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Prof. Hike: Gearoholics Anonymous

Are you overspending on gear? Here's how to get the right stuff at the right price.
 iphone_shopping_445x260(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Replacements: Upgrades to replace broken, failing, or outdated gear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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