When it comes to gear, buyer beware

This pack is killing me! The wimpy hip belt is bearing no weight, putting it all on my shoulders. In less than a mile, my shoulders are getting rubbed raw. 

Fortunately, this wasn’t my pack.

“This is what you get for buying a $70 backpack,” I yelled back to Ray, who had surrendered his pack to me so that I could experience its shortcomings first-hand.

Turned out he’d paid $30 for it during a late-night online buying binge on a site known for its “deals.” And, as a result, Ray had to leave the trail and miss out on one of the most magical backpacking trips of the season.

Backpacks for $30. Stoves for $7. Tents for $29. Hiking boots for $10. A backpacker could outfit himself for less than $100. And maybe get one night out of the experience, as Ray did.

You can get good deals on quality gear online. But when it comes to certain pieces of equipment, be advised: you truly do get what you pay for.

Here are five pieces of gear you should be especially leery of getting an unbelievable deal on.

  1. Backpacks. In Ray’s defense, he knew immediately that he’d made a mistake. (Two days after the trip he invested in an Osprey Aether AG 85 pack.) The key consideration with packs is fit. A pack that isn’t sized and fitted to your torso will make 25 pounds feel like 50. This key piece of gear needs to be bought in person, not online; a pack may look great online and may get rave reviews, but what works for others may not work for you. Go to an outfitter with plenty of time to spend trying out different packs. Weight it with roughly the amount of weight you plan to carry. This investment can make the difference between backpacking being a lifelong relationship or a one-date-only.
  2. Hiking shoes/boots. I’m looking at a pair of boots online right now that bear an insignia that sure looks like Vasque’s, but it’s not. A good hiking shoe or boot is at the heart of a good outing. If you’re boots don’t fit properly, you’re in trouble, and you won’t know if it fits until you try it on. In fact, you won’t know until you try it on and walk a few miles down the trail. Thus, you should get your footwear from a place where you can not only try them on, but also be sure their return policy lets you bring them back after an outing or three. Also, don’t confine your search to the sale bin. You may well find a great pair of boots there, but when outfitting your feet, put on your price blinders while trying them on. Get the pair that feels best.
  3. Socks. Socks and boots go together. If your socks aren’t great, you won’t notice how great a pair of boots might be. A good hiking sock is a complex piece of equipment: it requires good arch support, a solid heel, cushioning in the right places. A good number of great hiking socks are made in the U.S. You can pay $20 (or more) for a pair. It’s a good investment: make it.
  4. Stoves. You can buy a very reliable and decent stove for not a lot of money: I love my simple, if loud, PocketRocket, which retails for about $45 and has never given me a lick of trouble. A buddy who bought that $7 stove from China bought five of them because, “I know I’ll just have to keep replacing them.” That’s a realization I do not want to make while waiting for my first cup of coffee in the morning.
  5. Tents. For the duration of your trip, your tent is your home. In our GetBackpacking! Intro to Backpacking class, one of the most popular sessions is when we set up camp and everyone has a chance to check out their fellow backpackers’ tents on a parade of nylon homes. It gives everyone a chance to look for key features — inside pockets for hanging gear, vents, vestibule space — and to assess how sturdy a tent might be. You don’t need a Realtor to pick out this home, but you want it to stand up to the weather and provide the amenities to get you through the 8-12 hours you’ll be in it.

Take action!

  • Learn more about backpacking gear and how to use it in our GetBackpacking! Intro to Backpacking Class. More info here. (Our next session, in the Triangle area, begins this Sunday.)
  • So how magical was the trip that Ray’s backpack forced him to abandon? You can find evidence of that trip, to the snow-capped Uwharrie Mountains, by following us on Facebook.

Happy trails!

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