Backpacking on a Budget: An Experiment

Outbound Dan on a winter backpacking trip in the Adirondack High Peaks
Outbound Dan on a winter backpacking trip in the Adirondack High Peaks | Source

The Problem

Over the years I have amassed an enormous amount of backpacking and camping equipment. I wince when I need something from the gear closet and I think of the impending avalanche of backpacks, tents, boots, and more. Before trips, I agonize over which combination of gear to take and often don't decide until I am at the trailhead. I "like" more gear companies on Facebook than anything else and I regularly read their posts about the latest technology and newest gear. Yes, I am a gear junkie and I admit it.

Now, I am of the firm belief that quality equipment provides a better experience in the backcountry. Anyone who has spent the night in a leaky tent or a drafty sleeping bag can attest to this. As a SAR team member, I know that the right gear makes all the difference in a life and death situation. Most searches seem to be for people wearing bluejeans and venturing into a forest at dusk without a flashlight.

But perhaps I have become obsessed with gear ...

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau quips, "Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." Though we are familiar with Thoreau's great experiment of abandoning his village for a life of self-reliance and occasional solitude, do we forget about his spiritual journey? Thoreau does without, not to prove the physical benefits of a Spartan existence, but to transcend the barriers of culture and nature. Thoreau did not build himself a mansion on Walden Pond, but a simple cabin. For Thoreau, luxury is the illusion and clinging to it leads to an unfulfilled life full of inauthenticity. The question is as backpackers, do we carry mansions on our backs?

Am I overlooking part of the wilderness experience by focusing too much on the gear I carry? I started lightweight backpacking not only to have the ability to move more lightly and quickly, but to abandon the pressures of reproducing the world of 10,000 Things in the purity of the wilderness. I wonder how many lightweight fanatics cut the ice axe loops off their packs to save weight, but leave the label for all to see. Yes, leaving the portable espresso maker at home lowers my pack weight, but it allows me to avoid the noisy commotion of everyday life. The wilderness is extraordinary in its simplicity and beautiful in its dearth of expected action.

Besides a possible block to enlightenment, I wonder about how gear affects the social structure of hikers. As an experienced backpacker, I find myself scoffing at fellow outdoorsfolks wearing cotton t-shirts and sporting antiquated packs. As they walk by, their packs sway with a multitude of objects from sierra cups to egg-crate foam hanging on for dear life; I find myself evaluating who they are. Without speaking or exchanging ideas, I have a clear picture of who they are by what they carry. I brag that I can tell what country a person is from by what gear they have. I never considered myself prejudiced, but perhaps gear prejudice is a possibility.

Has backpacking become too exclusive? How can people experience backpacking when we erect barriers to it. Sure, you can go hiking, but you'll need to take out a small loan to do so. Outdoor recreation should offer solace from our troubled economy, but I fear its popularity will dwindle along with people's savings. Have we really conformed to the pressures of advertising agencies with their picturesque ads full of good looking people having a great time? It equates experience with the amount of money spent and I hope that isn't true.

Yes, we all remember that trip with the cold sleeping bag or the tent that leaked, but we survived. Those trips give us something to laugh about, even if we were miserable while doing it. Some of my best trips are the ones where I am hypothermic and hungry. Memories have the uncanny ability to ignore cold, dampness, and even pain. Perhaps in the end, high-quality gear makes our trips more enjoyable, but what if it doesn't? When trip planning, we always address the "who, what, where, and when;" seldom do we address the "why." Why do we go out there?


The Experiment

Break out the Bunsen burners, it is time for a good old fashion experiment.

In this experiment, I'll take a mid fall backpacking trip using newly acquired economically-priced gear. Like a novice hiker, I'll undergo this journey as someone who hasn't had years to accumulate and fine tune their equipment. All of this new-to-me gear, from boots to backpack, will be purchased with a strict budget of $125. What $125? Heck, I spend that on hiking socks every year.

I plan on collecting this gear over the next few weeks from a variety of sources, from thrift stores to internet auction sites. If I feel in the industrious mood, I may try making some equipment myself.

After assembling the gear and making any necessary adjustments, I'll post what I have learned here and include a complete gear list. Then I'll test the equipment on a short backpacking trip. I'm not sure where to take the trip, but I am contemplating the North Country Scenic Trail in Allegheny National Forest. To document my trip, I'll be bringing my regular canon camera. Because I made the rules for this experiment, I'll say that isn't cheating.

So, what do I hope to learn?

  • Is the wilderness experience improved or degraded by the quality and or quantity of one's gear?
  • Is it possible to go backpacking on a budget safely?
  • Can someone outfit themselves for a backpacking adventure using limited resources?

Fog lifts from Panther Gorge looking toward Mt. Marcy from Haysyack Mountain.  Views like this make backpacking a highly fulfilling activity.
Fog lifts from Panther Gorge looking toward Mt. Marcy from Haysyack Mountain. Views like this make backpacking a highly fulfilling activity. | Source
The materials I used to make my two-dollar shelter.
The materials I used to make my two-dollar shelter. | Source

The Gear

As I collect economically-priced gear, I will publish it here:

CLOTHING / BOOTS:

  • Synthetic wicking t-shirt at JC Penny: This shirt was usually $20.00, but I picked it up on clearance for $2.60. The Mountain Hardware shirts I usually wear retail for $30.00.
  • Keen Red Rock low hiking boots: These boots usually retail for $110, but I picked them up off the clearance rack at DSW for $54.96. I was looking for a sturdy waterproof breathable wide fit shoe and I found a great deal on these. I already own the mid version of this boot and have been satisfied. I figured that the boots would be the most expensive part of my ensemble.
  • Rain Gear: Unbranded poncho from an e-bay lot $2.00
  • Socks: A package of two timberland synthetic hiking socks from BJs on clearance $3.99.
  • Pants: Nylon pants found at Salvation Army $4.00.
  • Insulation: Fleece pullover from Salvation Army $2.50.

SLEEPING/SHELTER EQUIPMENT:

  • Sleeping Bag - Coleman 0-degree synthetic mummy sleeping bag $18.00 (supposedly used) off of eBay. I was very suspicious of picking up a used sleeping bag, but the description made it sound like it was in very good condition. If it was actually ever used, I'd be surprised. I was looking for a synthetic mummy bag with a cold rating for fall and I think I found it with this. It is heavy though, and tips the scales over five pounds - ugh. Well, it will make a good "car bag" afterwards.
  • Pack - Coleman Exponent Teton: This pack retailed for around $150, but I picked up a barely used one for $20.99 (including shipping) on eBay. The pack fits me okay but it is kind of strange set up. It has a 4200 cu. in. capacity and is heavier than my other packs at five-pounds. The pack fits the Sleeping bag nicely.
  • Shelter - I made my own lightweight tarp tent out of two 5x9 blue tarps, glue, duct tape, and a little bit of ingenuity. The cost of the tarps: .97 cents each on sale at Valu hardware store. When I post some pictures, you'll be able to see this.
  • Sleeping pad - Military ensolite pad - picked up from military surplus store for 7.99. I used these pads while I was in the Army and found them to be warm for the weight and extremely durable.

Cooking and Eating Gear:

  • Stove: Homemade "super cat" alcohol stove. I made this simple stove from an old cat food can and simple tools I had at my disposal. Yes, this stove is slow as it takes about 8-minutes in freezing temperatures to boil two cups of water, but it works, is very lightweight (about 1.5 ounces), and was very cheap.
  • Pot: Military canteen cup $2.00. I found this terrific find at an antique store. Again, this was something I used in the Army, so I knew it worked.
  • Spoon: Plastic "disposable" spoon scrounged from a dispenser at a local eatery.
  • Water Bottles: Two used gatorade containers. On the Appalachian Trail, I became rather concerned about potential bacteria in my Nalgenes. Therefore, I would use disposable drink bottles for about a week and then recycle them when I got to town.

Assorted Essentials:

  • Knife: Swiss Army Tinker: Though this knife retails for around $30, I was able to pick a used one up on ebay in a miscellaneous lot for about $3.00.
  • Compass: Unbranded orienteering style compass that I received with the knife above and the fire starters below off e-bay. Though I figured that I paid about $1.50 for the compass, when I compared it to my more expensive Silvas, it lacked accuracy. The compass is consistently about 8 degrees West - it would be good to remember that in case I had to do some serious orienteering.
  • Fire Starters: Because I had a stove, I wasn't planning on starting a fire, but the ability to do so is a survival necessity. I had just planned on making some before heading out, but I received an unopened package of coghlans starters in the lot above and at what I figured to be $1.00 I couldn't go wrong.
  • Lighter: Avoid the cheap lighters at the dollar store and splurge for a better Bic. I picked up a two pack for $1.50 at the supermarket.


As an ultralight backpacker, my gear is simple (like this tarp); however, it is often expensive. This is a site along the Eastside-Overland Trail.
As an ultralight backpacker, my gear is simple (like this tarp); however, it is often expensive. This is a site along the Eastside-Overland Trail. | Source

The Results

After taking the trip with this gear, I will post a detailed trip report here.


NOTE: Sorry about the wait. The trip went fine, I just haven't gotten around to writing it up just yet.

How much money have you invested in backpacking / camping equipment?

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What is the easiest type of gear to save money on?

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GEAR POLLS

What one piece of gear is worth spending money on? Please expand in comments section.

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What is the best way to save money on outdoor gear?

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The firetower on Blue Mountain
The firetower on Blue Mountain

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Please add any tips or tactics for backpacking on a budget 11 comments

CyclingFitness profile image

CyclingFitness 5 years ago from Nottingham UK

Great hub. As someone that's just spent 100 dollars on a rucksack (Osprey one - bag porn!!) I have had a few guilty feelings since. Lets hope your test goes well.


Maebus 5 years ago

So I have been a thrifty backpacker for years. I get a lot of stuff off of e-bay, clearance sites and closeout sales. Used equipment if fine for me. My big thing is research. A $20 tent is fine as long as I know it will survive and satisfy my needs. Same with all of the other gear. My stove for many years was Sterno with a collapsible stand ($5 at target). Being budget conscience is not a problem as long as you know your stuff and really spend time looking at your options.

My big issue is people who just buy the cheapest stuff because it is cheap without understanding what makes it cheap. Most do not know how to leverage other pieces of gear to overcome the short comings of sub par stuff. I am sure you can have a great time with a gear cost of $125 but there is a big difference between the newbie spending that and someone who knows what to look for and what they can get away with.


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 5 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Exactly, I think that experience allows us to evaluate a piece of equipment and determine its place in your gear closet. Sterno type stoves work extremely well: I often use the simple heat tab stove I received when I was a Boy Scout. I think the stove was $5 and it has seen over 20-years of use.


sugarloaf10 profile image

sugarloaf10 5 years ago from Kentucky USA

The one piece of gear to never skimp on no matter what is undeniably boots. Your feet are what get you to your destination and guide you on your journey. You can skimp on a tent or a sleeping bag, but good boots to protect and support your feet are a must. Many a backpacking or hiking trip has been ruined from the onset of horrendous blisters.


TheEpicJourney profile image

TheEpicJourney 4 years ago from Fairfield, Ohio

Dan I love this experiment! I look forward to seeing your conclusions for good or bad. I really enjoyed your thoughts on the simplicity of backpacking. My personal beliefs are that the most enjoyable trips are those with a healthy balance of good gear/comfort and simplicity/roughing it. I've needed to plan my gear around a budget due to being a broke college student and then being a broke college graduate with student loans haha. Would you allow me to make a suggestion? Try a 5 dollar hammock from wal-mart and a 5 x 8 tarp. I have used that combo several times and loved the results. It is ultra light, pretty darn comfortable, and gave me a whole lot of extra space in my pack. There are several different combos you can make using these 2 shelter/sleeping areas. For a wind break underneath you take your sleeping pad with you and put it in the hammock. You can put the sleeping bag in the hammock. Sleeping inside the bag, on the hammock. Or just put all your clothes on and shut your eyes without a pad or sleeping bag. The tarp is used as an A'frame to protect from rain, and if its sides are brought low enough can make a decent wind break as well. You now got an ultralight shelter for under 12-14 dollars depending on the cost of a tarp.


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Thanks for the comment and the suggestions EpicJourney. I got a little bit behind on this experiment and didn't get out till recently, but I'll have a full right up coming soon.

I actually used an inexpensive hardware store tarp bent into an A-frame for my shelter. It worked out quite well, keeping me dry while being very lightweight. I will say however, that in warmer weather hammock camping is the way to go.


Alex 3 years ago

Hi, I am actually putting together gear for my own backpacking trip and I have a really small budget to work with. I was reading this and hoping this would give me a lot of insight but noticed that you never completed the trip report. I know it's been over a year since your last post on this but will you ever get around to it?


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 3 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Alex, sorry about not completing this - this project kind of went on the back burner and I haven't gotten around to writing it up. I did take the trip and as I am alive, it went well despite a little leakage in my homemade tent and some cold spots in the sleeping bag. Someday soon, hopefully I'll post the full results. I've updated my gear list in the meantime.


Availiasvision profile image

Availiasvision 3 years ago from California

I am seriously guilty of becoming a gear junkie. You know how the discounts go in the outdoor industry. I manage a camping store and temptation to try everything is really hard to evade. I like Bear Gryll's motto of "know more, carry less," but my gear closet tells another story. For my skill level, I think I carry the right amount.

As you spend more, generally you get a higher quality, better warranty, and lighter weight specs. Yes, you can survive the outdoors in a 7 lb. sleeping bag, but so you want to? Many of the top companies (The Northface, Mountain Hardware, ect.) have lifetime warranties which is priceless. So far, the products I have owned from these companies have never broken, so I've never needed to use that service. That says something about their quality.

For me, it would come down to cost per use. If I purchase a 15 degree $300 quality down sleeping bag, sleep in it 20 days a year, for 15 years, that's $1 per use. If I buy a cheap $80 sleeping bag at Target with a one year warranty, sleep in it 20 days a year, and it breaks outside of the warranty due to bad quality, then that's $4 a use. For the occasional camper ( 4 nights a year) the $80 sleeping bag might make sense, but for someone like yourself, an $800 sleeping bag may only cost pennies per use.

High quality gear is more eco-friendly in the end. I see it as a success whenever a customer is shopping for a sleeping bag after their thirty year old one became irreparable. In that same time frame, the same camper could have gone through five to eight cheap ones.

The important thing to remember is that no gear will 100% save you from the elements. What matters is experience and skill. A $600 tent that could withstand K2, won't save save you from the wall of water headed your way due to naively pitching your tent on a flash flood prone wash. The important thing is to rely on skill, not gear. For a beginner backpacker, a $2 tarp may not be the safest option for them.

Great job proving that backpacking can be done on a budget. Money should not stop people from getting outdoors. For my first backpacking trip, I borrowed gear from friends, shopped the sales, and slowly accumulated gear. My first jacket was a $30 one from JC Penny with a cotton lining (yikes, had I known!) and non taped seams. Fortunately, it didn't rain. I feel way safer in my Dry Q Elite jacket from Mountain Hardware. I trust that it is my first and last line of defense from the elements. If my tent fails, my sleeping bag gets washed down a river, and I'm left alone in the cold pouring rain, I am confident that that scenario is survivable. In a whiteout in 1o degrees, while ice climbing in the Eastern Sierras, my $900 jacket and down puffy were worth every penny. There's a reason why you see $5000 tents at Everest basecamp. The Walmart version just won't do.

I seriously love this experiment and have always wanted to try it. As always, I love your work.


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 3 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

First of Availiasvision, you receive my best comment of the week award. I'm not sure what the award would be, but go ahead and pat yourself on the back.

Yeah, those pesky gear manufacturers and their pro deals can really get you in trouble. I have boxes of gear and clothing I just had to have (and they were such a good price).

I really do agree on the frequency of use. I would have customers buy a cheap tent every year and complain when it leaked, ripped, and the door wouldn't shut. It may have been fine if you were going to use it once, but for multiple uses - the should have upgraded (just like I told them).

When it comes down to it, more expensive gear is better made and makes you more comfortable. It does have the unfortunate side effect of draining one's bank account. I think too, that perhaps those of us that love the newest and greatest thing tend to forget about the pleasures of improvisation and the unexpected (yet memorable) hardships of failed equipment.

Thanks again for the great comment!


Snowsprite profile image

Snowsprite 12 months ago from Cornwall, UK

It's easy to become a gear junkie (especially rucksacks and backpacks). I'd do the same for backpacking gear as I do with most things, go for the best I can afford, look for quality and get a bargain when you can. I have trekked in cheap boots (actually they were my favourite boots) and was fine but if it had rained I'd have been stuffed! I've had most of my gear for, er well, a lot of years. Though I admit I'd love to just go into a shop and treat myself.

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