By Michael Lanza
My first two-person tent set me back only about twice what you’d pay today for a good, single-burner backpacking stove. It weighed several pounds and was bulky for backpacking. I nicknamed that tent the Wind Sock for its propensity to snap loudly in even the slightest breeze, and how its poles bowed disturbingly in strong gusts. (I learned to choose protected campsites.) In heavy downpours, I sometimes woke up to a puddle covering the floor.
But I used it for six summers of car camping and backpacking. At a time in my life when I could not afford good gear, that tent sheltered me for probably close to 150 nights and got me through many wonderful experiences. For its swan song, my girlfriend (now my wife) and I spent three months hiking, backpacking, and climbing throughout the West—and slept a total of one night indoors. I used the Wind Sock until it all but disintegrated in the last campsite it ever saw. My lifetime cost for that tent worked out to about 50 cents a night.
In fact, all of the very first gear and clothing I bought when I started dayhiking and backpacking was of similar quality, from my boots to my backpack. I’ve been reminded of that gear while reading questions from readers of The Big Outside asking how to outfit themselves or a group of kids or teenagers inexpensively.
That’s not easily accomplished, because you usually get what you pay for. But in this article, I share the strategies I’ve learned over the years for getting decent or even very good gear cheaply. If you’re much shorter on cash than on eagerness to get out dayhiking and backpacking, or you just prefer paying less for your gear, read on.
You can help support my work on this blog (while scoring excellent bargains) by making any gear purchases through the retailer links in this story. Thanks for your support.
#1 Shop Discount Online Sites
This is the way to score higher-quality gear and apparel from top brands for bargain prices. These sites offer deep discounts on product that has been discontinued (replaced in a company’s line by something similar, newer, and improved) or was made in a color that didn’t sell. This stuff went on sale new at higher prices just months earlier—it’s current technology, not ancient crap.
Anyone shopping for new gear or apparel would be wise to begin by visiting sites like backcountry.com and the backcountry.com outlet store, moosejaw.com, REI Garage, Sierra Trading Post, and theclymb.com. Wait for seasonal sales (spring, late summer, and holidays) at those sites and AppOutdoors.com, campsaver.com, NRS (for water sports gear), and Uncle Dan’s. Follow these sites through the social media you use.
Even Amazon and overstock.com sometimes offer name-brand gear. I’ve heard from some of the many indie, non-brand gear makers who sell their backpacks, daypacks, tents, and other gear at bargain prices on Amazon. Of course, it’s difficult to evaluate quality from an online description and photo. I think some of this stuff would perform like my first, cheap tent, and potentially last a few seasons or longer. Frankly, I’d advise buyer beware, especially if you’re looking for gear you intend to use a lot and use hard.
If you’re looking for a specific product, you may not find it; and sizes available are sometimes limited. But if you’re on a more general quest for a rain jacket or a backpack, you may well find something that was cutting edge last year at a price that fits into your budget.
#2 Lower Your Standards
Big rule of life in general: Beggars can’t be choosers. But that’s okay—you can get by with cheap gear, you just have to accept more discomfort and be careful about how you try to use that gear. (I certainly would not have pitched the Wind Sock anyplace exposed to strong wind.) Cruise eBay and Craig’s List for used gear. (Example: My teenage son found a nearly new, high-end whitewater kayak for half its usual retail price on Craig’s List.)
If you can’t afford top brands new, equip yourself with gear you can afford. It may last long enough to see you through a few seasons, until you save up enough to gradually start acquiring better-quality gear.
Nonetheless, be choosy about which cheap gear you buy. Read reviews of quality gear to educate yourself on how to distinguish between gear that’s poorly made and gear that’s reasonably well made and won’t fall apart on your second trip with it.
The tradeoffs for paying much less are often less-expensive and heavier materials, a less-precise, boxier fit (in boots, packs, and apparel), performance compromises, and often a shorter lifespan. Look for gear and apparel from those respected brands, like Kelty and REI, that offer lower-priced products that are nonetheless well made.
The Big Outside is proud to partner with sponsors Backcountry.com and Visit North Carolina, who support the stories you read at this blog. Find out more about them and how to sponsor my blog at my sponsors page at The Big Outside. Click on the backcountry.com ad below for the best prices on great gear.
#3 Inspect the Gear Closely
You don’t have to be a gear expert to examine a piece of gear closely. Handle it, pull and tug on seams and zippers, move any moving parts. Assess whether you think it look flimsy or well made.
With a pack:
• Does it fit you? (Learn how to choose and fit a backpack in my “5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack.”)
• If you intend to carry more than 25 or 30 pounds, does the pack have a decent framesheet, wire frame, aluminum stay, and/or any kind of structure that gives it structure and support, so that it doesn’t just sag on your pack when loaded?
• Does the hipbelt have either a few inches of width, or some structural rigidity, to distribute or support the weight inside the pack?
• Does the backpack have the features you need?
• Does the rand on the boot’s toe appear ready to delaminate (or separate) from the upper?
• If you attempt to wring the boot like a towel, can you twist it around with ease, or does its midsole have some rigidity to it (suggesting good support and lateral stability to help keep your ankles from rolling)?
• If you place one hand inside a boot and press on the outsole with the other hand, can just feel your fingers through the boot’s midsole (indicating little to no protection)?
• Is the heel rigid and stable (good) or soft (bad)? (See my “Pro Tips For Buying the Right Boots.”)
Find links to the best prices on quality outdoor gear on the Web in my gear reviews at The Big Outside.
With a tent:
• Does it have a rainfly that extends nearly to the ground, to keep rain off the interior canopy?
• Do the poles assemble smoothly, and feel strong or flimsy?
• Are the rainfly seams taped or sealed to keep water out? (If not, you can do it yourself with a product like Seam Seal, but know the answer to that question.)
• When pitched, does the tent looked taut and strong or is fabric loose and sagging? (See my “5 Tips For How to Buy a Backpacking Tent.”)
With a sleeping bag:
• What’s the insulation material? With less-expensive bags, you’re often choosing between lower-grade down (around 600-fill) or a synthetic, the latter including a variety of materials, some much lighter and more compact than others.
• How heavy and bulky is it when inside its stuff sack—and will it fit easily inside your pack?
• Does the zipper move smoothly or snag easily?
• Does the hood closely smoothly and neatly around your head and face? (See my “Pro Tips: How to Choose a Sleeping Bag.”)
With boots, daypacks, and backpacks, fit determines a large part of comfort. You can get blisters with expensive boots, or sore shoulders with a high-end backpack, too. Always try on gear and apparel before buying, no matter what you’re spending.
#4 Shop at Big-Box Stores
Yes, it’s demoralizing. Besides, much of the stuff they offer does not cut it for backcountry use. But you might be surprised at the functionality of some products you find in the camping-equipment department of a big-box retailer. This search can require some time and visiting more than one store. But if you have more time than money, this strategy offers potential, especially for finding a useable daypack (maybe a backpack), backpacking stove, or rain jacket.
Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today and others. I invite you to get email updates about new stories and gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box in the left sidebar, at the bottom of this post, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook and Twitter.
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#5 Get Good Boots First
If you have the means to outfit yourself with one higher-quality gear item and you’re trying to decide which one thing to spend a little more on—tent, pack, bag, boots, or rain jacket—I recommend boots. Here’s why: Protecting and supporting your feet is more important than having a comfortable pack or storm-worthy tent, both for avoiding injury and for affecting your comfort every step of the way.
The truth is, you can actually get a pair of decently made, waterproof-breathable footwear with the support for dayhiking or light backpacking, from a respected brand, for under $150—sometimes well under, such as in a closeout sale. Cheap, poorly constructed boots or shoes may blow out after one or two rugged trips, which doesn’t save you any money when you have to replace them so quickly, whereas a $120-$150 pair from a good brand is likely to endure for at least 400 trail miles.
Bonus Tip #6 Get Stronger
When I carried cheap backpacks loaded beyond their comfortable capacity on multi-day hikes, they were not comfortable—but I really didn’t know any better. I didn’t know I had terrible gear. I didn’t even learn how to discern how well a pack carried until I’d used a few different models. I was young and fit and I could carry a heavy backpack a lot of miles, and that went a long way toward negating the discomfort of mediocre quality and fit.
Got a trip coming up? See my reviews of the best gear duffles and luggage and 6 favorite daypacks.
One Last, Important Point
Would I suffer with cheap gear today? Of course not, because I don’t have to do that anymore. Whenever someone who can afford good gear asks for my advice, I always tell them that they’d be foolish to buy cheap, because they don’t need to suffer—especially true as we get a little older and our bodies don’t respond as well to discomfort, not to mention becoming more prone to injury. See my advice on that in “Why and When to Spend More on Outdoor Gear.”
But when I was young and poor, a little suffering was the price I paid for getting out in the mountains, and I more than recouped that expense through the rewards I gained. If you’re on a tight budget, just get whatever gear you can afford and get out there. You can’t put a price on memories.
NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my reviews at my Gear Reviews page.