Outdoor gear is notoriously expensive. Three-layer waterproof rain shells, puffy coats, and basic two-person tents can run you several hundred dollars. Skis and bikes are often more than ten times that. Now a French company called Decathlon is flipping that paradigm on its head.
Decathlon is a retailer that designs and manufactures all the gear it sells, marketing each sport’s products under a different brand name (Kalenji for running, Simond for climbing, Quechua for hiking and camping). It sells only through its own website and brick-and-mortar stores. Since Decathlon doesn’t have to go through third-party retailers, it’s able to offer its gear at astonishingly low prices. Walk into any of its 1,350 stores throughout Europe and you’ll see walls crowded with $3.50 backpacks and $50 two-person tents.
The Decathlon family of brands has been popular in Europe for years, and it tried to gain a foothold in the U.S. in the early aughts but abandoned those efforts in 2006. Now it’s trying again. In April, Decathlon launched a flagship store in San Francisco. Starting Wednesday, anyone in the U.S. can buy from Decathlon online.
We wanted to know whether this startlingly cheap gear was any good, so we got our hands on a sampling of hiking and camping products. In short, we were pleasantly surprised by how solid everything seemed. Read on for more details.
Ultra Compact 10L Backpack ($3)
Your morning latte costs more than this ultralight nylon daypack, which stuffs to the size of a small apple in a built-in pouch. Admittedly, the bag is about as simple as it can get—just a single main compartment that holds ten liters of gear, no hipbelt or sternum buckle, and thin shoulder straps that are adjustable but offer relatively little support. Yet as a backup travel pack to use for town walks and light hikes, it’s all you need.
Women’s Backpacking Full Down Jacket ($58)
High fill-power down traps a lot of heat in a light, small package, and it usually comes at a premium of hundreds of dollars, which makes this hooded 800-fill down jacket a steal. Its tapered hem keeps your rear warm and flatters the hips, while a drawcord helps keep out frigid air. The cuff elastic is internal, so the sleeves extend an extra inch, which helps prevent cold hands.
2 Seconds Two-Person Camping Tent ($49)
Pull it out of the zippered pouch, undo four buckles and one strap, and voilà, this tent pops open in roughly one minute with the fly already attached (you can remove it once the tent is set up). The polyester fabric is heavier and less breathable than the nylon used on most tents, though it’s also more durable and water-resistant. The 2 Seconds’ large, circular shape and 6.4-pound weight make it impractical for backpacking, but the astonishingly low price and easy setup will appeal to folks who are new to pitching a tent or just want something for low-key car camping.
Women’s Climbing Hoodie ($35)
Soft, high-loft fleece makes this layer perfect for summit lunches, chilly belays, or overly air-conditioned offices. The dropped hem fits under a harness and offers extra coverage, as do the high neck and super-long sleeves, which are nice for sheltering cold hands but roll up easily when you want them out of the way. An internal zippered mesh pocket stashes snacks or a small wallet. A waist drawcord dials in the fit.
Backpacking Extendible Bag ($46)
In the month we’ve been using this bag, it’s flown across the country and driven to the Grand Canyon. Like many in its class, this bag has backpack straps and many external handles for easy carrying and hauling, and it outperforms others thanks to a zippered flap that lets you expand the duffel by 20 liters. The thick polyester body is basically bombproof and hasn’t shown any signs of wear. The Extendible is not fully waterproof, though, so be careful with anything you want to stay dry.
Women’s Hiking Backpack Forclaz Air 30L ($58)
Ready for one-night backpacking treks or single-day summit bids, this pack has everything you need for short trips. A stretch pouch stores an extra layer or snacks, a rain cover pops out of the base for quick deployment, a full-length vertical zipper opens wide for easy access, and the trampoline-style mesh suspension keeps the load off your back for more breathability. At this price and with these features, this pack is perfect for people new to backpacking or day-tripping.
Women’s Hiking Mid-Rise Waterproof Boots 100 ($58)
We’ve always been taught that you pay for comfort, especially when it comes to footwear. But we were shocked at how comfortable these sub-$60 hiking boots are. Fully waterproof, with a roomy toe box and smooth lacing system that’s easy to dial in, they seem perfect for a hiker who is just starting out and wants more protection than a traditional shoe provides (though I can’t yet speak to their durability).
With its low prices, relatively good quality, and wide selection, Decathlon promises to lower the barrier to entry for people looking to get into the outdoors. If you’re hoping for bomber gear that will last decades, the jury is still out. Certainly the craftsmanship and materials don’t compare with what you’ll find from companies like Arc’teryx or Patagonia. But the gear has all the features you need and, once you figure out the Europe–U.S. sizing conversion, it fits well (not boxy or baggy). Most of all, it offers incredible value.
There’s even something here for experienced athletes who want gear that performs, though it’s a bit hit-and-miss. Out of the dozens of items we tried, most were ideal beginner options, and a smaller handful stood out as solid choices for anyone, regardless of experience level. For example, the duffel, 30-liter pack, hiking boots, and puffy coat listed above contend with some of the big-brand gear we editors have lining our office shelves.
The upshot is that we should all be excited about Decathlon’s grand entrance in the U.S. It means more people will be able to afford decent gear to get started in the outdoors, and the rest of us will be able to indulge in new items that may have otherwise been out of our price range.