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 2017.

 

$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 beginner that is reasonably light and not too expensive? The direct inspiration for this list was from on discussion on Whiteblaze.net led by Sgt. Rock, a retired 1st Sgt in the Army and an experienced backpacker. This list is my contribution. You should check out the link on Whiteblaze. Some great ideas from this list 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. I’ve updated it over the years.  Gear changes and some items no longer become available.   If anything, the equipment 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 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 actually to get out there. 🙂

I also think this list works as an excellent minimalist list. While a Home Depot tarp is not the choice of shelter for all, it is not functionally different than a DCF tarp either.  In other words, as you have more money or different preferences, you can easily swap in a “better” piece of equipment without changing the basics of the list itself.

Note this 2017 list comes in at $265 total!  If you still want to keep within in the budget (more or less), considering some of the UPGRADE items listed at the bottom of the article. The sleeping bag in particular will be the biggest-bang-for-the-buck.

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.

THE SUB-$300 GEAR LIST

CATEGORY ITEM COST WEIGHT IN OZ WHERE NOTES
Pack and Accessories External Frame Pack $30 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   $30 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 Gutter Nails $6 3 Hardware store  Dirtbagger favorite that works well.
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
Mosquito Netting $7 4 Amazon
Sub-total   $26 54
Sleeping Blue Foam Pad  $10 10 XYZMart Camping section
Teton Sports 20F Bag $54 46 Amazon Synthetic bag and bulky.  But good enough to use w/o breaking the budget. I used a similar bag from Campmor back in the day in the New England fall!  Teton gear has been making some decent budget options. 
Garbage Bag Free 0.625 In Kitchen
Sub-total   $64 56.625  
Cooking Stanco Grease Pot $6 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. If there are burn bans, you’ll need to use something different.  See below.
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, toothbrush 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   $10 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    $9 3.15
Clothing M-65 Liner jacket (eBay link) $10 12 Surplus Store Light, warm and cheap. Wear it under a rain jacket.
Frogg Toggs UL rain suit  $15 12 Amazon, Dick’s, Wally World 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   $70 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 Generic Head Lamp $3 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   $8 8 oz
Total Base Packweight and Cost   $221 227 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 sporting 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   $265  

HAVE A LITTLE MORE MONEY?

With the total list coming in under $300, you still have some room to purchase some better gear.

The three things you may want to upgrade?  In my opinion, I’d upgrade the sleeping bag, the stove, and the shelter.

  • The sleeping bag is the item I’d suggest upgrading when you can. What I suggested is perfectly fine for beginners use. As mentioned, I used a similar Campmor bag for my initial forays including falls backpacks in New England.  However, I’d upgrade to a better bag that is lighter and less bulky iif you have the funds. If you purchase a good, but affordable bag, you’ll only be a little over the $300 limit and have a very good overall kit in my opinion.
    1. The Kelty Cosmic down can still be found for $120 online on eBay.  The Kely down bags are EN rated and generally true to temperature.
    2. 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 accurate. The REI house brand is generally good quality I find. Being synthetic, perhaps more forgiving for new backpackers versus down bags.
    3. The total cost would be ~$365 with this one upgrade. Weight would be slightly less.
  • tarp may not be the best or easiest choice for most beginners.  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.  AliExpress and similar now have some budget tents that have received decent reviews.  This NatureHike CloupUp2 tent avail on eBay or Amazon is a Big Agnes clone for a little over three pounds and $70.  Less weight if the poles and fly are taken only. Makes a spacious shelter for one. Considering the blue tarp setup is ~$20, but the same weight, this tent is only an ~$50 difference overall.   Nature Hike also sells RidgeRest and Z-lite clones, too if more comfortable padding is needed with better R-Value.   NatureHikes sells many other designs “borrowed” from others.  The ethics of purchasing something that is obviously directly copied from another manufacturer is another ball of wax…

If these three items are purchased, the total cost is now ~$450. The overall weight is slightly less. 

Other items to consider:

  • 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.
  • 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.  A good used external is going to be better than a suspect internal framed pack.  External works well on maintained trails. 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. Backpacking Light has a plethora of good quality used equipment for sale. 

And Finally…

Over the years since I’ve published this article, I’ve been lightly admonished because I am suggesting gear that is not ideal and people will upgrade anyway.

Well, here’s the thing. Way back in 1996 and 1997 my list was not far removed from the above gear.

I learned enough to not use cotton blue jeans and a sweatshirt, but otherwise used what I had at home.

I used an external frame pack as I could not afford the $400 in today’s money for a pack (pre-small pack manufacturer days!). The old Campmor sleeping bag kept me warm well into the New Hampshire Fall. And I *wish* I knew about the liner jacket! I used an old acrylic sweater instead and windbreaker.  But I did just fine.  I made an A-frame with a tarp. Or borrowed my buddy Tim’s Eureka tent with fiberglass poles that probably weighed seven-pounds.  :O The AliExpress specials would have been far better!  My stove was one I now use for truck bivys.  And my cookpot was a castoff Mom let me borrow for trips.  Polypro served me well as recently as 2010 or so.

You get the idea.

I was warm, dry, had fun and became addicted to the outdoors in all kinds of weather.  With gear worse, heavier or possibly bulkier than what I have listed above! Sure, when I saved more money and knew what worked for me, I bought “better” gear. But if I had waited to save money to buy “better” gear, I may never have gone outdoors in the first place.

I think it is more important that people get outside with functional gear that works rather than what the latest Internet Dogpark Walking Gear Guru says you should have and then wait until you have the funds to buy it.

A photo from my first solo trip:

That’s all that mattered to me. Not what imperfect gear I used to get there. And the gear listed above is far better than what I initially used. 🙂

Notes:    

  1. The FREE designation is for items around a typical household
  2. The weight and prices do 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.   eBay will often have bargains on name brand and generic goods
  8. Amazon has an incredible amount of outdoor goodies and clothing. If you (or a friend), have Amazon Prime, that helps a bit, too.
  9. AliExpress and similar outlets now have some decent starter gear that is lightweight, inexpensive and functional.
  10. Don’t be afraid to buy used! Whiteblaze.com, Backpackinglight.com, Craig’s List, Facebook groups, Reddit /r/GeatTrade, etc. have some good deals at times
  11.  You may very well have some equipment already (clothing items like hats, gloves, jackets, etc.).
  12.  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!
  13.  Other places to bargain hunt are www.rei-outlet.com, thrift stores, local stores having sales, yard sales, used sporting goods stores and classified ads. 
  14.  This list does not have lightest or the 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)
  15.  This gear will let a beginner be reasonably comfortable on their first trips. As the beginners gain 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.
  16. Though this is a bargain list; it is also a minimalist list. A better pack, sleeping bag, shelter, etc. within the list 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.

31 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.

    -Freefall

    • 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.

    Thanks.

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