OK, so you’ve been getting out on the trail a fair amount over the past couple of summers, day hiking to all kinds of fun places. And you’ve mixed it up some with a few car camping trips to get the feel of spending the night out in the woods, albeit with your creature comforts close at hand. You’re not feeling so much like a greenhorn out there anymore.
Now you figure it’s time to move on to the real thing: backpacking. You want to gear up, hit the trail and camp out away from the road, deep in the woods somewhere, next to a lake or a stream maybe, or up on a mountain ridge, just you and a few friends or family members.
But first you’ve got to get properly outfitted.
You’ve visited the specialty outdoor retailers and pawed through all that great looking gear. And you’ve thumbed through the slick pages of the gear catalogs, salivating. Nice stuff, isn’t it?
But then you started adding up the price tags and suddenly shock waves began to pulse through your wallet. Ouch! That’s a lot of bucks. No doubt, you could spend a small fortune assembling your kit.
Is it possible to avoid beginner backpacking sticker shock, you ask? Can a hiker find a decent quality, serviceable pack, sleeping bag, tent, boots and the other essentials for less money? A lot less, perhaps?
I visited a local big box store in Portland, Maine near my home not too long ago to see what I could find out…
It was certainly a different experience pushing a big shopping cart around the aisles of the camping section and poking about amid the tall shelves stocked with piles of gear. And it was most unusual to be asking questions of store clerks clad in blue vests, with big name tags and smiley face buttons.
What I discovered, however, surprised me.
I found a good selection of gear with familiar brand names in camping, like Coleman, Eureka, Energizer, Ozark Trail and Swiss Gear, names I’d known about for many years.
For a backpack, I found an internal frame pack with side pockets, mesh front pockets, compression straps and integrated high visibility rain cover. It was well-constructed, but the hip belt is probably not substantial enough for heavy loads. For weekend trips with 30 pounds or less, though, it would likely work fine. It sells for $58.
For cooking gear, I came across a single-burner camp stove weighing a scant 8 ounces for $20. A butane/propane mix fuel canister was $4. A 5-piece mess kit, complete with plastic cup, pot, lid, fry pan and handle was just $5. Add a stainless steel knife, fork and spoon set for $2; and a couple of one-quart plastic canteens for $5 each.
For sleeping gear, there was a featherweight camping pad to serve as insulation under your sleeping bag for $6.
A PVC poncho weighing about a pound looked like reliable rain protection for $6.
A couple of aluminum collapsible trekking poles with a built-in compass in the handle, shock absorbers, protective cap and rubber tip were a real bargain at $10 each.
A headlamp with batteries included tallied $13.
For odds and ends I found a whistle with lanyard for $2, a plastic compass for $4, a 27-piece lightweight first aid kit in a red zippered pouch with the usual items (Band-Aids, adhesive tape, aspirin and such) for $6, and a couple of nylon stuff bags for $4 each.
To round out the basic kit, there’s a mini multi-tool with all the gadgets ($6), insect repellent with DEET ($3) and polypropylene utility cord ($2).
I wasn’t impressed by the in-store selection of sleeping bags, tents or boots. Yes, you could make do with a five-pound, zero-degree mummy bag, an eight-pound four-man tent, and construction-style boots, but they sure wouldn’t be my first choice.
So I went online and checked out the store’s website and easily completed the rest of the potential outfit.
A mummy sleeping bag with a 30F temperature rating would work for summer camping. It comes with synthetic fill, rip-stop polyester fabric and compression stuff sack and will set you back $35.
A two-person “hiker tent” made of coated nylon, with a zippered door and stuff sack weighs in at only two and one half pounds. It uses a trekking pole for set-up and costs $35.
High-top fabric hiking boots, waterproof, well-padded and with a rubber lug sole for traction were a deal at $21.
The grand total for all this gear: A very reasonable $262. That’s less than I paid for just my fancy, tricked-out, high-brow backpack! And it’s easily at least $1,000 less than if you had purchased similar items from the specialty stores.
Note: I didn’t field test any of the big box store gear, but rather examined it closely in the store. From all I could discern, the quality appeared quite good and, of course, the savings are remarkable. I can’t vouch for the online items as I never had them in-hand, but I’m figuring they are of equal quality.
So if you’re a beginning hiker itching to get out for an overnight on the trail and cash is in short supply, this option may be just the answer for you.
Yeah, I know, it would be great to have all the good stuff right out of the gate, so to speak, but you can make do. Believe me, you can. (To be sure, I’ve known several people who have hiked the entire AT with such gear.) It’ll get you started and get you out there.
Then later on, about the time your inexpensive gear starts to wear out and fall apart, you’ll probably know whether or not backpacking is really your thing. And if it is – and I’ll bet it will be – then you can trundle back into those outdoor specialty stores. Knowing a whole better now what you need – and what you don’t – you can start dropping some of that money you’ve been saving up on gear that will be more durable and comfortable over the long haul.
Always remember: It’s all about the experience of being outdoors on the trail that matters. The gear is simply a means to get you there.
Be safe. Happy hiking!
About Carey Kish
Carey Kish is long-time multi-sport adventurer, writer and photographer. A Registered Maine Guide and former president and founding member of the Maine Outdoor Adventure Club, Kish has led countless hiking, backpacking and other adventurous trips throughout Maine. He is also an avid whitewater rafter, mountain biker, kayaker, and downhill and x-c skier. Kish has thru-hiked the 2,150-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, and has completed two-dozen long distance trails in the United States, Canada and Europe, most recently a 2011 trek around Mont Blanc via the Tour du Mont Blanc through France, Italy and Switzerland.
An active Appalachian Mountain Club member, Kish is editor of the 10th edition of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide (published in April 2012 and available wherever books are sold or directly from the AMC at www.outdoors.org/amcstore), the definitive guide to the mountain hiking trails of Maine. Kish also serves as editor of the AMC—Maine Chapter Wilderness Matters newsletter. He is an active Maine Appalachian Trail Club member and maintains two sections of the Appalachian Trail, one at East Carry Pond and another north of Leeman Brook Lean-to.