Cheap Backpacking Gear Suggestions
By Steve Gillman
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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
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
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
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.