The Frugal Backpacker – The $300 Gear Challenge

A doc for getting backpacking gear on the cheap; If you are new to backpacking and/or on a budget, here is a complete gear list for less than $300.   Updated Jan 2015.


$300 Gear Challenge

This doc is the result of a discussion on AT-L way back in 2005: How to make a gear list for a beginners that is reasonably light and not too expensive? The direct inspiration for this list was from on discussion on led by Sgt. Rock, recently retired 1st Sgt in the Army and an experienced backpacker. This list is my own contribution. You should check out the link on Whiteblaze. Some great ideas as well.

My list is more focused for Colorado: More sun exposure, colder nights at elevation, less rain. 

I wrote the original version back in 2005-ish. Thought it was time to update it a bit for 2012 and then again for 2015. Gear changes and some items are no longer available.   If anything, the gear has become correspondingly better for the price. Lighter, too.  I also tried to get items that aren’t one-off and can reasonably be found in the next year or two at least.  Lucky one-offs aren’t going to be very consistent for the purpose of this article.

As an example, I once found a $5, 300 wt Patagonia fleece in a thrift store..I would have a hard time finding this item again. On the other hand, I can pretty consistently find DriDucks for ~$20 a pair without too much hassle.

This list is not a definitive list, but rather a way for someone to get out backpacking and enjoy themselves. Take what works from the list and apply it for your own use. The point of this little exercise is not to get hung up on gear, but rather to get OUT and ENJOY yourself. It is a misnomer that you need a lot of money to backpack. And the best way to learn about backpacking is not discussing gear online or going to gear sales, but is to actually get out there. 🙂

Happy Trails!

–Paul Mags

Have more money than time? Want something a bit of a step up? Check out The Budget Backpacker – A complete gear list for a little over $800 that is light, functional and easily assembled.  Or perhaps you are looking for a multi-purpose kit? Something for day hiking, base camping, three-season plus backpacking/mild winter, trail work and perhaps even day use snowshoeing? Check out the Jack of All Trades kit. Perfect for when money, time and/or space is limited…but when multiple outdoor activities want to be done.


Pack and Accessories External Frame Pack $40 56 E-Bay or used sports store  The old warrior still works. A good quality external can be bought used for little money. And they aren’t really all that heavy.
Trash Bag for pack liner Free 0.625 In House Normal household item
Sub-Total   $40 56.625
Shelter 8′ x 10′ Blue Poly Tarp   $5 40 Hardware Store Tarps work well if set up correctly. Great link for tarp setup here.
6 Aluminum Stakes $6 3 Outfitter
12′ Para Cord $4 1 Outfitter Most outfitters or hardware stores will cut down webbing and rope to size.
3 mil Painters Drop Cloth $4 6 Hardware Store
Cologans Mosquito Netting $7 4 Outfitter
Sub-total   $26 54
Sleeping Blue Foam Pad ((EBay) $10 10 XYZMart Camping section
Pureland Sleeping Bag (EBay affiliate link) $41 42 E-Bay Synthetic bag. Would not want to use it in early summer or late Fall, but good enough to use w/o breaking the budget. I used a similar bag from Campmor back in the day!
Garbage Bag Free 0.625 In Kitchen
Sub-total   $51 52.625  
Cooking Stanco Grease Pot $10 3.7 Amazon Basic cook pot for one person
Cat Food Can Stove 0.5 0.3 Pet Store Easy to make. Light. Works as a pot stand.
Aluminum Foil Windscreen Free 1 Kitchen Fold over some foil to make a basic wind screen
Ziplock Bag Free .375 oz Kitchen For spoon, lighter, toothbush and tooth paste
20 oz Mtn Dew Bottle $1.50 .125 oz Quicky Mart For fuel. I like Mountain Dew bottles as the green color sticks out.
Lexan Spoon $1.00 0.375 Outfitter
Lighter $1.00 0.5 Quicky Mart
Toothbrush Free 0.25 Bathroom At least I hope you have one! 😉
Sub Total   $14 6.625  
Hydration (2) 1 qt. Sport Drink Bottles $2 2.25 Grocery Store Comes with a drink!
Potable Aqua $7 0.8 Outfitter I still use these. Don’t mind the taste. 🙂
Sub Total     3.15
Clothing M-65 Liner jacket (EBay link) $10 12 Surplus Store Light, warm and cheap. Wear it under a rain jacket.
Dri Ducks Rain Suit $20 12 Sports Authority or similar Good for on-trail backpacking, not so much for off-trail. The jacket works surprisingly well. The pants need some TLC otherwise you may accidentally rip them
Cool Max Running Socks $8 1.5 oz Target Three per package. Good bargain! I love C9 clothing. 
Polypro top and bottoms (irregulars) $20 10 The Underwear Guys Cheap and effective.
Fleece Beanie $3 1.125 Home Depot in season Your standard warm hat. Nothing fancy.
Fleece Gloves $7 3 Home Depot in Season Basic gloves for warmth. Often found near the checkout aisle during winter.
Garbage Bag Free 0.375 Kitchen A waterproof stuff sack for your clothing!
Subtotal   $68 40
First Aid Kit Ibuprofen Free 1 Bathroom Just a basic kit for moderate emergencies, aches and pains
(4) 4×4 Gauze Pads Free 0.375 Bathroom Duct tape, bandannas, etc. works as first aid items as well
Ziplock Free <.125 Bathroom
(5) Band-aids Free <.125 Bathroom
Subtotal   Free 1.375
Misc Energizer Head Lamp $8 3 Amazon Basic headlamp. Nothing fancy. Works well enough!
Bandanna $2 0.375 Any outfitter Basic, all-purpose piece of clothing. It does it all!
T/P Free 2 Bathroom
Purrell $3 2.25 Drugstore Buy the trial size
Ziplock Free 0.25 Free Use a larger sized one for all the misc items
Sub Total   $10 10.875
Total Base Packweight and Cost   $212 225.275 oz/ or ~14lbs
Equipment on Self 65/35 Poly-Cotton Dress Shirt Free 6.125 Closet A little cotton is OK esp if you have the appropriate warm layers. Honest. 🙂 I like long sleeves for sun and bug protection
Nylon Running shorts Free 3.75 Closet Most people have some sort of work out shorts
C9 Running socks Already bought 1.5
Boonie Hat $12 3.5 Surplus Store Basic sun and rain protection
Swiss Army Knife Classic $12 0.625 Outfitter All you really need…
Used ski poles with duct tape around handle $10 16 Thrift store or used sport goods store Duct tape is for EVERYTHING! Ski poles help with hiking and tarp set up.
Running Shoes Free 30 Closet Assuming most people have a pair for workouts
Compass $10 1 Outfitter A basic compass is fine. Silva 1-2-3 or similar works well.
Sunglasses Free 1 Probably on the dash of your car right now!
Total weight and cost “on self”   $44 63.500 / 3.970 lbs
TOTAL COST   $256  


  • If you have a little more money, I’d invest in a decent sleeping bag. The Kelty Cosmic down can still be found for $130 online on EBay. Or get a lighter synthetic bag. The REI Lumen sleeping bag is  a “relaxed” fit so it could layer easier for colder weather versus a lighter, but more tight-fitting bag.  At 2 lbs 8 oz and $160, not terribly heavy or expensive.  The bag is also EN rated so the temperature scale should be true. The REI house brand is generally good quality I find.
  • Recently, Costco has started selling Klymit Down Bags for $139. Very similar to the Kelty Cosmic down bag…but more readily avail. 550 fill, 2.6 lbs. Rated to 20F.  A good budget bag.
  • Want a “real” stove? For ~$5 and 3oz of weight penalty, a decent canister stove can be bought. Long term use seems to be rather good based on reviews.
  • Have a Costco membership or a friend who does? Some pretty good carbon fiber trekking poles can be bought for ~$30. 
  • Like the idea of a tarping? But want something lighter? The Equinox Tarp is only ~$90 and ~14 oz for an 8×10 tarp.  I used this model on the PCT and still use it on occasion. There are “better”, but you can’t beat the price for something this light and functional.
  • Want a “real” tent? I think tarps are better than most less expensive double-wall tents (space, ventilation, and weathering storms), but does require a bit more practice and skill than most beginners may have.  Eureka tents (Ebay link) in general, though heavy, are a good “bang for the buck” esp if found on sale. The Eureka Solitaire 1 person tent is compact, often less than $75 on EBay and weighs less than 3 lbs, however.  Considering the blue tarp setup is $21, but the same weight, it is only an ~$50 difference overall.
  • Kelty is also a good “bread and butter” brand for tents esp if found on clearance or in good condition used.
  • Though externals are perfectly functional, esp for beginners, you can get OK internal frame packs on E-bay for $65 or less.  Personally, I’d use the external to get used to backpacking.  After, get an internal frame that is  light and better built, vs the budget internal frame, once the gear is dialed and a person has more money. As always, used works, too.



  1. The FREE designation is for items around a typical household
  2. The weight and prices  does not include consumables like food or fuel.
  3. Or taxes and S&H (for the most part)
  4. Maps are obviously something you need but are very much trip dependent. CalTopo is a great website for printing out maps.
  5. Campmor is an online store with everything for good prices!
  6.   Sierra Trading Post will have name brand gear on clearance
  7.   E-bay will often have bargains on name brand and generic goods
  8. Amazon has an amazing amount of outdoor goodies and clothing. If you (or a friend), have Amazon Prime, that helps a bit, too.
  9. Don’t be afraid to buy used!,, Craig’s List etc have some good deals at times
  10.  You may very well have some equipment already (clothing items like hats, gloves, jackets, etc.).
  11.  This list will require some leg work on your part: buying the gear and clothing on sale. The winter type clothing is often sold cheaply during hunting season in XYZMart  stores. Many ski stores and big box sporting good stores (e.g Dick’s) will see the stuff cheap at the end of the winter. Same goes with XYZMarts as well when they are bringing  in their Spring clothing.    Don’t be afraid to bargain shop!
  12.  Other places to bargain hunt are, thrift stores, local stores having sales, yard sales, used sporting goods stores and classified (local or online)
  13.  This list  does not have lightest or best gear, but will get the beginner outdoors fairly comfortably in prime summer weather. Biased towards Colorado hiking. Other areas can get away with a  lighter bag (for example)
  14.  This gear will let a beginner be fairly comfortable on their first trips. As the beginners gains more experience (or money), they will want to go out for longer trips.  A beginner should buy and adjust their gear accordingly as experience, comfort levels and preferences dictate.
  15. Those this is a bargain list, it is also a minimalist list. A better pack, sleeping bag, shelter etc. within this lists’s framework will still leave you with a lightweight list with no extras. In other words, this is a good list to build upon for lightweight backpacking in general I think. Part of what lightweight backpacking is not so much what you take but rather it is what you do not take.


You can also read more about Dirt Bagging here and more info on getting quality gear on the cheap here. Finally, some of these other articles may be of interest.

29 thoughts on “The Frugal Backpacker – The $300 Gear Challenge

  1. The fleece? Not so much. I had a similar size pack and used a fleece for the Long Trail. The sleeping bag? Strap it outside. Think outside the box (pack) and don’t be a slave to the outdoor magazines! 🙂 It is a compromise,m granted..but one that works.

  2. Man, my Feathered Friends Swallow sleeping bag cost 1.5-times the amount of everything on this list. However, SO WORTH IT!

    Thanks for posting though. It’s good to read about gear ideas that don’t cost an arm and a leg, like my down bag.


    • THx! The down bags ARE worth it for sure. But, esp just starting out, not everyone has the cash to buy the high-end stuff. Though, I must confess, I’d try to scrape an extra $60 and buy a Kelty Cosmic Down. It would be a pretty good bag for not much more money. It would be ~$350 vs $300 but for a better bag that is compact and light.

      Still, for under $300, I’d have no problem advocating this kit for a beginner.

  3. Awesome list! You could save 40 ounces on the pack with a GG G4 and another $65 which would put you just over your $300 cut off. Call it the “mountain” frugal list!

  4. True. But I really don’t like directing beginners to ultra-light frameless packs initially.

    My wife, for example, does not do well with a frameless pack no matter how light her basepack weight may be.

    Still, a great option once they dial in their gear and hiking style more!

  5. Thanks Mags for the detailed homework here. As a comment, In their PCT ’09 hike, Frankie and Double Barrel put together their kit for under $300 by using the REI garage sales. Light but not ultralight. Took a little while.

    • Good deals for sure at the garage sale. I always forget about that. I must confess, I tend to avoid them, and similar sales, as the idea of spending my Saturday morning in line for gear depresses me. 🙂 OTOH, if you need a jump-start to get some good quality gear at a very good price, an excellent way to go about it indeed.

      SOAPBOX MODE: Why can’t these great sales be on a weekday evening for those of us who like to spend free time using gear rather than buying it ?!?!?!?! 🙂 OFF SOAPBOX

  6. I have been using 7″ aluminum gutter spikes for stakes. I get them 10 for $3.00. They do bend, but aren’t hard to straighten.

  7. Thanks for this primer! Someday I’d like to try an overnight. But, as you know, it’s a little intimidating for a first timer. And I’m a little uneasy about snuggling with creepy crawlies on the ground. A fly fishing guide told me he uses a hammock. What are your thoughts on hammocks for backpacking? Would it be more lightweight and comfortable than a pad and tent? TIA

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  11. Walmart has a surprisingly good inexpensive pack. The outdoor products arrowhead pack is 46 liters and weighs 31 ounces (27 without the aluminum supports). It’s only costs $30! Over a hundred dollars cheaper than my ULA CDT, and only 5 ounces heavier, and you can buy it off the shelf. I picked one up and have recommended it to my beginner friends.

  12. As I am preparing to hike the Vermont Long Trail next year, I am at a quandary. Finally in my life I can afford the nice gear. I am contemplating buying a MLD Grace Tarp for the trip (and backpacking in general). However, the starving student is coming out in me and thinks it might be better to buy a tarp that is frugally friendly. Thus, I came across this article and buying guide. Do you have experience with the aforementioned Walmart tarp? Do you recommend it or another tarp? Thank you in advance!

    • A silynylon tarp is a nice happy medium between a cuben fiber tarp and a Home Depot type tarp.

      I have used the Home Depot type tarp. It is just a tarp afterall. 🙂

      But the silnylon will be lighter and more compact. If you are already at the level where you are doing a long hike, the silnylon tarp will serve you well.

  13. Kelty yukon frame pack
    Kelty cosmic down sleeping bag
    Kelty noahs tarp
    MSR pocket rocket
    Therma rest ridge rest
    Walmart stuff sacks
    Walmart Starter dri star clothing
    Gatorade bottle
    Sawyer mini
    My basic kit that I have hiked hundreds of miles with. My base weight is around 23-25 pounds add 5 lbs of food and a couple luxury items or cold weather gear 33 pounds max. Total base weight cost was around $275 with my scrounge capabilities.

      • Being serious, as mentioned I purposely avoided lucky one-offs. For example, while I agree the Kelty Cosmic down is a good budget bag (as I mentioned), finding it so the entire list is still under $300 is going, to be well, lucky. I don’t think that will reflect the real world for most people.

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  15. Mags,

    Do you think a bag like this would get a big kid down around the freezing point? I have a nephew that wants to try camping but almost no money. This time of year nights might hit low 30’s. Bags are one of the hardest things to tell what you’re really getting.


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