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As I’m writing more camping, hiking, and photography gear reviews (primarily from my own personal gear), I’m certainly aware that there are certain brands that are going to be reported on with great frequency. It’s worth noting a few things before I go any further. These are not the best brands out there, but they are brands I trust and have come to know well. I’ve worked in the outdoor industry for over a decade, I’ve been to many trade shows, met with reps and athletes, and heard all the sales pitches.
As I post more gear reviews over the next few months, you’ll probably see a lot of Nikon, Osprey, and MSR equipment. I’ve spent more money on those three brands in my life than I want to count. All three are great brands that make awesome products, but they are not the best out there. Actually, if anyone tells you, “brand-x is the best”, they don’t know what they are talking about. That really translates to, “I really like this brand”.
Brand Trust Isn’t Always Straightforward
Let’s take the case of cameras. Do a Google search for, what’s better, Canon or Nikon? Pardon my language, but the majority of the results are absolute shit. Some people say Nikon has some better glass, but worse customer service. More of Canon’s equipment is made in Taiwan, while Nikon may be made China or Thailand. And you’ll find competing viewpoints on both.
Nikon, Canon, and Sony are all phenomenal camera manufacturers. Frankly, customer service waxes and wanes with every company out there. It’s true, some are more consistent than others, but to me, it’s a helpful selling point, but not a deciding factor.
Here’s an anecdotal point on why I feel this way about customer service from my experience selling headlamps a few years ago:
I noticed at the store I worked at, that there were quite a few Princeton Tec headlamps on our warranty shelf. We were getting about 20 warranty issues a season. In comparison, there were two or three Black Diamond warranty issues and zero Petzl headlamps. On top of that, Petzl outsold Princeton Tec 3 to 1. When we did occasionally have a Petzl warranty issue, they were a bit of a headache to deal with. They wanted to know how old the headlamp was, if it had signs of corrosion, what kind of condition it was in, etc. On the other hand, we would call Princeton Tec up and they’d just ask how many and what models and send new ones.
We had customers that swore by Princeton Tec because it was so easy to replace their broken headlamps over the last x-number of years.
Ok. This really isn’t a philosophy I stand behind. My own personal experience with Petzl headlamps reflects what I saw in the store warranties. My Petzl headlamps weren’t breaking all the time. I think there are times when people confuse “great customer service” with “the product is so cheap it’s easily disposable to the company”. Petzl is a bit more of a hassle because they want to know, why did the product break? And, was it an issue with the product, or was it misused in some way?
I’m not trying to pick on Princeton Tec, they make a decent product, they are US-made, and they have good customer service. Those are great points that mean a lot to a lot of people. For me, their great customer service doesn’t do anything for me if I’m 5 days out in the Alaska wilderness and my headlamp bites the dust. I need my gear to work when I need it.
Why’d I Choose My Brands
I have two goals in this article. I want to convey some context for the frequency of certain brands in my reviews as well as give my reasoning for how these came to be brands I trust. Hopefully, I can present to you some additional considerations when it comes to choosing a product or brand.
Nikon Vs. Canon Vs. Sony – why did I choose Nikon? Well, if I was going to go mirrorless, I probably would have gone Sony. But, there still isn’t as much option for lenses on mirrorless, and I prefer the feel of a DSLR (and power savings), so for me, the decision was between Nikon and Canon. How’d I choose?
Well, I liked the way the Nikon felt in hand, and the controls were more natural to me. That’s it. I was comparing two similar APS-C cameras at the time, almost identical specs, similarly priced. One felt better than the other. Of course, that meant I was buying Nikon Lenses too. So, when it came time to upgrade, I stayed with Nikon because that is what I had started building inventory in. After spending $5,000 in lenses, it’s hard to switch camera brands. If I had gone with Canon, it would probably be the same thing. I would probably have become used to the controls. I’m sure I would have been just as happy.
When it comes to backpacks, I have a couple of Granite Gear daypacks, another couple Gregory packs, and 6 Osprey packs (I have a thing for packs). Alright, I’ll defend why I have so many. They are made for very different things. I need a skiing daypack and skiing weekender pack that are strong enough to do an A-frame with sharp ski edges, a weekender backpacking pack, an expedition-sized pack, and a couple of sizes of “crag” packs for carrying climbing gear. I also have a couple of different sized running hydration packs for if I’m running 10 or 30 miles.
Osprey makes up the majority of my wife’s and my pack inventory. Why? Well, I love Gregory pack’s just about as much. They also make great stuff. My ski packs are both Gregory. They edged out comparable Osprey packs with durability and features. But for the majority, the two brands are pretty similar between categories. I went with my Osprey packs because they fit me a bit better and were slightly lighter weight than the comparable Gregory backpacks.
Since I mentioned warranties before in regard to headlamps, I’ll say something here too. Both Gregory and Osprey have great warranty departments. They will both try to repair your pack to the best of their ability for as long as they can when things go wrong. Both are a pleasure to deal with. I absolutely love that they do this because it’s easy to become attached to a pack. They break-in like shoes over time and feel better the longer they’re worn. Although the warranties are practically identical, Osprey has put more money and time into marketing their Warranty Program so that their customers know about it. It becomes a selling point for their packs, but a customer may not know that there are other brands that offer the same thing. Sorry, I digress on a tangent, but I wanted to leave another thing to think about when researching gear.
Tents, Stoves, Water Filters, and Misc.
Some of my first backpacking equipment was made by Mountain Safety Research (MSR). I remember my first stove, the WhisperLite International because I still use it today. It’s barely been updated in the 28 years I’ve been using it (I did buy a new one in 2009 because I lost my original). I’ve loved this stove because I can easily buy the parts I need to fix it when it breaks, and it does not break often. It’s easy to maintain and clean in the field, and it’s one of my most trusted pieces of gear. I’m pretty sure it was the stove that led me to start accumulating other MSR products.
When it comes to water filtration, MSR and Katadyn are in a league of their own. I’ve used both before, I love them both. I’m currently using an MSR filter because it is the right size/weight and it screws onto a Nalgene bottle or an MSR dromedary bag.
A similar story goes for my selection of tents, snowshoes, snow pickets, etc. MSR is a brand I know I can rely on and have for decades. Of course, that reliance can have its drawbacks as well, as I certainly have developed a bias for the brand. It’s one of the first that I look at when looking for a product. I do have to force myself to look at and consider other competitors out there. I always try to stay aware of brand-bias when shopping for the gear I depend on.
There are a lot of big brands out there, there are a lot of really good brands that make great products. My main bullet points to consider when choosing what brand for a new product are:
- Does the product meet all of my needs?
- Is the product trustworthy – good reviews? Is it well made with strong components?
- Does the brand or manufacturer stand by their product?
- Is the brand proven to be reliable? Again, do they have good reviews? Did they put a lot of time and thought into the product and others that they manufacture?
- Am I being biased toward a brand I’ve liked in the past, or have heard a lot about?
You can create a long list of criteria from those five questions when it comes to buying something new. And whether its camera gear or outdoor gear, you are probably dropping a hefty penny. You can use these points to inform yourself to the best of your ability before buying equipment that will stick with you for years to come.