The cost of outdoor gear – is expensive necessarily the best?

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….

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About Saddlebags and Backpacks - a brewer's outdoor adventures

I am a keen hiker, camper, cyclist and general all round gear addict..... I also manage to be a professional brewer in my non-spare time :->
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29 Responses to The cost of outdoor gear – is expensive necessarily the best?

  1. alan.sloman says:

    I think this is an excellent post Dave.
    I remember watching Terrybnd & hi mate Yuri, on one of Terry’s excellent videos, explain that backpacking kit does not have to be horribly expensive.

    The TGO Challenge in eleven weeks time will be an orgasm of backpacking gear. What is noticeable about the event is that it isn’t about the kit but the people, camaraderie and the country you walk through. We have everything from £30 Argos tents all the way through to top of the range mountain tents. Sleeping bags from £20 synthetics all the way to stuff seen in the Himalayas.

    Spending huge amounts of money on kit shouldn’t be necessary to get out for a walk. A pair of trainers, a cheap fleece and a waxed jacket is perfectly fine for the average walk in the UK in the summer.

    Spending a huge wad of cash on gear doesn’t necessarily guarantee good quality either. I can think of one or two tents that I think are a shocking waste of money. If people do choose to spend loads of money on kit, as long as they choose carefully they can have as good a time as those buying the “value” brands.
    🙂

    • backpackbrewer says:

      Alan, thats an important point you make regarding the cameraderie of the TGO Challenge. We should not get snobbish about gear especially other people’s. If its fit for purpose and it gets people out into the great outdoors then its good enough.
      I have to admit that I almost go out of my way to avoid big brand names (not quite there yet but I am very very selective in my old age now!). Of course there is cutting off ones nose to spite ones face to consider as well. You wouldnt use a Tesco sleeping bag on K2 🙂 but for general purpose walking and camping, the cost of reasonable kit should not be high or at least unreasonably high

  2. hillplodder says:

    Great post, echoing many people’s views too, I imagine. I can particularly relate to your tent analogy. I’ve been using an own brand tent from Decathlon for the last 5 years – it cost £70. It’s done the job admirably. But now I’m getting a bit more serious about my camping I wanted something I could have more confidence in, especially as my current tent hasn’t been out in serious weather.

    As with most things I buy, I looked at a range of items. With the tent it was quite easy to rule out most of the really cheap end on the grounds of weight, and if that didn’t work one look at the picture was enough. But I considered the expensive end. I ended up choosing between the new Vango Helium 200 (likely to be c£200), the Scarp1 from Henry Shires ($300 which is c£300 with shipping and customs) and the Akto (£400). All seemed robust enough for what I had in mind, pitched all-in-one or outer first, had ok headroom and would be comfortable for 1. The expensive Akto was worst choice on every one of the criteria I looked at, and on many of those it was worse than my existing tent. So the Akto is a prime example of over-priced gear, which does seem to be a bit of a theme with a number of Swedish brands. It’s probably no surprise that I went for the Scarp 1, although I think I’d have been happy with the Helium too. A big factor in this was the amount of information, pictures and videos, as well as reviews from the backpacking community. None of the high street options came remotely near either functionally or price-wise. Indeed nothing I found in my local GoOutdoors and Blacks was as good as my Decathlon tent.

    If you’re prepared to do spend time doing your research (which is fun anyway when it’s about gear!) and shop around then you can benefit from the mis-pricing of gear, and by doing so you should also end up with something that meets your needs rather than just being what’s available in your local chain outdoor shop.

    • backpackbrewer says:

      yes, doing the research IS half of the fun I must admit 😀

      I really do look at functionality far far more these days than I used to. I have picked up a few baselayer tops from Mountain Warehouse recently and although slightly heavier than top end baselayers have been brilliant over the winter. In fact the heavier material has been a boon as it is tougher wearing. I paid around £13 for a long sleeve top with thumb loops and a 1/4 zip neck and I have worn it alot over the winter. Its a better top than the Berghaus one I got around about the same time (twice as expensive but not as durable)

      I know I will get slated but I really dont like the Akto. I just think you should have a much better tent for that kind of money. And I think the Scarp for around £100 less is that kind of tent. Yes, it is still expensive but its a cottage industry tent being ordered from the US. Without the customs charges it would be unbeatable value

      • hillplodder says:

        Clearly we are of the same mind! And I pretty much live in a winter base layer from Decathlon, which is really soft and under £20. And much as I hate to line Mike Ashley’s pockets, I recently picked up a pair of Karrimor cycling base layers for a tenner and they’re as good as my Berghaus Tech Tees.

        • backpackbrewer says:

          Me too, curse his cheapness! 😀

          I wont compromise on my shoes or my rucksack but pretty much everything else is up for assessment including the shelter and the clothing.

  3. Robin says:

    In defence of Hilleberg, their tents are manufactured in Estonia rather than China and the fabric and poles are very high quality. Nonetheless, 90% of the time it’s not going to be an issue. If you read the reviews of the Lichfield on this site http://www.ukcampsite.co.uk/tents/p/Lichfield-Treklite-200/874 you will see that the actual dimensions are smaller and the weight higher than advertised, so that might tilt the argument a bit.

    If you are willing to compromise on quality and weight a bit, costs can be reduced dramatically. On the other hand, it is a hobby and generally not a very expensive one, so buying good quality gear that will last a long time makes sense. Occasionally you can get both quality and value with a company like Alpkit. Vango is another company that springs to mind as well.

    While there is a lot of interest in gear, I think most backpackers do see it as a means to an end and generally the snobbery level is quite low. I certainly wouldn’t look down on someone with a Lichfield tent or look up to someone with a Hilleberg 😉

    • backpackbrewer says:

      True, but then the average wage of Estonia is around £8-10K per year so although probably more than China (although according to one source the overall average wage of China is around £10K too!), its closer so transport costs will be lower.
      Not having a go at Hilleberg per se as they do make very good tents that have a high spec. My gripe is that I still think they are expensive for what you get. If you look at the prices in the US they are substantially lower so I do think Hilleberg are milking the market in Europe because of their reputation (eg £380 for a Soulo in the US, £530 in the UK mrrp)
      On the advertised weights of tents thing….another gripe of mine! A lot of manufacturers continually advertise lower weights than actually achieved (grrrr)
      You are right that gear is a means to an end and so if you require high end quality kit, you are best served by getting that. My argument and gripe remains that (high end) gear manufacturers are ripping us off. Having said that, its like anything else, things wont change unless people start to refuse to pay those kinds of prices.

  4. It’s a conundrum. If you have loads of disposable income it’s not as much of an issue but if you are on a budget the constant weight shaving releases can make decision making a nightmare.

    Sometimes buying cheap kit can work out costing more in the long run, I have spent a lot on getting slightly better sleeping mats each time, if I had bitten the bullet and bought a neoair it probably would have been cheaper overall and given me better nights sleep too.

    Kit is always beguiling, how many people that pay £2000 plus on a mountain bike really use them to their pottential ? Most would probably ride just as well with a £300 model.

    One of the saving graces with outdoor kit seems to be that it can be swapped or sold on, especially on forums. I have picked up some real bargains from people who have upgraded their own kit and sold on their old kit to me : )

    I think we have all probably bought something and then felt duped that we have paid over the odds, it’s mad even worse when it’s something you want and don’t need.

    • backpackbrewer says:

      Hi Dan,

      yes, the addage buy cheap buy twice does spring to mind but I have had a Hilleberg fly with holes in it (to be fair Hilleberg did replace it) which for a £400 tent I found a bit disappointing.

      If you have disposable income and think what you are getting is worth it then its worth it. After all people buy high range cars because they can afford it and they think the cost is justified. I admit that I have been taken in by the Emperors new clothes a couple of times in the past but now that my belt is fully tightened….no more! 🙂

      Its a good point you make about the forums and selling on gear. I have done that a fair few times I have to admit! 😀 It means that you dont feel so bad if something doesnt float your boat as much as it appeared to do on the website.

      The truly maddening bit is when you KNOW that there is a very nice bit of kit out there and you cant afford it. Thats just unfair 😀

  5. redscotti says:

    Best bet is to determine what you require then buy it second-hand or at sales. I don’t think I’ve got a single item that I paid more than 50% of the RRP for. Also buy gear for what you actually do rather than what you aspire to do (but never will?). On British hills, you don’t need stuff designed for Himalyan climbs.

    • backpackbrewer says:

      Hi David,

      that is good going. Mind you i dont think I have paid full price for big items either. Its a religion 🙂 And you are right re the kit level although I have been in some appaling weather in the UK

  6. Blogger Zed says:

    The first Akto was a beautiful piece of kit and had very little competition. It was my first transverse ridge tent so the usefulness of every inch of internal space was a delightful surprise. In my previous tent, a TNF Tadpole, the back end had mainly been a place to put my feet. The original Akto must have been good because look how many companies copied it or should I say were inspired by its design. I disliked the look of the updated version and only bought one when the original was showing severe signs of wear and tear, the result of much hard use. If Hilleberg had given it doors either side and still managed to cut the weight, I’d feel much more positive about the update.

    As far as price is concerned, is it not possible that you would feel, rightly or wrongly, that you could use the expensive design ten times as hard, ten times as often or in ten times as committing a location? Considering what I did with it, the original Akto, made in Sweden and costing £210, was amazing value.

    • backpackbrewer says:

      Dont get me wrong, all Hilleberg tents are at the top of the tree for functionality. I have owned 4 Hilleberg tents over the years and my main tent of choice is the Unna currently. I paid around half the normal selling price for mine so considered this a good value buy as well as getting a top technical tent (the best of both worlds).
      The use of the Akto in the example was to illustrate the extremes of the price band for a “similar” tent. Its great that you have gotten good value for money out of both versions of the Akto and clearly you have found your tent for life! 🙂
      My gripe with Hilleberg is that they have overinflated the prices in Europe (prices have shot up for Hilleberg tents in the past couple of years) compared to the fairly reasonable prices in the US. Not only that they have instructed retailers in the US NOT to sell any of their tents to customers outside of the US/Canada. This sends a clear message that they are knowingly trying to “milk” the European consumer market

      Rant over 😀

  7. Wurz says:

    You are always completely right to question a purchase, do you need it probably not, can you justify it? Definitely if you really want it! 😀

    Price fixing for the UK is very annoying, as is the vagiaries of import tax. But this isn’t just Hilleberg, I remember DMM selling their axes in Europe cheaper than in the UK to compete with Grivel, etc. FWIW I have 3, pauses to count – family ones don’t count, tents. The Akto is just about the most expensive but I was lucky and got it from Moontrail for less than the price of a Laser Comp at home and I got a Ti pot and some hilly stingers free with it. That said Hillies aren’t particularly easy to get in the states, I emailled ALL of their US dealers and only Moontrail and a place in Alsaka had an Akto in stock.

    Anyway I’m digressing, good kit (generally) is more expensive but works better/lasts longer/weighs less. Less compromises are made in it’s design with regards materials and costs. For that you really have to accept it and pay the premium or compromise. Also as has been said above the resale value remains high, the same is not true of a Litchfield which lets be honest is much more likely to show signs of wear.

    I also don’t agree with you on the cottage industry front either. As much as I respect Tarptent, MLD, etc. I don’t think they represent a middle ground, they are definitely at the upper end of the market. Whilst not at nordic prices, and let’s not forget that Scandinavia is about as expensive a place as you could wish to find. Items like the Duomid is still $205 or $405 in cuben and the Trailstar is $185 or $335 in cuben and it is only a tarp! No poles, no inner and no pegs!!! and you still have to convert, pay shipping and import and wait a month or two for delivery. Likewise Ookworks, undoubtedly well made ask £150 for a big nest inner for a SL3 as opposed to Golite’s (ok has issues being full size and mesh) which can is available for £115.

  8. Bee says:

    I am sure there is a snobbery associated with expensive gear but many have learnt from buying two or three cheaper tents before ending up with the higher priced one anyway.
    I did it and wish I’d taken more notice of how many older, experienced campers were using Hilleberg when I got started.
    A tent is a tent until it rips in a strong wind or collapses under snow.
    Personally, I think the Akto is still the best if you are under 1.7 metres.

    • backpackbrewer says:

      Hi Bee,

      very valid comments and personal experience of tent costs. I think for me there are options to buy good value high specced tents (as someone else pointed out, Vango seem to straddle that position quite well). But like I also said previously it is a matter of personal taste and perception of value. Loving your tent is a very important thing! 😀

  9. Dave Hasney says:

    Excellent post and some great comments from others. I think despite all the doom and gloom of the current financial climate, it has partly served one great purpose; the majority of us have become far more savy about what we actually buy.

    For some time now I, like you probably due to age, I have become increasingly more annoyed about marketing and price fixing processes in different markets. Much of this is due to manufacturers/retailers simply charging as much as they can get away with i.e. the maximum price a consumer is prepared to pay, not production cost plus are resonable percentage profit margin. In many ways this is our own doing. Soft headed consumers who tend to make purchases with their eyes/hearts instead of their minds

    If we all looked at £RRP as a starting point as a basis for negotiation, as with those societies that operate more of a barter type process in their retailing, things would be more financialy favourable to the consumer. Take for example a country like Turkey, a nation I have spent a great deal of time in over many years.One of it’s initial attractions to me was ‘value for money’ You could always get more for your money until the Turks, who are wise to seizing the opportunity to make money, wised up to the British consumer.

    Brits who visited Turkey on holiday were happy to pay whatever something cost, just so long as it was a bit cheaper than at home. Consequently the cost of almost everything has risen dramatically in those areas popular with us Brits. There is now ‘tourist price’ and ‘Turkish price’ in many areas in short, the Turks will charge whatever they can to ‘dim’ tourists!

    Another example is UK/USA airline ticket prices… Why does the exact same flight, with the same airline between the same airports cost more to buy in the UK than in the USA? Take away any tax factors and the main driver is consumer power, as with the differential between thair gallon of ‘gas’ and our gallon of petrol, I could continue!

    The power of the internet as a tool for shopping has leveled the playing fields somewhat, and long may it continue. All we need now is for the consumer to catch up a bit. The buying power of the consumer in the retail sector shouldn’t be underestimated, why should the purchase of outdoor gear be any different? 🙂

    • backpackbrewer says:

      Very good comments Dave and I agree with them wholeheartedly. I think maybe being British is a bit of a handicap when it comes to getting value for money. Having said that I always try to haggle in a shop if its a highish value item. I go in with the cheapest price on the internet and tell the manager that if he really wants my custom he has to either match or get very close to that price.
      Interestingly enough I was shopping in Halfords the other day and saw some biking equipment I wanted to buy. I checked the Halfords online price and found it was £10 cheaper so reserved it online for pick up instore…!
      I do hope the internet continues to be the leveller that it can be in terms of cost and value for money. All we need to do now as consumers is to learn how to be un-British! 🙂

  10. Part and parcel of being a bloke really, spending lots of dosh on over-specced stuff. This article is about hiking/backpacking gear but you could have a similar one on a photography blog, biking blog, angling blog, etc, etc

    Have a look at those guys doing the PCT back in the days and look at their stuff and then consider if you really need a 400£ tent with a 300£ GPS, a 350£ sleeping bag and 150£ bag for a couple of nights in the Lake District 😉

    http://jakedavis.typepad.com/jakedavis/2010/04/inspiration-vintage-pacific-crest-trail-hikers.html

  11. AlanR says:

    Its a damn good point and one we shouldn’t forget. I have been toying with the idea for ages to put together the cheapest backpacking kit possible. In that i don’t mean just the cheapest/nastiest kit but kit i consider worthy of backpacking with.
    Also, with that challenge to get the lightest possible for the price too.
    Maybe it would be worth doing a bloggers amalgamation of thoughts and then sending it to TGO mag as a possible kit list for things like D of E.
    Just a thought which your post brought to the fore.

    • Another chap and myself compiled such a list for the backpackers club. Currently under consideration as a resource on the site. However, for about £100 its possible to buy good enough gear to backpack. Weight anywhere from 6-8 kg depending on the options

  12. backpackbrewer says:

    Its a good point and a good idea. I seem to remember either TGO or Trail did such a thing a few years ago where they gave £100 to 2 people on the editorial and said go out and kit yourself out for this. Cant remember exactly but I think it was boots, rucksack, waterproof jacket and trousers. Anyway, with internet searching they managed to have a half decent kit-out for the £100 so you can do it on the cheap if you try.
    My philosophy is functional kit these days so if it works it works. If something is ok but could be a lot better then I look to upgrade at the right time (normally when there is a sale on)

  13. Great post and some really good comments too. My opinion is we in the UK are paying too much for gear for a variety of reasons including our tax regime. Thank heavens for the Internet to keep costs down.

    However, I do believe backpackers (self included) tend to make a rod for our own backs as we are easily seduced by the marketing for low-weight gear. How many of us have more than one tent or tarp, several sleeping bags, a multitude of stoves and rucksacks, etc? I’ll own up and confess that I do. In fact, my house looks more like an outdoor shop! Yes, its possible to argue for a summer-weight and winter-weight sleeping bags or different rucksacks but I do feel we backpackers are a bit like addicts chasing the next ultra-light fix.

  14. Vivienne Tobias says:

    Interesting comments here. As a “West Coastie” Canadian, I come from a land obsessed with the latest Goretex “fashions” (yes it’s true – people in Vancouver can tell what “season” your waterproof jacket was from) and have watched with amusement at how outdoor gear & clothing has become increasingly trendy and expensive. Tonight I bought one of those down filled jackets from Karrimor in the hopes that it will keep me warm when I go to Iceland next year. Strangely even though I got on sale at only £60, I am still wondering whether I should have forked out £250-£300 for one of those North Face / Marmot puffer jackets at Blacks! “Maybe if I pay more I’ll be warmer”. Strange that the outdoor pursuits should be so wrapped up in marketing and consumerism.

    • backpackbrewer says:

      Hi Vivienne, thanks for the comments.

      I have come to the conclusion that cost does not necessarily equate with quality or at least discernibly better quality. A 60quid down jacket will do a job and I would be wary of forking out 200+ quid on a jacket unless there were a lot of really good reviews for it.

      In my experience, there isnt that much difference in manufacturing costs these days so a £200 jacket is probably on £10 more expensive to make than the £60 one.

      Sometimes you take a punt on a cheaper (“value”) item and it works and sometimes not. I hope the Karrimor one works out as I am sure it will

  15. I think I have something that you and your audience might like. The Nube’ lets you camp …. in the air. The patented design protects you from torrential down pours, pesky insects, and keeps your gear elevated and protected. Plus, you’ll look supercool. We launched the Nube’ on Kickstarter and reached our funding goal of $30k in 3 days. We’re now over $100k. I hope you and your audience like it.

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