The Trail Doesn’t Cost a Thing (But the Gear Does): How to Get Out There Without Blowing Your Paycheck
There comes a time in life that the desire to be “out there” hits. If you are anything like me, you’re probably in your late 20s—maybe even the latest part of your 20s—working your first desk job, kind of suffocating at the idea of being inside for 40 hours a week. You need an escape, some kind of outlet, and fast. Enter backpacking. Because you’re not independently wealthy, because you have bills and need to feed yourself, because you collect vinyl or have a pet or just bought a car, sticking to a budget is key. How do you survive in the middle of the woods/mountains/desert when money is an object?
There’s no easy way to do it. If there was, I wouldn’t be writing. The ways I’ve scraped together the gear that have helped me hike on the JMT and get out on sections of the PCT were accumulated with a lot of thought and occasionally frustration.
Plan Your Purchases Around What You Think an “Average” Trip Looks Like
If you’re new to hiking or backpacking, you should first purchase the gear you’ll use most often. Sure, this means your Big Three, but it also means the little stuff. If you’re planning on hiking primarily in the Midwest, you probably don’t have a massive need for bear spray. Or microspikes. Or a heavy-duty shell. At least, these aren’t things you’re going to need right off the bat. Rather than spending time and money assembling a full kit of supplies for every kind of hiking, purchase gear for a “season” of hiking in a particular region. Yes, this might mean that in the beginning you won’t be able to do a winter hike through South Dakota, but you will be able to hike three seasons in Ohio.
Phone a Friend
Remember when you were 13 and you wanted to learn guitar? Twenty and knew you were the next Picasso and bought that easel? Do you get where I’m going with this? The majority of us assembled gear for activities that we no longer participate in. Your Facebook friends, work colleagues, and family members probably have had this same experience and are sitting on a pile of stuff that’s “junk” to them and pure gold for you. Not only is buying secondhand environmentally friendly, but it’s almost certainly the best way to get a killer deal. I ended up with a half dozen of military-grade firestarters thanks to family members, as well as a nice knife and camp stove for exactly zero dollars. These weren’t gifts that people purchased specifically for me; these were things they have either replaced with nicer things or no longer use. Throw up a post on Facebook, send an email to that uncle, or post a flyer to your work’s community board telling the people who know you that you’re looking to buy used gear and see what happens.
Become an eBay/Craigslist Frequenter
Is it just me or does eBay seem like peak 90s internet? Regardless of your feelings on the platform, eBay is a surefire way to find new or used gear at a steep discount. When I was assembling gear for my July ascent of Mount Whitney, I found a Patagonia R1 that retailed for $150 on eBay for $30. Because I love Arc’teryx but refuse to pay Arc’teryx prices, I have alerts set up for any time a Kyanite hoodie in my size goes on sale. The number one rule of buying used gear: ignore the color, only pay attention to the size and condition. When you’re on a budget, a $40 used neon green puffy jacket is always a better buy than the $199 new black one. Embrace the fact that the gear you’re buying is tested and has character and that you’re saving money for other gear purchases. Or, you know, so you can pay your water bill.
Be Ready to Improvise
You’re at the REI garage sale. You’re searching for a pair of hiking shorts but all you can find in your size is hiking pants. Did you know that a seamstress (or, in a pinch, a pair of scissors) can magically make pants into shorts? Amazing. See that sleeping pad with a hole in it? You can patch that thing and it’s good as new for a quarter of the price of a new one. Sure, there are some things that are worth spending money on, but I’m of the mind that my $20 Tyvek footprint is a much better deal than the $100 that Big Agnes wants for a Copper Spur footprint.
Tap into Trail-Oriented Communities
While Facebook isn’t my favorite platform, being a member of regional hiking groups presents opportunities to find stuff on the cheap without paying for shipping. Like eBay and Craigslist, these items can be new or used, but—unlike the other platforms—you have an opportunity to ask questions and get answers from people beyond the seller. It also allows for trading and bartering and connects you with a community of people who you can tap into for information about hikes, permits, or any other trail questions you might have—the Backpacking Gear Flea Market is a great one. The same goes for Reddit; the r/GearTrade subreddit is full of people with gently used gear who want to make sure it goes to a great home. There, you can put out a request (called “WTB” for “want to buy”) for items for which you’re on the hunt; if someone is looking to sell, it’s an easy way to get a bargain.
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