Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Lead us not into gear temptation

Do a cost-benefit analysis before pulling out wallet

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OK, so you love the outdoors but you've come to the conclusion you can't afford to continue buying gear for trips you only make a handful of times a year. And every time you do haul your butt into the bush, the weight of your pack makes you wonder whether you already own too much stuff.

Then the fall comes around and you start coveting all sorts of new gadgets and gizmos. Do not succumb to temptation, at least not before conducting a cost-benefit analysis of sorts for any luxury item for the trail.

What do I mean? Simply draw up a simple list of pros and cons for any luxury item, with the most common negatives being less money in your pocket and more weight on your back.

With that in mind, here are three common luxury items that some folks swear are essential -- and others consider a complete waste of money and space:

Hiking poles

Why you shouldn't bother: If you're into easy hikes on relatively flat terrain, your legs are all you need to propel you. If you must, simply fashion a walking stick from a fallen tree branch of a suitable size. A broken hockey stick also works really well.

Why you should splurge: If your knees aren't great or you're a heavier-than-average person, hiking poles will take a tremendous burden off the tendons and ligaments. But even if your knees are strong and you weigh less than Gwyneth Paltrow, hiking poles will still make it easier to climb and descend hills and negotiate uneven terrain.

Added bonus: Using your arms as well as your legs while backpacking will provide your body with more of a balanced workout. And those hiking poles can double as ski poles in the winter -- most come with detachable rubber baskets.

The damage: $40 to $160 for a pair of poles, depending on the retailer and the material. Carbon fibre is the lightest material, but also the most expensive. If you're prone to breaking poles, maybe stick to cheaper aluminum. No matter the material, look for a pair with comfortable wrist straps, because lousy ones can easily give you painful blisters.

Canoe seats/camp chairs

Why you shouldn't bother: No matter where your travels take you, you'll find somewhere to plant your rear end. And since you likely already own rain pants or some other form of waterproof outerwear, you really have no need to shell out more money for a seat.

Why you should splurge: If you love to paddle but don't go canoeing very often because of a bad back, the lumbar support afforded by a padded seat can make a universe of difference to your delicate muscles. Canoe seats that double as camp chairs are also really handy around the campsite, when crouching for a meal can be just as tough on a creaky lower back as sitting or kneeling in a canoe.

Added bonus: If you enjoy shoulder-season or winter camping, a camp chair will provide an extra layer of insulation between you and the cold, cold ground. It can also help keep your rear end dry when you're seated on snow, even when you've slipped out of those waterproof pants.

The damage: $36 to $48 per chair, depending on the model. If you're primarily using this thing as a paddling seat, choose a model that can be fastened to the boat easily to cut down on loose junk during portages. If you're mainly looking for a camp chair, choose the lightest one you can find. Outdoor retailers also sell gizmos that convert sleeping pads into camp chairs.

Fixed-blade knives

Why you shouldn't bother: For the vast majority of wilderness trips, one small multitool or lightweight river knife will suffice. Big hunting knives with multiple edges are intended for actual hunters; if you don't plan to remove the hide from a moose, there's no need for a massive blade.

Why you should splurge: If you're travelling as part a larger group, a fixed-blade knife will prove indispensable as a kitchen tool and just as handy around the campfire. Fixed blades may also be safer than folding knives, provided you don't lose the sheath.

Added bonus: Fixed-blade knives may last longer than the smaller, swinging blades on multitools, simply because there's more metal to wear down when you sharpen the edges. So if you use your knife for more than just whittling the occasional marshmallow-roasting stick, a bigger blade may save you money over time.

The damage: Fixed-blade knives start around $25 but there are models that sell for $300 or more; the latter tend to be hunters' tools or military weapons. All you need is a solid blade with a grippy handle.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2013 C10

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