove I use when I go out with my scouts. You just have to decide what you want and what you want to spend.

Oct 02, 2010

I only started serious hiking (i.e., no sneakers) a few years ago, then added camping, so all my gear is brand new. I thoroughly researched every purchase and am really happy with it all. Here's hoping, though, that everything doesn't fail at the same time, but dies over a number of years. :-)

Gail Storey
Oct 02, 2010

Great post with excellent tips! My husband is a gearaholic and I'm his enabler, but I benefit enormously from his/our gear on our backpacking trips.

Jason Klass
Sep 30, 2010

Hi Jason,
Very good advice and thanks for the mention! I look forward to your next article.


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