Outdoor gear is effing expensive. There’s almost no getting around it. Well, almost. Fear not, my fellow sticker-shocked outdoors beginners – there are ways to save some cash while gearing up.
First, a word on getting ALL THE STUFF
If you want to go on a hike for an hour or two, you do need to be prepared. You do not need Fancy Shmancy Gear. Do your homework on what the trail is like, bring some water, don’t wear flip-flops, be careful. But other than that, you probably already have everything you need to go hiking. I hike with my normal, non-hiking backpack all the time. I wear cotton t-shirts hiking and it doesn’t kill me.
There are other outdoor activities where it’s a little harder to get by without gear, like camping. So if you’ve decided you do need some gear, but don’t want to break the bank, you have options besides buying everything new (obviously the most expensive way to do it).
Deciding when to splurge and when to save
Always *try* the cheaper brand. More generic brands like REI’s Co-op brand continue to get better and better, and REI most often has sales and coupons for its own brand. I have their knock-off of the Patagonia Nanopuff and see no difference between it and my husband’s actual Patagonia. My running shirts from Target are my favorite ones, and I paid $12 for each of them.
Decide what features are non-negotiable to you. Patagonia and SmartWool will always have cooler colors and designs and more features. There will always be a fancier model. But if you aren’t camping in extreme conditions, or doing a higher-risk activity like rock climbing, you can probably get by with a less expensive brand.
One argument for a name brand is that they can last longer, so they can become more cost-effective over time.
For example, Darn Tough socks are double the price of REI’s brand. But I wear them all the time, and after six years of use they are still in excellent condition, so I haven’t bought hiking socks in six years.
On the other hand, my husband went for the way-cheaper REI sleeping pad for an upcoming backpacking trip because he’s just dipping his toe in the backpacking waters.
If you’ve tried the less expensive brand and it doesn’t fit as well, doesn’t have features you’ve decided are non-negotiable, or if reviews clearly show it’s not as long-lasting, it can be time to splurge. And, if you’re in time crunch and can’t wait for a sale, you may have to pony up.
BUT if you can play the long game, you may not have to pay full price.
Buy last year’s model
Trail running shoes are a splurge for me. I have found the ones I like, and I only run in those (Brooks Cascadia if you’re curious). I bought a pair for full price at the beginning of the year, but I also know that I will only run in these shoes for the foreseeable future. So I check for sales regularly.
Low and behold, Brooks has come out with the Cascadia 15 and is now dumping all the 14s. I love the 14s, so I kept watching the price until I saw them at REI for 50% off this month. I don’t need another pair yet, but it’s rare to find this good of a deal, so I snag them and they can live in my basement until I need them. (I personally haven’t experience a degradation in materials like some shoe snobs claim happens over time.)
Wait for sales and discounts
I know everyone needs another email newsletter like they need a hole in the head, but it’s a great way to get free shipping and first dibs on sales items.
Retroactive price checks
Even if you’ve already bought your item, keep an eye on what goes on sale. If something you bought goes on sales within 14 days, you can get a refund at REI for the price difference. I’ve retroactively saved between 20-30% on items I paid full price for just by flipping through the sale catalog that came to my house. Other brands may have similar policies.
Online flash sales
For those of you that have a penchant for flash deals, I highly recommend you check out Steep and Cheap. It’s a flash sale site specifically for outdoor gear. Unlike many mainstream flash sale sites (I’m looking at you, Zulily), you can return any product you get on Steep and Cheap within 30 days, no questions asked.
Places that aren’t REI
Backcountry is an online site that has full price gear, but also has great sales. They also have a pretty robust influencer marketing program, so almost any ~outdoor influencer~ on Instagram will have a discount code for your first purchase (my personal favorite is @themirnavator).
MooseJaw is another online option with killer sales.
Buy second-hand or used gear
This option has the added benefit of being earth-friendly since you are recycling and reusing gear! It’s most helpful if you know exactly what you’re looking for, otherwise it can get a little overwhelming to peruse shops and online forums.
Right now it’s harder to shop in person thanks to coronavirus. There’s a local shop in Denver called Wilderness Exchange that I highly recommend for normal times (I’m personally not comfortable shopping indoors at the time of writing this, so I can’t in good faith tell you to do that).
A quick Google search can tell you whether you have a used gear shop near you, and many shops have pivoted to online sales to make it through coronavirus.
Navigating the Interwebs
The Internet has made it infinitely easier to find used gear. Poshmark (for clothes), Facebook, and good ol’ Ebay and Craigs List can be treasure troves of used gear.
Facebook Groups and Marketplace
Groups such as Patagonia B/S/T on Facebook are helpful to peruse regularly even if you don’t have your eye on something specific. You can also search the group for an item you want. I bought a hat there for Baby OB that was in great condition and was half price!
I also see posts all the time for giveaways/used gear in my local moms group and the huge trail running women group I’m part of. You can also find new gear at a discount. A lot of people would rather resell something online then deal with the rigamarole of returns. I don’t personally understand this, but I will happily benefit from it. Don’t forget to search Facebook Marketplace, too!
I also recently found @isellaoutdoor consigment on Instagram. Isella is specifically working to combat this toxic culture of “have all the nicest best new things or get made fun of,” which I LOVE. They are based in Washington state but will ship anywhere in the U.S. All buyers and sellers are welcome!
REI Used Gear
REI recently created a used gear site where you can find second-hand camping and hiking gear, along with clothes and shoes. By the time you add shipping, sometimes the deals aren’t all that great compared to what you can get a new item on sale for. But if buying secondhand is really important to you values-wise, this is another option.
WildKind is a new, membership-based website for information about getting outside with kids. I think their $70/year membership is fairly priced for the library of information you get, but you also get discount codes for gear. WildKind also offers scholarships for free memberships if you’re unable to pay for one.
They also are launching WildKind closet, which is a free gear loaner library. Outdoor Beginners with kiddos can find out more here.
Is an REI Membership worth it?
If you’re already shopping a lot at REI, it can be worth it to become a member. It’s $20 for your lifetime, and you do make that back very easily in your annual dividend.
However, there are a lot of exemptions, so I don’t think it’s quite as necessary as I used to. For example, you don’t earn a dividend for anything on sale. And I buy 90% of my stuff on sale, so in the last few years my dividend has been less than $10. There’s also exemptions for a lot of expensive items, so my splurges (like a running stroller and a new North Face jacket) didn’t count toward the dividend either.
That said, you get more codes for sales as a member, so it probably evens out.
You also get discounts on gear rentals, ski and bike repair, and REI trips and training classes. The benefit of this also depends on your local resources. In Denver, there are tons of local shops with gear rentals often half the price of REI (or at least cheaper than the member discount). That hasn’t been the case with bike repairs and cleaning, so I have benefited from that discount.
One member-specific benefit is the REI Garage Sale, which is currently suspended due to COVID-19.
But for normal times, everything at the garage sale has been used and returned, so it’s all heavily discounted. The key is going with specific items in mind and getting there early. The sale is just a giant room of stuff that’s loosely organized by category, so it’s easy to get distracted or overwhelmed. However, this is an investment in your time that you may just not be able (or willing) to make.
How to get cash back on full-price purchases
If you’re going to be paying full price, consider an Active Junky account, which is a free way to earn cash back on your purchase. They have hundreds of partners, including Cabela’s, REI, Nike, and a bunch of other big brands. The percentage you get back varies with the brand, but since it’s completely free there’s no reason not to try it out. There are no hidden fees and it’s free forever!
The Bottom Line
Even generic brands aren’t all that cheap. Outdoor gear involves an investment, but fortunately more options are emerging for used and loaner gear. Even if you aren’t investing as much money, time is involved in watching for deals and discounts. There’s no way around it.
Get out there in what you have. You can wear jeans hiking if you want to. You can wear whatever you have in your closet for a few hours (or less), no matter what Instagram says. Rent what you don’t have instead of buying everything new. Just get out there and try it!