When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, PA, we used to drive to a place in the suburbs called Ralph's Army Navy Surplus to buy camping and backpacking equipment. There wasn't anything like REI or EMS back then. Ralph's was one of those special stores, packed to the gills with interesting stuff, and I used to love going there to look at everything from tube tents and fishing rods to gas masks and wool army blankets.
First Floor – Men's and Women's Technical Clothing, Stoves, Filters, Gloves and Knives
I thought about Ralph's again today when my wife and I visited Hilton's Tent City in downtown Boston. Hilton's has been open since 1947 and is an institution in the Boston and Cambridge hiking community. It's one of the few places in the Boston Area that has a decent selection of plastic mountaineering boots and the boot fitting expertise required to fit people properly.
Second Floor – Backpacks, Sleeping Bags, Footware, Cookware
Like Ralph's, Hilton's it is jammed wall-to-wall with gear, four floors of it. They carry an impressive assortment of brands including Asolo, Scarp, Petzl, Arcteryx, Osprey, Golite, Granite Gear, Marmot, Western Mountaineering, Mountain Hardwear, and Patagonia (amongst others) and a wide assortment of equipment suitable for anyone from beginning hikers and backpackers through hardcore climbers and mountaineers.
Third Floor – Camping Gear, Outer Jackets, and Cross-Country Skis
The staff at Hilton's is very knowledgeable and friendly. It's the kind of place where you can hang out for hours chatting and trying on gear without any pressure. Browsing is not only tolerated, but encouraged. Prices are also quite reasonable and there are some fantastic deals available in the store (as well in their online bargain basement) on just about everything.
Fourth Floor – Wall-to-Wall Tents
Hilton's is located across from the new Boston Garden (that's what we still call it) on a small side street just behind the Boston Beer Works. Parking can be a bit challenging if there an event, but the store is one block away from the North Station T stop making it very convenient if you're a local Bostonian.
I admit that I like REI, but it's still important that we support local retailers like Hilton's. So if you live in the Boston area, pay them a visit. You might find a really good deal.