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How Important is quality clothing?

Hey guys, I'm pretty new to backcountry backpacking (went on my first trip in June).  I don't have any real athletic wear clothing and was wondering if it's worth buying some quality clothing or any old clothing with certain materials?  I know enough to stay away from cotton and that polyester and nylon are good materials and merino wool.  I will be using the clothing for shoulder seasons and summer in the great Canadian wilderness. Also, I don't have a lot of money.  I was looking at Columbia brand clothing because it seems to be on the cheaper side of quality, but I'd like some opinions.  Thanks.

There are some reasons to invest in better stuff such as durability and better performance, but there is no reason you can't do things on the cheap so long as you are smart about it. Sounds like you already understand the basic idea of what to look for; stuff that will dry quickly.

After that is just a matter of building layers appropriate for the weather including enough for conditions a tad worse than you expect if you are the "just in case" sort of person. I combine expensive wool layers with cheap synthetics purchased at Target or Goodwill. Whatever works is what works is how I see it.

So long as you are being safe I think it is better to get out there with crappy equipment than to sit on the couch at home. Cheaping out on stuff that will get you killed on the other hand is not a game I like to play.


Oh and welcome to Trailspace :)

Columbia is a fine brand, it's gotten a little commercial but they still make plenty of good gear that checks off technical spec needs.

Just don't equate "high quality" with "high price." For some technical specs that unfortunately is the case but much gear can give you the performance you need at a good price. For base layers and tops you can look to brands like Champion at Target -- it's cheap and does an effective job of moisture wicking and evaporation/drying. They don't have anti-odor qualities so you will stink as a trade-off for your savings. For outer layers you want certain levels of technical performance, such as being both water "proof" and breathable.

If you live in an outdoorsy city you can look in thrift shops, though personally I'd rather have a root canal. REI has a "garage" sale a few times a year with really good prices to liquidate returns and overstock. Several online retailers like,, Moosejaw,com, etc. carry multiple brands usually at lower prices and good sales. Subscribe to Massdrop as they constantly are getting merchandise for "drops" that often includes clothing.

I live in Canada, our prices are quite a bit higher than American prices :(

Welcome to Trailspace!

Look for off season deals...although I just picked up a pair of shorts in season while passing through Conway NH for $18 that usually retail around 50 or so. For quick drying fabrics, a lot of cheap options are available...I used free polyester shirts I get for coaching soccer as a go to item for years. I gradually replace my wardrobe with better items if quality can be improved but only buy in off season when prices are slashed.

Mitchell...often there is little difference between the fabrics used in outdoor clothing...and clothing is definitely where you should look to save money. Some proprietary fabrics are unique...but the difference can be so small to be unnoticeable...and I don't care what a fancy instrument tells me...if I cannot tell the difference I am not paying for it.

MEC is Canadian right?...I have been happy with everything I have purchased from can certainly find things cheaper look for the cheaper stuff in the running section of your local department store and use MEC to fill the voids in your base-layers + insulation + shells.

I would also suggest that you keep a little cotton in your closet (here comes some hate). Heat puts down more people than cold...and cotton can make for a much cooler time on the trail. I haven't found much of a use for heavy cotton fabric (though some suggest it has its uses too)...and cotton pants sound nightmarish...but a threadbare cotton button-up is a must have for me when the day temps are high...same for a cotton bandanna...they changed my summer-game forever (I think it goes without saying that you should have dry layers in your pack).

Go with what JR said about shells...I think WPBs are necessary in the shoulders...and definitely in the winter...but in warm summer temps just about anything that can keep cold rain off of you will save the WPB for when you need it and it actually works...because the DWR wears off of them fairly quickly and the replenishers never match the original.

Do not trade cost for comfort on your don't have to get the most fact don't look at price at all...just put your feet in them and make a decision by how they feel...if they don't feel amazing move on...because amazing shoes feel less so after a couple of big mile days. Protection at the front and sides of the foot are important is a good sole on the heel and the ball of the foot...but comfort is your first consideration...the rest you can manage.

it's worth having clothing that functions the way you need to be safe and comfortable. you don't have to buy 'high quality' outdoor clothing or gear to accomplish that.

i started hiking with my family when i was young. we kept it simple, not a lot of money spent on boots/clothing/gear, and we had a great experience. i can't add much to the advice above about looking for things on sale/clearance online. strategically, it's worth thinking about what you might need ahead of time and buy off-season.  Late enough that you can still find the down sweater you want (example) but not so late that last season's down sweaters aren't available. Lack of funds should not meaningfully impede your enjoyment of the outdoors, within reasonable limits; if you were considering winter hiking or technical climbing, you would have to make certain investments to do those things safely.

To me, 'quality' partially implies that the clothing or gear is going to stand up to normal wear and tear for a reasonable amount of time. One measure of that is the warranty offered by the manufacturer. Another might be user experience - for example, how well does that wicking shirt you like resist rips/tears/wear, or do those merino wool socks that keep your feet happy get holes and wear out more quickly than you might want. regardless, i think you can find durable gear if you educate yourself and have the patience to think ahead and look for sales/clearance. (Columbia warranties clothing for a year, outwear and equipment for a limited lifetime).

Quality may also imply that the clothing or gear performs better than competing products in some respect or another. What constitutes "better" is subjective, obviously. Are all waterproof/breathable outer layers or down jackets created equal? No. Through use of different materials, design, and features such as armpit or other mechanical venting mechanisms, some waterproof/breathable jackets do a better job venting moisture than others. Some down jackets use higher-loft down that does a better job insulating you from the cold, pound-for-pound. Is it the case that 'you get what you pay for?' Not necessarily, if you are diligent about shopping sale items and colorblind (i'll explain that last comment below). Do you need the latest and greatest innovation? probably not, and you definitely don't want to pay full retail for that. innovation generally happens slowly, so last season's leftover gear is going to meet your needs about as well as the newest model.

one of the best ways i find high end yet heavily discounted gear is to do end-of-season searches for items i want, then look for the least popular color. The RAB down jacket I use for cold weather, short of persistent sub-zero weather, retails for about $425. I purchased it new for $175. That is a discount of nearly 60%. It is not a color combination I would otherwise choose. The orange lining looks like a traffic cone on steroids.  but it functions exactly the same as its more subdued cousins, and it was a late season purchase, the last size XXL available from the website. 

one more note: it is worth considering whether a higher spend on extremely durable gear might be worthwhile, but that logic more readily applies to equipment than clothing.

Mitchell Willey said:

I live in Canada, our prices are quite a bit higher than American prices :(

 I'm guessing that only holds true if your buying new, and why in the world would a person buy new when there is such a plethora of used gear out there, some of which has never been used a day in it's life, but is called NIB.  As people said.  First figure out what you need and what fits the bill for you activities then check you local thrift stores, garage sales, estate sales.  Much of the good equipment is not to be found at thrift stores especially if you looking for precise gear, like tents, bags, backpacks and other stuff.  Not so much with clothing, wool sweaters............base layers, polar fleece and the such.  Buy either in the off season as was mention above but also at the end of the season.  People gat rid of stuff at the end of the season and much of it builds up in the stores before they pull it off the shelf so that they can put out the next season's wear.  I buy so much used gear of Craigslist that it is silly.  Look for people that are getting out of the sport and get package deals on stuff.  Ebay is good for some stuff, not as good regarding base layer clothing, as it is for sleeping bags, tents and rain proof outerwear, water filters/purifiers, etc.  A few years back before I shattered my hip, I went to the Goodwill and bought 15 100% Marino sweaters for less than $40. 

To ad some examples of the good advice above:

About 3 miles from my house, Patagucci has a store. "Patagucci?" you say? Sounds like a fancy fashion shop! Patagonia is their real name. One of the most famous mountaineers (Yvon Chouinard) in the world started Pata to suit his needs in exploring the high mountains of the world, known for their severe weather.

OMG!!! Sounds like lots of bucks to be laid out. Well, the Patagonia stores clear out each season, often up to 60% off the official price. Hmmm.... guess what? as noted in leadbelly's comment above, what's on the shelf in their stores and on-line in the off-season is #1 - too small and too large sizes, and a big lack of "just right" average person sizes. So instead of men's Medium, I usually get their Large. Plus the off-season colors are usually super-bright colors - flaming red, superbright yellows and oranges. That'll draw attention. Think about this - if you are a beginner, would you rather get disoriented in a pretty green or brown jacket that blends with the surrounding terrain, or perhaps a light white or off-white when you take the wrong trail during the winter campout that features 20-foot deep snow (we had this in the Sierra last year's winter).

Your choice - something that doesn't fit quite right (and maybe turns out to be too tight over that warm down puff jacket), and blends in to the surroundings - or would you prefer something visible for the search and rescue team to spot you, and maybe the combined slightly large windshell (that is bright orange) worn over an on-sale synthetic down jacket and keeps you toasty in the winter snows.

Gee, I wouldn't want anyone to know I bought this $250 jacket for 40% of the list price ($100) and will last for 5 years (making it very unfashionable). Or the warm pants from my neighborhood Salvation Army for $7.

Then again -- how many people are going to be out there in the Wild with you (also wearing clothes from the local GoodWill store).

You might be surprised at many backpacking gear items are found at the thrift stores, and how large the discounts of top of the line gear can be.

I don't buy any of my outdoor clothing at retail, everything is from the REI Garage, CampSaver's Shed, Steep and Cheap, Sierra Trading Post as mentioned already, and sales at EMS. Plus, with REI you get a dividend on every full-price purchase (disbursed annually), and EMS has a Rewards program where you earn a $10 Reward for every $200 in purchases. This is on all purchases. They also have sales & discount codes almost continuously. The only thing I don't mind buying at retail is footwear, but obviously if I can find it at a discount I get it. 

One other thing to do is create an account at This is a sort of portal to a whole bunch of outdoor gear stores, such as Dick's, Cabela's, Campmor, Backcountry, EMS, basically everything but REI, where you earn cash back if you go to the store's site through it. EMS is 10% cash back, Backcountry is 9%, percentages change periodically but usually don't vary more than a couple points. Cash back is paid quarterly, mine goes to my PayPal account but I think they'll send a check if you prefer. Add in store coupons and you can save some decent money. 

You can outfit for REAL cheap, but first have to overcome the vanity issues and doublespeak that vendors, manufacturers and gear wonks espouse - doublespeak that makes it seem improbable that man could ever survive without such items.  Yet early man did just fine making do with what was at hand.

I've been doing this backpacking obsession since the early sixties, starting in Boy Scouts, eventually graduating to high altitude mountaineering in Alaska and Peru.  But being a Southern California boy I also have done lots of desert camping.  I gleaned from these experience wisdom others have directly stated herein this topic thread, as well as additional information that can be implied by their opinions, provided you connect the dots.  Let me be make some of these points plaintively clear:

Fashion versus function (or cheap vs not so). Back in the day the typical Boy Scout was not equipped in the "good" stuff.  We wore Sears construction site boots, army surplus winter issue wool pants, generic wool shirts, long johns of various materials.  My two prized items were a army surplus down mummy bag and a rather cheap down jacket. Both were more feathers than down, but still much warmer than available alternatives of the period.  We went snow camping with this stuff.  While on my Alaskan trips years later a guide pointed out the Big Name brands are more about vanity than utility, pointing out to me he could usually tell who were the tuna (derogatory guide speak for paying clients) and who were the guides based on apparel: the clients sported North Face, and other $highbrow$ brands, while the guides went with equally functional yet much cheaper Helly Hanson at 1/3 the price.  In fact a Helly Hanson anorak shell is among my favorite apparel items I have owned over the years.  I also learned a few tips from fellow mountaineers along the way.

Backpacking-Trip-2008-026.jpgAbove: Modern cheap chic - Standing, I am wearing a cotton T and briefs under polypro long johns, top and bottoms, topped by a really cheap fleece with a crew neck zip top, and cheap running shorts (to protect the long johns from whatever I sit on).  Slap on a cheap balaclava of sufficient weight and this costume is good down to the low 40s° F.  Cost: about $100 for everything, or about as much as the Patagonia tech fleece my friend is wearing.  I'll comment about that cotton underwear later.

Below: One guy I climbed with in Alaska sore by those really cheap synthetic Hawaiian shirts one can get for less than $20 at those chain drug stores.  I concur.  They make a decent cold weather skin layer and excellent hot day apparel.  They wick sweat as well as any tech shirt I have seen, and dry quicker.  Or you can upgrade to those really stylish Tommy Bahamas brand silk Hawaiian shirts for about the same price at a thrift store.  Note all of the items mentioned thus far are affordable.
Ed---Bishop-Pass-view.jpgAbove: Bishop Pass in the Sierra air temp @ 15° F and a breeze effecting a 0° F degree wind chill.  When the temps dip into the 30s° F, I'll add to the aforementioned layers a WPM shell parka on top and winter weight cycling tights over the long johns.  This takes me to just above freezing.  Below freezing I add WPM shell pants and gloves, good down to near 0° F.  (Note: your result may vary, as I am told I seem impervious to the cold.  More about that later).  I am not wearing the WPM shell pants in the above image, as we were chugging hard to attain the 11,950' pass.

Shoulder season can be pretty cold in the North. I'll add a down jacket and heavy fleece bottoms to the above mentioned layers.  As the temps drop further still, I'll don a second balaclava, wool scarf, and heavy mittens or gloves.  Ski goggles come into play somewhere in these temps, depending on wind chill.  When it gets really cold I swap out the hard shell garments for artic parka top and bottoms.  Snow conditions mandate gaiters.  Super cold snow condition require specialized footwear. 

Below: we are cooking dinner OUTSIDE (never cook in a tent!).  Me (center of image) wearing above mentioned ensemble.  The stove is between me and my buddy; our tent is the orange-yellow thing in the bottom right portion of the image.  Location: California's High Sierra, Mt Langley @ 13,500’ late January, air temp: -6°F (day time) wind speed: ~45mph. 
The items I had to shell out the $bucks$ on were the WPM hard shell top and bottoms, and the artic parkas.  Cold weather boots will also set one back, but only the WPM shell garments are items you should initially acquire.  The intended use of this gear compels getting the best possible, and these particular clothing items are never cheap.  Everything else was bought on the cheap, going with off brands, shopping unconventional sources. 

Conventional wisdom frowns on wearing cotton.  Once wet, it is slow to dry and wet clothes contribute to cold exposure incidents.  Hence in cold weather I wear the Hawaiian shirts as a skin layer when performing physical activities.  But I have no problem with sleeping with a cotton skin layer as long as it is used exclusively for sleeping.  This practice of using apparel exclusively for sleeping will also extend the life of your sleeping bag.

Getting chilled is a problem many struggle with.  It seems to affect me less than others, perhaps because I eat a lot - a well stoked fire is always warmer.

While you can equip on the cheap, as others mentioned, some items the priority should be on performance, not price. A leaky rain jacket is useless no matter how cheap.  Getting wet is a primary cause of exposure emergencies, and avoiding hypothermia is priceless.  Likewise artic gear is horribly expensive, but you shouldn't need it in your chosen pursuits.  A properly fitted pack is also important.  Pack soreness is a major factor that discourages newbies and is the bane of those who lack the wherewithal to remedy the situation.  Boots are another item where performance is top priority.  Poor fitting boots and boots poorly matched to the task at hand will ruin a trip.  Likewise make sure your shelter is able to keep the elements at bay under the conditions you intend to camp in.  A cheap tent can function just as well as a super pricey one, while some expensive tents will leave you cursing condensation issues and claustrophobic inducing confinement.  Since you are intending to travel in shoulder season you will want a tent that can handle snow loads and keep spindrift out. 

If you find yourself hooked and spending time camping, you eventually can upgrade to lighter weight items, and swap general purpose gear for gear more tailored to specific circumstances.  I have three backpacks: day pack for ski mountaineering, a large external frame pack for extended three season hikes, and a huge internal frame pack for winter excursions.  I have half a dozen sleeping bags: synthetic fill bags to cover temps ranging from warm to 20°F, and down bags that cover temps from 40°F to -30°F.  I have a UL canister mounted water boiler stove, a freestanding canister stove (for real cooking), and white gas stove for cold camping.  I used to use several tents, depending on the trip, but now rely on a cuben tarp pyramid as it is acceptable for all my needs, and is darn light.  And then there are the light hiking boots, ski boots, climbing boots, rock slippers, etc...  It took a long time to build up my outfit, but if your start cheap as others have described, and get stuff that will suffice under different conditions economics should not dissuade you.  Camping, after all, is almost as cheap as staying home, once you make a few acquisitions. 


update* I ended up going to Goodwill and finding an MEC rain jacket in my size for 10bucks! also found a half decent pair of nylon pants that zip off into shorts and a few other pieces of clothes for my kit.  Thanks guys.

Good going. Thrift shops are a very good and quite classic way to get great outdoor clothing for pennies on the dollar. Done a bunch of that myself. 

And if you are ever in the market for a warm down parka to extend your forays in the Canadian seasons, right at the peak of the hot summer season, July on through August, is a perfect time to shop online. They are dumping last years to make way for the new stuff. I got my very warm, top of the line down parka that covers the pelvis and has baffling and a hood at a slashed price. Very good when not moving in the cold. Did that a few years ago. Mountain Gear, Campsaver, Amazon and other places are good places to look and buy. Good down apparel and bags can last indefinitely is cared for properly...decades. 

I'd go cheap until you find what you really like.  I find lots of good things at Goodwill.  The shirt in my profile pic, which I wear on every Cascade volcano climb, is a WalMart shirt.

You do not need to buy expensive gear to start hiking. Starting out, you will probably need to buy one or two things, and mix it with stuff you already have. If you begin to love hiking and want to get into it more and more, I recommend you start to add brand gear to your kit to replace your temporary stuff over time. 

It is not that hard to find everything you need from Army surplus and thrift stores. We did it for years. Costco has some useable outdoor clothes for cheap. I like Sierra Trading Post.  Some items of clothing are specialized like rain gear.  It is worth having some good ones. On the other hand, a lot of what people buy is ego driven whether they want to admit it or not. People like to look like they know what they are doing. 

I'm taking my 13yo son to the Boundary Waters in 10 days. Last night we went to the local thrift store and found nearly everything he needed. I have a lot of thrift store grabs myself. 

My philosophy is you need to invest your money in quality 1) footwear, 2) backpack, & 3) sleeping bag. These are the 3 things that can make or break your trip. Everything else is negotiable. 

Precisely - the three B's - boots, bag, and backpack.  Ten bucks will cover everything else.

Not very important for summer trips. The exceptions are tough conditions like brush, endless rain and extreme cold. Then you need some tougher clothes. 

October 25, 2020
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