“I’ve been thinking about things on a cost-per-use basis lately,” my friend Nick said to me. 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 is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. Follow him at his blog, Semi-Rad.