Coupe (courtesy, REI)
Gear Guy

Are cheaper, house-brand tents inevitably less reliable?

I have been waiting to buy a lightweight two-person backpacking tent for a while now, and recently was impressed by the newer REI-brand tents. Is there any quality drawback in buying a tent from REI as opposed to one from Mountain Hardwear or Marmot? Basically, will I regret it in two years? Matt Albuquerque, New Mexico


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House-brand products present an interesting dilemma to the savvy consumer. On the one hand, they almost always seem like good deals—REI’s new two-person Coupe sells for only $169, compared with $250 and up for a comparably sized tent made by the Marmots, Sierra Designs, and Mountain Hardwears of the gear world. On the other hand, you have to wonder, is it cheaper because it’s, well, cheap?

Coupe Coupe

My unequivocal answer in this case is: It depends. Strictly speaking, companies such as REI and L.L. Bean can offer good deals because they don’t have to pay a middleman. It’s a basic distribution issue: Sierra Designs first has to sell a tent to a company—such as REI—who then sells it to you. REI and Bean have the luxury of avoiding that second step. They make a product and sell it directly to you. I’ll admit, that isn’t a perfect description of what goes on, because REI and Bean almost always buy from factories that subcontract with them, so they’re doing some markup of their own. But generally they can sell for less because they don’t have to satisfy as many people in the retail chain. In years gone by, I also think it’s true that there wasn’t always the same focus on quality for house-brand stuff as there was for name-brand goods. But that’s changing. I think any Polartec or Gore-Tex item from L.L. Bean, for instance, will match up well with a similar name-brand product costing 25 to 30 percent more. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have made the same claim for REI, because I don’t think their house-brand stuff was all that good back then. It clearly was sold as a “price point” item. Meaning, for cheapskates. But that has changed. Today I lump REI with Bean on the quality issue, and think when you consider the savings, it’s an even better deal.

So, no, you won’t regret this purchase.

From Outside Magazine, April/May 2021 Lead Photo: courtesy, REI