I need a new …. (fill in the blank) and want it to be light, comfortable, functional, cheap and make me look very cool – which outdoors brand is best to get it from? I have this inner debate roughly 3-4 times day (I am a gear head) and in recent years, finding a good answer has become harder and harder. It was much clearer five to ten years ago: you had huge outdoor brands that made everything, medium-sized companies that were more technical, small outdoor brands that were a novelty/local/very specific and the cottage industry companies. Over the last decade there have been some huge changes in the market: lightweight and ultralight gear is no longer part of the cottage industry and speciality brands, but bigger and even huge brands develop light, functional and many times cheaper ultralight and technical gear. At the same time, smaller outdoor brands have been growing, making them less cottage industry and more mainstream.
So back to that dilemma – which outdoor brand should I get my next piece of gear from? I think that really depends on what you are after, and your priorities are. Personally I have learned that I have no brand loyalty but I will pick any item that hits the right functional-technical-light-reasonably priced (usually discounted) balance. With clothing and footwear I might add the need to fit me, as fit is a more personal thing. So to make it easier, here are the main gear categories and where I’m looking these days when buying new gear – the type of outdoor brands and some examples.
Backpacks are one of those items that every newbie to hiking will buy and the recommendation will always be: big volume, sturdy suspension, lots of pockets and a very well known outdoor brand. Companies that have dominated the markets for years are (just to name a few): Osprey, Deuter, Gregory, Lowe Alpine and many more. These backpack giants do make great gear, it is usually robust, sleek and functional, but it is also heavy, cumbersome and expensive. When it comes to backpacks I believe that the best solutions (bar some great special ones, like my Haglofs Gram Comp) are found with the speciality small brands and cottage industry companies.
As we upgrade and get lighter/ultralight as backpackers, the need to carry heavy loads and big volume is eliminated and our needs prioritize backpacks that are robust, simple and light, almost minimalist in style. The best packs in this style can be found with the smaller pack makers and those have thrived in the USA specifically. Companies like Gossamer Gear, Six Moon Designs , ULA and many more have been offering amazing packs that are light, minimalist and made for the thru hiker. For many Europeans this also comes in the form of running and racing companies making the right kind of packs like OMM and Invo-8.
The tricky bit comes when looking at what the “make it all” outdoor brands are offering now: as lightweight hiking, climbing and mountaineering became more mainstream, so did the products offered to those markets by the more technical companies. Big and Medium sized companies offer great light and simple packs that will feel slightly better to the less savvy hiker in terms of reputation. In this category are Marmot’s Compressor series, Exped’s packs, Montane’s packs and even The North Face’s Summit Series Alpine pack (!!).
Everyone wants to take a turn in the lightweight market and that means we can still get great packs at an excellent price, though I would rather to spend some extra and get my pack just right, which is what I ended up doing with Elemental Horizon – a classic American cottage industry sized brand.
Sleeping gear can be broken down to two main components: sleeping bags and sleeping mats. When it comes to sleeping mats it is almost impossible to find anything besides the handful of big brands like Thermarest, Exped, Big Agnes and Sea to Summit. Most big companies like Jack Wolfskin, Vaude, Kelty etc will have their version of a sleeping mat, but the cottage industry never actually got a foothold here. It seems that there is very little to innovate here and there are pretty big manufacturing costs that keep new companies from entering the market. The good side of this situation is that you usually get a solid product from a known and reliable outdoor brand with good customer service. The down side is that prices are high and to get a good sleeping mat you will need to put in the money, no way around it.
Sleeping bags are a different story from mats: here you have a huge selection, almost too big. Just as with backpacks, most of the big technical companies offer excellent sleeping bags. This includes, well, every outdoor brand I can think of from Patagonia to Rab and Jack Wolfskin, they all have sleeping bags on offer. You can pick up very decent, pretty light down sleeping bags from these companies, but they tend to be pricey and there is always the question of how ethically sourced the down is, etc. For really nice sleeping bags (and quilts), the cottage industry is doing it best, offering the lightest, most specifically made and special items. Companies like PHD (which I’m a big fan of), Feathered Friends and Enlightened Equipment (on my next-to-buy list) make amazing sleeping bags and quilts, handmade and offer a really one-on-one customer service.
For the serious gear heads, thru hikers and ultralight backpackers, getting sleeping bags from a cottage industry outdoor brand is really the only way forward – you get to have a bag that is practically customised and truly light.
Shelters exist in a very frustrating and confusing grey zone where price for shelters is pretty much equal between all companies, only varying according to the specs. Shelters are made by every single outdoor brand (of the ones that make all gear types) that I know of and many of them are great, if not superb. You can now easily find one person shelters that weigh less than 3 lbs from most companies, ones that you know and trust as well as new ones. Recently the lines have gotten even more blurred, with Andrew Skurka advising Sierra Designs in gear production, resulting in a shelter made by a big company that is very much aimed at the lightweight thru-hiker.
Until not long ago, a serious backpacker only got a shelter from a speciality cottage brand such as Tarptent, Hyperlight Mountain Gear, Six Moon Designs and ZPacks; you can now get similar tents by most of the technical outdoor brands. This, more than anything in the outdoors industry, shows how much thru-hiking and ultralight backpacking have been growing and moving into the mainstream.
I’m afraid that at this point there is not really a clear answer to which company you should go for to get your next shelter, but do remember that smaller brands tend to do more vigorous testing before releasing a product and costumer service in those companies tends to be better. I personally would rather support the smaller companies, so my next shelter will probably come from Traptent if can justify buying yet another shelter. On the other hand, for our next family camping shelter, I would love to put my hands on a Big Agnes Wyoming Trail 4 as it does exactly what I want a family tent to do.
When it comes to water containers pick any one you want, just don’t be surprised when you get leaks. The more important aspect of hydration is filtering, and here there is a clear answer – get yours from a known company in the market and don’t experiment with unknown brands. The cost of a good filter is low ($15-30) and the development costs to make a good filter are high, so barriers to entry into the market are high. If you see an unknown filter at a low price, there is a good chance the quality of filtering is dubious. Remember that water that hasn’t been filtered properly can cause stomach issues or even lead to life threatening disease. I use the Sawyer Mini but have used Lifestraw and MSR filters, and all have been great.
If the cooking equipment is gas based, I stick with the main companies in the market (who are medium size outdoor brands usually) like MSR, Primus, Soto, Kovea, Optimus and the like. Gas can easily leak and cause injuries, so even if big companies try and offer gas stoves, I avoid them; they might be able to pay if sued after an explosion, but I would rather avoid the injuries.
Alcohol and solid fuel, on the other hand, seem to only exist in the small, niche, cottage or homemade industry. The only big company I can think of that makes alcohol stoves is Tarangia. I use homemade stoves or a stove made by a tiny British Company (Speedster Backpacking Products) and an excellent wind shield by a tiny American company (Trail Designs).
Clothing is very much a personal matter of taste and fit, but I prefer to go for the medium to mid sized technical outdoors brands. The clothes are usually a bit pricier than other options, but usually you get what you are paying for: a better product. I specifically go for the technical companies like Arc’teryx, Mountain Equipment and the like because they tend to have a more athletic fit that works better for me.
There aren’t many small technical outdoor brands in the market but it seems that most small brands are a bit too cool and stylish for me, I have no need to pay for a “look”. There are, of course, exceptions and they can be found with companies like Melanzana from Colorado that makes garments from Polartec fabrics only, or Jottnar from the UK.
Either way with clothing, it needs to be comfortable and work for you, just make sure you carry the right kit and not too much or the wrong items.
I have had a love-hate relationship with outdoor footwear all my life and have checked many brands over the years, from the big to the obscure and hand made – and it all boils down to fit. There are handmade hiking boots on the market and you can get speciality boots in a few widths, but by now you should have dumped the boots and gone for trail shoes so this whole conversation is futile.
When you get your shoes, it is the only time I’d recommend going to a store, trying a few options and buying them there; give the nice friendly sales assistant the commission instead of saving 10% online, support the stores. Try a few options, and then try again. I prefer to use shoes made by companies that make footwear specifically for trail activities when it comes to hiking shoes. So far I have had tried Salomon (huge company), Altra (mid size American company), Inov8 (British company that has been growing steadily), Vibram FiveFingers, Merrell, Lunas and a few more I can’t remember. I have yet to find a pair of shoes I really love from any of those companies, so I’ll keep on looking, and so should you.
One point I’ll add is that I have some issues with footwear made by companies that make a whole range of items like North Face, Haglofs, Jack Wolfskin etc. I’m not sure why, but I want my shoes to be made by a company dedicated to do just that, finding the tricky balance that makes good shoes.
Which outdoor brand are you going to buy from next?
As I hope I have managed to show, which brand to buy from next depends on the item to be purchased – sometimes it is only from big and established brands, and sometimes it is only from tiny cottage companies. I do often like to experiment and if I get a good deal will try a brand I have never encountered, or even a big brand I have never tried, just to see how I feel about it.
With the availability of a strong second hand market for good outdoor gear, there are very few barriers to trying a brand you have never used before- both to buy to try and to sell if you don’t like it.
What about you? Any preferences?