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Cheap Backpacking Gear Suggestions

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Yes, we're going to get really cheap here. There might even be an item or two here that will cost you nothing. But in addition to cutting costs, we want to stick to the theme of the site, so while we lay out some options for cheap backpacking gear we also will be keeping an eye on the weight of the items suggested.

These are just options, by the way. Don't write to complain--just choose what works for you and ignore what you don't want to try. I recently got a very negative comment on a video I did about garbage-bag bivy sacks, to the effect that it was ridiculous and that I looked like I was "training for homelessness rather than backpacking." This from one of us who forgo indoor plumbing to sleep on the ground! Geesh! Anyhow, on with the ideas...

Backpacks

In general the lightweight backpacks are (fortunately) also cheaper than the big frame packs. The rest of our lesson though, can be found on the page Cheap Backpacks.

Sleeping Bags

There are a number of ways to save money on sleeping bags, starting with the worst one, which is to buy one used. Now, I know they can be washed and so it isn't so icky to use a bag that has been sweated on by others, but there is another problem with this strategy. It is that the condition of the filler is never entirely clear with a used bag. It might have lost half of its insulating value already from the breakdown of fibers that comes with old age. Still, this can be a way to get a decent bag for a lot less money. Look on eBay or in one of the backpacking forums which allow members to sell gear.

You can also get by with one of the cheap bags they sell at Walmart and other stores. These are generally heavy, but if you are just going on warm weather trips, you can buy the lightest one and even a size too small (you'll just have more of your upper body exposed--not a big deal on a summer night). Don't think you will be able to use these cheapies for much else. They also don't compress well for packing, so you might have space problems.

Waiting for late-season sales or for older models to go on sale when new ones are introduced is perhaps the best way to save a lot on a sleeping bag. But a good sleeping bag is still likely to be the most expensive backpacking gear you buy.

There is one more option worth mentioning here. It is using a sleeping bag liner as a bag. I have a page about that here: My Five-Ounce Sleeping Bag.

Cheap Backpacking Shelters

Tents are almost always more expensive than either tarps or bivy sacks, so you might want to consider trying one of the latter to shelters to save money. If you do go with a tent, you can shop sales as mentioned for sleeping bags. You also can try a combo of a screen-tent and a tarp. I have a good photo of my own setup on this page: Gear Testing.

The tarp you see there weighs just 14 ounces (16 with strings and carry-sack), and cost about $60. The tent cost me around $100 and weighs just 17 ounces. That's pretty cheap and light for a shelter system that keeps out rain and mosquitoes.

If you decide to go the route of using a bivy sack (which works well on summer trips), see the following page: Bivy Sacks.

If you already have garbage bags and duct tape you can make a bivy for free right now.

That covers the big three items. Now lets look at a few options for the rest...

Other Cheap Backpacking Gear

Sleeping Bag Pads

The cheapest way to go is to not bring one, but that's painful (especially as you get older). Otherwise, you can buy a plain closed-cell foam pad at a Walmart or other department store for less than $15. To get more comfort for the price, cut it to a smaller but still usable size, and tape or glue the other piece(s) on top.

If you really need an inflatable pad (I tend to need the comfort now), you can watch for sales. You also can buy a half-length or three-quarter-length one. These usually sell for less, and as long as you cover from your shoulder to your hips you'll be fine.

Backpacking Cooking Gear

I just skip cooked meals when I backpack, which saves weight and money. If you need that hot meal though, you can still bring a cheap aluminum pan bought in the kitchen supply lane of your local supermarket. These are usually lighter as well as being cheaper than the ones sold to backpackers.

You do not need to buy fancy forks and spoons either. Just keep the plastic spoon or fork the next time you get one with fast food.

As for stoves, you can build your own for free if you want to go really cheap and light. See the following age for more about stoves: Finding a Good Backpacking Stove.

Hiking Boots or Shoes

This is another item that I would not buy used. If you use hiking or running shoes as I do, you are already spending less than you would on hiking boots. If you feel you need the boots, watch for those sales online and off.

If you are doing short trips you can buy the cheapest running shoes at Walmart or Kmart and they will usually work just fine. For any hikes that will be in rugged territory and will be for more than a few days, don't risk these low-quality options though. Cheap shoes can fall apart in less than a week of hiking in the mountains.

Hiking Socks

I get arguments on this one, but my cheap dress socks have never given me blisters like hiking socks have. The nylon ones come in sets of three pair for less than $5 at most department stores. Of course you'll need something more for cold-weather trips (although to be honest I have warm feet and have used my thin socks on many snowy hikes).

Rain Gear

They still sell Frogg Togg breathable/waterproof rain suits for around $50, which is a lot less than most high-tech gear sold for this purpose. These are a bit fragile perhaps, but mine lasted for over ten years with only a few duct tape patches.

If you are in an area where rain is not common, and the weather report calls for clear skies, you can go really cheap. Just buy one of those $3 emergency ponchos that weigh a couple ounces and hope you don't need it. They are essentially disposable, and will not hold up to repeated use over a long backpacking trip, but they will work better than nothing for short trips.

Another option on warm-weather trips is to skip the rain gear altogether. You will likely get cold if you run into a downpour, but if you are not going far from the car it shouldn't turn into an emergency.

Water Containers

The cheapest water containers you can get also happen to be the lightest; water or soda bottles. They weigh about an ounce (for a half-liter plastic bottle), are almost unbreakable, and can cost under a dollar--with a tasty drink included.

Clothes

There are many options for cheap backpacking clothes. Just stay away from things that could be dangerous, like jeans for wet-weather trips (too heavy anyhow). You can find light clothing at thrift stores for a fraction of what you would pay new. You can shop sales online and off. What else? Let's look at some more specific options.

For shirts, try the t-shirts that are half-cotton and half-polyester. These are generally only a few dollars each and are very comfortable. They dry faster than all-cotton shirts too, which can be important.

For gloves you can go with cheap cotton jersey work gloves at about a dollar or two per pair. But only use these if you are sure they'll stay dry. Otherwise, look for the cheapest poly-pile gloves you can buy.

Any decent nylon jacket bought on sale is likely to be almost as light as the high-tech offerings from backpacking gear makers.

You can make some items of clothing as well. I do not recommend trying to sew complicated things like shirts and ants, but a sleeve from an old thermal shirt makes a nifty hat. Just cut off a sleeve at and pull it over your head. A pair of socks with five holes for fingers can be used for hand warmers.

First Aid Kits

The cheap option here is to just make your own first aid and survival kits from the cheapest elements you can find. Fortunately, many of the ones sold list everything that is in them, so you have a guide as to what to get. House it in any small nylon bag.

Trekking Poles

You can use an old pair of ski poles for trekking poles. Just remove the baskets at the bottom. You can also buy two lengths of bamboo (about a half-inch in diameter) and use those. Or you can skip the trekking poles altogether to save money and weight.

One other option worth noting is that of using one walking stick rather than two poles. You get most of the benefit of knee-protection on downhill stretches, while leaving one hand free to help navigate rocky or brushy areas. You can also make your own walking stick at no cost.

Maps

You can get many maps for free online now. Another option is to go to your public library and find their topo map books for the area where you'll be hiking. They will charge you a quarter to photocopy the appropriate page.

For more on cheap backpacking gear and keeping it cheap in general, see the following page: Cheap Backpacking - Seven Tips.



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The Ultralight Backpacking Site | Cheap Backpacking Gear