Monday, February 9, 2015

Backpacking on a budget

On Facebook (I "like" Backpacker magazine, so I get updates from them) there's a discussion brewing about "why does Backpacker (and other publications on the hobby) always review expensive gear that "regular people" aren't in the market for?

I actually may have talked about something similar before. Certainly, I've touched on it here and there in various posts.  There's a trap a lot of backpackers fall into of believing that if they don't have the latest, highest tech, brand-name, expensive gear that they're taking terrible risks to their life and safety.  This is of course ridiculous, since most of the stuff that is available now has only been available in something approaching mass market availability for the last couple of decades or so, and clearly people have been successfully backpacking for much longer than that.

I will say, however, that if getting the absolute lightest weight kit you can possibly get is your fetish, then you will spend money.  If simply taking a lot of pounds out and having a decent weight at a good price is your goal (more my speed) then you can still get under 20 lbs. with a gear budget for our entire kit that is less than that of a high end tent or hardshell.

Plus, a lot of the gear; especially the expensive gear, is simply stylish.  People want to have Mountain Hardwear instead of C9 by Champions from Target because it makes them look professional and BackCountry Chic.

Of course, what works for one person may not work for another--and what works for one trip may not work for another.  Lots of people swear by trail runners, to give one example.  I was reasonably happy with my $35 trail runners experience in my last trip, but I also decided that I really wanted ankle support.  The best I could find with lightweight, trail runner style shoes with enough height to give that to me ran $99 (but of course, I had a gift card that paid for half of that.)  On sale.  But that's because I want to feel confident on off-trail rambling and scree scrambling.  If I were simply hiking on maintained trails or other areas where turning my ankles wouldn't be a concern, I'd pull my shoes back out and wear them again.  I also didn't feel like my kit was warm enough at night; my sleeping back was technically a 30° bag, but even with baselayers, my fleece, double socks, gloves and a fleece beanie cap, I was still a little bit uncomfortably cool at night.  In that case, I think my $30 tiny little bag just didn't live up to what it was billed as.  But again; the solution isn't necessarily to run out and buy a $200+ bag, or suck it up and get a much larger and heavier one.  Hiking on a budget also requires being flexible, testing stuff out, and making sure it really works for you, and adjusting what doesn't quite work.

Of course that's also true for expensive gear, though.

Let me talk just a bit about my gear, I'll try and estimate what I spent on it, and I'll talk about how well it works and how "universal" it's applications might or might not be.
  • Shoes: I got Avia trail runners at JC Pennies for $35.  As mentioned above, I've upgraded them to Cabela's XPG Mid-Hikers (GORE-TEX) for $99.  I'm not unhappy with the former shoes, but on steep scree slopes, I nearly rolled my ankle a few times, and I'm not anxious to repeat that risk.
  • Pack: I got a Wenzel Escape 50L pack for $50 (it was on sale; normally it's still only $60, as I recall) at Meijer's.  They also have them at Kohl's.  Two and a half pounds, and it does everything I expect from a backpack.  It's a real steal.  I don't know how well it'd port a bear canister, though.  That said, they also have 65L and 90L packs, well under $100.  Comfortable, functional, and reasonably good looking and a fraction of the cost of a "name-brand" pack.  I can't praise this bit of gear enough.
  • Tarp: I got one at REI for under $10.  You shouldn't ever spend more than this on a tarp.  I could have maybe saved even a few bucks more, but I had a gift card, and it was easier than shopping around.  
  • Ozark Trail sleeping pad: Picked it up at Wal-Mart for $10?  $20 maybe?  Can't remember.  This is identical to the blue pads I used to use as a kid.  Worked well then too.
  • Ozark Trail Warm Weather sleeping bag: As mentioned above.  This is very small and light, but wasn't particularly warm.  While I'd like to replace it, I probably won't this year.  I have another solution in mind instead...
  • Ozark Trail 2-person dome tent: Cost $30, I think.  Maybe $35?  Bought it years ago meaning it to be an essentially disposable tent for the boys to use for local Scout camp-outs.  I've used it on backpacking trips now; it's light, small, packable, and the only time I got even a little wet was when I was in the tent reading for several hours in a severe Michican downpour that lasted most of the night.  I'd like to upgrade this too, eventually, but I feel no urgency to do so, because it performs pretty well and the alternatives are all really pricey.  And frankly, I suspect even the expensive tents would have leaked (or had condensation issues, more likely) if I'd done in them what I did in this one.
  • Clothes: You can spend a lot of money on hiking clothes, but I don't see the point.  Quick drying, moisture wicking, covers you from exposure to sun and scratches, etc; for the most part, what's good for hiking is what's also good for running, and you can get technical fabric running clothes at Wal-Mart, Target, or pretty much anywhere else for very little.  I tend to hop on stuff when it's on sale, but I got, for instance: $15 long-sleeved nylon mesh shirt (at an additional 40% off), Cabela's Look Out Trail hiking cargo pants (for about $15/pair; I bought three), Cabela's merino wool mid-weight hiking socks ($12 for a 4-pack), a boonie hat ($10-15), and a micro-fleece picked up at the end of the season on clearance (all kinds available for $10-$20).  Before you go, treat what you're going to actually bring with you with Permethrin,and you're good to go.
  • Rain suit?  I've got a Frogg Toggs suit I picked up at Wal-Mart for, I think $15.  I also got a packable jacket from Target for about the same price; maybe $20.  Now I have two.
  • Also bought some Target close-toed river sandals for about $15.  I've seen them also at Wal-Mart and Payless for about the same price.  Great for river crossings, and hanging around at camp.
  • I already have gloves and a fleece cap or two.  I live where it's cold enough that this is a necessity anyway, so I didn't spring for specific hiking options on these (for that matter, I have lots of pairs of "hiking" socks that I tend to wear day to day anyway.  Same with my fleeces.  I like wearing hiking clothes--when feasible--as day to day clothes.  That way, I also don't feel bad about taking them out in the woods and banging them up; I've usually got stuff that doesn't feel new and shiny.)
  • Same with base layers.  I've bought polyester rather loose-fit ones in January on clearance before.  I also got a set that includes spandex and is tightly fitted.  This time around, I'll probably bring them both and double up at night to stay a bit warmer.  The tighter ones I could actually wear under my clothes and probably be OK.  Last summer in the mountains, I found I needed my fleece pretty much all of the time during the day or I got cool; at least within seconds of stopping to rest.  But like I said; I don't have to buy these specifically for hiking; they come in handy during the winter even during my day to day.
  • I got a very small pocketknife for free somewhere years ago.  If I hadn't; I could buy one at Wal-Mart for very little anyway.  In fact, much of my gear was picked up at Wal-Mart (or Meijer or Target.)  While a lot of folks in the hiking community speak disparagingly of Wal-Mart, I have yet to understand why spending twice as much on a headlamp, for instance, or a spork or compass, makes any difference whatsoever.
All in all, I estimate that I was able to outfit myself to hike for considerably less than $500, maybe even less than $300.  I didn't keep very good track, I admit, and I tried to repurpose stuff that I already had if it was appropriate, rather than buy something new specifically to go hiking in (true for my fleece, for instance, and some of my other gear.)  Other stuff I've picked up here and there, not necessarily for hiking, but expecting that I would use it as such.  I bought my initial rainsuit and tent, for instance, for local car camping, and only later used it for backpacking.

Although I'm not a weight fetishist, I certainly agree that carrying less weight is worth the trouble to do so.  But not if it's going to cost me hundreds of dollars to get the last few ounces out.  Without trying particularly too hard, I have a base pack weight of almost exactly 19 lbs. That's not too shabby; but it'll go up to just over 20, I'm sure, when I decide to add a backpacking stove to the mix, or upgrade to a larger pack, or have to add a bear cannister.  While I'm sure weight guys will tell me that getting below 10 (just barely) is doable, keep in mind that I'm not talking about doing something like the Appalachian Trail or the PCT where I'm carrying it every day for months on end.  For smaller trips; up to a couple weeks max, a few times a year, carrying 20 lbs. of base pack weight isn't really a big deal, and it's worth it to do so with an extremely inexpensive set-up.  My pack doesn't really feel heavy to me; I hiked miles in the Uintas last summer without ever feeling like it was tough to lug my pack around; this was not true when I was a teenager and much more fit than I am today.  I remember on one of our trips as a kid, I had just about the lightest pack at just under 50 lbs.  Of course, that wasn't base pack weight; that was total weight, but still; I'd estimate that I can't possibly add much more than 10-15 lbs. of food and water at the beginning of a trip, meaning that I'm always going to be, even at worst, a good 20 lbs. lighter than I used to be in the 80s.

And I had about the lightest set-up of anyone as a teenager.  I still remember one guy topping out at over 90 lbs.


  1. To be fair, mostly four items--or category of items--make up the bulk of the expense when it comes to backpacking gear... or it least, if you let it. Your pack, your tent, your sleeping system, and your clothes (including boots.) The latter, in fact, can be the most expensive of the bunch if you let it, because you have expensive boots, expensive base-layers, expensive hard shells, etc. Ironically, the latter is probably the easiest to pick up perfectly acceptable stuff for cheap, because the sporting goods section, or active-wear clothes section of any cheap store can supply most of what you need.

  2. Also: L. L. Bean Primaloft packable jackets (rated to -15° F) are on sale; at least with select colors, for $50 right now. Normally about $200. That's the kind of thing to keep your eye on if you want to hike on a budget, even with hot, expensive gear.