The Frugal Backpacker – The $300 Gear Challenge


The source of the photo is unknown.

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

This list was inspired by a discussion on AT-L way back in 2005: How do you make a reasonably light gear list for a beginner that is reasonably light and not too expensive?

The direct inspiration for this list was a discussion on 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 what you don’t carry. This list also includes an explanation of why I chose this gear. The options are based on experience, not just internet-based theory. 

My list focuses more on Intermountain West or similar for prime three-season conditions: More sun exposure, colder nights at elevation, and 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 quilts best suited for an Appalachian summer. And you won’t see robust rain gear on this list, either. Everything is a trade-off and varies based on place, conditions, time of year, or hiking style.

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

I also tried to get items that aren’t one-offs and can reasonably be purchased in the next year or two. Lucky one-offs are not 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 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 in terms of gear.  The best way to learn about backpacking is not to discuss gear online or go to gear sales but actually to get out there.

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 that this 2024 list is under 15 pounds and is $300 in total!  If you still want to keep within the budget (more or less), consider 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.    

 Have more money than time? Want something a bit more advanced? Check out The Budget Backpacker—a light, functional, and easily assembled gear list for a little over $800.  

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. It’s perfect when money, time, and space are limited but when multiple outdoor activities are desired.

You can also check out my many articles aimed toward budget purchases.

Happy Trails!

–Paul Mags

Revised April 2024


Pack and Accessories Arrowhead Internal Frame Pack $35 32 Amazon Someone suggested the pack eight years ago as a suitable beginner pack, which is still available on Amazon. The weight-to-price ratio works well.
Trash Bag for a pack liner Free 0.625 In House Normal household item
Sub-Total   $35 32.625
Shelter 8′ x 10′ Blue P8’y T10′   $7 40 Hardware Store Tarps work well if set up correctly. Great li k for tarp set up here.
6 Gutter Nails $6 3 Hardware store  Dirtbagger favorite that works well.
Para Cord $7 1 Outfitter Most outfitters or hardware stores will cut down webbing and rope to size.
Painters Drop Cloth $4 6 Hardware Store
Mosquito Netting $7 4 Amazon
Sub-total   $27 54
Sleeping Blue Foam Pad  $15 10 XYZMart Camping section
Teton Sports 20F Bag $55 46 Amazon It’s synthetic, heavy, and bulky, but it’s good enough to use without 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   $70 56.625  
Cooking Stanco Grease Pot $13 3.7 Amazon Basic cook pot for one person
Cat Food Can Stove 0.5 0.3 Pet Store It’s easy to make, light and works as a pot stand. However, if there are burn bans, you’ll want something else. 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   $17 6.625  
Hydration (2) 1 qt. Sport Drink Bottles $3 2.25 Grocery Store It comes with a drink!
Potable Aqua $7 0.8 Outfitter I still use these. Don’t mind the taste. I think of it as metallic-tasting Gatorade. 
Sub Total    $10 3.15
Clothing Uniqlo Jacket clone $20 8 AliExpress Light, warm, and cheap.  I used a Uniqlo jacket before being given a Montbell jacket for volunteer work.
Frogg Toggs UL rain suit  $20 12 Amazon, Dick’s, Wally World, Dick’s or similar. It is good for on-trail backpacking but not so much for off-trail. The jack t works surprisingly well. The pants  need some TLC; otherwise, you may accidentally rip them. The jacket runs large!
Cool Max Running Socks $10 1.5 oz Target Discount store running socks work surprisingly well. Usually  come in a two or three-pack. 
Rocky Thermal silk weight set $19 11 Amazon Cheap and effective tops and bottoms.
Fleece Beanie $5 1.125 Home Depot in season Your standard warm hat. Nothing  fancy.
Fleece Gloves $10 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   $84 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 $10 3 Amazon Basic headlamp. Nothing  fancy. It works well enough!
Bandanna $2 0.375 Any outfitter Basic, all-purpose piece of clothing. It does  t 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   $15 8 oz
Total Base Pack Weight and Cost   $258 ~200 oz/ or ~13 lbs
Equipment on Self 65/35 Poly-Cotton Dress Shirt Free 6.125 Closet A little cotton is OK, especially with 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 workout shorts
Target Already bought 1.5
Boonie Hat $15 3.5 Surplus Store Basic sun and rain protection
Swiss Army Knife Classic $24 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 pole  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. 
Sunglasses Free 1 It’s probably on the dash of your car right now!
Total weight and cost “on self.”   $5″ 63.500 ” 3.970 lbs
TOTAL COST   $300  



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

What are the other three things you want to upgrade? I’d upgrade the sleeping bag, the stove, and the shelter.

.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.

AliExpress and similar have some budget tents that have received decent reviews.  This NatureHike CloupUp 1  tent is a Big Agnes clone for about 3.75 lbs and ~$90.  Less weight if the poles and fly get taken only. The blue tarp, cord, netting, stakes, and ground cloth make a $30 purchase (if lighter), but another $60 gets you a more traditional and beginner-friendly shelter.

If the blue foam pad makes the kit too spartan, the Z-lite clone from Walmart works well enough for $30 and 6 oz (cut down).

If you spend another ~$150, you have a more traditional kit (tent, sleeping bag, more comfortable pad, and canister stove) and still under fifteen pounds of base pack weight for ~$450 total.

Other items to consider:

  • What? No phone or battery bank listed???? If a person uses this beginner’s list, beginner’s brings or how to charge a phone is not the most critical issue. I’ll bring my phone on weekend trips as I recognize its utility. However, I never carry a charging bank during short trips. And I assume many beginner weekend hikers are in this category, too.

And Finally…

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

I used an external frame pack because I could not afford the $400 in today’s money (pre-cottage gear days!). The old Campmor sleeping bag warmed me well into the New Hampshire Fall. I used an old acrylic sweater and a windbreaker, but I did just fine.

I made do with an A-frame and a tarp, or I borrowed my buddy Tim’s Eureka tent with fiberglass poles that probably weighed seven or more pounds! The AliExpress specials would have been far better. I carried a propane stove that ended up getting used for truck bivys. The cookpot was a castoff that Mom let me borrow for trips. Polypro served me well as recently as 2010 or so.

You get the idea.

I was warm and 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.

In New Hampshire on my first solo backpacking trip. With all the “wrong” gear!

I remember the mountain sunsets, the wind blowing through the trees at the cusp of the tree line, and those first mountain views as I learned to backpack.

That’s what I remember, not the imperfect gear I used to get there.


  • 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 it typically includes S&H.
  • You need maps, but they are very trip-dependent. CalTopo is an excellent website for printing out maps. 
  • eBay will often have bargains on name-brand and generic goods
  • Amazon has an incredible amount of outdoor goodies and clothing.
  • AliExpress and similar outlets now have some decent starter gear that is lightweight, inexpensive, and functional.
  • Don’t be afraid to buy used  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 goods stores (e.g., Dick’s) will see clearance sales at the end of the winter. The same goes for Wally World or Target when they bring in their spring clothing.    Don’t be afraid to bargain shop!
  •  Other places to bargain hunt are, thrift stores, local stores having sales, yard sales, used sporting goods stores, etc.
  •  This list does not have the lightest or the best gear, but it will get the beginner outdoors fairly comfortably in prime summer weather. Biased towards Colorado hiking. Other ar as can get away with a  lighter bag (for example)
  •  This gear will allow beginners to be reasonably comfortable on their first trips. As they gain more experience (or money), they will want to go on 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, I think this is an excellent list to build upon for lightweight backpacking in general. Part of  ightweight backpacking is not so much what you take; instead, it is what you do not take.

You can also read more about Dirt Bagging here and more info on getting quality gear on the cheap here. Finally, some of these other articles may be of interest.

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13 years ago

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

13 years ago

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

11 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.


1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

Klymit sells their bag for about the same price as the Kelty Cosmic. I think they can be bought through Costco.

Hiker Box
9 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
9 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.

7 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

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!

9 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.

9 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.

9 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

8 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.

8 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!

8 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.

8 years ago


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.


8 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
8 years ago

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

7 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.


[…] 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. […]

4 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 »

4 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.


[…] 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. […]

3 years 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
Colorado Jones
2 years 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 »

2 years ago

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

2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

Ok, great! Thank you.

2 years ago

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