Tuesday, December 9, 2014

How to Gear Up for Backpacking on a Budget

Shopping for gear and clothing always starts out fun. Then I see price tags. My heart races and I feel like running, not walking, to the parking lot. Is your first reaction to gear shops sticker shock?

Camping, paddling, and hiking should be fun, not a financial burden. If you’re a hardcore 20-30-40 mile per day long distance hiker, by all means, get the best of the best. Weekend warriors need not let high priced gear dampen our spirits. It’s possible to enjoy the great outdoors without spending a fortune.

Make a Plan

Start by deciding what you’re looking for, and keep these items always in mind. You never know when you’re going to run into just what you needed at just the right price.  Shopping at the last minute is expensive. Give gear shopping time, put the word out about your high priority items. More eyes and ears to the street, means more opportunities for a better deal.

Check at Discount and low cost retailers

Danskin tee shirt and shorts.
Last spring we determined our need for lightweight, quick dry clothing for our growing daughter just as we were getting ready for a trip. I stumbled into short and long sleeved polyester tee shirts and shorts at Walmart. I purchased children’s polyester Danskin clothing items for $4.50 each, and a couple of Danskin tees for myself at $5.00. Lesson learned? Check discount stores before buying at more expensive shops.

That said, one must be careful with discount retailers. Your backpacking tent for wilderness adventures should be of appropriate quality to weather the storm. Your footwear must stand up to rugged terrain. My daughter decided she wanted to give trekking poles a try this summer. Not knowing whether she’d really use them, we started her out on cheapies from Walmart. The first pole broke less than a mile into her first hike with it.

Use What Works

Use what works. In college, I hiked in the rain with a garbage bag over my pack rather than an expensive backpack cover. On this note, as a college student I even used a shower curtain whose eyelets had torn out as a ground cloth in a pinch. That said, too cheap, is too cheap. In my efforts to be frugal, I’ve sometimes gone overboard and paid the price.

Don’t Buy Unsuitable Gear in Your Efforts to be Frugal

Years ago as a newbie, I found myself invited on a backpacking trip in the San Juan National Forest. I couldn’t afford the trip. To make the money work, I bought a twenty dollar tent at Walmart. A foolish, foolish mistake. 

The tent proved unsuitable for three season backpacking. There I was on the Continental Divide trail at about 9,500 feet shivering in my soaked sleeping bag with puddles of water all around me. It rained hard, then snowed that night. Somehow I even managed to get chunks of slush in the water puddles that filled my tent.

Buy on Clearance, Close Out, and Out of Season

What did I do prior to my next backpacking adventure? I bought a backpacking tent on close out from REI. I bagged a then $249 tent for around $90. Through high winds, storms, and temperatures that dipped below freezing, that tent has kept me unfailingly dry and comfortable. It remains a great little tent 25 years later.

How did I approach the purchase? I decided upon my specs (must be compact and weigh less than two pounds, and hold up in three season winds, rains, and cold). I waited until I found a close out model out of season, and got a great deal. In the interim, I borrowed a tent from a friend.

Buy it Once, Not Twice

Understanding return policies before shopping can save you from being stuck with gear that doesn't work for you. What if you buy gear, use it on a trip, and it fails? Or you find out you just plain made a bad choice. Knowing the vendor’s return policy may just save you from buying the same item twice. R.E.I., for example, stands behind everything they sell. With their 100% satisfaction guarantee, you can return items if you decide you don’t like them for up to a year. 

I once bought a pair of hiking shoes at R.E.I. With a hiking trip drawing near, I wore them around the house to start breaking them in. The more I wore them, the more uncomfortable they became. Although I brought them home, held onto them for a few weeks, and wore them, I was able to return the shoes. I found a more comfortable pair of shoes on sale, so I ended up with $30 of the refund returned to my pocket and a better pair of shoes to hike in.

Make Your Own Backpacking Meals

Home cooked dehydrated spaghetti sauce.
To save money on backpacking food, be creative. Dehydrate your own food at home. Your meals will be just as compact and light weight as backpacking meals from the gear shop, way less salty, and much friendlier on your wallet. Not into home cooking meals to dehydrate? Check out my tips for 11 inexpensive grocery store foods for the pack.


Buy Used

Buy used. Garage sales, Craig’s List, and E-Bay are good sources for great deals. Get on a backpacking or paddling forum and put the word out on the gear you’re looking for. You may be able to save money buying used.

Newbies, Rent or Borrow if Possible

Getting ready to head out on your first big canoe tripping or backpacking adventure? The experts (authors and salespeople) will direct you to tons of equipment. You may find yourself spending thousands of dollars gearing up for a trip. What if you go on the trip and find out it is something you never want to do again? Then what?

New backpackers might consider renting or borrowing gear. Only by using gear and learning what works poorly or well for you, will you truly know what you personally want and value. It’s always better to buy once you understand what you want and need. If this is not possible, spend away and learn from your mistakes. I must admit, in the past mistakes have often been my best teachers.

Final Thoughts

With your new, used, begged, and borrowed gear in hand, do a shakedown trip. Take your new gear car camping. Better yet, go backpacking where the walk to camp is only a short mile or two from the car. Find out how your gear works in a low stress, easy bailout situation with spare supplies stashed in the car if needed. This will allow you to work out gear challenges in a low stress environment. Return or exchange gear that doesn't work for you. Once you’ve tested your gear, gear melt downs become far less likely to hamper your outdoor enjoyment.

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