On a budget but still want to be comfortable and safe on your outdoors adventures? Here’s a guide to what you need to spend money on, what you don’t and how to find effective clothing, tools, boots, bags and whatnot on a budget.
We’ll focus here on general gear for basic outdoors pursuits like hiking, backpacking and camping. Most of that will be applicable to specific sports or activities too. If you do one of those then you’ll likely understand that speciality items — say a helmet for riding motorcycles or shoes for climbing — are expensive for a reason: they either amplify your performance, keep you alive or help you stay comfortable while working hard in extreme conditions.
We frequently receive comments from readers who’re surprised by the price tags on some of the gear we wear in feature stories or review or talk about. There’s two reasons we tend to feature flashy stuff: 1) It’s what you want to read about; new technology is what you click on and it’s our job to test new, exciting stuff then tell you what it’s like. 2) We spend a lot of time outside, often in unpredictable conditions, while doing stuff that’s hard or dangerous. It’s what we love doing and it’s what we prioritise in our lives; I don’t drive a fancy car, I go camping with my dog. But I get it, you want to get out there too and maybe you haven’t quite gotten to the devote-your-life-to-it point yet or just can’t afford a $US600 tent. I’ve been there — I was penniless for a while following some serious injuries sustained while being screwed by my previous company — and I still got outside. Here’s how.
The Cheapest Viable Product: Alps Mountaineering Taurus 2 ($US77)
In general, the quality and usefulness to price ratio of Alps Mountaineering is off the chart. It’s a long ways from being the nicest stuff you can buy, but it is totally useable, decent quality and you’ll be able to spend many a comfortable, dry night in this tent. I can’t find a definitive weight for it, but at somewhere between 2.3kg and 2.7kg, it’s not light.
Back before I did this professionally, Lara, Wiley and I camped out of an Alps Aires 3P ($US161). Again, far from fancy, but it got the job done for basic backpacking and car camping everywhere from the High Sierra to Death Valley to Big Sur and, two years later, still looks and works like new.
What You Get If You Spend More: More money nets you less weight. But, less weight can be a double-edged sword; it obviously means you’re carrying less, but that can come at the expense of quality and liveability. If you want to save weight on a budget, just pare the tent size down to a minimum — 1P for one person, etc.
Don’t bother with a hammock. Those are wonderful when you’re in the right place, but any time the weather gets bad, you’re above the tree line, on a beach or you want to be able to bone your hiking buddy, hammocks just won’t get the job done.
The Cheapest Viable Product: Kelty Galactic 30 ($US125)
A good sleeping bag is a good investment and this isn’t an item we suggest you try and scrimp on. Yes, there are bags that carry the same temperature rating for half the price. No, they will not keep you half as warm as this Kelty. I’ve spent dozens and dozens of nights in mine, carried it all over the planet and it’s never let me get cold, even down to temperatures below its extreme limit. That’s value. I wholeheartedly recommend this product based on significant experience with it.
Over synthetic insulation, down packs much, much smaller and lighter, facilitating easy carry in a backpack, on the back of your motorcycle or anywhere else. Just try to keep it dry, the Kelty’s untreated down will lose its insulative abilities should it get wet.
Don’t believe Old Wives’ Tales; wearing your layers inside a sleeping bag in cold conditions will absolutely make you warmer. Just again, make sure those layers stay dry.
What You Get If You Spend More: More money again nets you less weight and packed size. Higher fill power downs loft into a larger volume from less weight. 20 degrees is a good all-round temperature rating for a bag; it’s not too hot for summer in the mountains and just warm enough for bad weather in early spring or late fall. You can expand the bag’s comfort in colder temperatures by adding a sleeping bag liner. Expensive silk ones pack small and light but this polar fleece one is just as effective and costs only $US18; it’s what I use.
The Cheapest Viable Product: Nemo Astro Insulated Lite 20R ($US130)
A good night’s sleep is incredibly important both to your enjoyment of and performance in the outdoors. If you’re just trying to spend a weekend outside to unwind, then you’ll want to sleep in order to do that. If you’re doing difficult, dangerous things, then a good night’s sleep is critical for good performance. Do yourself a favour and spend up to our comparison test-winning Nemo pad; you will be comfortable on it and it will help keep you warm.
There are cheaper pads available; notably the $US35 Therm-A-Rest ZLite SOL. That will keep you off the ground and provides good insulation, but its comfort is lacking. I don’t sleep well on it and you probably won’t either. The $US95 premium asked by the Nemo is worth it; what’s the value of a full nights’ sleep spread over the many nights you’ll hopefully spend outdoors?
What You Get If You Spend More: There’s lighter pads available for a small premium over the Astro if you’re trying to go ultralight. But, ultralight in general costs a bunch of money. The Nemo is reasonably light and can easily be part of a backpacking system with a very light base weight that won’t break the bank.
Winter Base Layers
The Cheapest Viable Product: Military Surplus (~$US20)
The foundation for warmth and comfort in the outdoors, a basic set of Polypro long johns from a surplus store will keep you warm and dry.
What You Get If You Spend More: Fancier synthetic base layers are capable of more warmth or a wider range of comfortable temperatures. But really, it’s merino you’d want to spend up to. That may only be equivalent in warmth, but bases made from this wonder material can keep you comfortable and dry across a vast range of temperatures and never develop bad odours. Polypro stinks after just one day of wear.
The Cheapest Viable Product: Your Sneakers (free)
Seriously, you’ll be just fine going hiking or backpacking in your sneakers. Bonus points if you already have trail runners or similar with grippy soles. Just make sure they fit well so you don’t get blisters and wear wool socks of an appropriate weight for the weather to keep your feet warm and dry.
What You Get If You Spend More: A proper pair of waterproof hiking boots adds comfort in bad weather — they will keep your feet dry — and, more importantly, safety for your feet and ankles. You need to be careful walking through brush, over slippery rocks or on uneven, loose surfaces in sneakers. In boots, you can just move through all that with impunity thanks to better grip, a more supportive sole and the security provided by ankle support. Just go to REI and try a bunch on, buy the ones that fit you best.
The Cheapest Viable Product: Kelty Redwing 50 ($US125)
As versatile and comfortable a pack as any, the Redwing 50 will carry your stuff as far as you want to go. Notable rivals in a similar price range will be the Boreas Buttermilks 55 ($US150) and the Osprey Atmos 50 ($US165).
What You Get If You Spend More: Lower weights, greater comfort, larger capacities and waterproof materials. You need none of that unless you’re planning a specific activity, the above three packs are all excellent.
The Cheapest Viable Product: Mora Companion ($US17)
Available in either carbon or stainless steels, the former is easier to sharpen, the latter is a better idea around salt water. I carry the stainless version as my dive knife. You want a fixed blade in the outdoors because there’s no moving parts, meaning they won’t break or jam or crap out on you. Typically, we’d recommend a full-tang design for its strength, but these Moras are so well made you’ll have no problems with them. All the knife anyone, even me, will ever need.
What You Get If You Spend More: Chiefly bragging rights, but also fancier steels, longer blades, nicer materials and some other merits that are largely subjective. I’ll say it again: a cheap Mora is all the blade anyone needs. Spend more money because you want to, not because you need to.
If you’re backpacking, the cat food can will heat water for your dehydrated meals as well as anything. If you don’t mind the weight and space, there’s nothing the cheap Coleman can’t cook.
What You Get If You Spend More: Better performance in cold weather or at altitude plus simmer control combined with a light weight and compact size.
The Cheapest Viable Product: Shitty 1xAA Chinese Knock-Off ($US4)
I used one of these for a year and it was great. Using it as a dive light in the ocean eventually killed it, but I just did that to see what would happen. This thing delivers probably half the claimed lumens, but it’s still an exceptionally bright, compact and functional light for virtually no money.
What You Get If You Spend More: Better quality, better waterproofing (look for IPX8), multiple light modes and cleaner light patterns.
Mid and Outer Layers
The Cheapest Viable Product: Just go to WalMart or Target or look for deals on Amazon and buy stuff that isn’t cotton. If you want insulation, then stuff made from Polar Fleece or a knock off is insanely cheap and still very functional. If you want outer layers, try and find something with some sort of name brand membrane.
In general, a layering approach will work best. A giant, insulated parka might seem like good value, but only works while you’re sitting still or walking slowly; layers enable you to deal with changing temperatures and activity levels more effectively. A pair of $US20 polypro long johns, an old wool sweater from your closet a $US15 fleece jacket and a cheap windproof shell will be as warm as a giant parka while being a far more flexible approach.
What You Get If You Spend More: Lighter weights, higher quality, better fit and more outright performance. Mix and match stuff you already have in your closet with what deals you can find online or in store. Brands like Columbia and LL Bean offer high performance-to-price ratios. One of the biggest benefits of the expensive stuff though is breathability. That super-fancy, $US500 Westcomb jacket I’ve been wearing, for instance, is the most breathable fully-waterproof jacket available. That means I can run, climb or perform other strenuous activities while wearing it without breaking a sweat, so I’m kept dry inside and out.
A Reasonably Affordable, Reasonably Light Backpacking System
Let’s assemble a basic backpacking kit trying to combine high-value, lightweight items. The Boreas Buttermilks 55-litre (medium) pack weighs 964g, the Kelty Cosmic Down 20 bag (regular) weighs 1.2kg, and Alps Mystique 1.0 tent weighs 1.4kg and the Nemo pad weighs 539g. Together, that’s a total spend of $US500, which sounds like a lot of money, but it nets you a combined weight of just 4kg. Add a 28g cat food can, 237mL of denatured alcohol, a couple of plastic water bottles from a service station, a first aid kit, appropriate clothes and your food situation of choice and you’ll be as well equipped as anyone on the trail and be carrying nearly as light a weight as people spending big bucks on fancy ultralight stuff. You’ll be equipped to go anywhere and do anything. That’s good value.
Renting Specific Equipment
But, $US500 is still a lot of money. And, if you want to try a sport that requires specific equipment like kayaking then, well, you’re going to need a kayak. Luckily, getting one may not be as expensive as you fear.
The Outdoor Exchange is a membership club giving you access to super-affordable gear rental. They just ship you want you need and have equipment for everything from water and snow sports to going on freakin’ picnic.
Just want to try camping for the first time or the first time in a long time? Alite operates a program it calls “Ranger Station” in the Bay Area, loaning the full suite of equipment for free. They plan to scale it to more locations this year.
Many REI locations and similar businesses also rent gear, visit and ask them about it.
Doing stuff in the outdoors is also one of those things that people like to share. Want to go camping but need a tent, backpack or other big ticket item? Ask a friend, you’ll be surprised how generous outdoorsmen can be with gear loans. We were all first timers once too. Just make sure you take good care of it and return it bone dry. I’ve lost some decent items of gear to friends who didn’t know they needed to dry everything out once they got back home.
Why Not Go Military Surplus?
Well, the short answer is that the military prioritises low prices when it buys vast amounts of backpacks or sleep systems for its soldiers and couldn’t give a rat’s arse about their comfort or the amount of weight on their backs. Ever eaten an MRE? They’re gross and the gear soldiers carry is gross too. While yes, you can buy an ALICE pack and a military bivy for super cheap prices, their performance reflects that. You’ll be much more comfortable in the outdoors if you spend just enough to get into quality, high-performance gear.
Do you or have you done significant stuff in the outdoors on a budget? Tell us how.
Pictures: Chris Brinlee Jr