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Beginner Backpacking on The Cheap By Carey Kish

Kish looking at gear in big box store
Kish looking at gear in big box store

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.

That’s good.

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.

The Bargain Hunter
The Bargain Hunter

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.

Webster Lake in the northern section of Baxter State Park Maine
Webster Lake in the northern section of Baxter State Park Maine

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.

Carey Kish
Carey Kish

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, 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.


  1. Great article on how to stretch your money. Used gear on Craigslist and eBay can also be great buys.

    I picked up a Lowe internal frame pack 65l for under $40 shipped. Seller had horrible picture, said it had a rip in the top expandable cover. It did have a 2 inch rip, but still had the tags on it. Virtually brand new. I also picked up another Lowe used pack for my son, for $ 65 shipped.

    Another find was on eBay were 2 gortex bivy sacks for $50 shipped. Both were in excellent condition, but had been sent back for repair at the factory and had the seams taped as the originals.

    I have seen some nice gear also on Craigslist, the prices can be lower due to it being local and not as much of a competitive bid to get it.

  2. Good information. I have noticed the box stores are carrying a better selection of hiking gear than when I started 5 years ago. My problem was that I didn’t know 5.5 lbs was heavy for a sleeping bag and my army surplus backpack was a boat anchor. A lot of the gear I took on my first couple trips got retired pretty quickly.

    I try to give the scouts in our troop an idea of what reasonable equipment should weigh and cost. Try stuff out in the store when you can and borrowing from friends and family is great. Just remember if you borrow gear from me it better come back clean and dry.

    My only comment would be that a $6 multi-tool probably isn’t worth carrying home but most people already have some type of knife/gadget at home that will suffice. Backpacking can definitely be a low buck hobby if you are smart and patient when you gather your gear.

    • I didn’t realize the weight/army surplus thing to begin with either!
      Turns out the 0 Degree Intermediate Cold surplus sleeping bag is great for car camping but try hauling that thing! In the market for tiny 3 season sleeping bags now :-/

      For a multi-tool, look at the Leatherman selection and pick one that has what you want.
      If you do *anything* to it, ship it back with the warranty print out and they send it back repaired…..oh wait, they don’t make yours anymore, you get a new or refurbished tool that is comparable.

  3. I love this stuff. Well written. I do a talk on frugal winter hiking gear for the AMC’s Boston Chapter every year. Some of my favorite ways to save include taking the white toilet paper that is found in the safety rest area just north of the tolls on Rt. 93. You can also ditch the Nalgeen bottles and replace them with lighter one-liter Pepsi bottles (the wide mouth bottles were still available in Wisconsin last year). Using the big box stores, borrowing from others or going to low cost on-line sources like Campmor or Sportsmansguide or CheaperThanDirt can save you some serious coin while just getting started. To me, the idea is to get out there. Gain experience and let that experience and the words of wisdom you pick from sources like Sectionhiker or the AMC guide you to more appropriate and permanent gear choices.

    • Mark’s talk on how to do winter cheaply is always a riot, especially when he gets up there with a store manager from Eastern Mountain Sports and they compare the cost of their gear. Ultimately, getting out there is far more important than what gear you have to start. Once you’ve gained more experience, you can avoid many costly mistakes.

  4. Another way to backpack more cheaply is making your own gear. There are lots of web sites out there describing the process of making pretty much every piece of gear necessary!

  5. If you buy stuff on ebay, not only can you get a good deal, you also get an idea of what it would be worth if you sold it secondhand. So if 6 months on, you decide trekking/camping is not for you and the gear has minimal wear – sell it on! In this case its good to buy big name brands.

  6. Loved this article. My favorite line was the last one, ” It’s all about the experience of being outdoors on the trail that matters.” How true! The one item that I would purchase right up front that is from the high-priced shelf is a titanium spork. All those cheap things are just heavy, complicated and not worth carrying. The beginner can consider their new spork as their very first long-term investment in their hiking avocation.

    A couple of comments on some of the comments:

    Glenn: You allude to advising scouts on gear. If there is one group that can use good advise on gear it is the scout leadership. In my book, Three Hundred Zeroes, I had some humorous material based on scout groups and SERIOUS gear problems. I was running into 13 year old kids with 60 lb packs, more than HALF their body weight. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing out there. Even by big box standards their gear was outlandish.

    Slowpoke: Yours is probably a common trail name, but I have to ask: do you hike with “poke?” Did I run into the two of you in 2007 down in TN? Also, you mention homemade equipment, this can be a very good choice. A great resource for materials is Quest Outdoor Outfitter, here in Sarasota, FL. They’re a mail order outfit and have everything you could need. Check out their website at:

    Mark: are you encouraging people to “steal” toilet paper in New Hampshire? The taxpayers there might revolt.

    Good stuff everyone, thanks to Philip for pulling all this together.


    • Hi Dennis,

      I guess it is a common moniker, I am not the Slowpoke you ran into in 2007. And thanks for the link, I haven’t run across them before.

  7. Dennis – you and any scouters may find this video series interesting. It was sponsored by my scouting friend Alan Graham in Texas and is a series of videos he produced about lightweight backpacking for scouts including talks by other scouts, scoutmasters, myself and our friends from Gossamer Gear.

  8. AMCLTHIKER (Mark Warren)

    Dennis – A taxpayer revolt in NH would be a small affair. There are not many of them and they would have little cause to object to what I am doing. I am not stealing. Far from acting in a criminal manner, I am undertaking a patriotic and enviromentally friendly act by visiting the Safety Rest Area and taking only enough toilet paper to meet my needs and the needs of those I may be camping with. If no one visited the rest area it would close leaving dozens of workers, who used to restock the toilet paper and clean the restrooms, unemployed. The liquor store at that rest area has catered to alcoholics, like myself, for years and insured that drunk driving laws are not underutlized. That toilet paper is made of wood fibers, often recycled. If no one used toilet paper we would have loggers, mill workers, truckers, store clerks and cashiers all threatened with unemployment. I am helping the economy. Taking the toilet paper is no different than using water to wash your hands after using the toilet. I have seen several people at the rest area do that. Remember too, the rest area is in New Hampshire. If out of state residents did not take and/or use the toilet paper it would never get used.

  9. I’m a little late to the party, but I have the aforementioned trekking poles. They are definitely “collapsible”. They just happen to collapse when you are hiking with them. Although, when you get to camp and try to adjust them to set up your tarp, they can instantly become incollapsible (is that a word?). If I did not believe in LNT, they would be at the bottom of a cliff somewhere right now.

  10. I am a very new hiker/backpacker. Did a lot of camping as a kid and teen and want to get back out. I have the little cook set (2 in fact) from the smiley face store. One is in my pack and the other I take to work with me. As a teacher with a short lunch period I use it on a hot plate to cook when I am tired of microwave meals and sandwiches. My budget is limited so I use Smiley face a lot. I was able to spend a bit more on my boots at a sporting goods store. Another over looked place to get gear are yard sales and flea markets if your not picky about it not being the lightest and newest. I found a stove that screws on a propane canister for 2 bucks. I love it. I can reduce down to a bare simmer or crank it up to a blaze for a quick boil. Served me well last week during a power outage. Since the weight only matters to the person carrying it, its what I will use once I can do some overnights. Same sporting goods store also had a one man tent for $25. Haven’t gotten to try it yet but spring break is coming.

    • Smiley face store often has some pretty serviceable gear for a decent price. They have 1 oz. spritzers of bug repellent DEET and Picaridin, hiking poles in sets, waterproof gear bags, a line of backpacks that compare favorably to some of the ones offered by the big brands, repair kits, LED lights, hats, gloves, wool socks, etc. I’ve found the ones closer to the wilderness have more gear that I’m interested in than the ones in the major metropolitan areas.

  11. Thank you for all the great advice. We have some true high quality backpacking items, but not all. We are anxious to get to the “real” camping away from our car with our kids. Finding gear for 4 has proven challenging. I will really check out some other options to get out there sooner.

  12. Hi Carey. I loved this article. Thank you. We are backpacking in about two miles. Need to bring everything. Daughter and i first time. I think i have it all. But am perplexed on cooking and eating. I wanted to get by with one pot to boil water. But then realized I don’t have a coffee cup. Or a dish for oatmeal for daughter and i. Etc. what is the cheapest, lightest basic cook pack? Thanks for your help. Pat ostergren

    • Carey is thruhiking the AT so I figured I’d answer. Most people just eat and drink out of their cook pot. If your daughter did the same, you’d have an extra pot along to make more complex meals.

  13. Salvation Army Thrift Stores, ‘V. V. Boutique’ (Value Village) are both excellent places to find sleeping bags, all the clothing you’ll need, and both can be good quality. Keep an eye out for hiking shoes, backpacks, stoves, etc. I make all my cook pots from stainless steel bowls from both stores. Some of the bowls are lighter than equivalently sized titanium, and might cost half a buck.

    If you get into making your own gear, clearance fabric stores can have piles of ripstop and other such fabric for half what you’d pay for new off a role.

    Drapery sheer material is finer than bug screen, and is designed to withstand exposure to sun. Fabric shower curtains work great for clothing, tent floors, tarps, sleeping bag covers, etc etc. Both can be bought new for cheap, or available even cheaper from the above two stores.

    Sissy, if you google some searches along the lines of ‘Make Your Own Gear’, ‘Homemade Hiking Gear’, you’ll find lots about how to make what you want/need. Facebook has some good groups given over to making things. If you enjoy sewing, you’ll get a kick out of making backpacks, tents, tarps, ditty bags, quilts…. It’s all fun! (That said, sewing silnylon can be a wee bit frustrating. Frustrating until you start using tape, books, staples, the family cat, etc, to hold it in place.) :>)

  14. Cinnamon Silenthawk

    I’ve been schlepping (sp) around a 5.11 RUSH72 for a couple of years now and the weight is beginning to take it’s toll on my knees. I am a 5’2″ in woman and this pack is not designed for a smaller person. I recently found an Ozark Trail 45L Montpelier Technical Pack that offers an adjustable shoulder strap system for $49. I took a chance as I am not a fan of top loading packs but this one has a bottom access. My RUSH72 with gear weighed 28lbs and the Ozark with the same gear weighs only 14lbs. My knees are thanking me. The only negative that I can find with the Ozark pack is that the inside is made of black material causing one to need illumination to look inside, silver or a light color material would have been a much better option.

  15. This is the best backpacking article I have read (along with the comments) in my life. Everyone skips past value brands to run at the name brand stuff that’s likely made in the same factory (nonstick backpacking cook wear specifically).
    However, if one compares item usage, weight, and return policies of some well known outdoor retailers, sometimes it’s better to get superb gear with the peace of mind over items of high usage at value prices, I.e. Cookstove, backpack, and lower body gear (pants, undies, socks, footwear). It’s a Marine Corps thing that sticks with me.
    Excellent article and wonderful comment section.

  16. Came across this article, and it was just what I needed!! I was becoming discouraged at the cost I thought I needed to spend to go on my backpacking trip. What a rare and refreshing article this was! I especially loved the last line, in short, it’s the experience of being outdoors that matters, the gear is just a means to get you there. Thank you for posting!

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