We've been saying it for the last three years, but my fiancé Hal and I swear 2013 will be the year we actually invest in our own gear. Each summer about this time we find ourselves making promises to take our own trip instead of just hanging out with friends while they camp. We're really going to purchase those stand-up paddleboards instead of renting them again this year. We're actually going to buy some bikes that fit us properly. That is until we see the price tags.
Between realizing we could spend the equivalent of what it would cost to buy a new car on gear and the difficulty of knowing where to begin shopping, we usually agree it can wait. But now that we're getting married and people are supposedly willing to buy this stuff for us as wedding gifts, there's no excuse for putting it off anymore.
I set out across Chattanooga with a notebook and camera to find out the pros and cons of buying at a specialty store versus the big box retailer and what we, beginners and casual users, need when it comes to camping gear, boats and bikes.
If you're like me and your idea of a good camping trip means sleeping in a somewhat roomy tent, roasting hot dogs on the campfire and walking to the nearby campsite restrooms when nature calls, then you fall into the "party" camping category.
Anyone more interested in hiking into a remote location, carrying everything for the trip in a backpack, sleeping in a one-person tent or under the stars and cooking on a small camp stove fall into the "minimalist" category that requires more specialized gear.
Bigger box stores like Academy Sports, Dick's Sporting Goods and even Walmart all carry a decent selection of camping gear particularly for the party camper." The same big box retailers carry some of the smaller tents and other specialized items required for a more minimalist camping trip, but the selection is considerably limited. Even though there are generally one or two options for small tents, those looking for something truly lightweight (we're talking around two to four pounds for a one or two-person tent) and an equally lightweight backpack to carry it in, should probably expand their search to places like Chattanooga's Rock/ Creek Outfitters or Rak Outfitters in North Georgia. Not only do these stores offer products better suited to minimalist campers' needs, the sales staff is more equipped to help you find the right product for your plans.
With my perfect "party camping" trip in mind, at Academy I picked out an $89.99 Igloo Outdoors Blue Ridge Modified Dome Tent as our camping mainstay. It sleeps four people, weighs a little more than 16 pounds and packs into a 7.5 by 28.5 inch case. While at Rock/Creek, I selected the $318.95 Marmot Limelight Tent. It also sleeps four people, weighs around eight pounds and packs down into a 7 by 29 inch case.
While I really liked the feel of the lighter-weight ripstop material the Rock/Creek tent was made of and the fact that it had multiple vents, the Academy tent just felt like a better fit for us. Even though the thicker, heavier material doesn't feel as nice, it seemed a little more durable and weight isn't really an issue since we'll most likely be driving to our campsite, parking the car and staying for the weekend. For casual campers like us, who will probably at best spend three or four weekends camping throughout the year when the weather is nice, it also seems a little excessive to spend upwards of $300 on a tent that will probably become obsolete when our family eventually grows.
Adventure seekers looking to begin whitewater kayaking don't have as many retailers locally as people wanting to paddle around the lake or try standup paddleboarding. Rock/Creek Outfitters is the primary whitewater kayaking store in the area. Its Paddlesport Outlet off Amnicola Highway offers a wide variety of whitewater kayaks and accessories that can't be found anywhere else.
Local large retailers such as Academy Sports and even Sam's Club also offer boats, but only flatwater kayaks, canoes and paddleboards. "Anybody who just wants to get out on the water should come see us," says Bergen with Academy Sports. "We've got the lower price points and are here for people who just want to get out on the water. Yeah you can go spend $1,000 on a kayak, but we're here for the people who'd prefer to spend a little less up front and if they get into it, then upgrade."
With prices ranging from around $170 up to $500 for standup paddleboards, sit-in, sit-on, tandem and fishing kayaks, local big box retailers offer a little something for everyone even though the options within each category are limited.
Rock/Creek, on the other hand, offers a much wider selection of boats within each category and the option for more features and add-ons that aren't available at the big box stores. Features like adjustable seats, additional dry storage, rod holders for fishing kayaks and foot pegs are amenities that can make a big difference for people spending hours out on the water, says Rock/Creek Assistant Manager Andrew Gamble. The store also features super lightweight options that decrease the weight on a 12- or 14-foot kayak by as much as 30 pounds.
"We are here to offer that fun and recreational style but are really here to cater to people who want to do more than get out and play," he says. "Kayaks are one of those things where you get what you pay for and if you're going to take care of it, a flatwater kayak really can last you for the rest of your life."
Boat prices at Rock/Creek range from $400-$3,000, depending on the size, style and material the boat is made from. To help narrow down the selection, the store offers a $25 demonstration program that allows customers to meet Rock/Creek representatives at the water with a few different kayaks, try out the boats and then apply the demonstration fee toward whichever option the customer chooses to purchase.
So far, my and Hal's only real experience with boats has been renting standup paddleboards out on the Ocoee each summer. In the past we've done three- and four-hour guided trips with friends down the calmer part of the river. For our purposes the thicker plastic boards are ideal since we aren't super experienced and there's a very good chance we're going to bump and scrape the board against river rocks along our journey. At Academy, I selected the $399 Pelican Flow board that's 10.5 feet long, made completely out of thick plastic and weighs 48 pounds. When I visited Rock/ Creek, I picked out the $799 Jackson SUPercharger paddleboard which is made locally in Sparta, Tenn., is around 10 feet long and weighs 57 pounds. Even though the Supercharger is the obvious choice for the type of paddleboarding we've begun to enjoy since it's designed specifically for stability and control in whitewater, I made the executive decision to put off buying paddleboards a little longer. When I started considering the hassle and added investment required to store, transport and unload your own boat instead of just helping out once a year when you rent I began to think we may not be as invested in paddlesports as we originally thought.
Although we really enjoy our occasional paddleboard trips now, I'd hate to see us invest in boards only to have them end up like the roller blades I "had to have" that haven't seen the light of day in more than a decade.
Bicycle Sport Concepts co-owner Eric Wagner says the first step in the process of determining the style of bike you need is considering the type of riding you plan to do. The commuter, mountain biker, road biker or casual rider will all be at home on a different type of bike, he says. Once the rider has determined what type of bike they need, the process in finding the right model isn't hard as long as the salesperson is knowledgeable about the industry and the store's inventory. "We've all been there at the starting point and we want people who're interested in cycling to feel comfortable," says Wagner.
If you're like me and just looking for something to cruise along the Riverwalk, take down the street to the store on occasion and ride on those party camping trips, a comfort bike is most likely the right place to start. While this style can be purchased just about anywhere, Wagner says some of the benefits to shopping with a specialty store are the fact that the bikes are professionally assembled, lighter weight and offer a smoother, more comfortable ride. Many of the local bike retailers offer free tune-ups for life after purchase and allow potential customers to test ride bikes before making a purchase.
"For a lot of people the only barrier to entering cycling is the price," says Wagner. "The old adage is true: You get what you paid for." The average beginner bike ranges from $350- $400 at Cycle Sport and prices range from around $70-$300 at area big box retailers. Academy, for one, prides itself on being the preferred store for families and beginners.
"The biggest pro to shopping with us is going to be the price with everything from the bike itself to the accessories and even the bike rack for your car," says Bergen. From kids bikes and BMX models to cruisers, road bikes and mountain bikes, some of the local big box retailers offer a wide variety of styles at an affordable price point, but they lack the customer service of the specialty stores.
Bergen says customers are welcome to try out bikes in the store but people can't leave with a bike and the store doesn't have a precise method for helping fit bikes to the individual customer. The store does however have some of the higher tech features offered by local specialty stores like disc brakes and shocked forks or frames.
While shopping at Academy I picked out the $159.99 Ozone 500 Women's Bella Vista Comfort Bike that's got an aluminum frame, 21 speeds and linear pull brakes. The $460 Specialized Expedition comfort bike Wagner recommended for me at Cycle Sport also has an aluminum frame, 21 speeds and linear breaks. For me, the biggest difference in this bike and the Academy bike is a smoother ride and the fact that it doesn't have any pink on it, which is actually a major selling point in my mind.
For me and Hal, bikes are probably the main piece of gear we're going to invest in that specialty purchase. Unlike standup paddleboards that might be something we use less over the years or camping gear that we may need to replace as our family grows, cycling is a sport we can hopefully continue on the same bikes for years to come. In this case, making sure we get a sturdy product that fits us well and the opportunity to take advantage of those free tune-ups are factors that have the potential to save us a substantial amount of money in the coming years.