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Determining Cost vs. Use When Buying Gear

determining cost vs use when buying gear

Last month we talked about what happens when gear goes wrong, breaking and failing you while traveling. If you’re planning on making a big purchase before you go on a trip, you should do a bit of research beforehand on the product and its warranty or guarantee. And, you should also examine how much you will actually use it, whether it be a backpack, electronics or technical clothing. This way you don’t end up with expensive gear you don’t need or will never use again.

determining cost vs use when buying gear

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What Do You Really Need?

If you’re taking a big trip, you might think it’s a good idea to invest in a specific product, like a backpack for your summer in Europe or safari clothing for a trip to Africa. It’s easy to talk yourself into a specific product because of what you’ve heard from others’ trips, but you need to be realistic.

When it comes to purchasing a backpack, for example, you first must know your trip style. I’ve also known many people to buy a backpack for study abroad and then never use it again afterwards. If you won’t use it again, and it isn’t crucial to your travel style, find an alternative that better suits you. There’s no rule that says you can’t carry a suitcase and still be a “backpacker.”

In terms of clothing, many travelers purchase specific technical clothing that may function well in certain environments, but will only be worn for a few days on a short trip because it’s not cute enough to wear in real life. I own a pair of hiking pants that I may have worn once, but at the time was convinced I would use them on one of my trips. The same goes for shoes like hiking boots that are bought for a trip through the Grand Canyon, but gather dust in your closet once you get home.

In both cases, it is important to assess whether alternatives can sufficiently serve the shorter purpose of a trip and then also serve other purposes after. Instead of hiking pants, maybe some comfortable yoga pants or exercise pants would be a better pick.

How Much Will You Use It?

It goes without saying that if you’ll use the item often, that high quality gear is going to be well worth the cost. For example, Brooke’s $130 Icebreaker jacket was a big expense before her 3.5 month trip a couple year’s back, but she ended up wearing said jacket about 75% of those trip days, and continued to wear it for an entire year after since the quality allowed her to do so. The cost per wear was significantly decreased.

The same goes for an item like Encircled’s Chrysalis Cardi. While high in price, the fact it can be worn as several items without being the same every day means the cost per wear is reduced.

The Value of a Use

Electronics and other gear like sleep sacks are also purchased beforehand, but typically get ditched once you’re home. However, when it comes to some items, like a bug net for a week in malaria-infested zones, or a high-tech down coat for a week on a sled in Lapland, they are pretty much worth their weight in gold.

Even if an item won’t be used to a great extent, you have to consider the negative impact of not having the right gear, or quality gear, for a specific activity. No good hiking boots while taking on the Annapurna Circuit? Your feet may just hate you.

Alternatives to Buying

Instead of buying in advance, there’s always the option of picking up something when you arrive at your destination, which may end up being cheaper. You may even find items for free at donation bins at hostels or campgrounds. Also ask friends and family if they have an item you can borrow instead of buying your own.

Or, you can take items you currently own – and that might also be nearing their life cycle with you – and then toss them on the road. I recently spent time traveling in Australia and Asia, but packed older jeans for Melbourne that I was able to ditch later. I was certainly glad to have packed them, especially since it was cold, but I knew I wouldn’t need them again. I didn’t want to invest in anything expensive just to have them dragged around unworn for two months.

When is expensive gear necessary?

If you’ve determined that you’re going to buy some gear, but may not use it much afterwards, look for bargains on outlets like The Clymb or REI Outlet*, which sell the same gear for much cheaper (but without your choices in colors and the ability to try on beforehand). These items may not be subject to returns or warranty.

However, if you’re looking for an investment piece of luggage or clothing, you’ll have better luck to spend more money and not have to replace it right after your trip.

The key word is investment– because that’s what good gear is.

I’ve found that if I buy something from a name brand that I know has a quality return policy, like REI or PacSafe, I don’t have trouble with it like I might when choosing the cheapest bag available.

Written by Caroline

Caroline Eubanks is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, but has also called Charleston, South Carolina and Sydney, Australia home. After college graduation and a series of useless part-time jobs, she went to Australia for a working holiday. In that time, she worked as a bartender, bungee jumped, scuba dived, pet kangaroos, held koalas and drank hundreds of cups of tea. You can find Caroline at Caroline in the City.

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Reader Interactions


  1. Angela Stalans says

    Great article! I’ve just retired and will be traveling extensively. My first purchase was a good quality carryon, since I’ll be carryon only, and an excellent pair of walking shoes. I have everything else in my closet.
    Happy travels.

    • Mary says

      “Shopping your closet” is such a great idea. We often already have almost everything we need.

      I also like re-evaluating after a short trip vs buying everything before I travel. It keeps me from buying stuff that I won’t really use.

  2. Xenia says

    I also like to go through storage – whether it’s in boxes at home, a storage locker or in your parents’ attic – and see what comes up. A t shirt you forgot you had, a jacket you hated the colour of ten years ago but now you don’t mind it, or long johns your mum bought years ago and stashed away. Even a bedspread that looks awesome but in a single bed size – if you’ve learned to sew as an adult, it’s a new sarong/beach bag/homemade buff!

    I call it “free shopping” – there’s almost always something you can use!

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