By Mark Lebetkin
The Active Times
As much as we at The Active Times like to plug this or that new, cool piece of equipment or article of clothing, we know the prices can stop you cold in your tracks. How much for that Arc'teryx jacket, again?
It's the dirty, if open, secret of the outdoors business: Going outside may be free, but gear is expensive.
In many cases buying used gear or simply renting it on a one-off basis will take care of that problem, but it's when you’re looking to outfit yourself with the right clothing and gear that will last that things get hairy. It might be time to start combing the Web for deals.
Finding a decent price isn’t necessarily hard -- if you know what you're looking for, and where to look. All-purpose sites like Google Shopping, Amazon and even Overstock.com can be useful for comparison shopping and the occasional surprise bargain, but they’re not ideal for core enthusiasts who want to compare specs and brands, and they don't always dig up the deepest discounts or flash sales.
That’s why we decided to share some of our favorite places to shop for bargains. Taken together, these websites sell everything you need for the activities you love.
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Some are modeled on old-school "outlets" that sell overstock, discontinued gear and seconds, which are items that have minor cosmetic damage. At these online stores, inventory for a given sport -- say, skiing -- changes with the season. Last year's gear often goes for a steal right before retailers have to make room for the new stuff.
As with physical outlet stores, the selection is often limited: you find odd sizes, colors that nobody else wanted, and slightly different versions of your desired make or model. But oftentimes these outlets have good-enough approximations of the right thing at half the price, so who’s complaining?
But if it’s something specific you’re after, we included a few sites with generous price-matching guarantees. So if, for example, Campmor has the best price on a particular Mountain Hardwear sleeping bag, you can see if a price-matching competitor like evo has the same item and get it for 5 percent less.
There are also a handful of online retailers that specialize in flash sales -- think Groupon or LivingSocial -- targeted at a core audience. These so-called “one deal at a time” sites (a misnomer), including The Clymb and SteepAndCheap.com, have rotating collections of heavily discounted gear from brands like Columbia and Oakley, but you have to catch the right sale on the right day. Sign up for alerts and you’ll be ready when your must-have jacket goes on sale.
And lastly -- although it's first on our list -- we included a great comparison-shopping site for active junkies that gives you cash back on every purchase. You can use it is a portal into other sites on the list to add to your savings.
REI has never been known for being cheap, but that doesn't mean you can't snag deals there. REI Outlet has plenty of ways to find the gear you're looking for at a good price: Daily and weekly deals with discounts of 50 percent or more, overstock and clearance from REI’s famously comprehensive selection of outdoor gear and apparel, and the ability to search by price point or percent discount. REI Outlet also sells last year's bikes for 20 to 30 percent off. The catch: you have only 30 days to return items purchased from the outlet, and outlet purchases don't qualify for REI members’ annual 10 percent refund.
EMS Outlet operates in much the same way as its competitor REI Outlet: clearance and overstock makes its way to the outlet page, where prices get slashed. The gear selection doesn't go nearly as deep as REI's, but EMS Outlet is a solid online rummage bin if you're looking for clothes -- good outerwear selection -- and footwear. Better yet: unlike REI, EMS doesn't curtail its generous return policy for discount items. With a receipt there are lifetime returns, and without a receipt, EMS will even give partial credit depending on how old and well used the item is.
A major presence in the mail-order camping gear business for decades, Campmor used to be known for its illustrated catalogs. Now the company operates an online store out of its warehouse in New Jersey (there's also a single retail store) and sells a huge selection of outdoor gear at some of the lowest everyday prices in the business. While Campmor has regular sales (click the "Hot Deals" tab), discounts aren't usually as large as you find on dedicated "deals" websites; but if you're looking for something specific that isn't on clearance anywhere else, Campmor likely has a competitive price. The company’s return policy is a bonus, too: anything in "resellable" condition can be returned within a year. And it still prints the catalogs.
This well-designed flash deals website has a wide selection for its class. The Clymb runs dozens of timed, name-brand sales at a time in a wide variety of categories, including footwear and apparel, climbing, cycling, camping and more. As with all deal sites, there are some limitations: at the moment you can buy bike components, for example, but not bikes. But prices are regularly half of retail or less, so it’s hard to complain about selection given what is available. Top brands like Columbia, Oakley and Adidas are represented and there are even deeper discounts (over 80 percent in some cases) in the "Warehouse Selects" section. The Clymb even sells discount travel packages: think skiing the Canadian Rockies or surfing in Costa Rica.
If you're one of those people who gets addicted to deals sites with countdown clocks, you might want to steer clear of Steep And Cheap or risk getting sucked in. (Or you can sign up for alerts if you want a slightly more measured approach.) This website, owned by Backcountry.com, specializes in limited-time, limited-quantity deep discounts on small, rotating selections of name-brand gear. As of this writing, its oddball assortment of ten categories includes yoga apparel, ski helmets, work boots and long underwear. At any given moment there's also a "Current Steal," which is a lightning deal -- typically 50 percent off or more -- on a single item. Don't try to stock up and resell on eBay though: there's an item limit and they check resale sites for abuse. Also scope its sister "one deal at a time" sites, Chainlove.com for cycling gear, and WhiskeyMilitia.com for surf, skate and snow gear.
In the days before the Internet, taking a retailer up on a low-price guarantee meant scaring up a circular for a store across town, bringing it to the customer service counter and sometimes finding out that the fine print excluded your desired purchase -- usually more trouble than it was worth. So it's pretty cool, then, that brick-and-mortar store Al's Sporting Goods in Logan, Utah, offers to beat competitors' prices (after shipping and fees) by 5 percent, a competitor being any authorized retailer in the U.S. All you have to do is send customer service an email with a link to the competition -- it can’t be eBay or Craigslist or any clearance outlet -- and they’ll quote you the new price. Al’s also has a decent, if spotty clearance section and a "steal of the week," in which a single item -- this week Scott Fuel winter gloves -- sells for a song.
New winter gear doesn't come cheap, which is why discounts in this space are so welcome. Online retailer evo (it has a flagship store in Seattle) specializes in gear and apparel for skiing, snowboarding, wakeboarding and skating. Like Al's (above) evo offers to beat competitors' prices by 5 percent, but it also matches membership refunds for stores like REI and will retroactively meet its own sale prices within 20 days of purchase, or a competitor's within seven days. But where evo really stands out is its outlet store (just click on the "Outlet" tab), where last season's gear sells at huge discounts -- up to 70 percent or more. For a ski package, that can be several hundred dollars off retail.
This one is kind of a cheater since it's the website of a manufacturer. So what makes GoLite so darn special in the discount department? This Boulder, Colo.-based manufacturer of outdoors and ultra-light backpacking gear made a bold decision last year: It pulled its products from third-party retailers and went direct-to-consumer via its website and chain of retail stores in western states. The result for consumers was an immediate, across-the-board price cut of 50 percent -- a discount advertised on every single product page. Everyday prices are more like what equivalent products go for at closeout sales, but don’t think this means GoLite’s gear is inferior: It consistently wins "best of" awards from Backpacker Magazine.
For the complete list of Best Online Retailers For Buying Cheap Gear, go to TheActiveTimes.com.
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