Buying the Right Outdoor Gear and Apparel

I just returned to the U.S. for a week and spent the whole time checking out travel gear, luggage, and outdoor apparel. I got to hit the Rocky Mountain slopes one day, trying out new ski equipment. Then there were three solid days bouncing from booth to booth at the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market. This is where store and chain buyers come to place orders for next fall and winter, meeting up with gear and apparel companies and seeing the new lines.

For media people like me—I was there for Practical Travel Gear—it’s a chance to check out trends, see what’s on the way, and learn about brands we didn’t know about.

Subscribe to the RSS feed of my gear blog to see specific product wrap-ups later this week on cool new gadgets and gear, but here are some things to keep in mind when you’re facing the dizzying array of choices in your local store or online.

Light Bags are Good, but Only if They’re Made Well

High Sierra carry on“All anyone is talking about now is weight,” lamented the marketing person I met with at High Sierra. The problem is, a light bag that isn’t made well isn’t going to last you very long. Sure, it’s tempting to buy that $49 suitcase or no-name backpack that’s so light you can pick it up with one finger empty, but what happens after using it for a year? Often you’ll lose a wheel, the zipper will break, or a strap comes apart.

So pony up some cash and buy quality. The companies with the best guarantees are the ones you know you can trust. They’ll stand behind what they sell. Briggs & Riley will fix your bag—probably at a shop in your own city—for any reason whatsoever. If a dog chews off your handle or a TSA agent busts your zipper ten years after purchase, you’re covered. Here’s another confident quality statement: “Osprey will repair for any reason, free of charge, any damage or defect in our product – whether it was purchased in 1974 or yesterday.” Eagle Creek also guarantees their bags for life. (I’ve owned four of them and have never had to take advantage of this.) American-made Tom Bihn bags are only guaranteed for life for defects (not wear and tear), but in my experience they don’t have many defects.

It’s a similar policy with High Sierra. They give you a lifetime warranty for no-wheel bags and packs, five years for wheelies, but they’re willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. “If you’re nice to our phone reps, we’ll probably replace it for free long after that if something breaks,” they say. So find your dream luggage or backpack with all the right pockets and features. Years from now you’ll be glad you didn’t buy the cheapo option. Remember too that buying an 8-pound wheelie suitcase with top-notch wheels and handle is better than a 7-pound one with inferior parts.

If your backpack budget is really tight, go with Kelty. Many of their packs are a terrific value (like under $100) and still hold up well.

Breathability Matters—Sometimes

There’s a war going on in the outdoor apparel industry over breathable waterproof wicking fabrics and membranes. Everyone is taking shots at the market leader, Gore-tex, all saying their solution is better for this reason or that. Other choices include eVent, Omni-dry, OutDry, Hi-Tec (Ion Mask), Polartec’s NeoShell, and upcoming new proprietary solutions from Mountain Hardware/Montrail (DryQ), and many others.

The thing is, many times you don’t need any of them. When you need waterproof, breathable fabric is generally when you are in cool or downright cold places. You want to stay dry from the elements, but you want your sweat to get away from your body and out of your jacket. In the tropics, where most of the World’s Cheapest Destinations happen to be, your sweat is not going anywhere. If the outside air is hot and humid, the moisture has nowhere to go.

This is especially important for shoes or hiking boots because there are generally two levels of water resistance: the treatment on the outside of the shoe (DWR, wax, or treated leather) and the membrane inside. The latter can easily add $20 to $30 to the price. So if you’ll be getting rained on a lot or will be in snowy conditions, by all means spend the money. If you are going to use the shoes to go hiking around the western U.S. or Morocco though, it’s a waste and could even be counter-productive depending on the temperature. Sometimes you just need good travel shoes.

Last Year’s Model is a Better Value

When I go to this outdoor trade show, I’m flabbergasted at how many different lines these companies are putting out each season. The North Face booth was bigger than my last house and Columbia Sportswear’s was big enough that they had their own fashion runway. Some companies are rolling out 25 new jackets and Outdoor Research must be putting out at least 50 new hats this coming autumn.

So what’s wrong with last year’s model? Nothing. Sometimes there’s a slight new innovation, but in about 95% of the cases, the new version is pushed by fashion trends or internal expansion plans, not by necessity. But last year’s model is old news, so it’s got to go.

Whether you are shopping at your local retailer or shopping online, head to the clearance rack. That perfectly good hat, shirt, jacket, or pair of shoes may be half price now, for no logical reason except that it’s not the new girl anymore. I’ve found some of the best screaming bargains at Sierra Trading Post, REI Outlet, and Backcountry Outlet. Some manufacturers have their own online clearance rank too, like the Columbia Sportswear Outlet.

Happy Trails!

  1. Solo traveler

    Thanks! I need a new suitcase as the one I have is too heavy. That’s the other problem with cheaper luggage–they often weigh a ton before you even put anything them!

  2. Julie

    I swear my Marmot shell from three years ago doesn’t look any different than the ones on the rack now. They just change the color and raise the price.

  3. Eric

    Hi- Can I ask what do you recommend for keeping the rain off in the tropics? An umbrella?

    • tim

      Yes that, or just resign yourself to getting wet. A light waterproof jacket with a hood is what I usually go with, but if it’s 95 degrees F (35C), you’re going to start baking pretty quick with any jacket on.

  4. fetu

    I usually use a check in size backpack for traveling but sometimes I use a little wheelie. The one I have is a cheap $20 one from Walmart and is super light. I figure if it breaks down I can easily replace it. So far this bag has gone on several short trips across the US, one month all over Thailand, and two months around the SE of Australia. Still going strong dispite all the rough paths it has been pulled along. Keep your money for the trip and do not waste it on fancy bags.

    • tim


      There are also people who have taken heroin without becoming addicted and people who have run over hot coals without their feet getting burnt. And people who have played Russian Roulette without dying. I’m not saying a cheap bag will never hold up. But usually they don’t…

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