There is a ton of inexpensive, high-quality gear on the market. So much, in fact, that I nearly became overwhelmed putting this list together. To keep things manageable, I decided to sort by category.
Clothing. Many good buys here. Everyone needs a knock-around fleece jacket, of course, and the REI Woodland, which is made with name-brand Polartec Classic 200 fleece, is hard to beat at $49. If you’re buying for a woman who runs, take a look at the Brooks Essential Run Jacket ($70), a stylish cool-weather piece that’s brightly colored for safety and goes for $70. And while it’s not necessarily inexpensive at $90, Icebreaker's merino wool Bodyfit 200 Zip Top will last you so long and work in so many conditions that it's always struck me as a major bargain. (Plus, if you look around you'll be able to find it on sale. Wink. Nod. Etc.)
Footwear. The minimalist-shoe craze continues to gain momentum, and the shoe that started it all—the Vibram FiveFingers Classic—is still around for a paltry $75. But traditionalists have plenty of options, too, like the Merrell Moab Mid ($95). It's an incredible value and works beautifully as a lightweight day-hiker or a light backpacking boot. For something that’ll keep you toasty in winter, take a look at the Salomon Snowtrip TS winter boots. They’re warm, waterproof, and only $125.
Travel. Good luggage can be pricey, but REI’s 18-inch Stratocruiser ($149) is well designed, can be carried like a pack, and is big enough for most three- or four-day trips. Lowepro’s Apex 20 AW camera pouch ($28) holds most point-and-shoots and comes with internal pockets for memory cards or spare batteries. And for staying organized, there's no beating Eagle Creek’s Pack-It Cube at $12.
Paddling. Any paddler is bound to enjoy a new personal flotation device. Kokatat’s Bahia PFD ($98) is both comfortable and safe. Likewise, Sea to Summit's Eclipse Paddling Gloves add comfort on long trips and sell for $25.
Climbing. For the aspiring climber on your list, La Sportiva’s Tarantula rock shoe ($80) is among the best entry-level, intermediate shoes on the market, with sticky outsoles and an aggressive shape. Black Diamond’s light, simple Alpine Bod harness is great for glacier use and other non-vertical applications, and it feels like a steal at $38. And for $60, Camp’s Armour Helmet will give you all the head protection you could ask for.
Camping. Shopping for a car camper? The Primus Profile stove has two 12,000-BTU burners for fast cooking, folds up neatly for storage, and ignites quickly with Piezo lighters. For backpackers, the GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Dualist provides two campers with a light, nesting cookset for $62. And REI’s Half Dome 2 tent ($179) gives two campers sturdy, packable shelter in a proven design.