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Good investment or an elitist ripoff: Is expensive winter gear worth the money?

You get what you pay for, right? What about with winter gear, though?

Outdoor clothing. It’s expensive, right? While there will always be those who tout adages like “you get what you pay for” and “buy cheap, buy twice,” there’s no getting around the fact that when faced with a $500 price tag for a Gore-Tex waterproof jacket, you’d be forgiven for thinking the outdoors has become a playground for the elite. Outdoor gear has become increasingly, perhaps prohibitively, expensive, and nowhere is that more apparent than in winter gear.

The world of winter sports — most notably, skiing — continues to fight against the ingrained perception that it’s non-inclusive. These sports want to be inclusive, but when big brands push such non-inclusive price tags that threaten to wipe out your monthly wages on a single item, it often feels as though not everybody is on board with this plan.

Is the price tag justified? After all, outdoor gear has always been pricey, and there are always cheaper options on hand if you don’t want to splash the cash. Well, having worn outdoor gear from either end of the scale and just about everything in between, I’m going to dive into this controversial topic feet first.

Man sitting in a chair on a snowy slope.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Do you get what you pay for with outdoor gear?

This is no easy place to start this piece, but in the interest of getting it out the way straight away, yes, you do. This is a tentative yes, not an outright certainty, and there are two major caveats I also want to address early.

Firstly, this is a sweeping generalization of outdoor clothing and winter gear, and there are plenty of items that don’t justify their price tag, along with plenty that would justify a much higher price. Secondly, just because you get what you pay for doesn’t mean you have to spend big to take part; remember that top-end outdoor clothing is generally designed for technical sports, not everyday hikers.

View from behind of a skier looking out at a mountain range in the distance.
Oziel Gomez

Why are companies like Arc’Teryx and Patagonia so expensive?

When you mention expensive outdoor clothing, certain companies always crop up. In the same forum thread, these companies will be revered for their excellent gear by some while also being demonized by others for their expensive snow pants leaking on day one. What most people can’t understand is how these companies justify their price tags while other, seemingly “similar quality” items are available on mass market websites that line the pockets of billionaires. You know what we’re talking about.

I can see both sides of this debate, but as far as justification goes, there are some generalizations we can look at. Companies with the highest price tags tend to be at the forefront of outdoor research and initiatives. Whether these are environmental goals like Arc’Teryx’s ReBird initiative, Haglofs working to reduce emissions and generate clean energy, or Patagonia making the earth a shareholder, or staying ahead of technical research, these initiatives need to be funded. Then there are factors like reliability, longevity, and an attempt to avoid the “fast fashion” craze, which means that companies have to put a high price tag on their items because they’re not deliberately building in obsolescence like your latest smartphone.

Man packing a duffel bag in the snow
Shutterstock / by africa_pink

What are the benefits of expensive outdoor gear?

Other than knowing you’re most likely funding environmental projects and not lining the pockets of unscrupulous billionaires, are there benefits of outdoor and winter gear that can tempt you into saving up for that pricey new insulated jacket? Well, as I mentioned before, I’ve worn gear from the bargain bucket — and lost and found, but that’s a different matter — all the way to wince-inducing, close-your-eyes-as-you-pay prices. While I can’t speak for everyone, these are what I’ve found to be the major differences.

  • More expensive gear is usually more comfortable. While it might be true that you can get a fleece for $20 or for more than $100, the more expensive option tends to have seams in places that don’t rub, the cut tends to be more athletic, it usually stretches more, and it moves with you and your layers rather than riding up as you hike.
  • Cheaper gear often doesn’t breathe as well. From outer shells to base layers, moisture management is key to comfort in every outdoor season. In winter, it stops you from freezing or getting dangerously cold. All outdoor clothing has its limits for what it can cope with, but expensive layers often include materials like Merino insulation or membranes like Gore-Tex, or the fleece grid may be laid out in a way that promotes breathability.
  • When I’m in a pinch, I know I can rely on my expensive gear in a way I never could on cheaper gear. Some people might argue this one, but when I’m sitting on that chairlift waiting out a snowstorm, I know I’ll be ready to ride at the top thanks to the gear I’m wearing.
  • In my experience, if you look after that outdoor gear that you save up for — washing sleeping bags, waterproofing your tent, that sort of thing — it will last. There are exceptions, as I said earlier, but in general, I’ve found that I get a lot more use out of expensive gear. If I worked out a dollar-to-day ratio, I probably come out on top.
Man sitting in a tent and looking out at a snowy forest.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Do you need to spend big to experience the great outdoors?

No. I can see that confused look on your face even from here because this goes against everything I’ve just said, but the expensive outdoor gear isn’t a must-have to get outside. Think about the first time you went skiing. It was probably a bluebird day, and you didn’t need to wear a $500 jacket and matching snow pants to hit the bunny slope, did you? The same can be said for hitting the trail in the summer or heading out camping. Expensive gear is usually made for a technical market — big mountain skiers, thru-hikers hitting the trail for months at a time, and mountaineers. You probably don’t need the same jacket designed for summiting K2 to hit your local resort for a sunny afternoon.

If you want to, though, you can. If your affordable layers work for you, then I say go for it. Just remember that they most likely have technical limitations if you choose to push your boundaries. If you want more technical gear without the price tag, plenty of companies are recycling perfectly good outdoor clothing donated by kit hoarders just like me who want to see their jackets hit the dirt rather than just collect dust at the back of a closet.

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Tom Kilpatrick
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