Let’s face it: Outdoor equipment can be ridiculously expensive. Outfitting yourself from scratch for a backpacking trip can run you hundreds—even thousands—of dollars, especially if you invest in high-end gear. And if you’re gearing up an entire family? Ouch. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. You can get away with spending far less if you’re willing to make some sacrifices and if you know what to look for when evaluating gear.
For starters, let’s address a couple of truisms about outdoor gear. Number 1: You pay more to get less. When you buy inexpensive gear, you pay for it by lugging a heavier, bulkier load. Number 2: The less you pay, the less durable gear tends to be. This might be OK for occasional use, but don’t expect inexpensive gear to hold up over multiple seasons. That said, the following tips will guide you to better, somewhat more durable options.
Where and When to Shop
You can browse discount catalog and online offerings, such as Campmor and Sierra Trading Post, which resell surplus (and generally high-quality) products from brand-name outfitters. Or, if you’re devoted to the big outdoor gear stores (REI, EMS, L.L. Bean, etc.), the best times to shop are late summer to early fall, when chains are clearing out summer inventory, and late winter (February, especially) when remaining cold-weather gear often goes for steep discounts.
Big box stores—Wal-Mart, Target, and the like—offer a range of inexpensive outdoor equipment, including tents, backpacks, sleeping bags, and more. Avoid buying from them online, however, since you’ll want to evaluate this gear in person.
Check the Stitching
When evaluating gear, one of the surest indicators of quality and durability—or the lack thereof—is the stitching. Are the seams stitched straight, with even seam allowances (the distance between the stitching and the edges of the joined fabrics)? Are they stitched once or, better yet, multiple times? Does it look like they could easily pull apart?
Most importantly, closely examine the points that will be subject to significant stress and evaluate whether the stitching looks strong enough to withstand it. On backpacks, check the attachment points for shoulder straps, hip belts, and straps for lashing gear or compressing the pack. On tents, the stake loops, pole attachment points, and guyline loops are all vulnerable seams. Evaluate the bottoms of zippers to see how they’re stitched into the fabric. If you see only a single line of stitching that hasn’t been double-backed or otherwise reinforced, beware.
Always look for a rainfly that extends to the ground. The cheapest tents ($50 and less) typically feature only a tiny rainfly, which may be fine for fair-weather camping but will almost certainly be a disaster in the rain. Note that the rainflies on most inexpensive models are not seam-sealed. You’ll need to do this yourself to make the tent fully waterproof.
Look for aluminum, not fiberglass, poles. These are lighter, more durable, and less prone to cracking. You can find decent backpacking tents for $50 to $100, although models in this price range are relatively heavy, with two-person versions easily weighing 6 pounds or more.
It’s entirely possible to find a comfortable pack for less than $80, with smaller-capacity packs often costing less. Again, closely check the stitching, as backpacks have more stress points than any other item of gear. Sizing can be a concern as well, with many inexpensive packs offering limited adjustability for height. (Watch out, tall people.) Large-volume packs with a capacity greater than 50 liters are harder to find but essential if you’ll be toting bulky items.
Sleeping Bags and Pads
A classic and indestructible blue foam pad costs less than $20. It’s not the most comfortable option, but it does provide adequate insulation from the cold ground. Avoid cheap inflatable mattresses that contain nothing but air. They insulate poorly, will leak sooner than later, and often lead to a very poor night’s sleep.
For sleeping bags, avoid rectangular models in favor of a mummy design, which will be both warmer and less bulky than a rectangular option. Many styles will keep you warm in cool to cold temperatures; mummy bags for subfreezing conditions are available for less than $60 but tend to be heavy and enormous to stuff. Sleeping bags in this price range always feature synthetic insulation, which adds to their bulk and weight, compared to lighter and much pricier goose down.