Gear Guy

Can I get all the gear I need from one store?

I'm completely new to backpacking and worried about buying gear from just anywhere. Here in Canada, MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) supposedly carries nothing short of the best quality equipment and the thought of going to just one place for all your needs sound really nice. Would you, with all your experience, trust MEC for all your needs as much as everyone here seems to? Or do I have to shop around for everything separately, looking for reviews and such, and then spend tons of money in U.S. stores due to the crappy exchange rate? Your answer is greatly appreciated. Tatiana Calgary, Alberta

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Well, I’ll tell you a secret. While it’s true that there are differences between Pack A and Pack B, or Tent Y or Tent X, or Jacket M and Jacket N, most of those differences are apt to be of the hair-splitting variety. This changes only when there’s a relatively extreme difference in price, at which point GWYPF (Get What You Pay For) kicks in. The fact of the matter is you could walk into REI or L.L. Bean here in the states, or MEC up where you are, and equip yourself nicely and relatively inexpensively for a pretty extreme trip by purchasing ONLY the house brands from these stores. That’s certainly the case for MEC. I’m in the Vancouver store moderately often and have always felt that I’d have no problems if for some reason that was the only place where I could shop.

The key is to be a critical consumer. Does the stuff look well made? Feel well made? Seams tightly stitched? Bare fabric ends welded or otherwise treated so they can’t unravel? Zippers good? Don’t be fooled by too many bells and whistles. Sure, maybe a more expensive jacket has reinforcement patches on the elbows, but do you really need them for the $50 (about $3,758 Canadian) more than that reinforced jacket might cost?

And check the fit. That’s particularly important for boots and packs. All outdoor clothing is pretty generically sized, although there are differences in how voluminous one piece is versus another and that may matter to you. But if the boots and pack don’t fit, then that matters-a lot. So take some time there, testing different brands of boots in several sizes, and trying three or four packs on, each loaded with 20 or 30 pounds.

Bottom line: You can shop happily and MEC, and come away well equipped.

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