Quality camping gear: when (and when not) to economize

Original Marmot label

A recent Facebook dialogue regarding the post “OCTK Lite part 2,” and its comparison of quality in outwardly similar tools, reminded me of a column I published in OutdoorX4 some time ago regarding equipment quality in general. I thought it was worth revisiting. Herewith:

I’ve been reviewing outdoor equipment for 30 years now, and using it for a lot longer, in conditions ranging from 115ºF Sonoran Desert summers to Beaufort Sea storms. In a few situations I’ve felt the sharp realization that my life was quite possibly hanging on the quality of my equipment—lost in a winter storm skiing the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, caught seven miles offshore in a sea kayak in a Sea of Cortez chubasco—but in the overwhelming majority of circumstances it’s only been comfort, or the lack thereof, that has been affected by the gear I was using.

Nevertheless, in that time I’ve become convinced of the near-universal truth of this axiom: The best gear is also the least expensive in the long run. Spend more in the beginning on a quality piece of gear, and it will not only perform better, enhancing your comfort (and potentially your safety), it will also last longer, justifying its price over and over. Just one example is the Marmot Gore-Tex Grouse goose-down sleeping bag I bought in 1983. Scandalously expensive at the time on a penurious college-student budget, it has since seen untold nights of use, and has lost, as best I can estimate, perhaps a half inch of loft. I could go on with many other examples.

Okay, as I’ve been adminished many times, that’s fine in theory. But what if one simply does not have, say, $500 to spend on a sleeping bag, and $200 on a stove, and $50 on a double-wall titanium coffee cup? Am I suggesting that person stay home and leave travel to those who can afford bespoke equipment?

Not at all. My overriding goal in being in this business is to encourage people to get out exploring. One can only truly appreciate something if it is experienced in person, and if we are to preserve the most beautiful parts of our country and the world, we need people there seeing those parts and developing a bond of stewardship. And traveling and experiencing other cultures is the best way to stave off the xenophobia and isolationism that seems to be gripping our country these days.

Thus when I offer equipment advice to those just starting out, or looking at replacing worn out gear, and who are on a budget, I emphasize a strategy of priority. There are areas where economizing can be done without much compromise in comfort (or safety), and others where compromising would be foolish. Here are my ideas of where you should and shouldn’t economize. 

Tent: This is the big one. While traveling and camping your tent is your home—your last line of defense against rain, snow, wind, and bugs. You can survive with a cheap sleeping bag, but if your $39.95 dome tent leaks in a shower, or collapses in a breeze, the best sleeping bag in the world won’t keep you comfortable—or safe. Whether you’re after a lightweight backpacking tent for motorcycle or bicycle travel, or a room-sized, stand-up model to carry in a vehicle, buy the best tent you can afford, and care for it well. (For an in-depth look at how to choose a good lightweight tent, see here.)

This Hilleberg is a good tent.

This Hilleberg is a good tent.

These are not good tents.

These are not good tents.

Sleeping bag: I own an exquisite, U.S.-made Western Mountaineering Sycamore MF sleeping bag stuffed with superb 850-plus fill-power goose down. It’s spacious, has a waterproof shell, is rated to 25ºF, and weighs barely two pounds. It cost $460, and I fully expect it to last the rest of my life. Yet, quite frankly, the $55 synthetic-fill Blue Jay bag from Wenzel, rated to the same temperature, would be just as warm, and cozier given the flannel lining. No, it won’t last as long, and it weighs over five pounds, which would be an issue if you’re motorcycling or pedaling, but for tossing in the back of the Tacoma, it’ll work just fine.

Sleeping pad: Yes, that $130 Thermarest LuxuryMap inflatable mattress is a dream to sleep on. But for about $70 you can buy a queen-size three-inch-think memory foam pad on eBay and cut two 30-inch wide sleeping pads from it.

Stove: Connoisseurs of outdoor cooking swear by the dual-burner Partner Steel stoves, made to survive professional river guide abuse and stout enough to be employed secondarily as a tire ramp for working under your vehicle. But in my FJ40 I keep a single-burner Stansport propane stove that cost me $12.50 ten years ago and is still going strong.

Camp chair: No matter how active you are, you’ll spend a lot of time in camp sitting. Do yourself a favor and skip the $20 specials with 30 plastic joints on them. I’ve lost count of the broken ones I’ve encountered—cleaning up after each Overland Expo we always find a half-dozen of them in dumpsters, a criminal waste of the planet’s resources. Look at the brilliant (and handsome), made in the U.S. Kermit Chair, which can be carried on a motorcycle or transformed into a full-size chair, the fine GCI Pico, or the bulkier but sturdy Picnic Time Sport Chair with its built-in cocktail table.

Coffee mug: Motorcycling or bicycling? Go for that Snow Peak titanium model. Driving a truck? If you spent more than $10 you’re just showing off.

Stove: $12.50. Mug: $45

Stove: $12.50. Mug: $45