The Budget Backpacking Kit

A popular article of mine is The Frugal Backpacker – The $300 challenge.

That article has a few different purposes:

  • Lets a person new to the outdoors world and/or on a budget purchase some equipment that will not break the bank and will let the outdoors be explored.
  • Show how the BEST gear is not needed to  get outside.
  • I think it functions as good minimalist list. As I wrote “A better pack, sleeping bag, shelter etc. within this lists’ 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.”

However, I realize this kit is not ideal and narrow in focus. Works well for prime three season summer conditions (unless a better sleeping bag is purchased for example).  As an aside,  my original kit way back in 1996 was not much different from the $300 challenge kit (bargain external frame, bulky and cheap sleeping bag, old fleece) and I rather enjoyed myself. But I did upgrade, swap out, etc. as my experience, preferences  and budget dictated.

Even with the bargain gear, I was still able to enjoy these views. From my first solo trip.

Recently, I was asked to contribute a gear kit for my friend Liz Thomas’ course for Backpacker Magazine.  The kit was a step up from the $300 kit but not quite what I have now in some cases.  There is a “better” pack shown, but still suggest the M65 liner for example. I called it the “dirt bagger deluxe” kit. 🙂

So, I thought perhaps it was time to write a sequel of sorts to the Frugal Backpacking Kit  and introduce the Budget Backpacking Kit.  A little beyond what I sent Liz and perhaps a very good kit for all around backpacking as opposed to the specialized long distance treks. Most weekend backpackers will not want a tarp for a general purpose shelter, will not be moving all day to make miles nor do they wish to futz with an alcohol stove.

The budget kit is the not the lightest gear, or the most cutting edge. But it is light and functional overall.  And it does not require too much (or any) leg work. The rule I imposed upon myself for this kit is that it has to be composed of items I can *easily* find be it online, in a store or in a typical person’s home as of January 2016. One off clearence itemes or lucky finds would not work for the purpose of this list.

budget-gear

You’ll notice many links for REI and Amazon for a reason: REI is found almost everywhere now. And, with Amazon Prime, it is very easy to get a wide variety of goods. There are still a sprinkling of cottage gear makers, surplus, and discount stores, too.  Frankly, that is how I shop as I like to get items online as much as possible but will go to a certain store if I know the item will be less expensive (a fleece pullover for example. Less expensive at Target or –gasp- Wally World versus other places). Obviously, if some gear such as long underwear or winter jackets are bought off-season, the prices may be even less expensive.

So here’s my Budget Backpacking Kit.

As always, I have the Rockies in mind with cooler temps but generally drier with more sun exposure.  Other places may want a warmer weather bag, perhaps beefier rain gear, maybe a heavier fleece in place of the lightweight puffy, a lightweight alcohol stove where food carries are less and fire restrictions not as common, etc.

Overall, though, I think it is a good all-purpose kit that all requires minimal tinkering for any environment in three season conditions.

I can honestly say it is gear I would use myself (and in many cases, do!) and would gladly suggest to friends.

Happy Trails!

-Paul Mags

ITEMS COST WEIGHT (in oz) WHERE NOTES
         
Pack and accessories        
ULA CDT $145 19 ULA Gear At $145,  roughly 50L and ~19 oz stripped down, it is a good overall lightweight pack for most uses. Durable, too. 
Garbage compactor bag 0 0.625 House Normal household item
Subtotal $145 19.625    
         
Sleeping System        
Kelty Cosmic 21 DriDown $129 41 eBay The Cosmic down has long been known to be a good budget bag.
Z-Lite 3/4 Length Pad $35 10 REI Less expensive than an inflatable pad, better than the minimalist choice of of the “blue foam pad”, the Z-lite is a classic, durable and reasonably comfortable pad with good R-value for three season use. Works as a stay in the pack, too.
Subtotal $164 51    
         
Shelter System        
SMD Skyscape Scout $125 34 Six Moon Designs I have the 24 oz version of this tent for various conditions. The Scout is the more budget-minded version that is still as functional and capable for less money.
Gutter Nails (6) $5 2.5 Hardware store Light, inexpensive, durable and effective
Subtotal $130 36.5    
         
Kitchen        
Lexan spoon $1 0.375 REI Standard spoon. Usually found with the cookware. So cheap it is not online.
Lighter with duct tape 0 1 Home Duct tape does everything. To quote the author Andy Weir: “Duct tape is magic and should be worshipped”
Stanco Grease Pot $10 5 Amazon Light, cheap and effective. Use your bandanna for a pot grip. Works well with the stove below.
Hornet BRS-3000t $15 0.9 Amazon A sub-1oz, $15 canister stove suitable for solo hiking. Alcohol stoves are coming under increased scrutiny in the increasingly fire prone American West.
Toothbrush 0 <.125 Home  
Dental Floss 0 <.125 Home Works for repairs, too!
Silynylon food bag $17 1 Amazon Silnylon is no longer an exotic fabric and is reasonable in price
Subtotal $43 8.275    
         
Hydration        
1 qt Gatorade bottle (2) $2 2.25 Grocery Store The Gatorade bottle is light and cheap. Comes with a drink!
96 oz Nalgene cantene $7 2.25 REI For larger water carries, I’ve been using this piece of gear for years. The wide mouth makes it very easy to use, too.
Sawyer Squeeze Mini Filter $25 2 REI Effective and inexpensive water treatment. I prefer chemicals as I selectively treat, but for those who treat more, the Sawyer makes more financial sense.
Subtotal $34 6.5    
         
Clothing in pack        
100 weight fleece $10 8 Any discount store One of my most versatile pieces of clothing. Wear it in all four seasons. I purchased one for $10 at Sports Authority
Uniqlo down jacket $70 8 Uniqlo Affordable, functional and effective. Before I was given a Montbell jacket for volunteer work, I used one. At the end of the season, can usually be bought at a steep discount.
C9 (Target) Running Socks $9 1.5 Target Big fan of these running socks. Durable, light and cost-effective. Sold in a two-pack.
Frog Toggs Ultralite 2 Jacket $20 6 Amazon or Discount Store Good for on trail. The jacket works surprisingly well. I would not use the pants. Put them in your emergency car kit instead.
Campmor Backpacker Rainpants $10 8 Campmor Traditionally, the Campmor house brand was good quality and functional. These rain pants are some of the few items left. Not as breathable as more expensive or more fragile gear, but good for cold rain when you really need it.
Polypro top and bottom set – IRR $20 10 The Underwear Guys Lightweight, inexpensive and effective. I hiked the Triple Crown using polypro. The IRR version may have minor cosmetic blemishes.
Polypro balaclava $8 1.75 Amazon A long time favorite of mine that is worn in all four seasons. Very versatile. Inexpensive. Mine is 15 years old!
Wool liner gloves $5 1.5 Surplus store Another four-season mainstay, coupled with the shell mitts (below) , a versatile system for all conditions.
Event Shell Mitts $30 1 Borah Gear Light and simple
Merino wool socks $6.50 1 The Underwear Guys My “snivel gear”. A warm pair of dry socks, only worn to bed, is heaven.
Trashbag 0 0.375 Home A free and waterproof stuff sack!
Subtotal $179 47.125    
         
Misc        
First Aid/ Repair Kit 0 1.5 Home Simple and to the point. Band Aids, 4×4 gauze pads, Vitamin I, needle with floss, small tube of sunscreen and in a ZipLoc bag.
Deuce of Spades Trowel/TP/Ziploc $20 1 Amazon LNT means leave no #2 and TP lying around! I have no affiliation with The Tent Lab (maker of the Deuce of Spades). But for the weight, no reason NOT to take one. Esp now that the longer trails are getting popular.
Hand sanitizer $3 2.25 Drugstore Get the travel size
Energizer head lamp $10 2 Amazon Fine for three-season use with its long days and just needing a bit of light in camp.
Subtotal 33 6.75    
         
TOTAL COST OF PACKED GEAR: $728   TOTAL WEIGHT OF PACKED GEAR: 142 oz / 11bs 1 oz    
         
Equipment “on self”        
Polycotton blend button up shirt 0 6 Home I actually like the ventilation of a poly-cotton blend shirt. I use an old casual dress shirt repurposed for hiking now.
Nylon shorts 0 3.75 Home Assume most have some sort of shorts for exercising
C9 Running socks 1.5 Target from Target. Already bought two pairs! 🙂
Bandanna $1 1 Many stores Multi-purpose. Helps keep me cool. Worn under a boonie hat.
Boonie hat $12 3.5 Surplus Store Surplus store special
Analog watch $10 <1 Discount store For dead reckoning and first aid use. Don’t have a watch? Get the cheapest analog one you can find.
Key Chain Light $10 1 Amazon The light, can opener and knife is a basic kit. Something I happen to carry everyday that I use on the trail. A basic, versatile tool kit for everyday life..or the outdoors
P51 Can Opener $2 Surplus Store  
Swiss Army Classic $15 Amazon  
Sunglasses $0 1 Home Probably already have a pair? I like safety sunglasses myself: Light, durable and inexpensive.
Silva 1-2-3 $10 1 Many places Basic compass
Costco carbon hiking poles $30 16 Costco Light and inexpensive. Work very well. This one is a small cheat as you need a Costco membership..or a gift card. 🙂
Running shoes 0 30 Home For trails, a good pair of running shoes used for workouts will work beautifully
Total $90 64.75    

TOTAL COST OF ALL GEAR:  $824

Notes:

  • S&H and taxes not included in the prices
  • Items that vary on trips such as food, fuel, guidebooks and maps (which are trip dependent) not included
  • Cameras will add weight..but worth it, I think.  For basic snaps and landscape photos, camera phones have come a long way. Need a real optical zoom and better manual control? I’d invest in a mirrorless camera. I have a DSLR, but it is a huge weight penalty. Mirrorless cameras have gone up in quality and down in price. That’s my next outdoor piece of gear personally. 
  • I don’t claim this is the best set of gear for everyone and all situations. I will say I think it is a very good gear kit for the price. This kit will work well for a variety of conditions and places whether on a multi-month thru-hike or a weekend jaunt.
  • Unlike the $300 kit, this kit can easily push into later fall conditions.
  • My apologies, but the original total packed weight listed was mix and matched from the Backpacker Magazine article. I have since updated. Thanks, Brian!

15 thoughts on “The Budget Backpacking Kit

  1. Excellent post Paul. Everyone would have a slightly different list, of course, but I don’t think anyone could go wrong following this one.

    I would suggest one alternative – a nylon poncho rather than a rainsuit. Costs $15 and is multi-use. I know I am in a small minority here and I rarely see other poncho-wearers out on the trail. I started with ponchos in the 60s and 70s (because that’s all there was – my best friend carried an Army surplus canvas poncho) and switched to Gore-tex jackets with rain chaps in the 80s and 90s. But I kept getting soaked in prolonged downpours, and never found them to be as breathable as advertised. I switched back to ponchos 15 years ago and have stayed dry and well-ventilated (and dorky-looking) ever since.

    Also – to continue the contrarian thread – I think the Starlyte alcohol stoves are worth a mention. They don’t spill, and can be blown out far quicker than any valve can be shut on a canister or white gas stove, so I really don’t see how they are less safe. At $12 and less than an ounce, they are inexpensive, light and durable.

    • My only hesitation over alcohol stoves for general users is that the legality is in question during open flame bans.
      See this one from October: http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/okawen/alerts-notices/?cid=fsbdev3_053600
      Whether it is safer or not is user dependent I suppose… Back East, it would be my number one choice for solo hiking if I took a stove. No really long resupplies and no worries about possible open flame bans. I may be in New England for a few days backpacking this summer before a family visit, so the other advantage is I don’t have to worry about TSA agents vs other stoves when flying, too.

      Alas, I’ve had trouble with ponchos..probably due to my height (or lack of) as much as anything. Drags a bit for me. Darn that short person DNA! 😉

  2. If you look around in the hardware stores, you can often find Gorilla tape in 1″ wide rolls. I like the 1″ wide tape for my kit, but I don’t always like Gorilla tape. The adhesive seems OK for short term, but dries out over the long term. I like the 3M transparent duct tape. It’s thinner and less messy and seems to hold up fairly well. Duct tape isn’t all the same and some tapes are better than others for specific applications.

  3. I love this article! I especially like the tips about the gloves, hat, socks and long underwear. And, the $5 sunglasses! Great finds! Thanks for sharing your research.

  4. Great budget list. I started with a really low end/budget set up to begin with. My plan has been upgrading one expensive piece of equipment each year using store sale coupons (usually a 20% any item deal). I have slowly been accumulating a pretty could packing list by looking at which 1 piece of equipment will be the most beneficial for that year.

    • This list really is not too far off the list I use. A better sleeping/bag quilt and maybe a lighter shelter would be the major changes. Still for a little over 8 lbs and $800, it is a very functional list.

  5. I think for me it’s always been an internal debate when it comes to lightweight/cheap/less comfortable versus heavier weight/more expensive/more luxurious . When i’ve gone out with first time backpackers I ‘ve tried to insure that they ease themselves into it with a fairly light pack but I also try to make sure that what they have meets their comfort level. This could mean a semi rectangular bag instead of a mummie or a full length pad instead of a 3/4 and perhaps spending extra on a more comfortable fitting pack. Many of these upgrades can be made for a slightly higher cost than the bargain basement stuff but the tradeoff is trying to insure the person will return with the desire to go back out again.

    • Hmm..I honestly don’t see anything on this list as “uncomfortable” (with the possible exception of the 3/4 length Zlite esp for taller folks). or bargain basement at all. A good tent from a well-known cottage gear company, a canister stove, a well made and popular pack and a good puffy? With a sub-10 lbs kit ,the ULA CDT is very functional pack. In fact, it is the pack I often loan out and people seem to love it. It has long been a thru-hikers favorite for a reason. I agree for heavier loads, it could be an issue however. In that case, something else may be warranted..but for a weekend? Think it works rather well even for “normal” backpacking.

      And, I am very leery of semi-rectangular bags for backpacking at least in the Rockies. They are not as thermally efficient and people may be colder at night… A sure way to make sure people don not backpack again for sure. See my $300 kit for a true bargain basement kit. The kit we are discussing may be budget, but it is extremely functional.

      The only possible thing I would upgrade for me personally is the shelter (and that is more for weight reasons) and the sleeping quilt. Many of these items on this list are items I actually use. 🙂 But, again other than the pad, I don’t see how this list is true compromise for conditions in the Rockies?

      • My point was that individual differences vary. I lived at Lake Tahoe (elev. 6200′ +) for several years and backpacked in places like the Canadian Rockies and always had a semi rectangular bag which I found to provide adequate warnth, even in late fall. Never have been comfy in a mummie bag. I always used a full lengh pad since it provides better insulation on cold ground.
        As far as tents, I used to manage a backpacking store and tried out several varieties and realized that there are many variables when selecting the right tent for someone – or for some people, not having any tent (except in extreme weather conitions). Weight of course is a big factor but not the only one. And again, a little wise shopping can keep you in the budget catagory and still accomadate individual preferences.

        It may be worth while to spend a few extra bucks to get something makes the trip a little more enjoyable and still be within the budget catagory.

        I never found that “one size fits all” works during my 50 plus years of backpacking solo or with friends. That’s why there’s such a huge selection of manufacturers and gear to choose from.

        I think your article was good in that it pointed out that it’s
        smart to not equate good with expensive. Just shop and compare and buy what’s good for YOU.

        • Fair enough….but, based on your reply, I suspect you may have missed this key sentence:

          “I don’t claim this is the best set of gear for everyone and all situations. I will say I think it is a very good gear kit for the price. This kit will work well for a variety of conditions and places whether on a multi-month thru-hike or a weekend jaunt.”

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  7. Hi. I’ll be hiking the Appalachian trail for the first time next year. First time hiking or basically camping for that matter lol. I’ve been researching gear and everything about the trail for a couple months now. This list isn’t far off from what I’ve been looking at honestly. I can’t decide on a tent because I’veonly used a wWalmart tent once. I’m nervous and excited and I’m worried I won’t have the right kind of gear to make it through the cold winds and rains mostly. Basically bad weather is my main concern. I’ll most likely be buying my tent from rei or cabelas due to them being the only places I can go to look at gear.
    Also I side question. Does it really cost 1000 a month on the trail or can I drastically lower that? In my mind I just don’t see spending more than 400 a month if my gears right.
    Sorry one more thing I can’t seem to find. What gear wears out on the trail? I keep hearing about gear replacement, but nobody ever says what and why.

  8. Wow, fantastic! Someone from a hiking group I’m part of just posted a link to this. Next time a friend says they’ve been wanting to hike since they moved to my current city, Seattle, but aren’t ready to commit lots of $, I will link them here. I moved here for the outdoors so have been stalking the REI garage sales for awhile now and was lucky to get some great hand-me-down gear.

    The Energizer headlamp is great. I picked one up in Sri Lanka in 2012 and put it through all sorts of shenanigans, the rubber around the clicker finally gave out on a backpack last year, but it was so worth it for the price.

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