I was walking through Brecon the other day and found myself browsing the various gear shops there ( 🙂 ) and one thing struck me. That is apart from the fact that there are 5 dedicated gear shops and a few other shops that sell some outdoor gear. What I found was nothing unusual or previously unseen but I just think it is becoming more prevalent these days. What am I talking about? The price of gear, be it a jacket or a spork or a tent. Or more specifically the range of prices from the cheapest to the most expensive.
I realise that all kit is specialised to one degree or another or has a specific material or design feature that sets it apart from its rivals. I get it. What i dont get is, what seems to my eye anyway, the diverging ends of the cost spectrum. Lets take the following example:
A Lichfield Treklite 200 1man tent vs a Hilleberg Akto 1man tent (no sniggering please I did say we were comparing extremes)
Ok, chalk and cheese right?
Weight – 1.9kg (Lichfield) vs 1.6kg (Akto) – yep the Akto is lighter but not by much
Dimensions – (H)90, (W)195, (D)230cm (Lichfield) vs (H)90, (W)165, (D)220cm (Akto) – The Lichfield is bigger on paper
Waterproofness – 3000mm fly/5000mm floor (Lichfield) vs 3000mm fly/5000mm floor (Akto) – no difference there
Design – single hoop (Lichfield) vs single hoop (Akto)
Use – unconfirmed but claimed for backpacking (Lichfield) vs 4 season backpacking (Akto) – subjective here but more robustness for the Akto
Price – £40 for the Lichfield, £400 for the Akto
If we look purely on paper, the Lichfield looks a bargain and the Akto way too expensive after all it cant be 10 times better as a tent can it? At this point I can feel that “mildly irritated from Maidstone” or “incredulous from Ipswich” will be making a list of reasons why the above isnt valid and makes no sense in the real world. Now I know that the Akto IS a better tent but when you compare the stats it does seem a tad difficult to reconcile the price differential.
So why are things so vastly different in price? Yes there are design costs, yes there are clever “liveability” design features, yes there are superior materials. But, manufacturing costs have come done in real terms mainly due to the use of cheap third world labour which makes up a huge proportion of the total. Mass production techniques, computer aided design and better materials have, in my opinion, brought tents (in this example) closer together in terms of performance and the overall end product. So again, why the cost differential?
For me, I think there is a brand image that companies want to project to consumers. This does cost money through advertising and marketing. Also I believe that there is almost a retro reaction to the “pile em high sell em cheap” philosophy of other companies out there. Maintaining the high price is part of maintaining the brand mystique. After all who hasnt heard the expression “you get what you pay for”? But has it gone too far, either in terms of the lowest priced items or in terms of the top end cost of items? I think so although I know many will disagree and I fully accept that challenge. Having spent the last 20 years in a purely manufacturing career including several years of commercial experience including buying commodities, I do stand by my thoughts.
So, should we all go out and buy the cheapest kit for every application and need for the outdoors? No. I just think we need to be selective, objective and really look hard at the intended use of each item of kit. We also need to recognise in ourselves whether we are buying for the status or the functionality (or both) of the kit we buy. Of course all this is moot if we go out and buy more kit than we need anyway (and I have been guilty of this many times over in the past). The recent squeeze on finances (personal and national) has forced me to reevaluate what I buy and the reasons for the purchases and also the value for money of any kit I get.
Its not all doom and gloom though. There are real gems of kit out there that dont cost the earth and perform well for 90-99% of the time and conditions faced. Its only when we become specialised in what want to achieve in the outdoors that we start to really question the functionality and performance of our kit to the highest levels. Lastly, somewhere in the middle between cheap and expensive sit the cottage industry items of gear. Items such as the bespoke inners of Oookworks or Henry Shires’ tents or Mountain Laurel Designs’ tarps (to name but a few) really offer in my opinion a great balance of cost, functionality and performance. Perhaps I have become a bit anti big business as I grow older but I do feel the need to question my gear, the reason I buy it and whether I feel it is really worth that price tag….