That New Piece of Gear is Calling Your Name. Should You Listen?
Outdoor gear is constantly improving, but is that reason alone to upgrade?
There are two main camps of people when it comes to gear: Folks wearing puffy jackets covered in duct-tape patches who see buying new equipment as a moral failing and those people who consider seasonal gear guides as holy scriptures on the level of the Bible or Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and want the latest and greatest of everything.
I’ve written dozens of gear reviews over the years, so I know the allure of fancy new equipment. But I’m also a freelance writer, which means I don’t have a lot of disposable income. I also tend to form emotional attachments to my gear. I absolutely loved an old-school Hillary car-camping tent that my dad gave me years ago; when it finally gave out, I’d wager it had more patches than the original nylon. It broke my heart to let it go, but its replacement takes less than a third of the time to erect and doesn’t fill like a bathtub when it rains.
So how should you decide when it’s time to purchase a new pair of hiking boots or that fancy 4K drone? I have a bit of a mental checklist I try to follow every time I’m tempted by something shiny in REI or while absent-mindedly browsing Amazon:
How often do I use my current item? I spent a week researching new action cams earlier this year – reading article after article and watching hours of YouTube videos analyzing the top contenders’ picture quality. After deciding on the GoPro Hero 10, I was literally about to press the buy it now button when I thought to myself, “When was the last time I used my current Hero 6 camera?” I couldn’t even remember. Until I start using the one I currently own, I can’t justify paying $450 for a brand-new model.
Does my current piece of gear have an intended lifespan or is it broken? For the last several years, a pair of Adidas hiking boots has taken me through the woods of northern Michigan, over miles of Utah slickrock, and tumbling into multiple chilly North Carolina streams. (I’m very clumsy.) After years of heavy use, the tread was cracked and worn out in several places. Holes hadn’t yet begun to form, but it was just a matter of time. So I upgraded to a pair of Merrell Moab 2 Waterproof boots just last month. As much as I loved those Adidas boots, things wear out, particularly if you use them often. Although I want to wring ever last piece of life out of my gear, I also don’t want to wait until I’m fording a creek to realize my boots finally have holes.
Is there enough life in my old gear to either sell or donate it? Another reason I decided to upgrade to the Merrell boots now was there was still enough life in the Adidas pair to donate them. Hopefully they’ll introduce a new owner to the joys of nature.
Can I buy it used or on sale? REI sells locally returned gear in their stores and online (https://www.rei.com/used/shop). The items can be in rough shape at times – think small tears in pants or parts missing from a water-filtration kit – but I’ve scored some great deals in the past, including a carry-on bag that I’ve taken on almost every flight I’ve been on for the last five years. If you can sew on a button or attach a patch, it’s a great way to not only save money, but also keep perfectly serviceable items from being thrown away. Patagonia (https://wornwear.patagonia.com/) has a similar program, and you can even trade-in your used gear for price breaks on new items.
Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are also great places to score deals on items that were used once and then forgotten in the garage. GearTrade (https://www.geartrade.com/) is one of the most well-known national used-gear clearinghouses. I’m looking forward to checking out the Camping Tools Marketplace (https://www.camping.tools/marketplace) when it comes online later this year.
Is the new version significantly better (lighter, stronger, etc.) or easier to use? A couple of years ago, I upgraded my old Giant road bike to a disc-brake Trek Domane. I loved that Giant, but wanted better stopping power and the ability to use wider tires over a greater variety of terrain. It was a pricey upgrade, but one that was ultimately worth it.
My fellow outdoor writer Emily Stone is an admitted cheapskate, but when she finally splurged on nice hiking pants and a jacket with removeable sleeves for skiing and biking, she found that they added so much comfort on her adventures they were worth every penny.
How often will I use it? If not often, can I borrow it occasionally from a friend? If I’m trying out a new sport, I always try to borrow gear from a friend. Odds are, they’ll jump at the chance to not only let you borrow that fishing pole or canoe, but also show you how to properly use it. Afterward, if I know I want to pursue it seriously, I’ll look into purchasing my own.
Can I afford it? Unless it’s an emergency, I’m not a fan of paying for expensive gear on a credit card and having to make payments. When I want to buy, say that new Trek, I try to set aside money specifically for that purpose or, barring that, that we have enough money in the checking account to cover it.
A general rule to remember is never budget for the cheapest option. As my colleague Tim Mead says, “Buy cheap, buy twice. Once when you buy the cheap gear and once when you replace it with better gear.” I have lots of cycling clothes that I’ve been wearing for 10 years or more.
Will the new version allow me to enjoy nature more? If I don’t buy it, will it impact my enjoyment of my time in the woods? This, almost always, is no.
Why do I really want to upgrade? I nearly bought a new North Face jacket earlier this year, even though my current jacket, which I bought at Costco and is nearly identical, was in near-perfect condition. The North Face version was on sale, but the real reason I wanted it was the brand name. That wasn’t reason enough to buy it.