The Frugal Backpacker – The $300 Gear Challenge

 

The original source of the photo unknown.

Of all the posts on my site, this article is one of my most popular in many ways. The list, I think, has inspired others to make similar lists. And is referenced a fair amount.

The inspiration for this list came from a discussion on AT-L way back in 2005: How to make a gear list for a beginner that is reasonably light and not too expensive? The direct inspiration for this list was from on discussion on Whiteblaze.net led by Sgt. Rock, a retired 1st Sgt in the Army and an experienced backpacker. This list is my contribution.

This list is a complete gear list. A person can use the list as a starting point, but they can plug in their gear as they upgrade or swap out to different equipment. How do I know? In many ways, this minimalist list is my list. 🙂 I think the key to going light is not what you bring, but instead what you don’t carry.

This list also includes an explanation of why I chose this gear.  The gear choices aren’t theoretical and something plucked off a website, but the equipment I’ve used or similar enough. In other words, the options get based on experience and not theory.

My list is more focused on Intermountain West or similar for prime three-season conditions: More sun exposure, colder nights at elevation, less rain.   

This list should suffice for most on-trail backpacking from about the Fourth of July through Labor Day.

You won’t see 40F bags on this list. Nor will you see more robust rain gear either. Everything is a trade-off and varies based on place, conditions, time of year, or even hiking style.

I wrote the original version back in 2005-ish. I’ve updated it over the years.  Gear changes, and some items no longer become available.   If anything, the equipment has become correspondingly better for the price. Lighter, too.

I also tried to get items that aren’t one-off and can reasonably get purchased in the next year or two.  Lucky one-offs aren’t going to be very consistent for this article.  For example, I once saw a $5, 300 wt Patagonia fleece in a thrift store. I would have a hard time finding this item again. On the other hand, I can pretty consistently find Ultralite Frogg Toggs for ~$20 a pair without too much hassle.

This list is not definitive but rather a way for someone to get out backpacking and enjoy themselves. Take what works from the list and apply it for your use. The point of this little exercise is not to get hung up on gear, but rather to get OUT and ENJOY yourself. It is a misnomer that you need a lot of money to backpack.  And the best way to learn about backpacking is not discussing gear online or going to gear sales but is actually to get out there. 🙂

To emphasize, I also think this list works as an excellent minimalist list. While a Home Depot tarp is not the choice of shelter for all, it is not functionally different from a DCF tarp.  In other words, as you have more money or different preferences, you can easily swap in a “better” piece of equipment without changing the basics of the list itself.

Note this 2021 list comes in at under 15 pounds and $290 total!  If you still want to keep within the budget (more or less), considering some of the UPGRADE items listed at the bottom of the article. The sleeping bag, in particular, will be the biggest-bang-for-the-buck.  The Frugal Deluxe List comes in at just under 10 lbs for a complete three-season kit for just over $400.  Works well for something such as the Appalachian Trail with frequent resupplies, small water carries, and well-defined tread.

Happy Trails!

–Paul Mags

Updated Jan 2021    Now with a Frugal Deluxe Kit for 9.5 lbs and just over $400. 

Have more money than time? Want something a bit of a step up? Check out The Budget Backpacker – A complete gear list for a little over $800 that is light, functional, and easily assembled.  Or perhaps you are looking for a multi-purpose kit? Something for day hiking, base camping, three-season plus backpacking/mild winter, trail work, and maybe even day use snowshoeing? Check out the Jack of All Trades kit. Perfect for when money, time, and space is limited…but when multiple outdoor activities get desired.

THE SUB-$300 GEAR LIST

CATEGORY ITEM COST WEIGHT IN OZ WHERE NOTES
Pack and Accessories External Frame Pack $30 56 eBay or used sports store  The old warrior still works. A good quality external can be bought used for little money. And they aren’t really all that heavy.
Trash Bag for a pack liner Free 0.625 In House Normal household item
Sub-Total   $30 56.625
Shelter 8′ x 10′ Blue Poly Tarp   $5 40 Hardware Store Tarps work well if set up correctly. Great link for tarp set up here.
6 Gutter Nails $6 3 Hardware store  Dirtbagger favorite that works well.
Para Cord $4 1 Outfitter Most outfitters or hardware stores will cut down webbing and rope to size.
3 mil Painters Drop Cloth $4 6 Hardware Store
Mosquito Netting $7 4 Amazon
Sub-total   $26 54
Sleeping Blue Foam Pad  $10 10 XYZMart Camping section
Teton Sports 20F Bag $57 46 Amazon Synthetic bag and bulky.  But good enough to use w/o breaking the budget. I used a similar bag from Campmor back in the day in the New England Fall! Teton gear has been making some decent budget options. 
Garbage Bag Free 0.625 In Kitchen
Sub-total   $64 56.625  
Cooking Stanco Grease Pot $10 3.7 Amazon Basic cook pot for one person
Cat Food Can Stove 0.5 0.3 Pet Store Easy to make. Light. Works as a pot stand. If there are burn bans, you’ll need to use something different.  See below.
Aluminum Foil Windscreen Free 1 Kitchen Fold over some foil to make a basic windscreen
Ziplock Bag Free .375 oz Kitchen For spoon, lighter, toothbrush, and toothpaste
20 oz Mtn Dew Bottle $1.50 .125 oz Quicky Mart For fuel. I like Mountain Dew bottles as the green color sticks out.
Lexan Spoon $1.00 0.375 Outfitter
Lighter $1.00 0.5 Quicky Mart
Toothbrush Free 0.25 Bathroom At least I hope you have one! 😉
Sub Total   $10 6.625  
Hydration (2) 1 qt. Sport Drink Bottles $2 2.25 Grocery Store It comes with a drink!
Potable Aqua $7 0.8 Outfitter I still use these. Don’t mind the taste. 🙂
Sub Total    $9 3.15
Clothing Uniqlo Jacket clone $20 8 AliExpress Light, warm, and cheap. Wear it under a rain jacket. . Before I was given a Montbell jacket for volunteer work, I used a Uniqlo jacket.
Frogg Toggs UL rain suit  $19 12 Amazon, Dick’s, Wally World, or similar. Good for on-trail backpacking, not so much for off-trail. The jacket works surprisingly well. The pants need some TLC; otherwise, you may accidentally rip them. The jacket runs large!
Cool Max Running Socks $8 1.5 oz Target Three per package. Good bargain! I love C9 clothing. 
ECWCS Layer 1 thermals, silk weight. $24 10 MilSurplus on eBay Cheap and effective.
Fleece Beanie $3 1.125 Home Depot in season Your standard warm hat. Nothing fancy.
Fleece Gloves $7 3 Home Depot in Season Basic gloves for warmth. Often found near the checkout aisle during winter.
Garbage Bag Free 0.375 Kitchen A waterproof stuff sack for your clothing!
Subtotal   $70 40
First Aid Kit Ibuprofen Free 1 Bathroom Just a basic kit for moderate emergencies, aches, and pains
(4) 4×4 Gauze Pads Free 0.375 Bathroom Duct tape, bandannas, etc. works as first aid items as well
Ziplock Free <.125 Bathroom
(5) Band-aids Free <.125 Bathroom
Subtotal   Free 1.375
Misc Generic Head Lamp $5 3 Amazon Basic headlamp. Nothing fancy. Works well enough!
Bandanna $2 0.375 Any outfitter Basic, all-purpose piece of clothing. It does it all!
T/P Free 2 Bathroom
Purell $3 2.25 Drugstore Buy the trial size
Ziplock Free 0.25 Free Use a larger sized one for all the misc items
Sub Total   $8 8 oz
Total Base Pack weight and Cost   $244 223 oz/ or ~14lbs
Equipment on Self 65/35 Poly-Cotton Dress Shirt Free 6.125 Closet A little cotton is OK esp if you have the appropriate warm layers. Honest. 🙂 I like long sleeves for sun and bug protection
Nylon Running shorts Free 3.75 Closet Most people have some sort of work out shorts
C9 Running socks Already bought 1.5
Boonie Hat $12 3.5 Surplus Store Basic sun and rain protection
Swiss Army Knife Classic $17 0.625 Outfitter All you really need…
Used ski poles with duct tape around the handle $10 16 Thrift store or used sporting goods store Duct tape is for EVERYTHING! Ski poles help with hiking and tarp set up.
Running Shoes Free 30 Closet Assuming most people have a pair for workouts
Compass $10 1 Outfitter A basic compass is acceptable. Silva 1-2-3 or similar works well.
Sunglasses Free 1 Probably on the dash of your car right now!
Total weight and cost “on self.”   $48 63.500 / 3.970 lbs
TOTAL COST   $289  

 

.

 

HAVE A LITTLE MORE MONEY? Consider the Frugal Deluxe Kit

With the full list coming in under $300, you still have some room to purchase some better gear.

One possible upgrade, but with a caveat, is the pack. An external frame pack works well on trails but is admittedly old-school. The 3F UL Pack is $72 (with a coupon),  ~32 ounces total, and is available. Via AliExpress.   The pack has received some good reviews. You will come in at just over $300 and with a kit weighing in at 12.5 lbs.  Pretty darn impressive. However, not everyone wants to use frameless packs. YMMV.

An even less expensive model, and one you’ll want to swap out the bag, is the Modase 40L mentioned by many since I updated the list in 2019.  The pack works best for a weekend or so use or something such as the Appalachian Trail with its well-defined tread, ample water, and frequent re-supply.  If you adhere to this minimalist list and swap in a lighter bag option too, you have a sub-10 lbs base pack weight and just over $400!  Awesome…

The other three things you want to upgrade?  In my opinion, I’d update the sleeping bag, the stove, and the shelter.

  • The sleeping bag is the item I’d suggest upgrading when you can. What I suggested is perfectly fine for beginners use. As mentioned, I used a similar Campmor bag for my initial forays, including fall backpacks in New England.  However, I’d upgrade to a better bag that is lighter and less bulky if you have the funds. If you purchase a good but affordable bag, you’ll only be a little over the $300 limit and have a very good overall kit, in my opinion.
  • The alcohol stove is a good budget choice. But with increasing open flame bans in the American West and even in the Appalachians in the recent past, an alcohol stove may not be the right choice for all situations and environments.   You can purchase a decent canister stove for ~$8 and 3oz of a weight penalty. Long term use seems to be rather good based on reviews.

.

  • tarp may not be the best or most straightforward choice for most beginners.  I think tarps are better than most less expensive double-wall tents (space, ventilation, and weathering storms) but require a bit more practice and skill than most beginners may have.

In summary of the Frugal Deluxe Kit, swap in the above:

With this Frugal Deluxe Kit, you have a sub-10lb base pack weight that comes in at just over $400.  Works well for something such as on-trail weekends or even the Appalachian Trail with frequent resupplies, small water carries, and well-defined tread.

  • Other items to consider:

    • Like the idea of a tarping? But want something lighter? The Equinox Tarp is only ~$100 and ~14 oz for an 8×10 tarp.  I used this model on the PCT and still use it on occasion. There are “better,” but you can’t beat the price for something this light and functional.
    • What no phone or battery bank listed????  If a person uses this beginners list, what phone to bring is not the most critical item or how to charge a phone. I’ll bring my phone on weekend trips as I recognize the utility. However, I never carry a charging bank during short trips. And I assume many beginner weekend hikers are in this category, too.  CalTopo now has an app for Android in the Beta phase that looks promising, however.

     

  • And Finally…

Since I’ve published this article, I occasionally get lightly admonished because I am suggesting gear that is not ideal, and people will upgrade anyway. Well, here’s the thing. Way back in 1996 and 1997 my I carried items not too different from the above gear.  I learned enough to not use cotton blue jeans and a sweatshirt, but otherwise used what I had at home.

I used an external frame pack as I could not afford the $400 in today’s money for a pack (pre-small pack manufacturer days!). The old Campmor sleeping bag kept me warm well into the New Hampshire Fall. And I wish I knew about the liner jacket! I used an old acrylic sweater instead and a windbreaker.  But I did just fine.  I made an A-frame with a tarp. Or borrowed my buddy Tim’s Eureka tent with fiberglass poles that probably weighed seven-pounds.  :O The AliExpress specials would have been far better!  My stove was one I now use for truck bivys.  And my cookpot was a castoff Mom let me borrow for trips. Polypro served me well as recently as 2010 or so.

You get the idea. I was warm, dry, had fun, and became addicted to the outdoors in all kinds of weather.  With gear worse, heavier, or possibly bulkier than what I have listed above! Sure, when I saved more money and knew what worked for me, I bought “better” gear. But if I had waited to save money to buy “better” equipment, I may never have gone outdoors in the first place. It is more important that people get outside with functional gear that works rather than the latest Internet Dogpark Walking Gear Guru says you should have and then wait until you have the funds to buy it.

A photo from my first solo trip:

That’s all that mattered to me. Not what imperfect gear I used to get there. And the equipment listed above is far better than what I initially used. 🙂

Notes:    

  • The FREE designation is for items around a typical household
  • The weight and prices do not include consumables like food or fuel.
  • Or taxes, but typically does include S&H.
  • Maps are something you need but are very much trip dependent. CalTopois an excellent website for printing out maps.
  • Campmor is an online store with everything for reasonable prices!
  •   Sierra Trading Post will have name brand gear on clearance
  •   eBay will often have bargains on name brand and generic goods
  • Amazon has an incredible amount of outdoor goodies and clothing. If you (or a friend) have Amazon Prime, that helps a bit, too.
  • AliExpress and similar outlets now have some decent starter gear that is lightweight, inexpensive, and functional.
  • Don’t be afraid to buy used! Whiteblaze.com, Backpackinglight.com, Craig’s List, Facebook groupsReddit /r/GeatTrade, etc. have some excellent deals at times
  •  You may very well have some equipment already (clothing items like hats, gloves, jackets, etc.).
  •  This list will require some leg work on your part: buying the gear and clothing on sale. The winter type clothing is often sold cheaply during hunting season in XYZMart stores. Many ski stores and big-box sporting good stores (e.g., Dick’s) will see the stuff cheap at the end of the winter. The same goes with XYZMarts as well when they are bringing in their Spring clothing.    Don’t be afraid to bargain shop!
  •  Other places to bargain hunt are www.rei-outlet.com, thrift stores, local stores having sales, yard sales, used sporting goods stores, and classified ads.
  •  This list does not have the lightest or the best gear but will get the beginner outdoors fairly comfortably in prime summer weather. Biased towards Colorado hiking. Other areas can get away with a  lighter bag (for example)
  •  This gear will let a beginner be reasonably comfortable on their first trips. As the beginners gain more experience (or money), they will want to go out for longer trips.  A beginner should buy and adjust their gear accordingly as experience, comfort levels, and preferences dictate.
  • Though this is a bargain list, it is also a minimalist list. A better pack, sleeping bag, shelter, etc., within the list framework, will still leave you with a lightweight list with no extras. In other words, this is an excellent list to build upon for lightweight backpacking in general, I think. Part of lightweight backpacking is not so much what you take; but instead, it is what you do not take.

 

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
42 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Rusty
Rusty
10 years ago

Thanks for the tips mags….looking forward to meeting you in
Colorado sometime……best to you …Rusty

McSkinney
McSkinney
10 years ago

that generic sleeping bag and fleece will fill up that entire pack.

Freefall
8 years ago

Man, my Feathered Friends Swallow sleeping bag cost 1.5-times the amount of everything on this list. However, SO WORTH IT!

Thanks for posting though. It’s good to read about gear ideas that don’t cost an arm and a leg, like my down bag.

-Freefall

Hiker Box
6 years ago

Awesome list! You could save 40 ounces on the pack with a GG G4 and another $65 which would put you just over your $300 cut off. Call it the “mountain” frugal list!

Hiker Box
6 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

True, most newbies already balk at sleeping under a tarp so the tarp + frameless pack might make some heads explode.

Laura
4 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

Paul,
yep. I agree about the frameless packs – I’m not a fan either.
Great list overall and I’m sharing with my brothers…they love this sort of though exercise. cheers!

nobody
nobody
6 years ago

Thanks Mags for the detailed homework here. As a comment, In their PCT ’09 hike, Frankie and Double Barrel put together their kit for under $300 by using the REI garage sales. Light but not ultralight. Took a little while.

Bill
Bill
6 years ago

I have been using 7″ aluminum gutter spikes for stakes. I get them 10 for $3.00. They do bend, but aren’t hard to straighten.

KJackson
KJackson
6 years ago

Thanks for this primer! Someday I’d like to try an overnight. But, as you know, it’s a little intimidating for a first timer. And I’m a little uneasy about snuggling with creepy crawlies on the ground. A fly fishing guide told me he uses a hammock. What are your thoughts on hammocks for backpacking? Would it be more lightweight and comfortable than a pad and tent? TIA

Scott
Scott
6 years ago

Walmart has a surprisingly good inexpensive pack. The outdoor products arrowhead pack is 46 liters and weighs 31 ounces (27 without the aluminum supports). It’s only costs $30! Over a hundred dollars cheaper than my ULA CDT, and only 5 ounces heavier, and you can buy it off the shelf. I picked one up and have recommended it to my beginner friends.

Jonathan
6 years ago

As I am preparing to hike the Vermont Long Trail next year, I am at a quandary. Finally in my life I can afford the nice gear. I am contemplating buying a MLD Grace Tarp for the trip (and backpacking in general). However, the starving student is coming out in me and thinks it might be better to buy a tarp that is frugally friendly. Thus, I came across this article and buying guide. Do you have experience with the aforementioned Walmart tarp? Do you recommend it or another tarp? Thank you in advance!

Adam
Adam
5 years ago

Kelty yukon frame pack
Kelty cosmic down sleeping bag
Kelty noahs tarp
MSR pocket rocket
Therma rest ridge rest
Walmart stuff sacks
Walmart Starter dri star clothing
Gatorade bottle
Sawyer mini
My basic kit that I have hiked hundreds of miles with. My base weight is around 23-25 pounds add 5 lbs of food and a couple luxury items or cold weather gear 33 pounds max. Total base weight cost was around $275 with my scrounge capabilities.

Todd
Todd
5 years ago

Mags,

Do you think a bag like this would get a big kid down around the freezing point? I have a nephew that wants to try camping but almost no money. This time of year nights might hit low 30’s. Bags are one of the hardest things to tell what you’re really getting.

Thanks.

Todd
Todd
5 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

Thanks we’ll have to look at the kids bags too. I have an rei zonk 25 for my little guy and it’s worked really well. My nephew is large 8.5 years old and close to 5 foot and about 110 pounds. I was afraid the kids bags would be too small. I’ll have to take him to a store and try some. He runs hot too, shorts in winter, sort of hot. Thanks for the tips. It’s easy to get lost in all the options and so hard to tell what will really work. The Kelly down bag would be… Read more »

Another Kevin
5 years ago

Tent stakes from the outfitter, rather than aluminum gutter spikes? You’ll lose your dirtbag cred if you keep that up! 😉

Elana
Elana
4 years ago

You must be my kindred! I love this article and your insights about not letting the “latest and greatest” things out there detract from the primary purpose. Ive been putting together what I need for backpacking slowly- as I would much rather by things used myself- so I found your article while doing an internet search.

trackback

[…] 33.  Nemesis Safety Glasses – Three pairs of these lightweight, sturdy and Presidentially-endorsed sunnies will set you back less than $15. This gift recommendation is courtesy of Paul “Mags” Magnanti, long-time devotee of Nemesis and budget backpacker nonpareil. […]

Amber
Amber
2 years ago

So happy I came across this! We car camp a lot and want to branch out. For years we talked about backpacking with the kiddos but felt like we couldn’t afford all the lighter gear that we need.(I don’t even own a hiking pack don’t need it car camping, our sleeping bags weigh about 100000 lbs, we bring a larger camping grill/cast iron ect. ect. lol) This year I decided that enough was enough and we are going to go no matter what I have to do! I started researching like crazy and found ton’s of supplies within our small… Read more »

Tyler
2 years ago

Great article. Proves that you don’t really need the latest and greatest gear for long distance hikes. I met thru hikers on the Appalachian Trail who even went as far as using those cheap emergency tents at Walmart. And hiking in nothing but $5 crocs.

trackback

[…] 33.  Nemesis Safety Glasses – Three pairs of these lightweight, sturdy and Presidentially-endorsed sunnies will set you back less than $15. This gift recommendation is courtesy of Paul “Mags” Magnanti, long-time devotee of Nemesis and budget backpacker nonpareil. […]

Greg
Greg
1 year ago

Great list. For packs, check out the Modase 40L, $32 on Amazon. Just about 1lb. River Country Products has a 1 person UL tent that is really light and pretty comfortable for one. Not much heavier than tarps (with guy lines) and a corresponding mosquito net.

Colorado Jones
4 months ago

Thanks for your work in putting together this and your other lists (REI, BassPro, etc.), Paul! All great reminders that it’s not necessary to invest $3000 in high-tech ultralight gear that fits in a Nalgeen bottle in order to get started in backpacking 🙂 A quick question: How exactly would you rig up the mosquito netting above in conjunction with a typical A-frame or trapezoid (aka closed-end-A-frame) tarp setup? Lot of great internet sites (including the one you linked above) that show basic tarp setups but not much that show tarp + mosquitto netting setups. Hoping to experiment with tarp… Read more »

Adam
Adam
1 month ago

What’s is your take on bivy sacks? Some people swear by them and others hate them. What do you think?

Adam
Adam
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

Ok, great! Thank you.

Adam
Adam
1 month ago

Do you know which of the non-external frame packs accommodates a BV500 bear canister?