A multitude of messages tell us we need the newest, nicest, and most expensive gear if we want to be comfortable (and look good!) in the rugged outdoors. We see this in advertisements from outdoor gear companies, on social media, and in person when we witness people being belittled because they don’t have the “right” gear.
This is a tragic myth, and it’s keeping some from venturing outdoors. Here’s the truth: The best gear can be the stuff you already have. Many things you already own can meet a variety of outdoor needs.
The “right” gear is the gear that works for YOU. Figuring out what items to bring on a trip takes some experimenting, no matter what your budget is. In general, I buy a cheap version first, and when it wears out or breaks, I invest in a higher-end piece of gear.
Getting creative with affordable gear solutions can be easy, rewarding, and fun—which is why I’m sharing some of the best cheap gear hacks that I’ve used throughout my career running outdoor adventure programs on a budget.
There are some basic things everyone can do to maintain safety and comfort on any type of outdoors adventure. Chances are, you already have many of the essential items to help you meet these needs (see AMC’s “The Ten Essentials” checklist).
Dress to maintain a good core temperature
You’ve heard it here before, but it bears repeating: In cool weather, dress like an onion. Multiple lightweight layers can create a lot of warmth and flexibility when conditions are changing.
- Instead of buying an expensive thermal top, though, pack a lightweight hooded sweatshirt for a base layer. Putting the hood up keeps the sun and bugs off and helps hold in the heat when it gets cool. And I can easily unzip it to vent heat, or layer over it for warmth (sometimes with a heavier hoodie).
- Pajama pants under a pair of jeans has made for many cozy campfires on cool summer nights in the mountains. On youth campouts, I put those pajama pants over my jeans for a fun sleepover vibe.
Staying dry is important for maintaining a good core temperature, not to mention remaining comfortable and protecting your equipment. Here are some hacks I use in the rain:
- Waterproof shoes and boots are expensive. Bread bags are free! Put a plastic bag over your socks to keep your feet dry and help them stay warm. I don’t recommend doubling up socks for warmth, as that can compress your feet and reduce circulation, making your feet colder.
- Wrap a brimmed hat in a grocery bag, or a small garbage bag. Alternatively, I use a bar of fabric wax to waterproof my baseball cap and wide-brimmed hat.
- In lieu of a waterproof pack cover, line your backpack with a trash bag. I find it does a better job at keeping my main compartment dry than any pack cover I’ve used. If you are feeling really fancy, trash compactor bags are much more durable than trash bags—and make decent stuff sacks as well.
- As long as you don’t plan on fully submerging your gear in water, re-sealable zipper storage bags are a great alternative to small dry bags and also help keep small items organized.
- Plastic ponchos can keep both you and your daypack dry, they cost less than $2 and pack up tiny. You might not win any style points, but you will stay dry when you need it. For affordable and durable full-body rain suits, consider checking out Frogg Toggs, which start at $13.
Carry Ample Water and Food
Staying hydrated and fueled up with energy and electrolytes keeps you safe, comfortable, and mentally clear while enjoying the outdoors. Here are some budget options that I use almost every time I hit the trail.
- Refill disposable plastic water bottles if you don’t have a reusable bottle or water bladder. I’ve even used half-gallon milk jugs (after a good cleaning) for longer trips. Just make sure that the lid seals well.
- Instead of one of those fancy bottle parkas, put some socks over your water bottle to insulate it for warm or cold drinks on the trail. I just make sure to check that a bottle can handle hot liquids before I fill it up with coffee or cocoa.
- If your itinerary requires you to get water from natural sources, water purification tablets are the most cost effective and lightweight option for making sure your water is safe to drink. I always carry a few tablets in my first aid kit, no matter how long I’ll be out.
- Powdered Gatorade is a cheap and portable source of electrolytes. I pack the powder separately on long trips and mix it into my water as desired. It also helps mask the flavor from water purification tablets, or from filtered water that might taste a little funky.
- Candy bars are a decent alternative to expensive energy bars, which are often mostly sugar anyways. I’ve heard many people on bike tours extolling the virtues of Snickers bars due to their high caloric density, low price, and moderate protein content.
- Stock your camp kitchen with items from a dollar store or bring what you already have in your home. I’ve outfitted a five-person camp kitchen with new plates, bowls, cups, silverware, utensils, pots, and pans for under $20.
- Build your own camp stove using simple tools and an aluminum can. Check out five ultra-light designs and build instructions from Backpacker.com.
Borrow and Rent Gear
When it comes to outdoor gear, try before you buy—especially if it’s an expensive item.
- Start with your local gear store, many of which rent equipment for a fraction of the price of buying it.
- Arriveoutdoors.com rents individual items and complete camping/backpacking packages, which are great for folks that want to try out a variety of items or aren’t sure exactly what to bring.
- Reservations at AMC’s Highland Center include free access to an incredible variety of high-end equipment from the L.L.Bean Gear Room.
- If you are the parent or guardian of someone 12 to 18 years old, consider checking out AMC’s Teen Wilderness Adventure summer programs, which offer need-based scholarships and provide all the gear necessary for 7- to 12-day backpacking and canoe camping trips.
Used gear works just as well as new gear, but it can take a little more time to find what you are looking for. The only items I wouldn’t recommend buying used are boots that have already been broken in by someone else.
- Thrift shops and military surplus stores can be a great source for affordable gear, especially synthetic thermal layers and active wear.
- Check to see if there are any outdoor gear consignment stores in your area.
- REI Coop’s garage sales happen four to six times a year and are a treasure trove for deeply discounted used gear.
Make Your Own Gear
If you enjoy DIY projects, here are some great online resources that I’ve used to design and build my own gear.
- com sells professional-quality sewing patterns for an incredible variety of adventure gear, as well as offering free patterns and tutorials for basic items.
- The Reddit community “Make Your Own Gear” offers DIY tutorials, discussions, and endless inspiration from people who share the gear they’ve made and support others in their projects.