The Cheapskate’s Guide to Outdoor Gear

7 min read

Portrait at Yosemite National Park
Photos by Blisters & Bliss. All backpacks featured in these photos are of borrowed gear :)

About nine years ago, my friends and I were hiking in Point Mugu State Park on a quintessentially warm and sunny SoCal afternoon. I was wearing my typical “outdoor outfit” – jeans and a T-shirt – and was sweating so much that I’d already knocked out most of my half-liter bottle of water (single-use Arrowhead varietal, natch) about twenty minutes into the hike. That day, my kicks were a grey and purple pair of treadless New Balance 574s, so walking on the park’s loose dirt paths was a lot like ice skating: slide here, skid there, spin around a bit – and then finally, utterly and completely bite the dust while walking along an oceanside bluff.

Shaken, I decided to have a seat to calm my nerves…and then realized that in said nervousness, I almost sat right on top of a sunning rattlesnake. That’s when I made a personal pact to buy pair of real, live hiking boots as soon as I made it safely back to my car.

We all make mistakes when we begin exploring the outdoors, and using inappropriate gear is often one of them. It’s hard to decipher not just what’s necessary, but also what’s worth the investment of your hard-earned cash. In fact, for many people, the first glance at any day hiking or backpacking gear list is enough to make them want to hole up inside instead – How much money do I have to spend in order to go for a walk outside?! The reality, however, is that there are plenty of ways to save some cash for post-hike tacos and beer.

In fact, for many people, the first glance at any day hiking or backpacking gear list is enough to make them want to hole up inside instead – How much money do I have to spend in order to go for a walk outside?! The reality, however, is that there are plenty of ways to save some cash for post-hike tacos and beer.

WHERE TO SPEND

It’s important to understand where you do want to loosen your wallet a bit – namely, anything related to safety and security. Many people point to the “Big 3” – shelter, backpack, sleeping system – as the biggest money drains for any backpacker, and they’re generally correct (although the aforementioned tacos and beer rank high); these items are on the pricier end no matter how well you bargain hunt. It’s also important not to cut corners when it comes to technical gear, i.e. crampons, ice axe, or any equipment used for mountaineering and rock climbing. I would add that it’s wise to invest in a pair of hiking shoes or boots that feel right and function well. After all, if you head out on trail in a pair of slick-soled street shoes, you might just cough up more money in hospital bills than you would have spent on appropriate kicks.

Note from Christine: Photo overlooking Tom’s Thumb Trail in Arizona. Backpack borrowed from my sister.

HOW TO SAVE

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to score great gear on the cheap. It takes a bit more patience than simply throwing your credit card at the interwebs, but the time you spend doing virtual coupon cutting pays off in dividends.

Rent or borrow. It’s difficult to commit to spending hundreds of dollars on gear if you’re not sure you’ll even like the activity – or want to do it regularly enough to warrant the outlay. Ask to borrow gear from friends and family (and treat it like gold), or rent from local outfitters, gear shops, and university recreation departments to essentially “try before you buy.”

Look for sales. The early bird gets the worm – and maybe even a sweet backpacking tent. Enjoy a Saturday morning stroll around the neighborhood and scan yard sales for clothes and camping gear. Look for newspaper circulars announcing sale events at sporting goods and “big box” stores; places like Kmart and Target also offer affordable entry-level gear for day hiking and backpacking. Keep tabs on REI’s popular annual garage sale events and arrive early enough to snag fantastic deals on gently (ok, and sometimes roughly) used gear that customers have returned.

Visit discount stores. Instead of waiting for the sale to come to you, you can go directly to the sale…because it’s always on! Military surplus stores are an excellent place to find cheap aluminum cookware and other small, but essential items like whistles, trowels, and knives. Discount stores like T.J.Maxx and Marshalls offer some less obvious finds: trekking poles, water bottles, and exercise clothes that can be worn on trail. Costco and Sam’s Club are great for bulk food deals, but also often sell clothing and other outdoor gear; I know folks who have bought wool socks, zip-off pants, wicking shirts, and trekking poles at these stores! Thrift shops require a bit more effort, but the payoff is often well worth it; I’ve found Patagonia fleece pullovers, Eddie Bauer pants, and Smartwool skirts at local bargain joints.

Scan discount websites. It’s rare that I pay full price for anything in life, and that includes outdoor equipment. I’ve scored amazing deals on puffy jackets, technical clothing, and camping gear from Sierra Trading Post, Backcountry, and REI Garage. Other popular discount sites include Gear Trade, Campmor, and Overstock. Services like The Clymb and Steep & Cheap offer time-sensitive flash deals on specific items and brands – sign up for their email lists to be notified when your must-haves go on sale. Finally, peer-to-peer sales sites like Craigslist and eBay serve as online yard sales (lemonade stand not included).

Photo overlooking Yosemite National Park
Note from Christine: This was in Yosemite National Park. I borrowed my sister’s backpack for this trip because I didn’t have my own day pack yet.

OTHER TIPS & TRICKS

Look for affordable brands. While it seems the priciest outdoor brands boast the biggest advertising budgets, quieter brands like TETON Sports, Hi-Tec, Eureka!, and Champion all offer outdoor performance gear and clothing that speaks to tighter wallets without sacrificing usability. Coleman, famous for their propane stoves, also sells affordable tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads, making the brand a go-to for many first-time campers. On the (literally) smaller end of the spectrum, Coghlan’s has the basic accessories market covered, offering everything from (non-technical) carabiners to pocket saws.

Make your own gear. If you’re handy with a sewing machine, it’s possible to whip up your own sleeping bags or quilts, clothing, tarp-style tents, and footprints; look online for patterns, books, and tutorials. Another popular DIY project among long distance hikers is crafting an extraordinarily cheap alcohol stove out of a cat food can or soda can. Not interested in dropping big cash on a footprint for your tent? Craft a cheap, but durable version out of a sheet of Tyvek.

Peek inside your own closet. Chances are, you have plenty of useful items squirreled away in your home already. A fleece blanket can be repurposed into a sleeping bag liner, a wool sweater will pinch hit as an insulating layer on a snowshoe hike, and a spent Smartwater or Gatorade bottle replaces a hydration reservoir or Nalgene-style bottle. Leggings, running shorts, and moisture-wicking exercise clothing is just as useful on trail as it is in the gym. Thinking about buying a pack cover to protect your goods against the elements? Instead, line your pack with a trash compactor bag – while the outside will get wet, everything inside will stay plenty dry. Want a lighter wallet on trail? A small zip-top baggie is lighter – and in theory, waterproof! Want a pair of comfy camp shoes, but don’t want to break the bank? Peek under your bed for a pair of flip-flops or Crocs – trust me, no one will make fun of you for wearing them after a long day on trail.

Happy bargain hunting, hikers!

Photo at Ice Saddle Trail in Mount Baldy California
Note from Christine: This hike was on the Ice House Canyon Trail on Mount Baldy, California. Backpack borrowed from my boyfriend. Don’t let not having your own gear stop you 🙂 I borrowed from friends and family for years before buying my own gear.

How do you save money on outdoor gear? Let us know in the comments below!

Shawnté Salabert is a curiosity seeker with a taste for wild spaces. Her work has appeared in Backpacker, Outside Online, Adventure Journal, Modern Hiker, REI Co-op Journal, Land+People, Verticulture, and other fine outlets. Her book Hiking The Pacific Crest Trail: Southern California will be released via Mountaineers Books in Fall 2017.

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