10 Tips to Help You Pick Your Next Outdoor Gear

What’s in your closet?

Within the past 6 years, we’ve gotten into phases of hiking, backpacking, climbing, and mountaineering. This post was spurred by the realization that within those times we have amassed a vast quantities of redundant (and therefore mostly useless) gear.

This was made apparent when we were selling our stuff for our RTW trip in 2011. We found a bunch of useless junk in our closet.

A collection of backpacking gear

One of the best tips I learned about buying travel gear is to buy stuff only once and make it count. The idea is yes, we have to shell out a lot at first, but as long as it’s a good quality product and it’s exactly what we need it should be the only purchase we ever make for foreseeable future. In the long run, not only would it save you money (for more ways to save money for travel, see here), but it’s also good for the environment.

Here are some of the lessons on how to shop for travel gear we wish we had known 4 years ago:

MORE: My Ultimate Packing List

Do your research and learn the jargons

‘Mini-ripstop shell fabric’, ‘rib-knit hem’, and ‘interior windflap’.
‘Engineered plastic hubs’, ‘exclusive Tension Truss architecture’…

Find out what they are and whether or not you should care. There’s a difference between ‘water-resistant’ and ‘waterproof’. Knowing the difference ‘650 fill’ vs ‘800 fill’ will mean you’ll be able to evaluate if the extra $100 is worth it.

Decide on 1 or 2 must-have attributes

The idea is to narrow down the often-bewildering number of options. When I’m looking to purchase my next travel gear, I like to create a list of 5 nice to have features and choose 1 or 2 of ‘must-have’ features. For example, when I was looking for a pair of hiking shoes for my upcoming trek to Patagonia, my ‘nice-to-have’ features were: fit, waterproof, durability, weight, and price with the first two as my must-have(s). (And I found these! The best – and ugliest – shoes I’ve owned).

For my sleeping bag I wanted compressibility and lightweight as my ‘must-have’ features — which led me to getting the best sleeping bag I’ve ever owned.

And don’t compromise on your must-have features. Really.

Ideally whatever item you buy should last you for many, many years. Would you be willing and able to live with your compromises for that long? All of my purchase regrets come from compromising on the attributes that are important to me simply because they were on sale.

Like this Eagle Creek pack I bought (heavily discounted at 75% off) that’s just too big for my 5’1″ frame. I thought, ‘Yeah, I can live with this.’ Nope. HATE it. Hurts my back. And I can’t return it because it was on clearance.

Approach ‘clearance’ rack with a healthy dose of caution. Remember the values that are important to you and don’t let the price tag sways you or convince you otherwise.

Don’t compromise on price (too much)

Buying exactly what I need and exactly what I want will mean that I won’t waste more time and money later on trying to ‘fix’ my previous purchase.

Say you’ve found the perfect [fill in the blanks here, backpack, tent, camera, etc], but the price is just a little outside your budget. So you think, ‘Well, I can save 20 bucks and get this other thing instead.’ Turned out that I was never happy with my second choice. I’ve learned this the hard way.

Assortment of climbing/backpacking gear
Assortment of climbing/backpacking gear — Never stop climbing

Learn when the right time to buy and check out last year’s collection

Big outdoor stores would try to get rid of their stock in order to get ready for new collection and you want to be there to take advantage of it.

Buying winter gear? Spring is the best time to buy.

Buying a summer tent and backpack? Fall is your best bet.

Oh, another thing — once you find your perfect gear, go online and type in the name, model, and last year (e.g. ‘Osprey Talon 44 2010’). More often than not, they’re exactly the same item and would be heavily discounted. So what if it’s only available in bright orange?

Test drive before committing on a purchase

It seems that it’s almost impossible to figure out what features you need (or don’t need) until you’re out there actually doing the activities. What I thought were ‘must-haves’ turned out to be not a big deal, while I’ve also discovered ‘deal breaker’ features that I would not have thought of before.

If at all possible, use whatever you already have or borrow from a friend and do a test drive before rushing out to get a new item.

If you can’t test drive an item beforehand…

Shop from a store with good refund policy

We love our REI. They have an 100% satisfaction return policy and as a member, we don’t need to keep any of the receipts. I’ve returned many items I’m not happy with, some of them bought over a year ago, with no hassles. And as a result we’re more than willing to get almost of all our gear from them.

Some bigger online stores such as, Backcountry.com also has an unlimited refund policy and has been known as one of the best online companies to shop from because of it.

Pick reputable brands with good customer service

I bought a Patagonia base layer that turned out not to be a good fit (and not to mention that it was too magenta for my taste). For months it was sitting at the bottom of my closet until I decided to take it back. The local Patagonia store accepted it back even when I couldn’t show them a receipt or even remember where I got it from in the first place.

Because of this, and also because of Patagonia’s commitment to the welfare of their workers and animals, I’m a big fan of their products.

I’ve had good experience with Mountain Hardware and heard good stories about Marmot and Osprey. They often repair or replace your defected gear for little or no cost.

After all, when you spend $300 on a performance jacket, the least you can expect is ease of return when the stitching starts to unravel after a month, right?

All geared up for Swiss Alps finicky weather
All geared up for Swiss Alps finicky weather

Think of your travel gear collection as its own ecosystem

Thinking of your gear as a system prevents purchasing duplicate items and wasting your money as a result.

Everything has to have a purpose: everything has to fit together and work together. Just like how Mac products play best with other Mac products, you know?

It might sound crazy but it’s true. When buying a new hydration system I know that I shouldn’t get a 3 litter bladder, that way all of our bladders and bags will be interchangeable. I figure if I need to bring more, I’d carry a water bottle in addition.

When shopping for a sleeping bag, I know size would be one of my ‘must-have’ features because I have a small (40L) pack that it must fit into. I also know that since I have a warm sleeping bag I can compromise a little bit on the sleeping mat and got a thinner (and thus lighter and cheaper) mat.

Often you can deal with a gear’s limitation by getting a supporting gear, e.g. getting a liner for your sleeping bag means you do not have to get a more expensive, warmer bag.

When you’re shopping for a new item, think how it will fit together with what you already have.

Camelot C4 cams
C4 cams – not gimmicks.

If it looks like a gimmick and sounds like a gimmick…

The more complicated a gadget is and the more parts it has, the more likely it will break. Sometimes all you need to complete that gear list are little things that can easily be made from readily available stuff.

Things like:
– duct tape
– safety pins
– zip ties
– zip-lock plastic baggies
– large trash can liner

are some of the things we always carry with us and have been worth their weight in gold.

Other examples of simple is better:
This post has a great list of low cost travel hacks and we’ve utilized most of the them.
Uncornered Market uses tupperwares to protect their external hard drive.

Having said all of the above, what works for us might not work for you. So, just like any other tips you find on the big interweb, take them with a grain of salt and experiment.

And have fun.

And share your mistakes 🙂

Do you have any shopping mistakes or tips you want to share? Leave them in the comment section below.

Valuable Resources

  • Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders, for those who love anything weird and offbeat.
  • Resource Toolbox: How I find cheap flights, accommodations, and other travel hacks.

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22 Replies to “10 Tips to Help You Pick Your Next Outdoor Gear”

  1. Hey,

    Came across your guys’ page when I was looking up climbing Cathedral peak. Just wanted to drop by and say that your guys’ page and your adventures are so awesome!! I’m more of a backpacker and will be doing the JMT this fall, but I do climb, and maybe if we do cross paths in the future, maybe I can document a climb for you guys! (both in photo/video)


  2. My brother is a total addict of gear! He used to collect northface gear fro his trekking activity. Starting from head wear down to his foot wear! Oh well, despite of those expensive price is the high quality of the product. Something that he can use in the long run.

  3. As you know from my more recent posts, we recently have been sorting and evaluating the Stuff in our garage, getting ready for The Great Purging Yard Sale! Some of the things we went through was a whole wall of camping equipment. We realized that we had a lot of duplicate items, as well as items that probably needed to be updated if we ever intend on being efficient campers!

    The tips you listed here will definitely come in handy when we get down to the nitty gritty of organizing our Stuff.

    To add to what you mentioned, Craig's list is always worth taking a peek at, there are many people these days who have spent a lot on camping equipment and supplies that just aren't able to use them and are looking for some extra cash. We found a 6-man tent about a year ago that was still in the original packaging, never used, for less than half the price it would've cost new!

    1. Thanks. We try to learn from our mistakes… good point about Craigslist. We'll definitely be utilizing CL to get rid most of our duplicate stuff 🙂

  4. Thanks, Aaron… I hate the fact that the so-called 'new' models can be so similar to their previous year's. Sometimes it just simply means that there's more color selection. Reminds me a bit of college textbooks 🙂

  5. You hit the nail on the head here on a few points…

    Do NOT skimp on travel gear when it comes to expense, as good gear is worth its weight in gold!

    And checking out last year's models can be a fantastic way to find cheaper stuff! My new backpack was last year's model! It was also $70 cheaper than list price at REI because the new model was in that was EXACTLY the same as the old one, just with the zipper facing a slightly different direction! Only difference was the old one had to be ordered online, but with REI's free shipping, there was nothing to lose!

    Finally, I also echo that you should RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH! You want to get the right gear the first time and specifics DO matter!

  6. Great tips for travelers! More often than not, I too end up buying things I don't use just because it's 'ON SALE' or 'CLEARANCE'. I should just be more tactful and objective during shopping next time! 🙂

    1. I don't even check out the clearance racks anymore. Ok, I admit — sometimes I do (the temptation's too great)… but very carefully. I honestly can't tell the last time I bought something off a clearance table.

  7. These are some of the best travel gear tips I've seen in a long time. Excellent work guys. #5: Buying Last Years Collection — REI Outlet is great for this. I've personally went to an REI store, found a bag I liked, got fitted for the bag and went home empty handed. Why? Because when I get home I go straight online to the REI Outlet and find the same Brand/Model just last years version for more than half off! Remember – 9 out of 10 times there is very minimal changes when it comes to features on the latest pack when compared side by side to last years version. Don't bother paying full price when you can get last years model!

    1. Lol, yup! That's what we do too with sleeping bags, shoes, and other camping gear. REI even makes it easier to do this by providing booths with access to their online outlet store so you can see if last year's model is available right there on the store.

  8. Love love love REI. And I definitely agree that it's worth paying more for something that's actually what you want and need. If you go for something that's cheaper but only kinda fits the bill, you end up paying more anyways to replace or augment your gear. Not that I'd know from experience or anything. 😛

    1. I think we all have made that mistake… Jack got a Mac Book Air and even though it's bloody expensive it's exactly what he wanted. And he's been a very happy boy geeking out all over it which would not have been the case if I had somehow managed to convince to go with a much cheaper (but definitely less sexy) Asus EEE notebook.

  9. Excellent post – and each tip can be applied to most every kind of gear (i.e. not just backpacking/climbing, but also photo gear, most any electronics, etc.) Especially the tip on "ecosystems", and the "5 nice/1-2 must haves" features. Amid the dizzying array of choices for most everything these days – a great way to narrow down the many options and not get caught up in the "just one more option price-point" scheme that is so pervasive.

    I'd suggest a couple of additional "lessons" (learned the hard way!) ;(

    11. Do your research early – well before you desperately "gotta have it NOW!". That way you'll have the knowledge and the time to wait for sales/clearance and will know precisely when something is truly a "great deal" for YOU.

    12. When you've narrowed your choices down to a few – Google for "reviews" of those products, as well as "insert-product/company-here complaints/problems". Amazing what hidden problems you may find.

    1. Great additions!! Love #11 in particular — buying things on impulse or waiting till the last minute, yup, we've definitely made those mistakes!

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