Getting into backpacking can be a very wallet draining experience. It’s not uncommon for people to go into REI and drop upwards of a thousand dollars on gear. Undoubtably, they purchased some nice quality things that will serve them well on their backpacking trips but is that really necessary? Not having experience, they may have purchased a lot of things they didn’t need. In fact, I have seen several Craigslist ads for whole backpacks filled with gear for sale. Usually these people either had never backpacked and discovered they didn’t like it or bought all the wrong stuff. That 60 liter pack turned out to be way too heavy. Those tiny and lightweight pots turned out to be too tiny. Buying mistakes like that happen when you don’t have the experience to get what you actually need. Everyone’s needs are different too so taking an experienced hiker friend to the store with you doesn’t guarantee the right things either.
We think a much better approach is to acquire gear slowly and to supplement with non-traditional camping gear when you can. This way you can slowly build your gear as your budget allows. You can determine whether you do in fact enjoy backpacking or are more of a car-camper. You will learn whether you prefer short weekend trips or week long hikes which will help you to know what size pack you really need. It also means you can shop for sales and deals, and maybe pick up some things from that person who went into REI and spent a fortune on all the wrong gear. So what gear did we buy and how did we acquire it?
When Patrick and I first started camping together all we had was a oversized car-camping tent. So at first we camped with the other car-campers and just ventured out on hikes. Plenty of state parks are set up with a campground in the middle of lots of hiking trails. If all you have is a big heavy tent, use a campground as a base site and hike out from there. You can inch into backpacking by carrying lunch and dinner and learning to cook on the trail. If you enjoy that, try carrying more of your gear with you to be sure you like hiking with the weight. If you don’t then that’s okay, you discovered that you like hiking but not backpacking and just saved a lot of money.
If the long day hikes are going well you may want to take it to the next level. You have a few options for backpacking shelters, simple tarps, hammocks, or tents. Backpacking tarps are super light but also more expensive, before investing in one, try sleeping under a plain old cargo tarp a few nights to see if sleeping in the open is right for you. In Texas with the prevalence of snakes which are active year-round, sleeping in the open is not something I want to try. I don’t want to be a reptiles source of heat on a cold night.
I really don’t think you can go wrong buying a hammock because even if you don’t enjoy sleeping in it it is still an awesome piece of gear to have to relax in. We absolutely love our Kroex Double Hammock, we eat meals, relax, nap, and take breaks on hikes in it. If you think a hammock might be your shelter of choice try taking a nap in one first before you buy bug nets and specific tarps for it. Some people find they need a more solid surface to sleep on. If you wake up sore from your nap than hammock camping is not for you. If you do like it you may want to make do with a cheap mosquito net and tarp for a year to be sure you like it in ALL seasons. Hammock camping might be the best thing in the world in the summer but in winter you might change your mind.
When we decided we wanted to take our hiking to the next level and backpack in we knew we needed to get a better tent. Tents come in all price ranges from the cheap $30 tents up to $600 premium meant to withstand gale-force winds tents. Unless you are planning to hike Mt. Everest, I think a nice mid-level tent will be fine for your needs. Skip the cheap tents because they will break and end up costing you more in the long run. You want something that is light and durable. At $120 our Kelty Salida 2 is the perfect combination of well-made and affordable. It is also as light or lighter than many of the high-end tents.
Experience is key here too. If you find that you have no patience for cooking on the trail and buy ready made meals that just require you to add water, you don’t need a whole cook set. A simple pot and rapid boil stove will be perfect for you. If however you decide you like to cook you will want a lower heat stove and a whole set. The other thing to consider is who will be going with you. We had a basic one person set to start with but it was a pain because we were always cooking for two. Instead of buying a whole new two-person set we supplemented with a bigger aluminum pot from Goodwill. The pot was only $0.99 and our other coolest fits inside. This is another place where you don’t have to go top of the line. Yes, titanium is super nice, durable and strong, but it is not a required metal for backpacking cookware. If you really want a luxury item like that get it later when your gear is all fitted out.
Here’s an item you may have been convinced to buy at that outdoors store that you may not use at all. We always eat directly from our cookware and don’t use plates at all. Many of the mugs that come with mess kits would fit better in a child’s tea set than alongside an adults breakfast. It would take about a hundred of those mugs to fuel Patrick’s coffee addiction. Buy a mug the size of a hot drink you would like to drink in the morning. If you camp in pairs, make sure they nest. Add in a set of flatware in the material of your choice, and a silicon spatula for cooking and that’s all you really need.
We have dehydrators that we use to dehydrate food and make our own meals. This is another area were you can stick a toe in before jumping in. If you think you want to dehydrate and make your own backpacking meals. Try dehydrating in your oven first or even buying the ingredients all ready dried. There’s plenty of food perfect for dried meals already in grocery stores from the obvious beef jerky, to powdered eggs, milk, and potatoes, to instant rice and oatmeal. Try meals with the easy to find ingredients first and if you like those then invest in a dehydrator. If you take your time you may even score a deal on a used one.
Blankets, Sleeping Bags, and Quilts
If you are thinking about getting into backpacking I would suggest trying it out in mild weather first. This will save you having to invest in a sleeping bag or quilt when you are still acquiring all your gear. We started camping together in the summer and didn’t need anything for warmth. We would just throw a blanket down on the floor of our tent for cushioning and sleep on that.
You can save money and weight in your pack if you think outside the box on sleeping covers. For temperatures down to 60 degrees a fleece blanket is probably all you need. You can usually find fleece on clearance at fabric stores for about $1 a yard. Fleece doesn’t need to be hemmed so you can use it as is straight from the store. For a couple of dollars you will have a super lightweight blanket to keep any nighttime child at bay. When the temperatures dip a little lower Patrick and I use two down throws we picked up at a thrift store for $4. At one pound each, these are as light or lighter than most 3 season sleeping bags and keep us warm down to 50 degrees. By using unconventional covers we can save our money for purchasing a higher end cover for winter when quality is more essential.
Sleeping Bags and Quilts
This is an area where quality is important. Cheap bags and quilts will be heavy and not as warm. You’re main consideration here is synthetic versus down. Down will almost always be more expensive but synthetic will typically be a bit heavier and not last as long. If you’ve waited to purchase your bag you should have an idea of how heavy your pack is and how much more weight you can afford to add. This can make deciding a little easier. Synthetic bags can be a budget option but keep in minds that you will have to replace them sooner than a properly cared for down bag. So more money on a bag upfront, may save you money in the long run.
Thrift stores, thrift stores, thrift stores! Buying used can save you a ton of money here. If the thrift stores near you are not great you can buy off of eBay or another resale site. With the exception of one pair of Columbia shorts I got as a birthday present all my hiking clothing has been thrifted. I have found Columbia, Patagonia, and Sherpa hiking pants all for about $5. Besides finding dedicated hiking clothing you can also fill out your hiking wardrobe by shopping by material instead of brand. I have cashmere sweaters that I have gotten for under $5 that keep me warmer than any hiking fleece and are lighter as well. Silk shirts can usually be found for cheap and are excellent as a base layer and if you are hiking. Silk scarves are amazing to have while hiking. They can be used as a scarf, cooling towel, regular towel, bag, sling, etc. They are incredibly useful and can be found for about a dollar at thrift stores. Hats can also be found for about a dollar at thrift stores and most can be sanitized by throwing them in the washer.
Other items we think are a great value:
- Styrofoam filled travel pillows: $1 at Target Onespot. They are as light as backpacking pillows but do take up more space. That is a worthwhile compromise since it allows us to put off buying backpacking pillows awhile.
- Kids garden shovel: $1. Most backpackers shovels are around $3 but if you already have a kids trowel lying around why not use that.
- Sawyer Mini Filtration System: $20, this is an absolute essential for backpacking. Don’t bother with any other brand of filter the Sawyers are great and they are also inexpensive.
- Daypacks: Thrift stores tend to have plenty of backpacks that make convenient day packs
- Klymit refurbished sleeping pads: $37 on eBay and they are indistinguishable from the regular ones
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