It was a bit heavy and bulky for backpacking, and it flapped so loudly in a stiff breeze that I nicknamed it the Wind Sock. But I used it for six summers of car camping and backpacking, and its cost worked out to about 50 cents a night.
Backpacking on a budget is possible. There’s gear out there you can afford — it’s just a matter of knowing where to look and how to evaluate quality.
How to Find (Good) Gear Cheap
Lower your standards and be choosy. Even when you can’t afford expensive gear, read reviews of it to educate yourself on how to distinguish between junk gear and stuff that won’t fall apart on your second trip. The tradeoffs for a lower cost often include heavier gear, mediocre fit and comfort, performance compromises (example: less breathability in a rain jacket) and sometimes durability.
Shop respected brands. Most top name brands offer well-priced gear, like two-person backpacking tents for $150 to $199. Be wary of really cheap gear from an unknown brand on Amazon.com or other retail websites; it might not last long.
Wait for regular sales. Online and brick-and-mortar retailers always offer new-gear sales in spring, clearance sales in early fall and sales around major holidays (Memorial Day, Independence Day, Christmas). Score deals ranging from 20 to 75 percent off gear you might not otherwise be able to afford.
Shop discount online retailers. Try theclymb.com, backcountry.com, sierratradingpost.com, REI.com (REI Garage) and steepandcheap.com. All of these sites offer deep discounts on products that have been discontinued but were cutting-edge just months earlier.
Buy used gear. If you can discern good gear from bad and you’re on a general quest for a piece of gear rather than a specific model, buying used stuff on sites like eBay and Craigslist can reap great rewards. Often sellers have used it very little, so the gear might be in like-new condition. Many cities also have gear-consignment stores, where you can find the best bargains on lightly used outdoor gear.
Always start your shopping at scoutstuff.org. The buyers in the BSA’s Supply Group work hard to bring Scouts and Scouters quality equipment and top-of-the-line brands at Scout-friendly prices. Plus, all purchases at local Scout shops and on scoutstuff.org help support the future of Scouting.
Bargain New Gear
The Alps Mountaineering Taurus 2 — at $69 to $90, depending on where you shop — is a freestanding, dome-style backcountry tent with two doors and vestibules. It’s heavy (weighing more than 7 pounds), a bit cramped inside and comes with just two crossing poles. But it’s built with durable materials, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a cheaper tent that can survive multiple backcountry trips. For a surprisingly low price considering its quality, the Jansport Katahdin 50L ($100) or Katahdin 70L ($130) provides an adjustable harness to fit a range of torso sizes; adequate support, padding and carrying capacity for trips up to three to five days (50L) or four to six days (70L); and features such as abundant pockets and compression you’d find on pricier packs.
When it comes to camp stoves, there are many choices, including affordable options like the Primus Classic Trail Stove. At $20, it fires up reliably; can simmer; has a wide, stable burner for larger pots; and uses any screw-on, isobutane-propane canister (widely available from several brands). But it’s worth noting that for an additional $20, you can grab an MSR PocketRocket, which is equally versatile but less than half the Classic’s weight.
Unlike traditional down, new-tech down feathers resist moisture, dry quickly and retain their ability to keep you warm once wet. But those bags don’t come cheap — except for the Kelty Cosmic Down 20, which comes in three different models for around $150. Besides 600-fill DriDown feathers, the Cosmic has a fully adjustable hood and quilted construction to prevent cold spots. This 20-degree, three-season bag weighs in at less than 3 pounds for the regular length.
When it comes to sleeping on the ground, comfort is a hard sacrifice to make. If you need to pinch pennies, try a foam pad like the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol ($35-$45). But if you want more comfort (who doesn’t?), step up to an air mattress like the Klymit Static V. This 2.5-inch-thick mattress will set you back $55 (much less than the $150-plus varieties), and it packs down to a mere 18 ounces.