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4 Tips for Backpacking on a Budget – Gear Up without Spending a Fortune

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Backpacking on a Budget

We love backpacking and camping. And we frequently hear other folks say they think they’d love it, too, but that it’s just too expensive to get into. We get it. When you pick up Backpacker magazine or wander into REI and look at the ultralight gear and name brands and then check the price tags, you get sticker shock. So do we. Cause who has $250 for trekking poles?! Certainly not us! But getting into camping or backpacking doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive. Here’s how to get all the gear you need for less so you can get started backpacking on a budget.

Backpacking on a Budget Tip #1: Try Before You Buy

Don’t just go out and buy the most expensive pack on the market because you read a review online and figured that was your only option. Try something out first. If a friend has a pack they love, ask if you can borrow it for a weekend. If you’ve seen your neighbor set up a tent in their backyard, ask if you can try your hand at it. Obviously, you’ll want to try on shoes and clothing before making a purchase, but that’s a given, right? Trying out gear, even if it’s just in the store, helps guarantee you won’t waste your money on gear that’s uncomfortable or you won’t really like.

Backpacking on a Budget Tip #2: Buy it Used

Yeah, packs and tents and cookware are expensive, especially if you want ultralight gear and equipment. But nobody said you have to buy it new. Besides REI, which lists used gear online at good discounts, there’s Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for local gear and eBay for listings from all over the country (and the world). Fortunately for you (and us), camping and backpacking are a few of the things people think they’re gonna do a lot of, then they get a reality check and realize they actually hate sleeping on the ground or don’t enjoy carrying everything they need to survive on their backs, so they hock it. Usually for cheap. That frequently means that you and I can find barely used gear for a lot less than retail.

We recently found someone selling a Big Agnes Fly Creek 2-person tent for $170 and it hadn’t even been used! That’s a $370 tent! The owner had set it up in the backyard, decided it was too small, and listed it on Craigslist. Win. I also bought my Osprey Atmos 50L on eBay, brand new with tags, for $100 (compared to $260 new) because some guy thought he was going to hike the Appalachian Trail and later decided against it. (Check out our review of the pack here). You’ll also benefit from gear junkies who always need the latest and greatest and so sell recently retired models for a lot less.

You should also keep an eye out for used gear and clothing at thrift stores. I’ve occasionally seen hiking boots, daypacks, good hats, coolers, you name it at thrift stores. And it’s a great place to find trail clothing. And if you’re lucky enough to have a used gear shop near you (I’m so jealous if you do), hit it up often to see what gems you can find.

Backpacking on a Budget Tip #3: Keep an Eye out for Sales and Clearances

Every big retailer has sales. Usually multiple times a year. Backcountry and REI have mondo sales several times throughout the year and if you sign up for their email lists you’ll never miss one again. REI also hosts Garage Sales where they liquidate returns, outdated gear, used stuff, and the like. You have to be an REI Co-op member to participate (lifetime membership is $30), but that membership also gets you 20% discounts on non-sale items at set times throughout the year. In fact, as of this writing, both retailers are having big sales.

In addition to scheduled sales, always check the clearance section (online or in-store) for great deals on good gear. And if there’s a certain brand of gear or clothing you want, watch the manufacturer website occasionally to see when they release a new model. New models mean that the old model will be going on sale or clearance just about everywhere so they can make room for the new stuff. Even shoe manufacturers retire certain colors, so you might be able to get a great deal just because a pair of sandals or hiking boots are now a new shade of blue.

Backpacking on a Budget Tip #4: Use What You Have

It’s easy to look at other hikers, campers, and backpackers and all their cool stuff and believe you need it too in order to be a serious adventurer. You don’t. You probably already have a lot of the stuff you need and don’t even realize it. Nice synthetic hiking socks are great, but they’re expensive, and chances are, you already have a whole bunch of synthetic socks in your dresser. Dig out the ones with no cotton and you’ve just saved yourself $20 or more on fancy socks. As for shoes, as long as you’re not backpacking in the Grand Canyon, if you have sturdy and supportive sneakers (trail running shoes with aggressive tread are the best) or climbing approach shoes, those will usually do for easy to moderate trails. Heck, I frequently hike in my Chaco sandals!

And don’t look at those people with the zip-off pants and think that’s a required dress code. It’s not (and those pants look ridiculous anyway). You probably have almost all the clothing you need in your closet for hiking and backpacking. Just about anyone who’s ever exercised has workout gear shoved in the back of a drawer. Leggings, running shorts, tech shirts…those will do nicely. They’re usually made of synthetic materials and are comfortable, too. They may not hold up to the elements as well in the long run, but if you’re not thru-hiking, you should be alright. I don’t have fancy “hiking” shorts–I just wear the same shorts I workout in. I do have a pair of “hiking” pants, but they’re hardly fancy–they don’t even have pockets! And they certainly don’t zip. I found them on clearance at a Columbia outlet store, but I frequently just wear my workout leggings for most hikes.

As for gear, if you already have a tent, even if it’s not ultralight, or you have a sleeping bag that’s kinda big and clunky, use it anyway. There’s no rule that says you have to have the lightest, smallest, best outdoor gear to go outside and play. In fact, I would argue that in most cases, older, functional gear that allows you to enjoy the outdoors is a heckuva lot better than no gear and no outdoors. I’m always super impressed by backpackers who are still using a tent, external frame pack, or aluminum cook set from 20 years ago. So use what you have! You can always replace one or two items at a time over a few months or years.

Backpacking on a budget is possible. Sometimes you simply have to think outside the box, be a little flexible, and be willing to make do with what you’ve got. Have your own tips for backpacking on a budget? Share ’em below!

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