If you're new to adventure travel or an outdoor activity, sometimes you might wonder if you have to make a choice between getting what you need and putting your child through college or retiring before the age of 80. Unless you decide to become a dog musher with a kennel of 40 dogs or to climb Mt Everest on a guided climb, usually the answer is no. Here are some suggestions to help keep you solvent.
1. Focus on value rather than price. If you focus only on price, you might end up getting stuff that won't last long and not work well. For example, you can get cheap cotton sleeping bags at many discount stores (e.g. WalMart, K-Mart) but unless you're planning to go car camping, they are way too bulky, take forever to dry, and don't offer much warmth for the weight. Another example - 15 years ago I bought a synchilla pullover from Patagonia that I still wear today. Patagonia is pricey, and these days you can probably get a lot of basic clothing of the same quality elsewhere for a lower price, but Patagonia clothing is very durable. A corollary to both of these examples is that you have to know something about the gear you're buying to make good decisions. Sometimes you unnecessarily pay more simply because you're buying from a well known company, and sometimes it's the quality. So talk to salespeople and friends, and read magazines like Backpacker and Outside.
2. Don't always buy at outdoor stores. Last summer I bought a two burner Coleman stove for some of our base camp trips. At my big local outdoor store, it was $60. At my big local discount store (in this case it was Fleet Farm) it cost $45. This was a 25% difference for virtually the same product. For general camping equipment in particular, this is often true.
But having said that, if you have access to a locally owned outdoor store, you might choose to support it even if you're paying more. Like local bookstores, these are a dying breed. And while REI tries to be involved locally and have local expertise, they just aren't the same.
3. Don't wait until you need something to buy it. At the same time, don't buy something you don't really need. But if you wait until you absolutely have to have it (e.g. you don't have decent rain gear and the hiking trip leaves tomorrow) you undoubtedly will end up getting the first item you find, it won't be on sale, and you won't have time to order it. So buy summer items at the end of the summer when they're on sale. Keep a running list of things you want in your head, and then check sales for them. Check the bulletin board at climbing gyms, outdoor stores, Craigslist etc. for items that individuals are selling. This approach requires some discipline or you'll end up with too much that you don't need. But if you can avoid that temptation, you'll save money in the end.
4. Shop discount sites on the Internet. There are probably lots of sites out there, but ones that I visit are Sierra Trading Post, which carries a wide variety of seconds and closeouts from name brand companies and has a no hassle return policy; the Hot Deals section of Campmor; and the REI outlet. Again, it helps to know what you're looking for, and how to tell the difference between something that's a good value and something that is just cheap.
And the next time you wince at the price of something, keep it in perspective. Your sleeping bag will be the cost of staying in a fancy hotel for one night and will last for years. Your outdoor clothes are way cheaper than the latest fashions. And your tent is definitely less than a month's rent. In the long run, spending time in the outdoors and/or engaging in active travel will keep you and your pocketbook much healthier than many of the other addictions people have.