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.
Be educated, use your experience and find out which is better for sure and not by simply looking at a price tag.