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Outdoor Retailer Return Policies

Backpacking Gear Pile

I buy a lot of backpacking gear online, but no matter how much product research I do up-front, there are times when I need to return it. The sizing might be wrong, the product might weigh more than the web site said, or the gear may be less capable than I expected.

Whatever the reason, it helps to buy outdoor products from online merchants with liberal return policies that are designed to protect the consumer and make returning products easy.

For my reference, as well as yours, I’ve compiled the current (October- 2012) return policies of the multi-brand outdoor retailers that I do business with, as well as some comments about my  experience returning products to them. If you have any questions about specific cases, please contact the retailer directly. I don’t work for any them and I can’t predict how they’ll apply their policies for every circumstance.

REI Returns and Exchanges

REI’s return policy is legendary and they do not have a time limit on when you can return a purchase. Their attitude is that you should be 100% satisfied, so you can often return a product even if you’ve used it and it didn’t work well. They just ask that you clean or launder it before returning it if it has been used.

I usually just drive to my local REI which is 15 minutes away and return the product in person, but you can also return products to them by mail, even without the original receipt! They do not pay for return shipping or postal insurance, however, but in-store returns are a way to cut this additional cost.

Backcountry.com’s Return Policy

Backcountry.com has an unlimited product return policy, if you are not completely satisfied with your purchase or if your gear fails it’s warranty. There is no time limit on returns, but you need to get an RMA number from their website to return a product and Backcountry.com does deduct the cost of postage from your refund if you print out a UPS label on their web site. The advantage of doing this instead of paying for the postage yourself is that you don’t have to pay for insurance. The disadvantage is that you have to drop your return off at a UPS store or pick-up point, which can be a pain.

MooseJaw.com Return Policy

MooseJaw’s return policy is ok, but not as good as the ones from REI or Backcountry.com. They will issue you a refund, without a time limit, as long as your gear is RESELLABLE. I have no idea what that means, and there are exceptions like load bearing climbing equipment which can’t be returned. Like Backcountry.com, they do supply you with a prepaid shipping label (Fedex), but the cost of shipping is deducted from your purchase price.

Eastern Mountain Sports Return Policy

EMS also has a good return policy. There’s no time limit on returns and you can return a purchase without the original receipt provided that you give them proper id. All items must be in good condition upon return, preferably with all accessories and original packaging, but you can use an item before returning it.

EMS makes you pay for the return shipping yourself, but they will refund the shipping cost if it’s the result of a manufacturing defect or shipping error. There is also the option to return the product to one of their 60+ stores, which can further reduce the cost of a return.

Campsaver.com Return Policy

Campsaver only provides a 60-day return policy, although new, unused, and unopened items can be be returned to them for up to a full year. Items returned after the 60 day time limit are assessed a 50% restocking fee. Campsaver requires that you obtain an RA# from their web site or customer service department before returning an item and does not pay for return postage, unless you are returning an item that was received in damaged condition.

Altrec.com’s

Altrec’s return policy is very similar to Campsaver’s – 60 days in original condition with all packaging and accessories, except for climbing equipment, climbing helmets, undergarmets including swim suits, and water bottles or equipment with an integrated water reservoir. None of these exceptions are returnable, so buyer beware. The only exceptions to these exceptions or any other products are defects caused by manufacturer error, which can be returned at any time.

Altrec does not don’t pay postage or provide you with shipping labels, so make sure you insure your package before returning it. They also require that you create and print out a packaging list to include in your return.

Zappos.com Shipping and Returns

I think Zappos has one of the best return policies online and I make a point to buy hiking boots and trail shoes from them if they have them in stock and at a competitive price.

When buying shoes online, especially hiking boots or trail shoes, you cannot rely on manufacturer fit lists to get the correct size for your foot. Zappos totally gets this, and so when I buy shoes from them, I buy several pairs at once and bracket the size that I expect I need, so I can try out different sized shoes out with a variety of socks. Then I return the shoes that didn’t fit.

Zappos encourages this behavior by paying for all product shipping and return shipping.costs (US only) for 365 days from purchase. You can return unused items in their original packaging as long as that the merchandise is the same condition as when received. For shoes, this generally means you shouldn’t wear them outside or scuff them up. To return a product, you log into their web site, print out a prepaid UPS and USPS label for your package and send it back. Here’s a great video that illustrates the process.

Conclusions

Those are the main retailers that I buy mainstream backpacking gear from in the US. While I haven’t included any of the cottage manufacturers I do business with, I’ve never experienced any issues with them that weren’t easily rectified with an email. Ultralight cottage industry manufacturers rely on word-of-mouth referrals for their business and in my experience will go out of their way to make sure that all of their customers are satisfied, to the point of repairing used gear for free and paying the postage.

I hope this post was useful and encourage you not to take advantage of retailers who have liberal return policies unless you need them.

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13 comments

  1. Wow – that was fast. I just wrote this post! Thanks for the update. Good business move for them.

  2. You'd better hurry up and write something about winning the lottery.

  3. One difference I noted between REI and EMS is that as long as you are an REI member you will get reimbursed what you paid for an item – whether you have a receipt or not. This is due to their look up feature. If you been paid a dividend on the item – that amount gets deducted. At EMS – if you do not have receipt – you get reimbursed the on going price for that item.

  4. The hardest one for me is boots/shoes because they, more than anything, don't reveal themselves as worth keeping until I have spent a day on the trail. The stairs in my house just don't imitate real hills and rocks. Any ideas how to judge a shoe before it is too late?

  5. Find one you like and keep buying it. Unfortunately, there's no way of knowing until you break them in.

  6. Bought a $250 pack at an EMS in VT. Two trips and three months later it wasnt working out for me. Returned to an EMS in CT with no questions asked. Works for me!

  7. I never buy shoes online because sizing is a risky proposition & return shipping adds up. Didn't know about Zappos' policy. I'll definitely check them out next time. thanks.

  8. Great list. I do a lot of shopping at REI, Backcountry, and Zappos, and they're great.

    Not necessarily in the "mountaineering" category of outdoor equipment, I have also gotten some outdoor clothing from LL Bean and Filson, both of which have a warranty and return policy similar to REI. Love it, or return it, guaranteed forever. Hard to beat that.

  9. Kind of late to the party with this one, but – one other thing about REI's fantastic return policy? The "garage sales" of returned merchandise they have! About every 3 months the REI near me has a garage sale of returned & damaged merchandise. You need to be a member to purchase items from it, and it's usually necessary to get there a few hours early to get in line if you want a chance at any good stuff.

    Although you need to be careful what you buy since some items are considered damaged out, we have gotten some AWESOME deals at these sales. Our backpacking packs were $19.99 retired rentals, and for beginner backpackers like us, they are perfect. My favorite Keen boots were $12, returned because they "leaked" – I have hiked in all conditions w/ them & no leaks. My fiance always gets a pair or two of shoes/boots for $15 each (he goes through shoes fast!).

    Sorry for the super long comment but the deals at these sales are amazing & I had to share! (no, I don't work for REI, I'm just a fangirl!) http://www.rei.com/event/15494/session/19066

  10. Hi All,

    I also rely on these awesome return policies, and recently asked Moosejaw what exactly "re-sellable" means. The answer is…….

    They need to be able to re-sell it as a brand new item. They don't have any type of re-selling garage sale like REI, so the thing has to show no signs of wear.

    I told them they should make this clear on the website and not be so cryptic, but understand why they may want to be (competing against unlimited return policies makes must be tough). I then asked why I would ever buy from them vs. competitors who have the awesome return policy, and the answer was the rewards program. (not worth it in my mind, but to each their own and maybe I'm missing something).

    FYI, for ya'll. Sadly, prob wont be buying from Moosejaw again. REI, Backcountry, Altrec, and EMS it is!

  11. You CANNOT beat REI and Backcountry. I found a softshell jacket on geartrade for 66$ On Backcountry it was 160$ Why buy from BC? Because 3 years down the line when the seams start to delam I can get my money back from BC. Is spending the extra 100$ worth total peace of mind? I think so.

    Also I despise EMS for their return policy. Yea you can return it but if your seams start to delam after 2 years you get the corrected amount. So if your jacket was say 300$ new and 3 years down the line they determine its now worth 50$ since its 3 years old and its very used, you get pretty much nothing. That happened to my Burton 3L it started delaming. Burton offered to fix it but i didnt want a fix I wanted a 300$ Jacket not to fail in the first place.

    If EMS is reading, ill only buy from REI and BC for now on.

  12. EMS will try to sell you something else first! They also seem to care more about selling a more expensive item, than your fit and happiness.

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