Finding inexpensive hiking gear for frugal thru-hiking

For the budget-conscious backpacker, a trip to your local backpacking store can be disheartening, and upon first glance, it may even seem that the price of a little trip to the woods is prohibitively expensive. If you’re into having the newest and nicest of everything, be prepared for an initial gear investment of several thousand dollars. Otherwise do what I do and spend as little as necessary on your gear so you can spend more time backpacking and less time working to pay for it.

In a nutshell:

  • Take your time. Start looking for your summer gear in January.
  • Make a list of everything you need and stop by the thrift store once or twice a week to see if any of those items come through. Once you know the layout of a thrift store, this will only take you a few minutes.
  • Garage sales are a great place to find hiking gear. Check Craigslist for garage sales in your area.
  • Shop eBay in the off-season to find big-ticket items like tents and sleeping bags.
  • Check out military surplus for modern-issue gear. Many famous name sporting goods equipment manufacturers supply the military as well as the general public.
  • See if your local sporting goods store resells returned items. The Seattle REI is famous locally for “the basement.”
  • Consider alternative styles of gear (which are frequently lighter too): Join the growing legions of people who are trading in their tents for ultralight tarps. Consider using a poncho that covers both you and your backpack instead of a $400 Gortex rain suit. Use a solid-fuel stove instead of an expensive gas model.
  • Dehydrate your own food. Check out a backpacking food cookbook from the library or buy one from Amazon.com. Dehydrate different types of fruit and vegies as they go on sale at your local fruit stand (don’t bother with the grocery store if you don’t have to).

The key to thrift is giving oneself time to find the best deal on everything. If you truly want to pay the least, it will probably take you a few months to find everything you need and it may involve a little creativity. First, consider buying your gear in the wintertime when it’s in lower demand. Also consider buying used gear. You will save a fortune. I regularly scan the clothing racks at the local Value Village and Goodwill for performance clothing. I can’t tell you how many REI performance wicking backpacking shirts and pants turn up there in excellent condition. At a large thrift store, there’s usually an enormous rack of fleece jackets, and with a little luck and persistence, you will find top-brand items in good condition. Don’t think you will find everything in one trip though; make a list of items that you need and stop by the thrift store once or twice a week on your way home from work. Also be aware that clothing doesn’t have to be sold at a hiking store to work great for backpacking. Go for synthetic fibers – nylon especially as it doesn’t hold body odor like polypropylene.

My local backpacking store also has a returns department where I have had great luck with footwear. Frequently people will wear a new pair of boots for a day or two and change their minds. I found a $150 pair of boots that fit me well and then went to the store’s returns department and found the same pair there for $75. Structurally, they looked brand new, but there was a little mud splashed on the outside (but not $75 worth).

I also look for bigger items on eBay – especially in the off season. I bought my wife a like-new $250 down sleeping bag for $60 in early spring on eBay. The seller said it was too narrow for her in the shoulders and after using it twice, she sold it for not even a quarter of what she initially paid. If you think buying a used sleeping bag is gross, then I suppose you bring your own sheets when you stay in hotel rooms.

If you have some time on your hands for a new hobby, consider making some of your own gear. With some effort and patience, you can make high quality, custom items that are much nicer than what you can buy in the store. There is a thriving internet community of people who make their own gear.

Also consider picking up a few military surplus items. A number of high-end backpacking gear companies have DOD contracts and are supplying the military with some of their highest quality products. For instance, Cascade Designs sells the military its ultra-light line of Therm-a-Rest sleeping pads. Next time you’re at REI, look for the most expensive Therm-a-Rest. That’s the one the military uses, except theirs is drab-green in color. I bought a pair of these from a military surplus dealer on eBay for $25 dollars apiece including shipping. They have some markings on them and are patched in one or two places, but you’d never know in the dark. They’ve worked great for several seasons now, and I suspect I’ll still be using it in ten years.

Use your brains and don’t be bamboozled by salesman and advertisers. You’re just going for a walk in the woods, and carbon-fiber reinforced shoe laces are not requisite. Backpacking has traditionally been an inexpensive pastime and it wasn’t until just a few years ago that anyone but mountaineers would have spent thousands of dollars on their gear.