What not to dirtbag

If there is a small niche I am known for in the very tiny niche of prolific backpacking bloggers  it is budget backpacking gear. (A niche 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. Rather I tend to purchase the less expensive piece of gear if it is not that functionally different from the more expensive piece of gear or clothing.

I have yet to 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 was given a $150 down lightweight puffy for my volunteer work, and it is beautifully made,  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 they are built 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.

  • Shoes – I mentioned shoes above. Fit, 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 price being a secondary, or less, consideration.

I miss my old pickup’s tailgate.

And I still have this tarp, too.

  • 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 plans on using it. Not the pack that is the cheapest.

Photo courtesy of Patrick Basso

  •  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 expensive 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 is 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 of time 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 lot less time to get the appropriate route information. Buy the right book, map or app.
Colorado Trail store

And the purchase usually supports the trail org who maintains the very trail you plan on hiking, too!


I can certainly appreciate saving money on budget gear items and clothing. But I  appreciate 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 key 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 very good 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.


15 Replies to “What not to dirtbag”

  1. 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 that.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 you’ve made a good deal is to get out and use it.

    1. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. Paul,

    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)

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