What is the real difference between gear in terms of price. Do you really get what you pay for? As always: It all depends.
As any regular reader knows, I’ve often advocated inexpensive gear as an alternative to higher priced gear in some instances.
Sometimes the cheaper gear is actually better for certain purposes. Other times it just fits a person’s budget. Often times there is simply no real difference ($2 fleece hat at Home Depot versus a $25 fleece hat for example).
For certain items, it is not good to compromise (quilts/sleeping bags come to mind), but for other items, paying the highest price for something does not necessarily guarantee something is the best or even a markedly superior product.
There is an odd middle ground that is often ignored but is worth another look: affordable gear.
First, let’s define affordable gear.
Personally, I think of affordable gear as something in the middle in terms of price. The m-65 jacket liner is cheap gear. Something inexpensive and functional but really can’t be compared to something from Patagonia, Montbell, Mountain Hardware, etc.
Affordable gear is a different ball of wax however.
Because of fashion trends, certain clothing items are made in mass quantity and are comparatively less expensive than the more well-known (to outdoors people anyway) gear. Often called “fast fashion”, this mid-range clothing is often made for urban wear.
However, it works well for the outdoors and can be bought inexpensively versus something similar from Patagonia.
A $60 down parka from Uniqlo is a recent example of this trend.
Down filled, made in China and light. Just like the more expensive outdoor focused brands.
What I find interesting is that many well-off, but seemingly not always the most experienced hikers, call these items “bargain basement” or “cheap“.
With a median income of 54k a year for the USA, $60 is NOT cheap for the vast majority of people who earn this income. It is affordable. A little over two hours of work assuming a 2080 hour work year with vacation time included. (Well…that’s a polite fiction anyway… 😉 )
On the other hand, a similar jacket from Patagonia is retailing for $250 and has similar specs. Except this is more than a full day’s pay for a person making a median salary.
With the Uniqlo jacket, I have an excellent, functional jacket that has kept me warm in the Colorado, New Mexico and Utah backcountry at a good price.
No frills, no fuss. Not a five-star jacket..but $60 for a four star jacket is pretty darn good.
So do we truly get what we pay for? Is one jacket $190 better?
Based on experience, I have to say No.
I received a spot bonus in the form of a gift card one year and actually have the Patagonia jacket. Who am I to turn down free schwag? 🙂
And the Patagonia parka IS better in some ways. I just don’t think it is $190 better.
At the end, though, both my mid-range jacket and my Patagonia jacket have kept me warm in the backcountry for three-season conditions.
So why is one jacket $250 and the other $60?
There are, of course, a multitude of reasons why high-end outdoor gear is so expensive.
Brand name recognition, green-friendly practices that may make the gear more expensive, research and production costs and so on.
But I think the biggest reason for the expense is that people seem convinced a high price should be paid for five-star outdoor gear. And that reason? That is what the market will bear for outdoor gear. The typically affluent consumer of these products is willing to pay $250 for this jacket or similar with “ballistic airlight nylon shell” and “high quality polartex DWR finish“.
At the end, it the jackets are all just nylon, down or fiberfill and made at a factory in China.
But the affordable gear is not cheap gear. It is functional, good, works well and does not look like a dirt-bagger special.
The high-end gear is for the more affluent consumer who buys these products overall. (And the person who gets the better gear for free or discounted! 🙂 )
Capitalism can be a beautiful thing. People buying the highly priced, but only somewhat better, items are what is fueling the popularity of the more reasonably priced items.
It isn’t that the affordable gear is cheap. It is more that the high end gear is an expensive luxury item people are willing to purchase.
It happened with fleece, with softshell jackets and previous iterations of down puffies.
But let’s not confuse affordable gear with cheap gear. Or somehow think that
the jacket that cost three-times as much versus another is three-times as better.
Be educated, use your experience and find out which is better for sure and not by simply looking at a price tag.
I think the best method if one is looking to buy high quality, “high end clothing is just to rarely (preferebably never) buy new. Buying used almost has no negatives and you get the same value at a much lower price. You may not get the hot new jacket out this fall but you’ll get usually under half the retail price if you trail the market by over at least a year.
Sierra Trading Post, among others, is often good for that in terms of buying the previous year’s model.
Sierra Trading Post and Campmor have been very good sources for highly discounted clothing and gear. What Patagonia I have probably came from one or the other. The only real problem is that closeouts are just that and your size and style may not be available.
Excellent post. And very true with the examples used. It would be interesting to know if the more affordable mainstream models would be there without the expensive high-end models and companies leading the way, doing R&D and creating the market and demand. Don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. But now we have the option of more affordable gear. On the other hand, sometimes I’m happy to pay for example “100% more” to get “20% better” if that 20% is in important places. For example there are now very affordable merino wool baselayers but often the trade-off is: thinner material, shoretn sleeves… Read more »
In a similar vein to the above commenter regarding buying used another avenue is to buy technology that has become tried and true. Companies like Patagonia R&D new technologies and spend those dollars setting up quality factories (whether they be in America, Vietnam, China, or wherever). Those dollars (and the host countries low wages) subsidize future companies (e.g. Uniqlo) to come in and efficiently produce similar garments at a lower price.
This appears to be why my backpack contains a spectrum, from dumpster dives and Salvation Army finds to high-end cottage-industry gear.
Same here! Surplus to “fast fashion” to an expensive down quilt. All have their place in my pack!
I also LOVE REI garage sales for finding barely used luxury items at great discounts. A great place to find stuff people returned because it didn’t match with their other luxury items. lol.
Great site, thanks. I’m a life-long outdoor sports freak who, before becoming a ‘professional’ years ago was a part-time climbing bum. One defining element of my approach to outfitting myself (And to keeping my marriage intact!) has been to NEVER PAY RETAIL for anything. Ever. There’s always a source of cheap but excellent gear out there. Whether it’s a barely used $3000 bike selling for $300 that some orthodontist thought he would try triathlons on, or the $500 Patagucci Ski Patrol Jacket (I’m a pro patroller) selling on ebay for $125, or the closet full of Pendlton wool shirts I’ve… Read more »