The North Face vs. Patagonia: Which Outdoor Brand Is Right For You?

May 18, 2021

Category: Gear

With a massive explosion in the popularity of outdoor adventure over the last decade-or-so, it seems like there’s a new adventure-focused brand, especially in the apparel segment, popping up every single day. And while the market still seems to be expanding, there are some mainstays in the industry that have weathered both the good and bad, standing head-and-shoulders above the rest. In that regard, there are two brands that probably float to the top of people’s minds: Patagonia and The North Face.

While an outside, uninformed perspective might suggest that these two brands are relatively interchangeable, there are some significant differences that help distinguish them from one another. And yes, we mean much more than just their street cred or logos. In fact, the purpose of the article you’re presently reading is to help illuminate those differences — both as a means of better educating you regarding the significance and importance of each brand, but also to help you better decide which, if either, better suits your preferences, lifestyle, philanthropic interest, and more. Whether or not you’ve chosen to take a stand, the following will serve to further illuminate the differences (and similarities) between Patagonia and The North Face.

A History Of Adventure

Trailblazing Brands

Interestingly, both Patagonia and The North Face originated on the California coast within five years of one another and both were the product of the founders’ interest in mountainous adventure. And while it’s easy to see many surface-level parallels in their stories, there are some pretty significant divergences for those looking more closely. Below, you can learn a little of just what brought these brands from small sparks of ideas into the gear-slinging giants they are today.

Photo: Patagonia

Patagonia

Though the company was initially founded in Ventura, California in 1973, the brand origins go a bit further back than that — 1953, to be more specific. It was then that a 14-year-old member of the Southern California Falconry Club, by the name of Yvon Chouinard, would first discover a love for rock climbing. Eventually, this would lead the young Chouinard to start teaching himself blacksmithing, in order to craft his own rock climbing gear — which he tested by climbing in Yosemite. The intrepid adventurer would spend the next few years living out of his car, selling his handmade climbing equipment to make ends meet, until joining Tom Frost in founding Chouinard Equipment in 1965 — a venture that would last for nine years.

While Chouinard Equipment went on to become the largest supplier of climbing equipment in the United States, concerns arose — namely that the pitons the company manufactured were damaging the very rocks the would-be Patagonia founder came to love. In his first act of environmental-focused product design, Chouinard developed aluminum chocks, which wouldn’t damage the said rocks, as a replacement for the hammered-in pitons. Over time, Chouinard Equipment also began selling apparel and other climbing gear — in a constant search for finding the best, most comfortable, most efficient equipment and apparel for the sport — and, thus, Patagonia was born.

But it didn’t stop there — not by a long shot. Over the years, Patagonia would continue to innovate and set the standard in the outdoor equipment and apparel industry. This included innovations like the development of propylene long underwear, which was a game-changer in the outdoor world, as it marked the first large shift away from cotton canvas into more technical synthetic fabrics with a performance focus. Patagonia was also responsible, in the early 1980s, for incorporating bright, vibrant colors into their gear, which was also a bit of a revolution in a world marked by muted colors — a choice that would define the brand for decades following.

Now, Patagonia has grown into one of the largest and most impactful companies in the outdoor industry. And while brand recognition and innovation are certainly points of pride, some of the things that Patagonia is most proud of are much more kind, caring, and human — things like crafting a corporate culture that’s more like a welcoming community, taking on huge environmental- and wildlife-focused educational preservation campaigns, and cultivating common ground amongst for-profit and non-profit organizations. As you might expect, all of this still continues to this day as a part of Patagonia’s ongoing efforts.

Photo: The North Face

The North Face

Like Patagonia, The North Face was actually started on the California coast. More specifically, the idea came into existence in San Francisco, when a pair of hiking fanatics decided to open their own mountaineering-focused retail space all the way back in 1966. Within two years, the little outdoor retailer moved across the Bay to the Berkeley area and began producing its own in-house gear and equipment — intent on serving all those with a taste for adventure and hoping to foster a closer connection between said adventurers and the greater wild world. Naturally, these perspectives and goals quickly made TNF a fan-favorite amongst intrepid explorers, especially those with a taste for the untouched corners of the globe.

In another development that mirrors that of Patagonia, the 1980s were a boon for The North Face — marked by an expanding catalog of vibrant, performance-focused gear. In fact, The North Face expanded into the world of skiing and, by the end of the 1980s, became the only US supplier of a full collection of ski gear, sleeping bags, packs, and tents. It was also at this point that The North Face began making a name for itself as a company driven by innovation, marked by the introduction of its unrivaled Tekware collection — performance apparel made to provide outdoor adventurers “the ultimate fit and function.”

From that moment through today, The North Face has become synonymous with peak outdoor performance gear across a wide variety of categories. And it isn’t just in the fabrics and designs themselves, but rather the manufacturing processes, as well. Now, The North Face is looked to as one of the primary trendsetters in the industry — a trend that doesn’t look to be changing anytime soon. Even as the brand delves into areas previously untapped, like the world of streetwear, the label is continuously amongst the most well-respected for their constant dedication to doing things better than ever before. The brand has already solidified itself over the last 50 years and, if the folks running the show have anything to say about it, they’re going to keep that trend going for the next 50 years or more.

Innovative Offerings

The Paths Less Traveled

Put simply: no brand becomes a household name (or something close to it) without some clever innovation. The North Face and Patagonia are certainly no exception to that rule. That being said, the approach that these brands take in that regard do differ on some pretty key points — with Patagonia focusing more on sustainability and TNF on sheer performance — which we’ll be outlining in the following section.

Photo: Patagonia

Patagonia

As mentioned, Patagonia was actually born of innovation — first with the climbing-focused gear made by precursor brand Chouinard Equipment, but also with the fabrics and technologies used in the brand’s outdoor apparel and equipment. That started with the brand introducing innovative materials previously unheard of in the outdoor space — namely in regards to the use of propylene as a non-moisture-absorbing alternative to cotton for long underwear and the introduction of the idea of layering with outdoor gear. And while Patagonia continues to try and incorporate the latest and greatest of fabrics in their apparel, they’ve also put an increased focus on utilizing recycled materials — including wool, cashmere, cotton, fishing nets, nylon, polyester, spandex, and more. While these materials are widely used in their virginal forms across the outdoor space, finding clever ways to recycle them is a significant endeavor that benefits the planet without sacrificing performance for the end-user.

Of course, that’s not all that Patagonia has to offer in regards to innovation. They also have several proprietary technologies and fabrics not available elsewhere. This includes things like REFIBRA lyocell, a material crafted in conjunction with Lenzing (an Austrian manufacturer) made from wood and recycled cotton fibers. The brand also utilizes a natural rubber called Yulex, as an alternative to the less-sustainable neoprene typically used in wetsuits. As you can probably garner on your own, many of Patagonia’s innovation endeavors are focused on crafting functional gear that’s also good for the rest of the world — which might be reason enough to pick them as your preferred outfitter.

Photo: The North Face

The North Face

When it comes to technical innovation, The North Face is pretty difficult to beat, as the brand puts an enormous amount of effort into research and development and new technologies, which is likely why they’re lauded by some of the most intrepid explorers and adventurers on the planet. In fact, TNF actually contract with world-class athletes throughout the innovation process, genuinely taking their feedback into consideration in the development of new gear. That extends to working with material manufacturers, as well — which has led to the creation of things like PacLite (the lightest and most packable GORE-TEX shell fabric presently available), FUTURELIGHT (the brand’s most advanced breathable-waterproof technology), THERMOBALL (a synthetic alternative to goose down), and so much more.

These partnerships and processes sometimes even go to extremes in order to get the absolute best results imaginable. For instance, to test the wind resistance and overall durability of their tent lineup, The North Face took their tents, as well as those of their competitors, and set them up to content with the four engines of a C130 plane — which produces 13,000 ft-lbs of torque and wind speeds exceeding 80mph. And that’s just one example of the lengths that TNF will go to in order to ensure that their gear is second to none. If sheer gumption and no-holds-barred innovation speak to you, this could easily tip the scales in The North Face’s direction.

Environmentalism & Conservancy

Doing Good For The World

It is the responsibility of every individual that enjoys the great outdoors to take care of it for future generations. But that doesn’t start and stop with the end-user. Rather, the greater impact therein can be (and is) made by the brands that produce the gear that enables people to go out into the great outdoors. As two of the names people look to the most, Patagonia and The North Face have both taken their own stands on sustainability, environmentalism, and conservancy, which you can learn about below.

Photo: Patagonia

Patagonia

When it comes to environmental activism, few brands — especially larger ones — hold a candle to Patagonia. In fact, fighting for our planet is built into Patagonia’s DNA, as first evidenced by its founder attempting to develop rock climbing technologies that were more friendly to the environments in which they were used. And that was only the start of things. Over time, Patagonia has continued to dedicate time, tremendous efforts (on behalf of every level of employment, even at the executive level), and manpower to fighting for environmental causes. That started on a relatively small scale in the 1970s, as Patagonia fought to stop a coastal development that would harm the natural habitat. But it ramped up in 1988, when the brand launched its first large-scale environmental campaign in protest of the urbanization of the Yosemite Valley. Since that time, Patagonia has embarked on at least one such campaign each year it has been in business.

For reference, the fights that Patagonia has taken on include promoting indigenous-led land management, fighting to stop the construction of hugely damaging oil pipelines, and even going so far as to sue former President Donald Trump for slashing protected National Monument lands by as much as half. Fighting for the good of the world is just something that Patagonia does. And while the brand certainly deserves thanks for such endeavors, you can be comfortable in the thought that, even without praise, Patagonia would continue to fight the good fight — as that’s just what they do. Oh yeah, did we mention that 1% of all sales go to benefit environmental justice? Well, they do.

Photo: The North Face

The North Face

The approach to environmental activism is one of the realms in which The North Face differs fairly significantly from Patagonia. To put it bluntly, TNF spent the vast majority of its time over the course of its existence focusing far more on product innovation than righteous causes. That’s not to say they were dumping chemicals into the water supply, but rather that the brand didn’t make environmental activism a priority — at least not at first. In recent years, things have changed quite drastically. For instance, The North Face has committed itself to shifting 100% of the materials used in constructing its gear to those that are responsibly sourced by no later than 2025 — with all of the brand’s footwear to follow by 2030.

Along with that, the brand is working on developing circular systems to help reduce waste as much as possible. They’ve also created a program called Renewed, which sees used gear that would otherwise end up in a landfill refurbished into like-new condition. They’re even revamping all of their packaging to eliminate single-use plastics by 2025. As mentioned, sustainability and environmentalism weren’t always high on the list of priorities for The North Face, but the brand has made significant strides in that direction since. Still, its pretty tough to stand up to competition like Patagonia.

Photo: The North Face

A Selection Of Gear

Brand Highlights

Of course, neither of these brands would be anything without the gear they produce. However, both have catalogs that are far too deep to truly, comprehensively outline. Instead, we’ve chosen to take a few highlights from their catalogs to give you a better idea of just what Patagonia and The North Face (in that order) have to offer — all of which is presently available for purchase. Keep in mind: this is merely a microscopic sampling of both brands’ exceptional suites of offerings — we suggest taking a deeper dive on your own time to get a better overall picture.

Patagonia

Business Unusual

Patagonia Gritstone Rock Pants

Proof positive that rock climbing is still very much a part of Patagonia’s DNA, the Gritstone Rock Pants were made for vertical ascents. They’re built from a cotton-poly blend that’s comfortable and has a wide range of motion for all-day, extreme activity comfort. And they’re even Fair Trade Certified sewn, as is 82% of the brand’s offerings.

Purchase: $119

Patagonia Black Hole Duffel Bag

Patagonia’s Black Hole bags are legendary, and they just keep getting better. Take, for instance, the 100L duffel you see here (the brand’s largest), which is made with 100% recycled body fabric, lining, and webbing. Of course, that’s just one of the many features that make this bag so formidable — along with its internal organizational scheme, durability, unmistakable looks, and more.

Purchase: $179

Patagonia Macro Puff Outdoor Quilt

It’s always nice to cozy up after a long day out on the trails — an activity for which Patagonia has you covered, courtesy of the snuggly Macro Puff Outdoor Quilt. Built with the same materials and styling as the brand’s legendary puffer jacket (which uses the same naming conventions), this queen-sized camping blanket packs down easily, can keep you warm at even the chilliest of campsites, and it’s still remarkably lightweight.

Purchase: $249

Patagonia R1 Lite Yulex Front-Zip Long-Sleeved Spring Suit

Ideal for days when the weather isn’t quite frigid but the water still has a chill, the Patagonia R1 Lite Yulex Front-Zip Long-Sleeved Spring Suit is a year-round surfer’s best friend. That’s helped by the fact that it’s made with eco-friendly natural rubber, which is also Forest Stewardship Council certified by the Rainforest Alliance. If you’re a beach bum with an understanding of the importance of environmental awareness, you can’t go wrong with this wetsuit.

Purchase: $249

Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody

By weight, Patagonia’s Micro Puff Hoody is the brand’s warmest they’ve ever made. That alone is reason enough to put it on your radar. But this puffer jacket also features PlumaFill synthetic insulation — a featherweight, water-resistant alternative to traditional goose down. And it’s a part of the brand’s Fair Trade Certified offerings.

Purchase: $299

The North Face

Never Stop Exploring

The North Face Vectiv Exploris FUTURELIGHT Sneakers

Sometimes hikes can take you to unexpected places, so it’s nice to know your footwear can help you trek on through — especially if you don the Vectiv Exploris FUTURELIGHT hiking sneakers you see here. They’re waterproof, lightweight, breathable, and made to maximize stability while minimizing fatigue. Hell, you might put these on and not want to take them back off ever again.

Purchase: $159

The North Face Kaban Charged Backpack

The North Face has made a lot of bags over the years, but this one might be the most friendly to modern users, as it looks great — note the clean, minimalist styling — but also has its own onboard charging system to keep all your tech (like your smartphone, tablet, and/or laptop) juiced. Best of all, the charging system is actually fully TSA-compliant, so you can still use this backpack to travel.

Purchase: $199

The North Face Thermoball Eco Hoody

According to The North Face, this puffer jacket is actually their most sustainable product — likely thanks to the ThermoBall 100% post-consumer synthetic insulation, recycled nylon/polyester shell, and more. But it also has a lifetime warranty, it’s made to pack down small, and it looks spectacular in any weather.

Purchase: $220

The North Face The One Sleeping Bag System

A true outdoorsman knows that not all sleeping bags are suitable for all seasons, as winter bags are too warm in the summer and summer bags are too breezy for winter. But that’s probably why The North Face built their ‘The One’ sleeping bag, which is actually a modular system designed to suit temperatures as low as 5-degrees Farhenheit or as high as 40-degrees Fahrenheit — depending on how you’ve set up the layers. Skip buying a bag for each season and solve all your problems with this single unit.

Purchase: $290+

The North Face Assault 2 FUTURELIGHT Tent

Made from TNF’s innovative FUTURELIGHT fabric, this two-person tent was designed specifically to withstand some of the harshest environments known to man. And while it’s fully waterproof, it’s also only a single layer and built with featherlight poles, so it’s ideal for backpacking, as well. If you want to climb big, cold mountains, you can’t go wrong with this as your basecamp.

Purchase: $660

Photo: Patagonia

King Of The Mountain

The Choice Is Yours

After scouring through the pages and pages of these brands’ offerings and diving deep into their origins, missions, philanthropy, etc. we’ve come to the same conclusion as untold legions before us: we can’t pick a winner. And that’s because of one simple fact: there isn’t a clear winner. Sure, there are highlights here and there, like the fact that Patagonia has a significant leg-up when it comes to their environmentalism or that The North Face offers a few gear categories (namely tents and sleeping bags) that Patagonia simply doesn’t. But, realistically, these two giants of the outdoor adventure gear industry are, for the most part, on par with one another — not entirely unlike sneaker/apparel rivals Nike and Adidas. What that means to you is that you’ll have to make up your mind for yourself. Pick one, pick the other, or embrace both. Truly, the best option is probably to take things on a case-by-case basis, putting specific pieces of gear up against one another for comparison — rather than settling on one brand or the other. And if that still seems a herculean task, you could always just flip a coin and let the fates decide. Whatever the case, you’re still gonna end up with some of the best gear on the market.

YETI vs. RTIC: Which Cooler Is Better?

What’s better after a long day of outdoor adventure than cracking open a nice cold beer? Very few things, we think. But if you’re geared up for a hike, you’ll want to be able to keep those beers frosty while you’re gone. And for that purpose, you can’t beat the offerings from either YETI or RTIC — but which you choose is up to you, with a little nudge or two from our comprehensive versus guide.

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