Backpacking on a Budget: Top Tips and Debunked Myths
Even within the outdoor community, backpacking is often characterized as a pursuit reserved for the privileged few. It’s easy to understand why — picturesque Instagram shots of colorful, top-of-the-line gear, stories of far-flung hiking destinations, and the illusion of endless time away from work all contribute to the perception that backpacking on a budget is challenging or impossible. In addition to affording that fancy DCF shelter and pack, affording the lost income can seem out of reach.
Am I guilty of spending far too much on a piece of gear I want but don’t need? Yeah, fine. You got me. However, I truly believe that backpacking can be accessible to anyone, regardless of their financial situation.
Throughout this article, we will delve into the world of budget-friendly backpacking, starting with debunking some myths about disposable income being a prerequisite for adventure and ending with some of my favorite budget-friendly backing gear.
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Myth #1: You Need Expensive Gear
Let’s start by addressing one of the most persistent misconceptions: In order to be an accomplished backpacker, you need to have the latest and lightest gear.
While it’s true that high-quality gear can be costly, backpacking is about so much more than that. It’s about connecting with nature, testing your limits, and discovering the beauty of your own resilience. The fundamental essence of backpacking remains the same, regardless of your base weight and which brands you’re rocking.
Here are two of my favorite ways to break down the cost barrier when it comes to gear:
1. Rent, Borrow, or Buy Used Gear
Instead of splurging on brand-new gear, consider renting, borrowing from friends, or buying used equipment. Many outdoor retailers offer rental services for essentials like backpacks and tents. You can also find economical options on online marketplaces and forums, like Facebook and Reddit, where seasoned backpackers often sell their gently used gear.
Finally, if you’re a student or live near a university, check and see if the school has an outdoor club. Some universities will allow you to rent gear from them, even if you are not a student or a member of the club itself.
Some Helpful Links:
- REI Rentals: REI Rental Gear: Tents, Bikes, SUPs & More
- REI Outlet/Sale: REI Outlet: Discount & Sale Outdoor Clothing & Gear
- Facebook Used Gear Group: Backpacking Gear Flea Market
- Facebook Marketplace: Facebook Marketplace
- Reddit Used Ultralight Gear Group: Ultralight Gear Trade
2. DIY Gear and Repairs
With proper care and maintenance, many backpacking items can last for years. The notion that gear must be constantly replaced can be a costly misconception. Regularly inspecting and maintaining your gear can extend its lifespan significantly. However, even with proper care, sometimes things just break.
Embrace the do-it-yourself spirit by creating your own gear or making simple repairs. YouTube and online forums are treasure troves of DIY backpacking hacks that can save you a significant amount of money.
Is it scary to take a pair of scissors to a piece of gear? Of course. Have I accidentally damaged something while trying to make a simple change? Absolutely. However, with a little patience and some trial and error, you’ll find that repairing your own gear not only saves you money in the long run, but teaches you a new skill every time.
And, in a pinch, there isn’t much that duct tape can’t make better.
Some Helpful Links:
- Learn to make your own gear: Ripstop By The Roll: Make Your Own Gear
- Make/Repair your own gear Reddit community: Make Your Own Gear
Myth #2: You Need to Travel to Find Good Backpacking
One of the largest expenses when it comes to backpacking can be wrapped up in the travel to where you’re going. However, I would argue that almost everyone has a place close to home to explore.
You don’t have to jet off to faraway destinations to experience the joy of backpacking. Start with local or regional trails, which require less travel and fewer expenses. Go with friends, if you can, to split any expenses like a rental car or gas. Find campsites that are free, and wilderness areas that don’t require a paid permit.
I know it can be hard to find people to go backpacking with if you are just breaking into the hobby yourself. Try searching for Facebook groups titled “’Your City’ Hiking Buddies” or “Women Who Hike ‘Your City’”. You may be surprised how many people you end up befriending!
Some Helpful Links:
- Find a backpacking trail near you: Outdoors Mobile Apps
- Find free campsites: iOverlander, The Dyrt
- Discover public land near you: BLM, U.S National Forest Service
Myth #3: You Need to Quit Your Job to Take Cool Trips
I don’t know about you, but it feels like every single person in my Instagram and TikTok feeds is taking months at a time away from work to thru-hike America’s longest trails. While that’s great for them, it sometimes gives the impression that you can’t break into backpacking if you have work or other obligations that take up a lot of your time.
The truth is, backpacking can be woven into the fabric of your life, even with a full-time job. Here are some practical tips to help you embrace backpacking without needing to drop everything:
Become a Weekend Warrior
Start small by planning weekend getaways to nearby trails. These shorter trips allow you to experience backpacking without taking extended time off.
Utilize Vacation Days
If you have limited vacation days, strategically use them for longer backpacking trips. Combine weekends or a holiday with a few days off to create a mini-adventure that fits your schedule.
Explore local trails and parks that you can visit after work or on weekends. You’d be surprised at the wilderness gems you can find in your own backyard, even in big cities!
Remember, backpacking is about making the most of the opportunities available to you. It doesn’t require drastic lifestyle changes or long sabbaticals. You can immerse yourself in the backpacking experience while still managing your work and other responsibilities. The trails are there for you to explore at your own pace and on your own terms.
Budget-Friendly Gear Recommendations
I want to preface this section by saying that, if you have the power as a consumer to support local outfitters, please do so. A couple of dollars saved for you may not be a make-or-break situation like it could be for your local businesses.
However, backpacking should be accessible to people in all financial situations, so I will be sharing some of the most budget-friendly gear I can find from larger stores. Take stock of your own financial situation, and do what is needed within those constraints, but don’t forget about your local stores!
Durability disclaimer: While budget gear isn’t guaranteed to fall apart in a single weekend, durability is worth considering. There’s a lot of durable, cheap, quality gear out there, so look for the stuff that will last a while, especially if you’re planning a longer excursion. This will save you money in the long run, and keep a bunch of garbage out of the landfill.
Safety disclaimer: Also, don’t skimp on safety features, even if it means saving a few bucks. Be ruthless when sniffing out deals, but don’t leave safety out of the equation. Get stuff that works. Period.
While you do want your backpack to be comfortable and sturdy, this is a place where you don’t need to splurge on the top-of-the-line, lightest option. If it carries your gear from Point A to Point B, and doesn’t chafe you in the process, you’ve found a good backpack.
The first pack my partner ever took backpacking was a computer bag with things lashed to the outside with shoelaces. The dangling sleeping pad didn’t look pretty, but it worked. Would I recommend that for you? No. But, my point is that there is a lot of leeway with backpacks relative to other gear categories.
Budget-Friendly Pack Recommendations:
- Forclaz Women’s MT100 Easyfit 50 L Backpacking Pack | Decathlon
- Scout 3400 | TETON Sports
- Budget Ultralight: G4-20 Ultralight Backpack | Gossamer Gear
I would recommend scooping up a backpack during a sale, at an REI Garage Sale, or used through a Facebook or Reddit group. Packs don’t need to be perfect, and are usually fully functional even with many miles on them.
I would argue that tent quality is slightly more essential than backpack quality, but you can still get away with quite a lot. For a backpacking tent, I would recommend trying to stay around six pounds or lighter. Any heavier, and you may find it hard to carry. That said, if you have a heavier tent and you want to give it a go, then please do and know that you are simply stronger than I am.
Budget-Friendly Tent Recommendations:
- Trail Hut 2 Tent with Footprint | REI Co-op
- Clostnaure Lightweight Tent | Clostnature
- Budget Ultralight: X-Mid 1 Ultralight Tent | Durston Gear
Now, we move into an essential and overlooked part of your sleep system. Maybe I’m just cranky when tired, but I tend to splurge a little more on anything that helps me get a good night’s sleep in the backcountry. However, there are plenty of warm, comfortable options out there that don’t break the bank.
If possible, try going to the store and lying down on a pad before buying it. Imagine replacing your bed with this pad because, essentially, that’s what you’re doing while sleeping outside. I would strongly recommend saving a little money in your backpack and tent selections and putting that towards a comfortable sleeping pad.
Budget-Friendly Sleeping Pad Recommendations:
- Klymit Static V2 Inflatable Sleeping Pad
- Big Agnes Air Core Ultra Sleeping Pad | REI Co-op
- Budget Ultralight: NEMO Switchback Sleeping Pad | REI Co-op
Remember that a good night’s sleep is essential for an enjoyable backpacking trip, so invest in a sleeping pad that meets your comfort needs while still staying within your budget constraints.
Just like your sleeping pad, your sleeping bag will have a major impact on your quality of sleep outside. Make sure you have a full understanding of your bag’s temperature rating, and if that rating is assigned for ‘comfort’, ‘limit’, or ‘survival’. Through trial and error (and several cold nights) I’ve found that I sleep rather cold. I will use a 20-degree bag year-round when I’m in the mountains, even if the forecasted low is a lot warmer.
When it comes to cost savings in a sleeping bag, consider using synthetic fill instead of down. These bags will typically be more affordable, while still offering excellent insulation.
Budget-Friendly Sleeping Bag Recommendations:
- Stoic 20F Synthetic Groundwork Sleeping Bag | Backcountry
- Kelty Cosmic 20 Degree Bag | REI Co-op
- Budget Ultralight: Economy Burrow quilt | Hammock Gear
My best budget-friendly tip when it comes to clothes will disappoint those who get excited when buying new gear: just use what you already have! I know you have some moisture-wicking, athletic t-shirt in your closet from that one camp in high school. The same goes for any pair of quick-dry shorts. For layers to wear at night, I still just bring an old pair of sweatpants and a hoodie.
If you are looking for more clothes to wear while hiking, check out your local thrift store. Most have sections for athletic clothes. As long as you’re not wearing cotton, and what you wear can handle a bit of sweat, you’re good to go. Contrary to what many people will try to tell you, the trail is not a fashion show. What matters is getting out there, not what you wear while doing so.
The exception to this rule is your warm insulating layer, or coat. A good one can save your life if you get caught outside or in a situation that ends up being colder than you planned for. I personally prefer a hooded option to help conserve heat around my head, but you should feel free to wear a hoodless puffy and supplement it with a hat.
If you aren’t pressed for space in your bag, just bring your warm winter coat! On my first few backpacking trips I brought my bulky, city coat. It was sometimes too warm, but that’s better than being too cold, and I could always tie it around my waist. Who said this wasn’t a fashion show? It wasn’t the most comfortable or fashion-forward move, but I had no money to drop on a specialized, fancy, backpacking puffy.
Budget-Friendly Puffy Recommendations:
- ThermoLi Packable Down Jacket | wantdo.com
- Rokka&Rolla Lightweight Packable Down Jacket | Amazon
- Amazon Essentials Men’s Puffer Jacket | Amazon
- Budget Ultralight: Forclaz MT100 Down Puffer Jacket | Decathlon
There’s No Universal Solution
Perhaps this is obvious after reading this article, but I love everything gear-related. I get excited to try new things, read up on new advancements, and talk the ear off of anyone who will listen about the pros and cons of various brands, styles, colors, etc. If you have any gear-related questions, especially about finding good gear on a budget, leave them in the comments below! Nothing in backpacking is one-size-fits-all, and I would love to help you narrow down your choices to find the best thing for you, your body, and your budget.
Backpacking on a Budget: The Bottom Line
Backpacking need not be an activity reserved for the wealthy elite. It is a pursuit that should be available to everyone who craves adventure and a deeper connection with nature. There is a wide range of socio-economic factors that limit access to our shared outdoor spaces, and the underrepresentation of minorities in the backcountry runs rampant.
Budget is just one facet of this exclusionary web, and the larger issues are deeply seated and oftentimes self-perpetuating. However, if we are able to dispel the myth that backpacking requires limitless pockets and time away from work, we can chip away at this significant barrier and encourage a more diverse group of individuals to embrace this wonderful hobby.
Whether you’re a student, a part-time worker, or someone with limited disposable income, I hope you are able to join the ranks of budget-conscious backpackers and discover the beauty of the great outdoors.
So, lace up those boots, pack up your (hopefully inexpensive) backpack, and head out on an adventure! The wilderness is waiting for you and is open to everyone willing to explore it!
Featured image: Katie Jackson photo. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.
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