Gear is of the biggest obstacles for people who want to start an outdoor activity. Whether it’s a $3,000 mountain bike or a $300 backpack, the outdoor industry essentially acts as a gatekeeper for those who can’t afford it, making them believe a high-end piece of equipment is the only way. This way of thinking is dangerous, especially to marginalized communities who already feel othered and unwelcome in the outdoors.
I didn’t realize there was a difference between what I used for camping and what I needed for backpacking when I began. And when I started shopping around for backpacking gear, I couldn’t believe how expensive everything was. While this blog isn’t intended as a buying or product guide for backpacking, I do share some of my favorite staples, some ways you can get gear on the cheap, and some blunders I made along the way.
I had three backpacks before realizing that a gender-specific pack might be necessary to avoid the bruises on my shoulders and hips. My first $50 I bought for backpacking through SE Asia and my second pack was a men’s small Alps pack (pictured above right on my friend Lindsay) that wasn’t comfortable for the longer trips I enjoy. Really, you can make any sort of large backpack work–it might not be the most comfortable, but if you’re determined enough, you can and will make it work. It wasn’t until I saved up after 5 years of backpacking for my Osprey Aura AG 65 Liter (pictured above left) that I had one of the name-brand packs you see in the ads.
Rent and test a few packs or borrow from friends to decide what you like and then buy on sale or used! With all my packs, I’ve always chosen the larger capacity sizes (65+ liters), because I notoriously overpack (who says I don’t need a charcuterie board and two paperbacks in the backcountry).
Kita’s cute backpack (also pictured above) is the Mountainsmith K-9 Dog Pack. She carries her own food, water, and oftentimes my wine because she’s a real good girl.
I’ve backpacked with a few different tents. First, there was Clementine, the Alps Mountaineering Zephyr 3-person tent that lasted 5 years, 100s of miles, and made it through wind, snow, and hail…and it was only $100. Then I bought a 2-person MSR Hubba Hubba for around $400, which was too small when we got a dog, so I saved up for the MSR Papa Hubba 4-person. While I like the weight of our tent, I can’t tell a huge difference in performance between a $100 tent and a $300 tent, but maybe that’s just me. Again, if you’re not planning on being an ultralight hiker, you can make most 2 or 3 person tents work, especially if you split the weight between two people. I can’t recommend Alps Mountaineering brand enough; they make awesome gear at reasonable prices.
The all-important sleeping bag was a lesson I learned the hard way. I tried to cut every corner when it came to my sleeping bag. The first couple were cheap synthetic and a little bulky, so I tried a used $40 child-sized one to cut down on weight. Considering I’m 5’9”, I can tell you how well that worked out. Finally I splurged (and used my REI dividend) and ended up with a men’s REI Magma 10 down sleeping bag and my boyfriend bought a Big Agnes Sleeping Bag (pictured above underneath pup) that he likes a lot too.
Pro tip for tall gals: rather than spending the extra money on the women’s long version, go for the men’s regular which is longer and a bit wider. Sleeping in this thing is like sleeping in a literal cloud. Sure, you can make cheaper options work (you can find a decent sleeping bag from $100-150), but my sleeping bag is one of the areas I was willing to splurge for both comfort and packability.
Sleeping pads are another thing I’ve purchased and repurchased more times than I can count. I started out with those thin foam pads and woke up feeling like I got mauled by a moose. Now I’m a huge fan of the inflatable ones. Big Agnes makes a sleeping bad that doesn’t deflate and that you won’t slip off in the middle of the night, but they are pricey. You can find similar pads for $50 or you can look for a Big Agnes used–just be careful that there are no leaks or holes in a used pad!
The first time I backpacked, I didn’t realize instant stoves or dehydrated backpacking meals existed. Instead, we tried to cook veggie dogs over a fire that wouldn’t start and ended up using a lighter to heat them one-by-one. Once I got a JetBoil stove, my backpacking completely changed. I could instantly boil water in just a few minutes, which is amazing for warm coffee in the morning or a hot dinner on a cold night after many uphill miles. Bonus points to those who use it as an actual stove and cook real-ass food!
First Aid and Emergency Kits
A general backpacking first aid kit will work, but I beefed mine up with some extra items, like tweezers, Benadryl, and liquid bandage for my dog who is prone to cuts and scrapes on the trail. I also have an emergency kit with compass, emergency blanket, fire starter, etc. and you can purchase each for under $15 at any outdoor store.These essentials are always in my pack so I don’t forget them.
I ran the full water-purification gamut with things like Iodine Tablets (that I still keep on hand), a SteriPen (that stopped working after two uses), and those little Sawyer filters where you just fill them up and squeeze the water by hand into a water bottle (works, but is tedious and makes for cold fingers). This year, I finally broke down and got the Katadyn Microfilter Pro pump filter, which is super fast and easy to use. Frankly, any of the above products work, and did for me for 5+ years!
Again, you can 100% backpack with any layers you have, but the higher in elevation you go, the colder it is even during summer months. After about 3 years of donning layer after layer, I splurged on the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer puffy, which was on super sale because the color wasn’t as popular (normally I’m not into fuschia, but I am when it’s 75% off). You can also find them in great shape used to save both money and the environment. But you don’t need an expensive brand–affordable brands for down jackets include Columbia, Mountain Hardwear, L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer, Marmot.
I hate finding toilet paper in the backcountry. That’s why I bought a Kula Cloth–an ultralight microfiber pee cloth that you can easily attach to your pack. Another item I love is the Go Girl pee funnel, allowing me to pee discreetly into a bottle in a tent or car if I’m in a pinch…believe me, it happens.
Nothing like being caught on a midnight pee break without a headlamp! You can easily find a good headlamp between $15-30. I love the Black Diamond line because they have strong light and stay in place on my head. Buy a couple and keep one in your pack so you never forget it.
The best way to begin backpacking is to choose a trail you’re familiar with. When I’m backpacking, I also make sure to download an offline map onto the AllTrails Pro app on my phone in case I get off trail. I recently bought a Garmin InReach Mini two-way communication device last year as an extra safety precaution, but offline or paper maps are a cheap option.
Tips for Finding Deals
You don’t need a garage full of expensive gear to start backpacking. What you do need are a few key items that you can rent, buy used, borrow, or score on sale. I almost never buy anything full price. Some of my favorite sites for affordable gear include:
Another way to score cheap gear is to be really flexible on what you’re looking for in terms of color, size, and gender. I own men’s jackets because it’s often easier to find men’s outdoor gear used than women’s. I also own a random assortment of colors and sizes because I found them used. So if you only take away one thing let it be this: your stuff does not define you or your experience outdoors. Don’t let the shame of not having expensive gear keep you from hitting the trails!
Check out this blog for more tips on getting deals on outdoor gear!