John Muir, remarking on his minimalist approach to hiking, is quoted to have said, “I rolled up some bread and tea in a pair of blankets with some sugar and a tin cup and set off.” For safety and comfort’s sake you’ll probably want to be better equipped (the famous naturalist was practically starving to death, after all), but that doesn’t mean you have to make your bank account cry in the process. I’m a total gear geek, and love the latest and greatest offerings from backpacking retailers, but I also love finding a deal. True, backpacking gear can cost a pretty penny, but it doesn’t have to. You want to be sweating over that huge elevation gain on the trail, not how much you just spent on a sleeping bag. With that in mind, here are my top five tips for saving money on backpacking gear.
“Live life with purpose” may sound like a trite millennial tattoo, but it’s solid gear shopping wisdom. Sure, browsing aimlessly may lead you to deeply discounted gear, but without a goal in mind the temptation to impulse buy can be overwhelming. You may soon discover that solar powered portable tent air conditioner and boom box combo isn’t as vital as you first thought, even if you did get it for $50 off the MSRP. Instead, take an inventory of your current gear. Focus on the Big 3 first (pack, shelter, and sleep system). Prioritize which gear you actually need, and then start searching specifically for those pieces.
Also, just because you have older gear doesn’t mean you need to replace it. It may not have all the bells and whistles of newer models, but it can still be completely usable. Don’t toss gear just because it’s “old”. A simple repair job is all you might need to add several extra years of life to a piece of gear. Using what you have and only buying what you need will help stretch your backpacking budget.
Do your research
Once you’ve identified your necessary piece of gear, it’s time to research the life out of it. Researching helps you insure you’re investing in a piece of gear that will fit your specific needs. This can be done both generally and specifically.
For example, if you’ve determined you need a new daypack you can start by doing a general search for “daypacks” on gear sale sites. Look at different styles and brands. Determine which features are important to you, and which would just be nice but not necessary. Compare prices to get a baseline price.
After you find a few packs that seem to fit your needs and budget, zero in on researching those specific packs. When I found my Columbia Vixen 22L pack on clearance I thought it looked like the perfect pack for me, but I read many reviews to learn the opinions of women who actually owned it. I did this by looking up reviews on the retail site I was considering purchasing from and by googling “Columbia Vixen pack review”.
Don’t forget to also check if there are any available discount codes or free shipping deals when you go to purchase.
Don’t be picky
Certain aspects of gear like fit, size, features, and weight are vital; while others such as color and brand, are not. Purchasing gear based on its functionality, and not by the frills can save you some serious cash. Both my Patagonia Houdini windbreaker and my Columbia rain jacket cost me less than normal, simply because I bought versions in last season’s colors. Is Kelly green really my fave color? Not particularly, but the bears don’t care and it saved me $50! Or, when I was searching for a new daypack I really wanted to get the Osprey Tempest, partially because I was caught up in the Osprey brand fever. By purchasing my Columbia I snagged a great piece of gear for much less, simply because it didn’t carry the Osprey logo.
This may sound completely counter intuitive, but bear with me. Sometimes it’s worth it to make an investment in gear that will last for years, rather than making a quick purchase of cheap gear that dies after one season. The initial purchase price may seem expensive, but consider how long you expect the gear to last. You may turn white at the thought of spending $300 on a tent, but what if that tent lasted 10 years? That would be $30/year, compared to a $150 tent that may only last 3 years ($50/year).
Or perhaps the greater functionality and performance warrants spending more. I purchased my Osprey Ariel pack at full retail price, but I knew I wanted an extremely comfortable pack that wouldn’t leave me sore after a day on the trail. I decided that the perfect fit of the pack didn’t warrant quibbling over a few extra $$.
The key here is to follow Rule #2: do your research! Make sure this investment is a quality piece of gear that will fit your long term needs, and not a purchase you will regret in 6 months.
Don’t shop at backpacking stores
This is one of my favorite sneaky tips for saving cash on backpacking gear. Products marketed to a niche consumer are going to carry prices that reflect the high level of specificity. The trick is to start shopping outside of the niche.
I’ve had the most success with this in purchasing clothing. Companies may try to convince you through clever marketing that you must wear their pair of specially designed “backpacking pants”, but really all you need is simple, comfortable clothing made from synthetics or wool. So instead of searching specifically for “women’s backpacking clothing” at a backpacking store, I instead search for “athletic wear” at a non backpacking store. Or I’ll even look out of the athletic department at garments made from the appropriate materials. (My favorite store for doing this is actually T.J. Maxx, it’s how my sis and Mom convince me to go shopping with them there 😀 )
You can do this with other pieces of gear as well, such as cooking equipment, food, and personal care items. Simply identify the key components of the piece of gear and then broaden the search area.
Through some thoughtful prioritizing, researching, and savvy shopping you can find excellent deals on backpacking gear. Remember, the main objective is not to have the flashiest, most technical gear, but to just get out on the trail!
What is your best advice for saving money on gear?
Buy an REI membership – For a one-time fee of $20, an REI membership includes bonus coupons, a yearly 10% back member dividend, exclusive access to REI garage sales, and co-op voting rights.
Put gear on your birthday list/ask for giftcards
Look for lightly used gear on gear swaps or eBay
Search for clothing in the athletic wear department of a thrift store
Sign up for a site’s newsletter to learn about sales and get coupons
Websites for snagging clearance items and sales: