Navigating Your First REI Garage Sale

The REI garage sale is a popular way to gear up on the cheap. But what exactly happens at these sales? 

For more details, check out our experience at another REI location.

I hadn’t heard much about REI garage sales before Andy tricked me into helping him move by luring me up to the Madison sale. Oh sure, I had heard of REI, and I had heard of garage sales, but I never would have put those two together. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve picked up my fair share of Corona desk lamps from garage sales, but garage sales usually don’t have high-quality items. Not the case at REI, we found.

When you return merchandise to REI, they do not resell it, and they don’t sell items with broken packages, either. Instead of throwing those items out or donating it to adventure-starved children in third world countries, they hold periodic members-only “garage sales” (lifetime memberships can be purchase in store or online for $20). They’ll set up a separate area of the store, parking lot, or loading dock and lay out all of the returned gear they’ve been holding on to. Each item will have a tag attached to it with an original sale price, the reason it was returned, and a garage sale price on it. Granted all items are returned for a reason and all sales are final, you can still score some great deals (and most of the reasons are dumb).

As you can see, these are some serious discounts; however, all sales are final. But if you don’t like risk, you probably don’t shop at REI anyway.

Like most things Andy and I do, we wanted to go all out. But like most things Andy and I do, we don’t plan well. Enter Andy D. Not to be confused with Andy E… Andy D. is quite the planner. While us Eiters simply had the plan to “attend the REI garage sale”, Andy D. wanted to arrive three hours early and cook a three course breakfast. How does one make a three-course breakfast while waiting in 30-degree weather outside of an REI store? Cast iron everything (oh and fire).

This is totally fine to do in the parking lot I guess.

Upon arriving at the REI, we found only two people in line in front of us! Since the REI sales are a first-come-first-serve frenzy of outdoors enthusiasts, it is important to arrive early to secure a spot in line. Fortunately, Karin and Lizzy made it just a few minutes after we did, so we could all be together (we’re too old for the “he cut/she cut” playground drama).

About 100 people by 9:00 a.m. If you want to be first 40, come at least two hours early. Or two days early, just to make sure.

The Andys and I began setting up our kitchen in front of the doors, using a support pillar to block the wind. Beth and Tierney hopped on over to the grocery store to pick up some breakfast essentials, while we lit up the charcoal-chimney and fired up the MSR butane stove.

Before they told us the line actually starts by the loading dock… You can understand our mistake though.

Enter cast iron. Andy’s cast iron skillet made short work of the perfectly seasoned potatoes and bacon, which we demolished before waiting for the eggs to cook. Someday we will have an entire blog post dedicated to Andy’s cast iron cooking skills. While the skillet was occupied with the first two courses of the meal, a few of us loaded the cast iron Dutch oven with cobbler ingredients (secret family recipe) and got that bad boy cooking on the now white-hot coals. If you’ve never seen how a cast iron Dutch oven works, you should look into that.

Cobble! Cobble!

I lost track of time with all the excitement, but it seemed like the cobbler was done in less than half an hour. We offered and shared the cobbler with the two people in front of us in line and the two people behind us in line, solidifying an alliance we had been forging. Since we had three hours to kill before the sale, of course there was socializing. And upon socializing, we found that we could form an alliance and get the most out of this sale (at the expense of the people further behind us, of course). We all shared what we wanted to get, and we even scoped out and claimed specific items that were within our view. Hot items were backpacks, tents, and jackets.

Right at 10:00 am, an employee came over to announce the rules of the sale:*

  • 40 people are let in at one time until the line is gone
  • Each group of 40 gets 15 minutes to shop
  • After the 15 minutes are up, you take your items to the cashier to pay for them
  • All sales are final

Other rules were implied, such as…

  • The crack in the cement between the parking lot and loading dock may not be crossed before 10:00 am; like in Storage Wars, you can look all you want as long as you are behind that line (bringing binoculars would be helpful, nerdy).
  • No (minimal) punching

He threw open the proverbial doors to the sale and we all rushed in. Well, since we were the first ten people in line and had an alliance, we just walked hurriedly to our assigned racks. Andy D. grabbed a bunch of down jackets for us to try on (there is no time to try things on at the rack or look at sizes; when in doubt, just grab it and try it on somewhere safe, away from the other scavengers**), while Andy and I darted to the far back for the gear essentials. The nice people in front of us helped grab some backpacks that ended up with each of he Andys, and I helped another guy get a tent and a headlamp. It all happened so quickly. Our 15 minutes were gone in an instant and we walked into the store to check out. The nice thing is, once you’re in the store, you can take as much time as you want to decide if you really want something. Another 20 minutes of deliberation and tryings-ons, and we had finally settled on our purchases. When all was said and done, here is what Andy and I walked out with:

Item Retail price Garage sale price Why it was returned
Garmin Forerunner 225 GPS watch 300 50 Didn’t have the features I wanted
Icon Polar headlamp 100 20 Broken box
La Sportiva Miura VS climbing shoes 170 20 Foot curve too aggressive
REI hiking pants 50 15 Didn’t fit right, worn
REI merino hiking socks x2 11 6 Didn’t meet needs
Marmot Zeus jacket 200 60 Didn’t fit right
Under Armour heatgear shirt 20 10 Worn
REI Arete ASL 2 tent $360 $50 Used, pole stick ties delaminating
Outdoor Research Transcendent hoody $225 $60 Logo coming off, jacket worn
REI towel – XXL $32 $6 Missing packaging
Osprey 2.5L Hydraulics Reservoir $30 $15 Not used — packaging ripped
Osprey Daylite pack $50 $20 Not right size for needs
Totals $1,548 $332 Savings: $1,216 (78%)

We put most of this gear to the ultimate test on the Teton Crest Trail in our most trying adventure ever!

Andy, Beth, Lizzy, Karin, and Tier also made some fine purchases, including a black diamond headlamp, Osprey frame pack, Patagonia parka, and hundreds of dollars worth of savings more! All told, the seven of us probably picked up about $3,000 worth of gear at an 80% discount.

It doesn’t matter how steep a discount if the gear is crap though, right? Well, we have tested everything for the alleged defects, and everything works well for us, or has such a minor flaw that if it hadn’t been pointed out to us, we would not have noticed. Some reasons for return were understandable: if something is the wrong size, sure, take it back and get something that fits (and hopefully you’ll have a better secret Santa next year). Some were kind of silly: that vest you bought isn’t warm enough? That’s because vests don’t have sleeves! Others were negligible: If I can get a 70% discount because a logo is coming off, that means that you were literally paying $165 for the logo (granted Outdoor Research is a really cool brand). And our favorite was that the product was too accurately described: the Miura VS are supposed to be an extremely aggressive shoe (thanks for the 90% discount you got me though).

Our first garage sale turned out to be a success thanks to some planning, teamwork, and good friends and good company. If this got you stoked and wondering, “When is the next garage sale at an REI near me?!” you’re in luck. Most REIs across the country will be holding these sales on Saturday, March 12th (find a store near you and check their upcoming outings/events). I’ll be going to the Northbrook or Schaumburg, IL location bright and early. Maybe so early that it won’t even be bright yet. If you want to come hang out, eat food cooked in a parking lot, and load up on gear for your next adventure (summer is right around the corner!), send me an email or hit me up on the Facebook.

*If you know anything else about rules or policies that were left out, let us know so that we can be a better resource to people for future garage sales (let us know how to cite you too if you want). We will inquire this weekend about formal policies and rules.

**Sorry. We learned afterwards that some REIs may forbid this during their rules announcement (I don’t know how to tag Redditors, but thanks for letting us know, Peoplewander). The employee that made the announcement at this sale did not mention it. This was our first garage sale, and everything we read and heard about from other people recommended employing this strategy. We tried to find garage sale policies online, but there is not much information out there, especially from REI itself. That is why we wanted to write about it, so that others can have a better idea of what to expect at their first garage sale (see title of article). Hopefully the lesson of our mistake can lead to a better experience at future sales.




7 thoughts on “Navigating Your First REI Garage Sale

  1. I’ve gotten such good deals on tents at REI at their garage sales. I could never have afforded even half of the amazing gear I have without their awesome deals several times a year. It’s a great way to get some amazing stuff, for sure. Fun to read about other’s stories too!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Update as of today. I have scored some killer deals at previous garage sales and was excited to go today. When we got there my wife and I looked at each other as the prices seemed higher than normal. I asked an employee and she said, “we have a new corporate wide sales policy and there will be no additional discounting.” We were flabbergasted as typically they would lower the incredible prices further just before closing. It seemed like the norm was about 20-30% off retail. Example- Solomon shoes retail for $110 garage sale price $89.99. I think this policy change may have altered my love for garage sales moving forward. Super sad day 😦


  3. just went to a garage sale today in Troy MI. very disappointing. atlas 1025 snowshoes were said to be $199 and marked down to $120. did a quick check online and saw them on rei’s website for $149. that’s a measly 20% off. granted the shoes were in good shape and returned because they were just sitting in someone’s garage, but I have not had any luck in the last 3 garage sales here. I could honestly buy non defective/worn gear for the same price with a little research and no risk on the internet. no more wasting my time.


    1. We’ve heard some feedback from people’s experiences at other locations across the country, and it does seem to be hit or miss sometimes. Different stores have slightly different policies, and I’m pretty sure each individual store manager decides the markdowns.

      Also, the price on the tag is how much the item was originally sold for, I believe, and not the store’s listed MSRP, so that might be where that incongruence comes from.

      Sorry to hear your store doesn’t have great deals. Hopefully you at least had fun hanging out with people in line.


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