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How to Start Backpacking Without Breaking the Bank

Backpacking doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavor.

Backpacking doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavor. Photo: Maria Fernanda Gonzalez

So, you want to get started with backpacking? But you either don’t own the right gear, know what the right gear is, or some combination of both. Not to worry! Backpacking is easily one of the easiest outdoor activities to try out.

In terms of technical expertise, there’s not much of a learning curve. You don’t need to know how to place gear or build anchors like you do at Upper West or how to change the tire that blew out mountain biking at Perry Hill. All you really need to know is how to walk and sleep. (Two pretty enjoyable activities, if you ask us!)

In terms of gear, there’s an equally low barrier. Sure, there are a couple exceptions, but it’s not like you’re buying big hardware items like a kayak or mountain bike or stand-up paddleboard. And with backpacking you certainly won’t need to worry about having a gear shed to store your equipment or a car rack system to carry it. With backpacking gear, your trusty old closet will do just fine.

Virginia Farley, Floor Manager at Outdoor Gear Exchange, echoes this point: “A great place to start is looking at what you really need. A lot of people assume they need everything in the kitchen sink, but oftentimes you just need the simple stuff.”

Her colleague, Anna Gutwin, a Continental Divide Trail thru-hiker, agrees, adding nonchalantly: “You don’t need much.”

So, if you’re looking to get into backpacking without breaking the bank, here’s a quick primer on how to get started.

The Essentials: What You Need For The Trail

You don’t have to buy a brand-new backpack, but you’ll still want it to be comfortable.

You don’t have to buy a brand-new backpack, but you’ll still want it to be comfortable. Photo: Tristan Pineda

Backpacking is a pretty simple activity. It’s one part hiking and another part camping. You’ll need gear for both.

The hiking portion is simple. You need a pair of shoes, probably some clothing (unless it’s National Hike Naked Day), and most importantly, a way to carry your gear.

Footwear

With footwear, it’s easy to be frugal. For beginners, an old pair of trail runners will work just as well as a pair of heavy-duty, waterproof hiking boots. In fact, many long-distance backpackers end up switching to lighter-weight, breathable shoes anyway, so you’ll just be one step ahead of the hiking pack!

Apparel

In terms of clothing, there’s one golden rule: no cotton! If it gets wet (which it inevitably will when you start sweating), it has zero insulation, and that will lead to a bad—possibly even dangerous—day in the woods.

So long as the clothing fibers are synthetic, feel free to mix and match a hiking outfit that suits your preferences. Merino wool is a great option. It can be a little pricier, but the way in which wool regulates body temperature in both hot and cold situations is second to none.

Be sure to bring an extra layer for overnight—it can get pretty chilly once the sun goes down. Bringing a puffy jacket (aka down jacket) is usually your best bet. It packs down easily at the bottom of your pack when you don’t need it and it warms you up quickly when you do.

Backpack

Now, as for a backpack, this is one thing you don’t want to get wrong. Let’s say you’re three miles into your hike, and that cheap pack you bought from a big box store starts rubbing the wrong way or doesn’t distribute the weight evenly. Next thing you know, there’s a little pinch in your lower back, and you’ve instantly become an unhappy camper.

What you want is a pack that has enough room to comfortably fit all of your gear. Generally, anything in the 30-50 liter range is a good starting point for a night or two in the woods, and 65 liters or above is best for people who like to carry a little extra equipment (camera gear, camp chairs, seven pounds of summer sausage, who knows!).

You also want something with a stabilizing hip belt and chest belt to prevent all the weight from squeezing into your shoulders.

Finally, as Farley says, “Make sure you have a backpack that fits appropriately. That's a big one.” Even if you’re borrowing from a friend, make sure this friend is either the same size as you, or learn how to fit the pack to your body type. And if Youtube tutorials aren’t working, the staff at your local specialty outdoor store are always happy to help!

The Essentials: What You Need For Camp

Backpacker enjoying the sunset outside of their tent after a long day's hike

All the work to get to your campsite is worth it for views like this. Photo: Jake Sloop

What you need for camp is a little more complicated, but not by much. Basically, there are two things to keep in mind: 1) your sleeping system, and 2) your cooking system.

The sleeping system is your protection from the elements and includes a tent or hammock, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad.

Tent

For a beginner tent, you want something that gets the basic job done. It’s unlikely you’ll be setting off into the tundra for weeks at a time, so a super technical 4-season tent designed for serious mountaineers is way more than you’ll need. A 3-season tent will do just fine. And there are plenty of styles to choose from that won’t set you back in a big way. Most beginner 3-season tents are below $200 if purchased brand new, and some go as low as $100. (Again, these are new; you don’t have to buy new. More on second-hand gear to come!)

Hammock

An alternative to a tent would be a hammock and a tarp. One thing to keep in mind with hammock camping is that it sleeps a little colder because of the airflow beneath your backside. Bringing along a hammock quilt can help stave off the chill and packs down relatively easily. But during warmer months, hammocking might just be the cure-all for even the worst insomniac. It’s that comfortable. Plus, hammocks—even when you throw in a cheap Tyvek tarp—are often less expensive than tents. Oh, and they’re less bulky in your backpack, too!

Sleeping Bag

Brand new beginner sleeping bags run for about the same price as beginner tents—in the $100-200 range. Don’t buy one of those sleeping bags lined with flannel like your elementary school friend used to bring to slumber parties. Instead, opt for either down or synthetic material. Down is lighter and generally warmer, but it’s not as good at drying out. Think about what type of backpacking you’ll be doing, and what types of climates you’ll typically encounter. In general, if you’re in dry and cold environs, choose the down; if it’s wet and warmer, go for the synthetic.

In terms of temperature, again, it depends on where and when you’ll be backpacking. The various sleeping bag temperature ratings are based off the degrees at which a backpacker will be comfortable while sleeping, not necessarily at what temperature they’d be battling survival. So, a 32-degree bag would technically work in below freezing temperatures, but it wouldn’t be pleasant!

In general, the lower the temperature rating, the higher the price. So, if you’re looking for that Goldilocks-level of perfection between price point and dynamic performance, choose a bag that’s between 15 and 30-degrees.

Sleeping Pad

Sleeping pads are the last piece of the equation. While no pad is going to compare to your mattress at home, a little inch or two of comfort can go a long way. Sleeping pads also provide an extra layer of insulation from the cold ground below.

For economy’s sake, foam sleeping pads are typically less expensive than inflatable ones. They’re a little bulkier to carry, but the trade-off is that you don’t have to huff-and-puff like the big, bad wolf at the end of a long day of hiking like you have to do to blow up the inflatable ones!

Cooking System

A tasty and easy dinner prep method for a dayhike or car camping trip is to simply bring some tinfoil, stuff some vegetables and chorizo in there, and stick it in the campfire for about an hour. For longer, self-supported trips, a backpacking stove is necessary if you want a hot meal. Some people will make their own out of an aluminum can. But for people who find this to be too complicated, buying an MSR Pocket Rocket is the way to go. These bad boys are only about $45, they’re tough and durable as nails, and only take up about three square inches of real estate in your pack (just remember to bring along a pan!) The Jetboil is another quick and easy option that has the cooking container built right in.

If you want to go the dirtbag route, you can always construct your own with an aluminum can. This is what Gutwin did on her CDT hike: “You can make your own alcohol stove. This is an easy way to keep your weight down, and it’s cheap.”

Where to Get Your Gear

A picture of the OGE consignment desk circa 2017

You don’t have to buy everything brand new to have reliable camping gear.

Now that you know the gear—or at least the bare minimum items—how do you go about getting it without cutting into your savings?

Well, as we’ve seen, even if you’re buying all the items brand new, it’s not going to be the most expensive investment you’ve ever made:

  • $150 tent

  • $150 sleeping bag

  • $150 pack

  • $45 camp stove

  • $50 on miscellaneous items like a headlamp and extra socks

About 550 bucks total. Not cheap. But not as expensive as some of the other outdoor activities out there. And it’s money that will go towards a (hopefully) lifelong hobby.

But also: buying brand new is far from your only option. Here’s a three-step approach towards frugal gear hunting.

First, borrow. As Farley says, “Raid your family’s basement. A lot of people have a lot of good, used gear.” If you’re just starting out, don’t hesitate to lean on your friends—or even friends of friends—to get the gear you need. If you haven’t noticed, outdoorsy types are typically pretty down-to-earth, helpful people who are more than willing to introduce their pals to their outdoor hobbies. If they have the gear already, why not give it a test-drive to see what works for you?

Second, buy second-hand stuff. The consignment shop at Outdoor Gear Exchange is, in our (admittedly biased) opinion, one of the best around. But don’t just take our word for it. Gribbin Loring, a local, avid outdoorsman from the Burlington area had this to say about the shop: “OGE’s consignment shop is a goldmine of gear, footwear, apparel, skis, pretty much anything you need in sizes from toddler up so it’s affordable for fast-growing kiddos. Their extremely knowledgeable staff will be able to point you in the right direction.”

Third, keep a watchful eye on seasonal close-out sales. It’s not uncommon to find gear that’s marked down anywhere from 30-60% off on discount pages. Last season’s stuff will work just as well this season and for seasons to come.

Bottom line: If you want to start backpacking, there’s not much stopping you. Head out to Sterling Pond or a part of the Pemigewasset Trail in New Hampshire to get started. And if you’re ever feeling anxious about the investments required, just remember this one nugget of wisdom: those marshmallows—those perfectly-roasted, light-browned, crispy-shelled, gooey-centered globs of joy—aren’t going to eat themselves. You owe it to the marshmallows. Happy Trails!

Written by Ry Glover for Matcha in partnership with Outdoor Gear Exchange and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected]

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Published:May 15, 2019

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