How Much Does Your Gear Cost Per Use?

yeti sb66 660“I’ve been thinking about things on a cost-per-use basis lately,” my friend Nick said to me a few weeks ago. Nick doesn’t make rash decisions on anything that costs money, evidenced by the holes in the elbows of the merino wool hoody he wears to work most cold days. If he swipes his credit card for something over $100, he’s thought about it for days, maybe weeks. And then he pays off the credit card balance immediately. And one day we got to talking about outdoor gear.

People sometimes talk about outdoor sports as being “expensive,” which is true. Want to start trad climbing from scratch? You’ll drop between $1,000 and $1,500 on a harness, shoes, rope, rack and helmet. An entry-level mountain bike is around $1,000, more if you get a full suspension. And skiing: The skis, boots and clothes alone are enough of a sticker shock, before you even look at $100-a-day lift tickets and $1,000 season passes. And $1,000 is a lot of money to most folks — a week of work if you make $50,000 a year.

But most of us are more than happy to slide our credit card on bikes, skis and climbing gear — think of all the turns, the after-work rides, all the places we can go and things we can experience if we just get the gear first: Face shots at Jackson Hole, splitters at Squamish, sunsets at Joshua Tree, tacky slickrock in Moab.

But Nick’s question is: How many times are you really going to use that $3,500 bike? The $600 worth of cams. The $800 skis? No, wait, the $850 powder skis. The really fat ones.

The fact is, if you buy a $3,500 mountain bike and ride it 20 times before you talk yourself into buying a new one, you paid $175 per ride. (not counting gas, new parts, tune-ups, replacement tires, chain lube, and all that stuff).

Craigslist is full of ads selling used bikes that have only been ridden “a handful of times.” You could say that person wasted their money, which is a little sad. But the sadder thing is that they had a dream and it didn’t come true, despite their investment. Dreams of riding that new mountain bike in Moab, Fruita, on the Colorado Trail, all ended up dying in the garage.

Things happen, life changes, we get busy, unforeseen things come up, and we don’t get to do some of the things we wanted to, and sometimes that ends up in an almost-new pair of skis or a bike showing up on Craigslist. It’s pretty enlightening to think about what each day of skiing costs, and what else is worth that kind of money, to you. How many pitches are you going to get out of that $240 rope. How many miles you’ve put on your carbon-frame road bike.

A few years ago, a friend told me that he and his wife got three fondue pots for their wedding three years prior. I asked him how many times they had made fondue since, and he said “three.” I said Wow, so basically you could have thrown each fondue pot in the trash after each time you made fondue, huh.

Maybe at one end of the Cost-Per-Use spectrum is your trusty, five-year-old $11 water bottle that you drink out of every time you hike, backpack, climb, or sit at your desk at work (less than a penny per use). At the other end is the $500 pair of mountaineering boots you bought for a climb of Rainier, then promptly decided mountaineering was no fun ($500 per use, or $250 per day). Nick’s unscientific worst-case example is the treadmill, plenty of which can be found for free on Craigslist.  “Those get used twice,” Nick says. “You can pretty much say that a treadmill’s cost per use is half of what you paid for it.”

Ever look in your gear closet/room/garage, see something you haven’t used much, and feel guilty? Too-shiny set of quickdraws, a backpack that still looks brand new two years after you brought it home from the store? Might be time to knock the dust off it and start using it more. Because I’m pretty sure as cost-per-use of your outdoor gear goes down, quality of life goes up.

Brendan Leonard writes Semi-Rad.

{ 14 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Matt Freeman

    Great article, Brendan. So much of what we do seems dictated by the gear — “If only I had a new XX, I could do YY.” And so much of what we buy ends up decorating our garages/closets/hallways.

    But here’s the intangible: how much is an experience worth? Let’s say it’s not about digging into your closet and using what you got; let’s say you’re getting into a sport for the first time and dropping major coin to do it. Be it climbing, mountain biking, kayaking, skiing, the value of that experience can’t be measure by the price tag alone, the $$ on your credit card or leaving your bank account. How do you quantify the emotions? The thrill of learning something new, the joy of being in the outdoors, the camaraderie of friends around you, the discovery of new places…these are things that price tag can’t measure. Those are memories and sensations you carry with you long after the gear is sold or worn out, that you’ll look back on long after your body can’t handle those rigors any more. That make the drudgery of the 9-5 seem worth it.

    The older I get, the more I’ve discovered that experiences (and the things that help you acquire them) have an immeasurable value. Yes, we as “outdoor enthusiasts” can over-vector on gear (my own garage can attest to that). But sometimes, that gear gets you places and experiences that you wouldn’t otherwise acquire.

  • AKP

    Oh god, I read this at work, and I am now making a spreadsheet. I was proud of myself for some of the numbers until I factored in Whistler Blackcomb seasons passes for 4 years (the age of my oldest skis). Worth it regardless.

  • Fred

    Great article……… wait, what is that bike in the picture???? I HAVE to have it! With a bike like that I KNOW I will be able to finally make my maiden voyage to fruita without being mocked for having bike technology that is two years old! Where did I leave my visa……

  • Sandor Lengyel

    Nice. I’ve been doing this for years with bikes, except that I calculate dollars per mile ridden. That first ride is always expensive.

    My old obnoxious blue and yellow Cannondale road bike? Rode it over 25,000 miles, paid $3K for it. About $0.12 per mile. Not bad. (I even sold it on eBay for over $400).

    My newer carbon 29er mountain bike is running in the $1.75/mile range. I hope to get it down to the $0.50/mile range before selling it for something shiny and new.

    My 1989 Marin mountain bike? Still in service as a town/urban assault/cargo bike. So heinously ugly and beat up I don’t bother locking it. Runs great, worth zilch. $600 in 1989. In the pennies per mile range at this point.

    It’s too bad gear evolves and makes old gear seem obsolete every few years.

  • Jesse

    Who spends 3500 on a bike and only rides it 20 times? What about resale? A 3500 bike with only 20 rides on it is surely worth 2000. So 1500/20 rides=75 bucks/ride. Keep it for 2 seasons, it’s 37.50/ride.

    Maybe someone that only goes out 20 times a season shouldn’t be buying new, expensive bikes every season.

  • Chris

    I carefully buy kit I really want and then try to use it until it has completely expired!
    If I do replace something I always pass it on, preloved kit is how I began most sports and I often choose it now not due to the cost but to reduce my impact, I love the outdoors and not being wasteful helps preserve it.

  • John Tannock

    Way too much number crunching above not to mention the time spent doing it rather than using your toys. If a better kayak makes running the creeks more fun, I’m on it. If fatter skis make the hike in more worth it, um, scratch that. I kinda like face shots on the older ones.

  • Andrew

    Maybe the real heroes are the ones who realize they will never use the gear in the attic and sell it or give it away so someone else can enjoy it. Unlike myself who tends to be a gear hoarder.

  • gnarlydog

    Having worked in retail for a few years at the major outdoor gear store chain in USA I remembered customers wanting gear that they DID NOT need.
    They were not buying the gear but the dream of being able to go/do places/stuff that fuelled their imagination.
    I still think it’s better than buying a sports car and thinking that I can drive like a NASCAR driver, with associated consequences.
    Of course that gear that they bought would sit in a closet and every so often they would look at it and sigh: one day…
    Dreams are things money can’t buy, for the rest there is MasterCard :-)
    Oh wait, people are buying dreams… whatever

  • Mark Hespenheide

    I run these kinds of numbers occasionally, but not too often. As John Tannock alludes to, if you have the income to be able to afford nice toys, they can be worth it. Or, as Andrew and Chris and Jesse imply, there’s always the second-hand market — for buying or selling.

    The best-value object I ever bought in my life, though, was an EMS down sleeping bag that I picked up off-season on closeout for about 90 dollars in 1994. I used it on 20+ backpacks and two field seasons of geology work, eventually putting in over 250 nights on it before selling it in 2003 for $40. That works out to 20 cents a night (admittedly ignoring the costs of washing it once or twice a year). That’s probably the best usage-rate I’ll ever hit…

  • Chris

    It’s funny when you see a nice rental mountain bike for $100/day, that seems very expensive. But buying a $3500 bike, riding it 25 times & selling on eBay for $1000 … It’s the same $100/day in the end (and you have to wash the bike, replace parts … you’ll only have one type of bike whereas if you rent you can hire a downhill bike one day and XC the next).

    The experiences are awesome, but you can have the same experience on borrowed or hired gear. There was that outdoor gear peer to peer rental service on here a few months back.

    So go out this week, find someone that has the gear for a sport you want to try, and offer to take them out for a day doing whatever sport it is you have the gear for in exchange for a day out with them.

  • Mike

    I was wondering where this article was going, until the last sentence. BTW, thanks for reminding me why (in part) I turned in my downhill skis for xc 20 years ago.

  • Charlie

    Agree with the final sentence sentiment, but would caution against thinking about cost per use too much. It’s kind of like goofball financial advice pointing out if you skipped our daily $3 workday latte, you would save $750 a year … to which the reply is “Yes, but then I would miss out on something that makes my existence that much more enjoyable!”.

    Your hard earned has no value other than what its used for, and if you’re buying beautiful quality gear that brings you joy over the long run (whether through use or even the simple pleasure of ‘ownership’), then those dollars went down doing what they were meant to do!

    The same concept applies to your time: if you think about the time spent planning, preparing, then traveling to the location, setting up and then packing up before travelling home, there are quite a few activities that would be shockingly hard to justify … at least until you think of all the associated time as (a) being part of the fun, and (b) being time you had to spend doing _something_.

    I read once that traveling and buying gear were the only two sure ways of converting dollars into happiness. I think I read this in a psychology journal… but then again, it might have been an adventure outfitters advertisement…

  • James

    I have a 3/4 length sleep mat that had many happy years of use. I kept a permanent marker in its stuff sack and would write on the sleep mat all the places I used it. I only managed to fill half of one side of the mat with locations and notes but it proved a great reference to how much use I got out of it and reading it still brings back many great memories. Sadly it has started to delaminated and I no longer use it (and can’t bring myself to throw it out). It’s cost per use got down to around a few cents per nights sleep and in places from Oktoberfest Munich to back country ski trips in the Australian Alpine Nat Park and an MTB holiday In Canada….that beats any 5 star hotel bed on price, location, views and stories to share.

    Thanks for the great article

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