Who do I like? Vasque and Keen for shoes/boots. Gregory Mountain Products for backpacks. REI for backpacking tents. Columbia for pants. Wigwam for socks. MSR for stoves.
I’m all about promoting the folks who build cool gear in their garages, but there are a few corporate outfits that sell stuff worth having. Usually it’s cheaper for the usual reasons: low pay overseas. I’m pretty sure I don’t own anything from The North Face; I might have a pair of socks from Patagonia (picked up on deep discount somewhere). I’m sure I’ve covered these in bits at pieces over the years, but here’s an all-in-one-place summation:
I had great luck with a pair of leather Vasque boots — sturdy build, good traction, nice tread life. Lately I’m walking in Keen mid-ankle hikers. They’re essentially sandals with a roof, with all the comfort features Keen built a reputation on plus decent ankle support and good traction. For awhile I was crazy about lightweight trail-running shoes from Montrail and I could go back to them when my Keens wear out. Thing about shoes is: if they feel good, buy ‘em. When they die, buy more. Also, get picky about finding shoes in your foot width: New Balance has the most extra-wide models; haven’t hiked in ‘em myself but I’ve near heard anybody complain about NB shoes.
I’m a big fan of Gregory Mountain Products, and not just because I interviewed the founder, Wayne Gregory, yesterday. I have a Gregory G weekend pack and Icarus daypack. Both are light and strong with a modicum of bells and whistles (and both are no longer sold). I was also one of the last fans of Dana Designs packs, but the brand has all but vanished now (Though you can still buy Dana Gleason’s packs at MysteryRanch.com)
The REI-branded tents sold by the retail giant are built to compete with all the major name brands and they hold up solidly. I have an old Quarter Dome that deserves more nights on the dirt, and had a really cool car-camping tent called the Hobitat that I had to unload after it turned out my wife was only being nice when she agreed to go camping with me. You don’t usually expect much from a store brand, but REI’s gear tends to compare well with the other big brands.
Columbia is one of those middle-of-the-road companies that doesn’t seem too flashy, edgy, greenie, etc. I’ve had the same pair nylon hiking pants with the zip-off legs for going on five years now. There are a few tiny rips and tears but have held up remarkably well. The much flashier Ex Officio pants I own aren’t nearly as impressive.
Also, I can’t help but rave again on the staying power of Wigwam hiking socks. I still haven’t worn through the soles on the pairs I bought in 2005.
Well, that’s enough of my rambling… how about adding your faves in the comments?