By Michael Lanza
My first tent cost about 75 bucks. It was a bit heavy and bulky for backpacking. I called it the Wind Sock because it snapped loudly in the slightest breeze, and its poles bowed disturbingly in moderate gusts. (I learned to choose protected campsites.) But at a time when I could not afford good gear and was developing a passion for hiking, backpacking, and climbing, it sheltered me for about 150 nights in the backcountry and in campgrounds. It ultimately cost me about 50 cents a night.
When I started dayhiking and backpacking, I needed gear and clothing that was cheap. And you usually get what you pay for. But I’ve learned the strategies for getting decent or even very good gear cheaply over four decades of backpacking and hiking—including the 10 years I spent as a field editor and lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.
If you’re much shorter on cash than on eagerness to get outdoors—or you just prefer paying less for your gear so you can afford more of it or better stuff—these tips will help you get out there without emptying your checking account. If you have comments or questions for me, or tips of your own to suggest, please share them in the comments section below this story; I try to respond to all of them.
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No. 1 Shop Discount Online Sites
Anyone shopping for new gear or apparel would be wise to begin by visiting sites like backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, cotopaxi.com, the REI outlet store, theclymb.com, and campsaver.com. This is the best way to score higher-quality gear and apparel from top brands for bargain prices. These sites offer deep discounts on product that has perhaps been discontinued—replaced in a company’s line by something similar, newer, and improved, or simply in a color that sells better. This discounted stuff went on sale new at higher prices just months earlier—it’s current technology, not ancient crap.
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, a backpack, or something else, you may well find something of high quality at a price you can afford.
NOTE: In most blog posts and pages at The Big Outside, including the Gear Reviews page, I share links to some of the best gear bargains on the Web, where you can find deep discounts on good-quality gear.
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No. 2 Wait For Sales
Consumers spend top dollar when they buy impetuously or wait until the last second, when they absolutely need something. Most of the time, product prices are set at full retail.
But several times during the year—usually spring, late summer, and the holidays, plus clearance sales in fall and late winter—websites and brick-and-mortar stores offer major sales with product as much as half off the usual price.
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No. 3 Join Email Lists of Your Favorite Brands
Visit the websites of brands you like and you may see an offer of a discount code worth something on the order of 10 to 20 percent off full price simply for joining their email list. Go right now to ospreypacks.com, patagonia.com, blackdiamondequipment.com, outdoorresearch.com, featheredfriends.com, hyperlitemountaingear.com, msrgear.com, seatosummitusa.com, beyondclothing.com, thermarest.com, and hellyhansen.com and join their email lists. These offers may pop up only at certain times of year, or maybe after you’ve clicked at least one internal link, or only once you move your cursor toward the URL bar.
Sign up for their email list. You get something that you wanted at a lower price, and you will be among the first to hear about new products and future sales from a brand you already like. What’s not to like?
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No. 4 Buy Used Gear
When my teenage son said he wanted to upgrade from the old whitewater kayak that he had received on semi-permanent loan from a friend of ours, I told him we could split the cost and he should start aggressively shopping around for a good used boat. He found a nearly new Jackson kayak for half its usual retail price on Craig’s List. He put in numerous days on rivers over a few years, grew out of that boat, and then sold it for nearly what he originally paid for it—and used that money to cover most of the cost of the newer (but still used) next boat he bought.
Cruise eBay and Craig’s List for used gear. Look into whether there’s a used-gear exchange near where you live. Some local outdoor-gear stores may hold used-gear sales or garage sales, where people can bring stuff they want to sell cheap. Some REI stores host garage sales occasionally for members; go to rei.com/promotions/garage-sale. Local and regional hiking and outdoor clubs may do the same thing.
It can take time and you should jump on any good deal as soon as you see it, or someone else will beat you to it. But many people buy gear they think they’ll use, and end up selling it months later after hardly using it. Plus, you even get to inspect it before buying if the seller is local.
There are actually few better ways to get good gear cheap—if you’re willing to put time and effort into the search.
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No. 5 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 may just have to accept less comfort 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.)
If you can’t afford new gear, equip yourself with gear you can afford. It may last long enough to see you through a few seasons, like the Wind Sock did for me, 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 (and see my advice on inspecting gear in the next tip).
The tradeoffs for paying much less are often heavier materials, a less-precise fit (in boots, packs, and apparel), performance compromises, and sometimes (but not always) a shorter lifespan. Look for gear and apparel from respected brands you know that offer lower-priced products that are nonetheless well made.
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No. 6 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 looks flimsy or well made.
With a pack:
• Does it fit you? (Learn how to choose and fit a backpack in my “5 Expert Tips For Buying the Right Backpacking Pack.”)
• If you intend to carry more than 25 or 30 pounds, does the pack have a good framesheet, wire frame, aluminum stay, and/or any kind of frame that gives it structure and support, so that it doesn’t just hang off your back 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 shoe and press on the outsole with the other hand, can you feel your fingers through the boot’s midsole (indicating little to no protection)?
• Is the heel rigid and stable (good) or soft (not good)? (See my “Pro Tips For Buying the Right Hiking Boots.”)
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With a tent:
• Does it have a rainfly that provides enough coverage to keep rain off the interior canopy?
• Do the poles assemble smoothly and feel strong or flimsy compared to other tents?
• 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 Expert Tips For Buying 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 insulation, 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 For Buying a Backpacking 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.
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No. 7 Shop at Big-Box Stores
Yes, it’s demoralizing, and in truth, most 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.
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No. 8 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.
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No. 9 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.
What do you really need for backpacking? See my “Essentials-Only Backpacking Gear Checklist.”
No. 10 Don’t Buy Cheap Just to Buy Cheap
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.
See all of my hiking gear reviews and backpacking gear reviews at The Big Outside. And don’t miss my popular reviews of “24 Essential Backpacking Gear Accessories” and “The Best Backpacking Gear” of the year or all stories with expert backpacking tips at The Big Outside.
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.