Now winter has properly arrived it is time to settle into winter mode. For some — notably those North of the Boarder — this a time of excitement, of playing in snow and doing all kinds of strange things like building igloos. Probably — if I lived that far North — I would be joining in the fun but the costs of Scottish jaunts are best left to the warmer months when there is a lot of time in the day. Meanwhile, I shall content myself with rambles on my more local hills and with a new, winter project.
Let me set down the basis for the Bargain Gear project. I want to be looking at affordable (or more affordable) options for those who silly are not in the position to go mad with gear. While the economy in the South East may be picking up life for the rest of us remains extremely challenging and even precarious. Nevertheless, in looking for affordable gear choices I want to continue to focus on the principles that this blog has always adhered to. In this new series I shall still be looking for:
- Lightweight gear;
- Performance gear that does a good job;
- Affordability and availability.
Bargain gear does not have to mean that we give up our quest to use lighter gear. After all, no matter how much your gear costs, the principles are the same. The less weight you carry onto the hills the more fun you will have and the more freedom you will experience. Thankfully, affordable gear does not automatically mean heavier gear. It is also worth remembering that the whole lightweight movement was originally about affordable gear as well. Niche producers continue to innovate with design and materials an this id achieved at a price, however, they often still have very affordable kit in their product range.
Obviously, if we are walking on exposed hills in all kinds of weather we want protection and gear that performs well. I’m aware that some of the discount supermarkets can occasionally produce dramatically cheap products —I’m thinking about the Lidls and Aldis of this world. We will take a look at this stuff when appropriate but in the main I am still going to be considering mainstream gear. There’s not much avoiding reality here; building up a collection of functional gear does cost money.
Affordability and Availability
This principle is pretty self-explanatory. However, I have found over the years that even some of our online specialist retailers aren’t beyond advertising gear that never seems to be available for order!
Thankfully the improvement curve for fabrics is a very gentle one and progress comes in a series of mall iterations rather than in big, bang, change. A fabric might fall out of fashion and might not be the latest thing, but it can still perform very well — and performance is ultimately what it is all about. At the leading edge the economics of the industry can seem weird to say the least. As I wrote in my first piece we now seem to have two prices factored in to new gear items, the initial sale price and the discount price after six months or so. Charles Ross — who knows the fabric industry as well as anyone — also pointed out that the payback period for new gear is amazingly short, at most 10 weeks but more normally 6 to 8 weeks! We might see this as industry madness and, perhaps, we might all be better off for exempting ourselves from these games.
Let’s consider the case of some new fabrics against old.
The fabric that has caught the imagination of the press most in the last 18 months or so has been Polartec’s NeoShell. This is undoubtably a good product but the fascination for this is not what you might think.
One of the reasons we are hearing so much about NeoShell is that it might represent the first significant challenger to Gore Tex. Gore Tex protect their market fiercely. Manufactures who wish to use another fabric can find themselves frozen out; such is the public awareness of the Gore Tex brand that it is a brave company that can afford to ignore it completely. Outdoor Magazine has written authoritatively and bravely about the Gore Tex question (see article here). Much of the excitement about NeoShell is about Polartec — a huge industry giant — being big enough to take on Gore Tex. You won’t find this written about in gear reviews but take it for me this is the real story.
NeoShell is by all accounts a high performing fabric. But it is expensive and is not particularly lightweight. Does it perform any better than say eVent? Probably not. Where it score is in cleaning. eVent needs to be kept relatively clean to work at maximum efficiency and by all accounts a dirty NeoShell jacket performs more effectively. Maybe this is a problem for long distance backpackers but it is probably not a problem for 90% of us. So long as we keep our eVent jackets moderately clean they will perform just as well.
This is good news as eVent’s strategy involves allowing manufactures to use the fabric without branding it as eVent; as a result it is beginning to crop up everywhere. For example, the Mountain Hardware Blazer pullover was shortlisted for this year’s TGO Awards and has received good write-ups in the press. Mountain Hardware talk about a new ‘face’ fabric ‘Ghost Whisperer’ and DRY Q Elite technology — eVent to you and me.
Beyond eVent there are a number of other fabrics that work well though maybe not quite as effectively as others, but good venting or even opening the main zip might give you all the ventilation you need as you climb hard.
The point is simple. We do not need the latest material to experience high performance and light pack weight at a more affordable price.
Brands such as Rab focus on leading edge design and as such are always going to be expensive. If you want the latest thing then they will often deliver. But some of our less sexy brands can also provide great performance at a decent weight.
Berghaus are not often thought of as leading edge but maybe that doesn’t matter. They can produce great goods. I regular use their Pac Lite waterproof trousers — very light, very breathable, tough and properly waterproof. Do I really need anything else?
Karrimor is another name to conjure with. This once proud UK company is now firmly in the volume market and are easily overlooked. I predict that Karrimor will feature prominently in this campaign and might surprise one or two of you. To give one example, when I was looking for new basic trousers last year I found very little that was any better but a hell of lot that was much more expensive. If you are new a Field and Trek discount store check them out.
Own brand stores are also worth taking seriously, not least because these offer a full range of products something seldom found in specialist stores or online. I’ve written a few times recently about Jack Wolfskin a company that has a ‘fashion brand’ reputation. But JW is a European giant which now has the resources to develop its line and their lightweight gear is always worth looking at. Similarly, North Face stores are often great sources of gear — maybe not the most fashionable but you can always find a garment to do the job. If you have one of these own brand stores close by you will know that they often offer great sales and discount value.
There are lighter weight options everywhere at a good price. Sometimes we might have to compromise in terms of ultimate performance but int he real world this might not mean much. Take titanium cooking gear for example. You can spend a fortune on this but if you want lightweight and affordable gear that can last a lifetime you could do worse than seriously consider Vargo’s range. The Triad alcohol stoves weigh virtually nothing and cost less than £30. A Triad meths stove and simple windshield offers all the performance you need — you won’t suffer much discomfort in opting for one of these over, say, a Jetboil.
Shelters are also going to feature here I guess. A cheaper shelter might cost you a few more grams but you can still find yourself carrying less weight even if you haven’t broken the bank. But you may not have to pay a weight premium. Some specialist producers offer great value — you might have to order from overseas but even allowing for import duties you can find real performance at a good price. And the same is true for backpacks.
So, that underlines some of the philosophy. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop rambling on about cuben fibre and the like or about esoteric and hard to find gear. But there is a challenge here to find great gear at decent prices.
We’ve already heard from Webtogs who have provided some recommendations. Other online retailers tell me they are preparing some stuff for me. But, I’m interested in recommendations from you folks!
I shall start with waterproof jackets. Just give me a little time to do the research!