If there is a small niche I am known for in the very tiny place of prolific backpacking bloggers, it is budget backpacking gear. (A slot that ranks somewhere around stamp collecting and being an aficionado of 1980s action figures in terms of readership. In other words, pretty much means squat.)
It is not to say I always look for the least expensive piece of clothing or gear. Instead, I tend to purchase the less expensive piece of kit if it is not that functionally different from the more expensive piece of equipment or clothing.
I have yet to see the utility of expensive backpacking shirts. And my humble $10 Sports Authority 100 weight pullover is perhaps my favorite piece of outdoor clothing. It out-performed a $100+ layer I reviewed this past winter. And I can honestly say though I received a $150 down lightweight puffy for my volunteer work, and a beautifully made garment, I really can’t tell the functional difference between that and my perfectly serviceable Uniqlo hooded puffy. My sunglasses of choice are safety sunglasses used for construction. Why? Because the company built them to ANSI specs, don’t cost a lot of money, are durable, light, and functional.
I simply use what works.
And what works tends to cost less money than the somewhat-better-but-not-really-that-much-better items that cost a lot more money.
But there are certain items I won’t dirtbag.
Certain items that are worth taking into consideration beyond the price tag.
There is little difference between a 100wt fleece from Sports Authority and the North Face in the field.
But a pair of $10 Wally World sneakers is, more than likely, going to put you in a world of hurt.
Not that $10 Wally World sneakers won’t work for some, but don’t just buy them because they are the least expensive.
With that in mind, here’s a list of gear and clothing I don’t suggest going the route of dirt bagging.
(Note: For three-season backpacking. Winter is another ball of wax esp with down garments or similar. )
- Shoes – I mentioned shoes above. Fit, the tread of sole, construction. All items that need to be paid attention to when buying shoes. The budget shoes rarely fit this bill beyond casual wearing. Again, not that the $10 shoes won’t work for you. But use shoes that fit you first with the price being a secondary, or less, consideration.
- Quilt or sleeping bag – Because sleeping bags or quilts aren’t a fashionable commodity like three-season puffies, sleeping bags or quilts are genuinely one piece of gear that “you get what you pay for.”
I think the phrase just mentioned is used far too much by people who buy expensive backpacking gear and don’t use it beyond an Excel spreadsheet. But in the case of a sleeping bag or quilt, the budget bags are usually adequate for casual (or one thru-hike) use for someone looking to save money.
Spend more money for a more expensive bag or quilt? The more expensive bag or quilt tends to last longer, are made of higher quality materials and stitching as well as managing to be more accurate with the temperature ratings. A Campmor synthetic budget bag was perfectly fine when I started backpacking. But when I could, I bought a Feathered Friends Hummingbird. Almost twenty years and many essential nights later, that bag is still very warm and useful.
- Pack – As with shoes, not that a cheap pack won’t work, merely that price should be one of the last considerations.
How does it fit? Does it carry your load well? Will it serve the needs of how you want to use it? I bought a $25 daypack that got the crap beat out of it, was dragged through Utah canyons, saw much bushwhacking, was with me on trail work, and lasted longer than a Patagonia daypack (admittedly made of lighter material) that I retired far earlier. Because of the type of hiking I do, the $25 no-name daypack served me very faithfully. On the other hand, the ULA Catalyst was worth every penny I paid for it, and I can’t picture using another pack merely because it is less expensive. Get the pack that works for you, your hiking style, and how you plan on using it. Not the pack that is the cheapest.
- Information – It amazes me what cheap bastards (as opposed to frugal) most backpackers can be.
The average family income for outdoor enthusiasts is $70,000 or more a year as of 2013. That is versus $52,000 a year for the average US household income for the same year. And nearly 70% of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers have, at minimum, a four-year college degree according to a National Park Service study. Other studies show this trend, as well.
The average thru-hiker will have expensive dead geese jackets and almost as costly petrochemical-based clothing made in China and sold at REI. They will cook on $5 worth of stamped metal parts that sells for $100 and will Instagram about it on all on smart devices that are two-hundred dollars or more. But will balk at spending $10 for a map or $40 for a guidebook. Information and the gathering of it are time-intensive. Paying $40 for a trail appropriate guide or map book with resupply information, maps needed, contact details, and so on is roughly four hours for the average over-educated trustafarian working at a coffee shop. Work in a beige box like I do for my day job? A no-brainer indeed.
There are some cases where a person has to spend the time to research a more obscure trip. But for a person hiking on a well known lettered route or backpacking in a popular wilderness area, it makes sense to spend a little money and a lot less time to get the appropriate route information. Buy the right book, map, or app.
And some readers may notice a lack of shelters as an item. Why? Because a less expensive but heavier shelter may work well enough for most people esp on a budget. With no noticeable functional difference vs. the latest DCF wonder.
I can certainly appreciate saving money on budget gear items and clothing. But I enjoy getting the right tool for what I plan on doing, too. Sometimes that does mean a budget item is perfectly fine. But for a few essential items, it is wise to spend a little more money.
EDIT: And as others have pointed out in the comments below, the dollar per night ratio becomes perfect for a higher-end item such a sleeping bag, too. My Feathered Friends bag is probably well below a dollar per night per use at this point as just one example.
I agree with everything you mentioned. Although I do have some “designer” named brand clothing I’ve never paid retail. I’ll wait for closeouts when they change product lines, or sales. There are pleanty of websites you can subscibe to for this. When friends ask how I can justify buying such an expensive sleeping bag, I break it down to how much I’ll use it. Even a top of the line sleeping bag would work out to be $2-3 per night on an average thru-hike. Small price to pay for a good nights sleep & they bag will last well beyond… Read more »
Indeed. I have some Mountain Hardwear pants I bought inexpensively at Sierra Trading Post. Awesome pants at less than half retail.
Don’t forget about libraries for research tools! I’m getting ready for the Colorado Trail, and I bought the databook for on trail reference, but I borrowed the full guidebook from the library to save some money. I definitely want/need to read it, but I don’t need to own it. Libraries are awesome.
I love libraries! I could not afford my reading habit if it was not for them. Lots of books online to borrow now, too.
I’m printing this out for all the employees who work for me in the camping department at REI.
As a stamp collector, should I be offended? 😉
Great article and you could have pointed out dollar cost average (unless I missed it).
I still use my first backpacking stove, a Svea 123, although not on every trip. I have used it every year since I bought it in 1971. Dollar cost average is $0.41 per year.
Excellent point! I think of how many nights I have with the feathered friends bag and it was a great investment indeed.
Clothing seems to be the worst offender in the price vs value area. Shoes are very personal and very important, but fit and feel are more important than price. It seems that the big three, sleeping system, pack and shelter are the things that should not necessarily go the lowest cost route. These are all things that will make your trip miserable if you don’t choose well. The most expensive isn’t necessarily the best choice and may be a huge waste of money, if it doesn’t suit your style. But, like with shoes, the only good way to know if… Read more »
As you said, clothing can overmarked for the price-to-performance ratio. Esp commodity items such as fleece or similar three-season wear. The fact that Sierra Trading Post is able to sell clothing at half-price, and still make a profit, is telling.
I was recently gifted a Snow Peak double wall ti mug (while it appears to look cool and function like a mug is supposed to) I just could not believe the price they get for their stuff. All I can say is, light-weight glamp gear at its finest!
Re: sleeping bags, I purchased a very comfortable and warm bag off a military surplus website for about $25.00. It works good for me. Military surplus equipment may not look the greatest but it was built to take the abuse of soldiers in the field under combat conditions.
How heavy and bulky was it?
One of the things I want to add in regards to shoes. You really don’t need hiking specific shoes, especially starting out. I’ve done a lot of good-weather hikes in a pair of my running shoes and much preferred the breathability compared to my water-proofed hiking shoes.
If there’s snow/slush, a lot of river crossings, or rain in the forecast, I’ll grab my hiking shoes/boots (depending on the weather)
I don’t know many experienced people who wear waterproof shoes to be honest. Period. I simply said get a good pair shoes. I use trail runners myself.