Proof is in the performance -- not the price

Posted: Friday, May 09, 2003

The days are growing longer, the temperature is getting warmer, trees and flowers are starting to bud and bloom -- spring is in the air. It's a time when many people's thoughts turn to backpacking and camping in the great outdoors.

Whether you're a first time novice or a seasoned pro, you may need to do a little shopping in preparation for the adventures ahead. But outfitting yourself with gear doesn't mean you have to break the bank.

I learned a long time ago that discount equipment can stand up to the rigors of the wilds and perform just as good, if not better, than gear from L.L. Bean, REI, and all the rest of the big name, high-dollar stores.

Unfortunately, this was a lesson I learned the hard way a number of years ago, while doing some summer hiking down in Southern Appalachia.

My wife and I had decided to camp on the summit of Blood Mountain in North Georgia. We had intended to hike further, but my $200 Vasque boots had started to cause a blister in the heal, and one of my relatively new $100 trekking poles had broken a tip.

This angered me because the blister was caused by the breakdown of the inner lining which had all torn away. I attributed this flaw to poor manufacturing, not from overuse since the boots were less than six months old and had only been used on weekend hikes. But this was to be only the beginning.

My wife met a similar fate with her equally expensive boots when she went to tighten down the laces and several eyelets tore off. This was even more of a slap in her face because her boots were only two weeks old.

But we decided to focus on the positive and set up camp and started making dinner. Halfway through the meal, the weather turned on us faster than a jilted lover.

Big, dark, ugly clouds formed out of nowhere and it proceeded to pour. We were tired and there wasn't much else to do besides sleep away the storm, so we nodded off to the deafening "krak-kow" of thunder and bursts of white lightning.

Not too long after falling asleep I awoke to a squishing sound and an uncomfortable feeling. I shot upright and grabbed the foot of my $200 "water resistant" sleeping bag -- sopping wet.

I turned on my head lamp to the horror of seeing everything inside my $400 North Face tent was soaked. The seams were leaking like a sieve.

As I sat there floating in the deep water on my $75 self-inflating sleeping pad, I felt like a kid on a raft at the community pool.

It was then and there, surrounded by my over-priced, cutting edge, saturated gear, that I decided it was time for a change.

You can spend plenty of money on outdoor gear, but you don't have to. There's plenty of low-cost gear to be found at bargain stores or just by shopping around. When it comes to camping gear, think function over fashion. Don't be sold on all the fancy bells and whistles, just get what you need.

Food is the first place to begin slashing costs. Sure you can buy the expensive, name-brand meals in their elaborately decorated packages.

They've got practically anything you can think of now, and you could sit around the camp fire eating reconstituted pate de fois gras if you wanted to, but come on -- you're camping, not dining at a French bistro!

You can save bundles buy buying in bulk from wholesale stores. A lot of products, like trail mix, are much cheaper when packages of peanuts, raisins, etc. are purchased separately and then mixed at home. I like the freedom of having my own special concoction anyway.

Also, if you're an avid camper, you may think about buying your own dehydrator to dry out fruits, vegetables, and other foods. It will save you bundles in the long run. I dehydrate everything from chili to spaghetti sauce.

Clothing is another area you can cut costs. I've found a lot of sportswear, performs just as well as the camping wear, and lasts twice as long. In fact, it's been my experience that a lot of name-brand outdoor wear on the market is inferiorly made.

Of course, I'm by no means implying you should trade polypropylene for cotton, but it's been my experience that the $8 polyester long johns from Wal-Mart, insulate and perform just as well as the $120 capilene long johns from REI.

As for boots, again Wal-Mart comes through. Their hiking boots offer the same support, stability, and tread, with a comparable weight to name-brand boots, but for a fraction of the price. The Wal-Mart boots have also proven to be more durable.

Now, I don't want to give the wrong impression that I think ALL name-brand gear is bad, because there are some excellent products on the market. But even many of these can be found at a lower cost if you're willing to shop around a little.

Several of the big stores have outlets where bargains abound. They sell irregulars and seconds. I've found clothes in outlets with no flaws to their manufacturing other than the logo was on backwards. To me that's still a dependable article of clothing.

These stores also frequently have discounted items due to overstocking, or as is often the case, a newer model has come out. However, last year's model is frequently no less efficient.

When it comes to shopping for camping gear, I keep the same ethos that I applied to food and clothing. Many reliable items can be found in outlet stores. Again, if you only go car camping a few times a year, you don't need the ultra light, ultra strong, titanium cookware. It's just overkill. A cheap cook set will get the job done just as well.

A recent trend in camping has also been to build your own stoves out of household items like tuna cans. This can really save you a bundle, and there are numerous Web sites on the subject to get you started.

I only have one Nalgene bottle that I use for hot liquids, otherwise I just reuse plastic soda bottles for carrying water. It's crazy to pay $14 for an empty Nalgene, when you can pay a buck and get an equivalent container, plus the added bonus of soda too.

My Wal-Mart tent, although a little heavier than my North Face, has proven to be just as functional and sturdy even in bad storms, but has also been considerably more waterproof.

Now, I know this system of going cheap isn't for everyone, but it doesn't cost much to give it a try. You can often buy all of the camping gear you need from Wal-Mart or other discount department stores for less than you would spend just buying one name-brand tent.

This also has the added advantages of teaching novices just what you really need without sinking a bunch of money into a product, just to find out camping's really not your thing.

In closing, I should point out that I'm no shill for Wal-Mart, despite what it sounds like. I speak only from experience, some of which includes having successfully completed all 2,168 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Although it may not be everyone's cup of tea, going cheap has worked just fine for me.

This column is the opinion of Peninsula Clarion reporter Joseph Robertia. Comments can be e-mailed to

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