Packable winter boots from Teva “weigh less than a pint of beer.”

I just spent three solid days checking out the new travel gear that will be hitting the shelves later this year, at a trade show where all the buyers come in and figure out what’s going to be hot and should be in stock. You can catch individual reviews on Practical Travel Gear as they hit the market (and if you’re a guy, go see a little eye candy on the PTG Facebook page.)

Meanwhile, here’s the big picture view of what’s happening now and what’s on the way—plus how it’s hitting your wallet.

Commodity Prices are Way Up

The Week magazine has a section called “Boring but Important” and this is one of those subjects. It’s not just the filling of your car gas tank that has gotten more expensive. Many synthetic fabrics are petroleum-based and even those that aren’t take energy to produce. Natural fiber prices have seen similar spikes though. Fine wool prices doubled just from 2009 to 2011. Cotton prices jumped 150% in that time because of rising global temperatures and devastating droughts in places like Texas. Sooner or later, companies have to pass on those basic materials increases to the retailer and you.

But Competition is Fierce

Are you looking for a new breathable waterproof jacket, a rolling suitcase, sunglasses, a water bottle, a pair of good socks, or a pair of lightweight hiking shoes? There are anywhere from 30 to 100 companies now supplying each of those items. All of them are fighting for their corporate lives to get your attention and get shelf space in stores so you can find them.  So while prices simply have to go up for these guys to even break even, none of them has the ability to really sock it to you as a consumer. So it’s really hard to find travel gear that’s a bad value these days. Sure, you may find items that are more technical than you need or are aimed at upper-end travelers who are less price-conscious, but you can be fairly secure that if you buy a (legit) name brand item, you’re not going to get something crappy. The stakes are too high. With some companies, they’ll even guarantee anything in their line for life: Eagle Creek, Briggs & Riley, Osprey, Tilley Hats, and Gore-Tex for a start.

Everything is Getting Ridiculously Light

The technology in travel gear, apparel, and shoes has progressed so far so fast that if you have a backpack or jacket from even five years ago, there’s a good chance it weighs twice as much as what you would buy now to replace it. I’m routinely running into backpacks I can pick up with one pinky, wheeled suitcases I can pick up with a forefinger. This wheeled carry-on from Osprey at the right weighs all of four pounds.

Big companies like Columbia Sportswear, Sierra Designs, North Face, Mountain Hardwear, Outdoor Research, and Patagonia are putting out wispy thin jackets that are windproof, waterproof, and heat-reflective on the inside—but pack into a little pouch that fits in one hand. You can get down or Primaloft jackets warm enough to let you travel almost anywhere outside the Arctic or high mountains that will stuff down into your daypack. There’s almost no trade-off now between packing space and comfort. And yes ladies, it’s all getting more fashionable and slim-cut too.

Compact Suitcases for Small Living Spaces

Suitcases, backpacks, and bags have a way of taking up a lot of space in your house or apartment. If you’re fortunate enough to live in a place with lots of storage space, no biggie. If you’re in an apartment in a big city, however, every inch can count. I’m starting to see bags that fold down into much smaller footprints, something I would have drooled over when I lived in Hoboken, NJ and worked in Manhattan. The best iterations of this so far are from High Sierra (see an example on the left, only $30-$60) and Eagle Creek (on the right). Later in the year, Eagle Creek is putting out wheeled duffel bags that still fold down to a size you can stuff in the corner of a closet. Very cool.

Don’t Believe the Hype

Take a pause and go put on some Public Enemy music.

Ready now? OK, all the things I’ve outlined above are real. They’re tangible economic and market forces that influence pricing. Then there’s hype that’s driven more by fashion. A lot of what drives retail buying is what’s new, What’s New, and WHAT’S NEW?!?!

It’s fitting I mention Public Enemy because one of the huge (but baffling) trends I kept running into this year was “retro packs” and jackets. Some fashion guru apparently came out and convinced all these gear companies that Jansport had it all right 30 years ago and we just need to update those designs with some new materials. Yeah right. I used those packs and there’s a reason they’re not around anymore—they totally sucked compared to what you can buy now. You’ll be able to buy these retro packs on the clearance rack two years from now I’m sure. So wait a while before you do the time warp and you won’t pay top dollar for these.

Which leads me to my one piece of advice in all this: get last year’s model. Yeah, if your pack or jacket is from five years ago, it’s probably time for an upgrade to take advantage of the advances in technology. But in general terms, the advances from one year to the next are incremental at best. More often, they’re driven by fashion: a new set of colors, new patterns, or a different stitching pattern here or there. Outdoor Research typically puts out 40-50 new hats per year, Chaos even more than that. Do we need that many new hats to choose from? No, but if they just put out last year’s hats again, there’s nothing to talk about with buyers or the trend-happy magazines searching for a new look (or a new look that looks like an old look…)

If you go to the clearance rack at your local store, or the online outlet equivalent at Backcountry, Sierra Trading Post, REI, or Moosejaw, you’ll find awesome stuff for 50% off. If you’re buying when it’s not the right season—-like Insect Shield hot weather gear for your Thailand trip when it’s autumn in North America and Europe—you might feel like you’ve hit the jackpot.

 

 

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