Hunting Down Backpacking Gear On A Budget

Thru-hiking is expensive.

With the exception of veteran backpackers who acquire carefully curated gear collections over the years, most aspiring thru-hikers quickly discover this painful truth.

Sure, you can go to Walmart or Amazon and get nearly everything you need, but most of it will weigh a ton and be poor quality, or both. To get the really good stuff – or at least the stuff everyone says is really good – rumor has it you’ll need to shell out big bucks.

The big three alone (tent/hammock/tarp, backpack, and sleeping bag) could easily set you back $1,000 or more. If you’re like most hikers, that kind of cash is not so easy to scrounge up. Even if you’re quite comfortable financially, it probably makes you think a bit.

Do I Really Need To Spend This Much?

This is the dilemma I faced as a newbie backpacker when I decided to tackle a thru-hike. I had been on precisely one overnight trip using an eclectic mix of budget gear I cobbled together in the span of two weeks. (I didn’t actually plan to become a backpacker, it just sort of happened. I’d always enjoyed hiking, so why not stretch it out with a little camping in between day hikes?)

I quickly learned that my “this looks good” approach to gear selection wouldn’t serve me well for a thru-hike. Pretty soon I was obsessively researching, shopping, comparing and testing. While I’m not flat broke, I do live on a tight budget and I wanted to get the best I could afford. I also decided to save as much as I could, wherever I could, allowing me to splurge on a few items when necessary.

My Costco quilt conversion.

My other goal was to keep my pack as light as possible. My research proved that much of the ultralight gear from popular companies was beyond my reach financially. Instead, I needed to get creative and tackle some MYOG (make your own gear) projects when my abilities permitted, freeing up money for other things.

Sometimes Cheap Is Just Cheap, And Sometimes It’s Awesome

After months of prep, I can finally say my gear list is almost dialed in. Along the way, I learned a few lessons that will benefit any budget backpacker.

1. There are deals to be found if you’re willing to search for them.

Once I honed in on a product I wanted, I searched high and low for the best deal. In addition to endless comparison-shopping online (tip: sign up for all the email lists so you know when there are sales), I uncovered massive bargains at REI Garage sales and by following tips from other backpackers on Facebook groups.

My two biggest scores? A $350 Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer puffy jacket for 70 percent off, found through a tip in a Facebook group, and my Nemo Hornet 2P tent. The tent retails for $370 and I only paid $135 at the REI Garage sale because someone returned it, undamaged.

2. If it’s not right for you, return it or sell it.

I picked up a few deals on Amazon Prime Day and later thought better of them. One was a puffy jacket that was fine for a day of shopping in the city but not a cold night on the trail. Another was a pair of Ryka sandals that looked like awesome camp shoes but weren’t really as lightweight as the listing said. The price was right, but the fit wasn’t. The puffy found a new home with my daughter in New York City, and the shoes went back.

Some of my nonreturnable REI garage sale finds also didn’t pan out. I knew ahead of time that these were items I could easily sell, so I took a gamble on a bear canister (not my speed) and a Sea-to-Summit eVent compression sack (the XL size was too big for my pack).

By shopping carefully, I’ve been able to try things out and recoup most, if not all, of my costs on anything that didn’t work out.

3. Good customer service is priceless

With all the gear I’ve purchased, there have been very few epic fails. Most of my rejects have been things I bought based on others’ recommendations that just didn’t suit me personally.

There were also a few items – very few – that were defective or didn’t perform as expected. Thankfully, every one of those service concerns was handled very well:

  • First, a Kovea stove I purchased from CampSaver sputtered out several times when I tested it on a section hike. I called right away on my return home, and a replacement arrived several days later.
  • Then there is my KobraTech cell phone tripod, purchased through Amazon. I used it for five months shooting videos for my YouTube channel before a bracket fell apart. I reached out to the vendor to see if I could get a replacement part and they immediately sent a whole new tripod.
  • I waited eagerly for months to get my MassDrop/Enlightened Equipment Revelation quilt. Sadly, when I finally opened the package I found the quilt had much less down than promised. MassDrop sent a replacement and it had the same problem. That was a huge disappointment and left me wondering what I’d be sleeping in on the trail. To their credit, MassDrop quickly granted my request for a refund so I could purchase a quilt elsewhere in time for my thru-hike. (I have since ordered a custom quilt from UGQ – Underground Quilts.)

Testing, Trial, And Error

Figuring out what works best for you takes time on the trail and off. I’ve been through an extensive trial and error process to find my ideal gear. Along the way, I uncovered a few bargain basics that I love, and some I don’t.

For example, after seeing an ad for Fruit of the Loom breathable undies, I thought I’d found a way to avoid the high cost of the Ex Officio panties everyone raves about. I purchased a multipack on sale at Target and tested them out.

The Fruit of the Loom version is fine for day hikes but they clearly won’t withstand the rigors of months of endless trail wear. That led me to a splurge: two pairs of Ex Officio bikini briefs. On sale at REI, they still set me back about $30, which I can say after a bit of testing on the trail, was clearly worth the investment.

A hooded Danskin athletic pullover I picked up at Wal-Mart for about $12 has become my go-to hiking top in cooler weather. It’s polyester and extremely comfortable, beating out the Patagonia Capilene top I got at REI (on sale, of course). I love the Walmart top so much I bought an extra one when it was marked down to $9, just in case the first one wears out.

One more source for excellent yet affordable apparel is my local Columbia outlet store. My hiking leggings, fleece hat,  base layer top, and short sleeve tees are all Columbia and virtually indestructible.

Almost Ready

With a few more tweaks to finalize my gear list, I’ll be ready to hit the trail in 11 short weeks. I’m praying the new quilt works out, but I kept my Kelty sleeping bag, just in case. The perfect ultralight camp shoes are still eluding me, although admittedly, my highly selective criterion for those is hard to match.

After giving up on the idea of a smartwatch because of charging and connectivity challenges, I’m on a quest for the ideal, budget-friendly altimeter/barometer/compass  watch to fit my small wrist. (Hey, Casio, women hike too.)

I saved enough through frugal shopping that I can afford to pay a little more for the shoes and watch if I need to, but I don’t really want to. The alternative is to go without since both could be considered luxury items.

My final tally is still TBD because, in spite of my ruthless penny pinching, I’m a little scared to look. When I add it all up, I hope to have extra funds for my actual thru-hike.

A few more meals out, a bonus night in a hotel or some other small indulgence would make the actual experience of thru-hiking even more enjoyable. That’s what really matters in the end.

 A final note. REI has an amazing retail return policy, but REI Garage sale purchases are as is, final sale.

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Comments 9

  • Avatar
    Irwin : Jan 14th

    Where were you and your wisdom when I drained my savings?

    Reply
  • Avatar
    That Guy : Jan 14th

    The Casio prg-300 is the smallest 3 function watch they make and it’s solar. I’ve had mine for two years and countless trips and it’s a great watch. You can make your own ul camp sandals from insoles and paracord. Happy hiking!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Alison : Jan 14th

    Check out viakix sandals on Amazon. I’m only doing a section hike on the AT, but these sandals are 14 oz for the pair, and better priced than similar sandals. I haven’t tried them on the trail yet but they have great reviews and fit well on my feet. The soles felt really grippy. I also liked that I could wear socks with them around camp if temps were chilly.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    That Guy : Jan 14th

    1 ounce camp sandals. http://www.trailquest.net/sandals.html

    Reply
  • Avatar
    That Guy : Jan 14th

    The watch. There are other colors but this is the cheapest at the moment. Casio Men’s PRG-300CM-3CR Pro Trek Solar-Power Triple-Sensor Watch https://www.amazon.com/dp/B012W9IQUC/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_8ebxAb6T1R79M

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Joellyn Sargent : Jan 15th

      Thank you! I’ve spent way too much time searching for a watch I like.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Suzanne : Jan 14th

    Hi. ..great post. I’m curious about the hiking tights.. I want to wear a hiking skirt and tights… what is the name of the tights you wear?
    Thanks – suzanne

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Joellyn Sargent : Jan 15th

      I wear Columbia leggings, I’m not sure the name but they’re fairly heavyweight and soft with a matte finish (not shiny). They also make baselayer tights. I like the leggings because I can wear them alone, under my rain paints, or over my baselayer on a really cold day.

      Reply

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