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Shoppers on Amazon.com can buy an entire backpacking setup for less than a hundred bucks. You’ll find a 4-ounce canister stove for $5.60; a 50-degree-rated sleeping bag for $25.98; a two-person, 3.3-pound tent for $20.99; a 90-liter backpack for $39.90. Need hiking boots, too? Tack on another $34.99.
These aren’t closeouts from established brands, nor are they illegal branded knockoffs. In fact, some gear (like the $5.60 stove) carries no brand name at all. Others are offered under names you might not recognize: NTK, Mountain Trails, Kenox, Belvie. Most of those companies don’t even maintain websites, let alone a customer service staff. But their gear looks a lot like the products made by trusted brands such as MSR, Kelty and Marmot, and could even be made by the same folks. Their ultra-low prices can seem irresistible to first-time buyers (and even experienced outdoorsmen) who wonder if the lookalikes can match the performance of proven brands that charge six to 20 times more for their stoves, tents and backpacks.
“This has been going on for quite awhile, and it’s not going to decrease,” said Chris Parkhurst, MSR’s vice president. “As trade barriers get lower, our competition is coming from everywhere.”
Copycats aren’t unique to the outdoor industry. The fashion world is rife with lookalike Longchamp purses and Armani imitators. Electronics are another popular target, with $13 Bluetooth earphones undercutting the $250 versions. “They’re aesthetic knockoffs,” said Eric Greene, Kelty’s vice president and general manager. “They look the part, but rarely function the part.”
So who are these brands, and how can they afford to sell gear for a scant fraction of the prices charged by established names?
They’re not telling. Some manufacturers (such as Kenox) publish no contact information or website. Those that do (including Etekcity, Belvie and Naturehike) didn’t respond to requests for comment. Neither did Amazon, which sells the bulk of the cut-rate gear available to U.S. consumers.
Most of Amazon’s cheapest gear comes from China or Brazil. Company websites — when they exist — are nearly-empty templates with text that suggests a lack of English fluency (“Belvie comes from French words, la belle vie, it means wonderful life, so we dedicated to creat [sic] good outdoor products for human being’s wonderful life”). Product descriptions can be similarly awkward: “Easy to set up and ideal for camping, bakcpakcing [sic], overnight trips and many other outdoor activities,” reads an Etekcity stove.
Product information is often as thin as the company profiles. Sleeping bags’ comfort ratings and backpacks’ capacities are often missing from Amazon’s listings, and tent sizes can be inaccurate. “You could not put 4 people in this tent with a shoehorn and a pound of grease!” one Amazon reviewer said of the Mountain Trails Twin Peaks 3- to 4-Person Sport Dome Tent.
It’s unclear if this unhappy customer was able to return his tent. Return policies vary, and that’s part of the challenge of navigating the cheap gear marketplace. Most cut-rate gear companies have no brand presence — only product. That’s what sets them apart from trusted brands, Parkhurst said. “It takes a lot of bandwidth to try to improve a product based on customer feedback,” he said. “Those companies are definitely not investing in understanding how a consumer’s using it, coming back and trying to figure out how to make it better. They’re bypassing all that with a copycat product and asking only, ‘How can we make this for $1?’”
Although many brands’ gear often comes out of a relatively small number of factories, the lookalikes probably result from imitation, rather than intellectual property theft. “This is not a security issue,” Greene said. Copycats simply reverse-engineer what’s already on the market and build lookalikes in second- and third-tier production facilities. “We get approached all the time by factories promising to produce our bags or camp furniture for one-third less, but we always say no, because they just don’t have the competency,” Greene says.
Not only does the construction tend to be shoddy, but the materials aren’t always comparable to the originals. MSR formulates many of its own metals and plastics to its precise specifications, while imitators generally buy the cheapest steel and fabrics they can find. “Something has to give,” Parkhurst said. “There’s a shortcut somewhere along the cycle. It could be in the quality of the manufacturing process, or in materials or a lack of testing.” Indeed, buyers’ online reviews of MSR lookalikes often comment on their rough appearance and machining.
But such knockoffs proliferate in the U.S. because relatively few regulations are imposed on imports. The Canadian Standards Association maintains quality standards for that country’s imports, and Australia’s ACCC imposes similar screenings. But in the U.S., “You have lower barriers to entry,” Parkhurst said. MSR opts to abide by the highest level of international regulatory requirements, and it burn-tests every stove it sells. But he doubts that the no-name imports attempt similar safety standards, and he questions Amazon’s willingness to take on that liability risk.
“Who’s taking on the burden of responsibility?” he asked. The risk isn’t so high for cheap tents and boots, which may leak — but are unlikely to cause significant injury to the people using them. Flammables, however, up the ante. “I imagine that something, someday will cause an accident, and with stoves, it won’t be just a whoops!” he speculated.
Parkhurst also questioned the proliferation of disposable gear, which puts pressure on established companies to be cheerleaders for long-lasting reliability over short-term commodity. Greene agreed: “We’ve gone through great lengths to communicate the value of a Kelty-built product,” he said. “Our promise is not low price, but value for the money.”
And some technologies remain out of reach of most imitators. MSR protects its intellectual property with patents for its shaker jet and radiant burner, which are difficult for competitors to copy. Kelty also tries to outpace copycats with innovation. “Any time you’re really good at anything, you will be copied,” Greene said. “So you always have to stay one step ahead. [Aesthetic knockoffs] keep you on your toes and force you to live up to your brand name, or else pretty soon they’ll catch up to you.”
MSR’s vertical integration also helps the company guard its trade secrets. So does its stateside manufacturing: Its iconic snowshoes are made only by MSR, not in foreign factories shared by multiple brands. That limits knockoffs to gear that’s easily replicable.
It also means that some knockoffs — which imitate simple designs — perform fairly well. Piezos fail on many super-cheap backpacking stoves, but according to product reviews and forum posts, the rest of the stove often functions reliably for two years or more. And buyers frequently report satisfaction with their $40 backpacks.
“You get what you pay for” is the conventional wisdom. But it’s not yet clear what that means when it comes to factory-direct gear. To see how they stack up, check in with Backpacker magazine, which will be testing the copycats and reporting on how they stack up in a 2016 feature.