Nobody has a bottomless bank account or unlimited gear budget. Nevertheless, cost is one of the most overlooked issues in gear reviews, possibly because many reviewers receive financial rewards for positive reviews. The more expensive the item, the bigger their reward.
Getting into backpacking requires a hefty initial investment in gear, and lower gear costs make backpacking accessible to more people. America's wild places and scenic trails should not be playgrounds for the rich, because they belong to all Americans. Lower costs lead to more equal opportunity and the possibility of closing the adventure gap.
When we shop for gear for ourselves, we weigh an item's function and weight against cost. How many ounces of savings justifies spending more money? How should we set target costs and evaluate whether something is too expensive or on point? You have to answer those questions yourself, but here are some ways to save money:
You get what you pay for — up to a point. Mid-priced gear like backpacks and tents are considerably better quality and much lighter than the very least expensive options. However expensive, high-end gear isn't better than the mid-priced stuff. It doesn't last longer, perform better, or weigh less, so don't waste your money.
Also, in the outdoor sports equipment market, there is a tendency to sell needlessly expensive versions of simple items. Some examples:
Crafty folks can make their own high-quality gear and save lots of money. Ray Jardine first advocated DIY gear in his 1992 Handbook. Today, DIY backpacking and camping gear is very popular and people share their designs and ideas on numerous websites such as Just Jeff's hiking blog or backpacking.net's DIY forum.
As Time magazine explains:
"Many retailers engage in what’s known as 'price anchoring.' That’s the retail-world term for setting a high list price to anchor in a perception of value for a product. Because these anchor prices are often so high that almost no customers actually pay them, and because they exist mainly so that the inevitable sales and markdowns appear larger and more tempting, there’s another term frequently applied to the strategy: fake pricing."
Don't get duped by fake prices. With a little patience and planning you can save a lot of money. We recommend window shopping until regularly scheduled annual sales begin around Labor Day weekend and Christmas (both Black Friday and post-holiday sales). All the big online retailers have sales at these times with deep discounts on big ticket items like backpacks, tents, and sleeping bags. There are also manufacturer's rebates, and offers of free shipping during those times so you can save hundreds of dollars.
The trick is to know exactly what you want before the sale starts, and then pounce once it does. Settle on the right gear for you after doing research. Compare options and features, consider our advice on specific products in the following pages, and visit outfitters to check things out in person. Once the sale starts you can swoop in and grab everything on your list. Sales don’t last long and stock is usually limited, so beginning the selection process after a sale starts is high-pressure and leads to impulse buying, poor purchases, and regret.
If you take this approach, don't worry about missing out on the latest and greatest. Yes, retailers promote sales to clear inventory and make room for next year's models, but once you have been backpacking for a couple of years, you realize how little things change. Those latest and greatest features are always superficial. Substantial, transformative changes in design and materials only happen once a decade.
It pays to become a member of the REI co-op and join the email lists of other retailers like Backcountry, Altrec, Moosejaw, et cetera. Throughout the year retailers offer promo codes exclusively through their mailing lists. Typically the promo code is only good for certain items and for a limited time, which promotes impulse buying. With a plan in place you'll save on exactly what you want and be immune to regretful impulse buying.
You should spend the most money on the Big Three: your backpack, shelter, and sleeping bag. These three things are the most important pieces of gear in backpacking, the most expensive, and the heaviest things on your back. You will need them to be both high-quality and lightweight, and that combination is not cheap.
Waiting for sales and making smart choices about the Big Three can save you both the most money and the most weight. Trimming ounces and costs from everything else in your kit — stove, sleeping pad, clothes, stuff sacks, water filter, et cetera — will never equal the financial and weight savings possible from making the right choices about the Big Three.
The Big Three should be purchased at an outfitter or direct from the manufacturer. Some small brands like ULA are only carried in a handful of small, independent outfitters along the AT and PCT. They do most of their business directly with customers online.
With the Big Three taken care of, you can shop for clothes, shoes, and miscellaneous items at big box stores, and not just sports apparel companies like Dick’s Sporting Goods. The lightest camp shoes we’ve ever found were at Marshalls. Dry sacks at Wal-Mart made by "Outdoor Products" (the most generic name possible) are ultralight and very high quality, yet cost $10 for a bundle of three.