In 2012 one of my friends through hiked the Appalachian Trail. One of the craziest people he met on the trail was a guy who has hiking the entire thing with a 5 gallon bucket tied to his back with some rope.
No fancy backpack, no ultralight gear. Just a 5 gallon bucket and some twine. And this guy was hiking hundreds of miles.
(sidenote: I know what you're thinking and yes, the AT is thousands of miles long, not hundreds; but this dude had a bucket on. Obviously he went nuts and took off from the trail and was never seen again but he definitely put in a few hundred miles before fleeing).
So if this crazy hillbilly can go hundreds of miles with just a bucket to carry his gear, then you can probably make some changes to your gear and sacrifice a tiny bit of convenience, redundancy or comfort to save some money.
I'm going to show you how to save money when you go backpacking so you can use that money for other things. Maybe you can travel farther and see more. Maybe you can just save enough to buy an extra beer when you get back to town after a 5 day trip in the woods.
Whatever you do with the money, at least you won't waste it. Here's an in depth guide to saving money when you go backpacking. Enjoy.
Rent Your Gear From A Local Shop
If you've never gone backpacking before, the worst thing you can do is start out by buying a bunch of gear with no research. Even if you buy "nice" gear, you'll end up wasting tons of people. Some gear is worth spending more on and some isn't.
Instead of dropping hundreds of dollars to buy your backpack, tent, sleeping bag, etc, you can just rent them.
Find a local backpacking/camping gear store and see if they rent gear. Most of them will and it will probably cost 1/4 as much to rent your gear compared to buying it.
Not only is this cheaper up front, but it will also save you money long term by avoiding crappy gear. Once you test some gear out you'll know what you like and don't like.
For example, the first time I went camping I borrowed a friend's tent that had a small vestibule (the area right outside the tent door where you can store stuff). This was pretty inconvenient because my shoes and bag were constantly in the way so I know that a large vestibule area is something I'd like later on when I buy my own tent.
Here's what the rental page looks like on my local outdoor gear shop's store to give you an idea of the price range.
Get The Right Entry Level Gear
So you've decided you want to buy your own gear instead of renting. If you're going to keep backpacking then this will save you money in the long run, good call.
But you really need to make sure you're buying the right gear. Not too cheap and not too expensive. There are a ton of different options in this beginner backpacking price range but I'm going to give you my 4 favorite pieces of gear that will save you money without sacrificing quality.
The Big 4
- Pack - REI 48L Pack
- Tent - Eureka Spitfire 1
- Sleeping Bag - Kelty Cosmic 20
- Pad - Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol
I've personally used the first 3 items on this list and can vouch for their quality. I spent a lot of time researching these before buying them and after using them out in the wilderness, I'd definitely agree that they're a good balance between price, weight and quality. They're not the lightest, the best, or the cheapest, but they strike a nice balance between all 3.
I've never personally used the Z Lite Sol pad but it's highly regarded in the backpacking world and is about half the cost of entry level inflatable sleeping pads (here's a guide to choosing a sleeping pad if you're not sure what to look for).
When you start camping and backpacking it can be tempting to go out and buy crazy expensive gear. The problem with this is that you don't really know what you'll like until you've had a chance to try it. After using these 4 items you'll get a feel for what's important to you and what isn't so you'll make better choices later if/when you decide to upgrade your gear.
Buy Used Gear
Another way to save some money when buying gear is to purchase used. There's a reason eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace are some of the most highly visited websites. Buying used gear can save a ton of money. It's actually how I bought a couple of my big 4 pieces of gear and it saved me over $100.
If you want a run down of the best places to shop for used gear you can check out our article that covers it in more detail here. My personal favorite (and where I bought my sleeping bag and tent) is /r/geartrade. The easiest way to find deals is to just subscribe to that subreddit and wait for the deals to surface. Eventually you'll find what you've been looking for and you'll usually save 30-50% off retail price. Not bad.
Drive, Don't Fly
This one isn't always possible but if you can avoid flying, it's usually a good way to save some money.
When I went to Colorado in 2017 I flew from Chicago to Denver. Flights were about $400 and we had to get a rental car. My buddy who went with me also had to buy his own flight so in total we were looking at over $1,000 just for transportation.
Compare this to 2018 when I went with 2 friends from Chicago to Isle Royale. We drove about 475 miles each way for a total of 950 miles. We drove an old beater van that got about 20 miles per gallon so we used 50 gallons of gas. At the time it was about $2.50 per gallon so gas cost $125 and we split it 3 ways which means $40 or so per person.
Of course we had to take the sea plane to get over to the island which was pretty expensive but we won't talk about that :) Most of the time if you can drive, you'll save a lot of money compared to flying.
The flip side is that you're making a trade off for your time. I have a regular 9-5 job and wife and 2 kids so I usually only have 5-7 days for my trips. This means all of the time I spend getting to/from my destination is less time I have to spend on the trail. Sometimes it's worth it to shell out a couple hundred extra dollars if it means you get an extra day or two on the trail.
Make Your Own Meals
When I go backpacking, my meal of choice for dinner is usually a freeze dried meal like a Mountain House or something similar where you add boiling water and get a nice hot meal.
But these meals are expensive. They come with a ton of food, usually enough to feed two people, but they cost at least $7-$8. There are some cottage brands popping up offering even tastier freeze dried meals and they run about $10 per bag.
So the alternative is to make your own food. There's a million ways to do this. If you buy a dehydrator you can make your own freeze dried meals right at home.
Another way is to get creative and think of non-traditional camping meals that you can make portable. An example of this would be bringing some cheese, pizza sauce and some instant dough to make campfire pizzas.
I'm not much of a chef though and I'm usually feeling lazy at the end of the day so my go-to DIY dinner is a bag of instant mash potatoes (just add water) and some protein, usually tuna or a summer sausage. Mix the meat and potatoes together and you've got a 750+ calorie meal that doesn't weigh or cost much at all.
Use Cheap Food Like Peanut butter, Tortillas and Pastas
This money saving tip ties in with the previous one about making your own food. When you're backpacking you want to minimize the amount of weight you have to carry. A good way to do this is to use lightweight ingredients to make your meals. Peanut butter, tortillas and pasta are all pretty calorie-dense and cheap.
Tortillas make a good substitute for bread and they're impossible to crush! They're also super cheap with a 10 pack costing about $1-$2 depending on where you live.
Peanut butter has tons of calories and protein and goes well with anything. I put it on my breakfast bars in the morning, on my tortillas at lunch time, and with chocolate for dessert at night. Those extra calories will help give you the energy you need to hike and make your food tastier.
Use A Tyvek Foot Print
Tent foot prints are materials you can put under your tent to prevent excessive wear and tear on the bottom of your tent. It can also help protect against rocks and other pointy things from ripping your tent or poking a hole in your inflatable sleeping pad.
But foot prints are kind of a pain in the butt. Tent manufacturers make foot prints that are specific to one model of tent. This way they match the exact shape of the floor of your tent which means they weigh less and use less fabric.
The problem is that they're pretty expensive and cant' be used with other tents. My Eureka Spitfire 1 cost me about $100 when I bought it brand new. The footprint? $43.
No way I'm spending half the price of my tent on a foot print. The foot print I use is just a piece of plastic cut out in the general diamond shape of my tent and it works perfectly fine.
A popular alternative to buying a foot print is to make your own out of Tyvek. Tyvek is a thick plastic that's used when building houses. It protects the wood from the elements until the siding is put up on the house.
You can usually find this stuff for free on any construction site since it's cut to fit the house and scraps are just thrown in the garbage.
Grab a big piece of this stuff and just cut it out to the shape of your tent floor and you're good to go. It's a good idea to add 1-2' to your tent's measurements so you don't have to worry too much about getting the foot print in the right place when you're pitching your tent.
Cascade Mountain Tech Poles
I didn't want to have a lot of specific gear recommendations in this guide because it's hard to find the balance between high quality and low price for a lot of pieces of equipment.
But Cascade Mountain Tech hiking poles are an insanely good value and one of my favorite pieces of gear.
If you've never owned trekking poles then you might think these are ridiculous. But after using them you'll wonder how you ever went without them.
In addition to helping you stay balanced while crossing difficult terrain, trekking poles help conserve energy all the time.
- Going up hills you can use them to get some extra energy from your arms so your legs don't have to work as hard.
- Going downhill they allow you to control your speed and absorb some of the impact that your knees and legs would normally take.
- On flat land they help you get a small boost of speed by constantly propelling your body forward. This helps you hike faster and use less energy.
Trekking poles can also double as tent poles on certain types of tents like the Z packs Plexamid.
Trekking poles have tons of uses and everyone who has them loves to use them. The problem is that there are lot of different poles on the market. Some cost $10 and some cost $200. Some are junk and some are needlessly expensive.
The reason I like Cascade Mountain Tech's poles so much is that they're super affordable and use high quality carbon fiber and cork materials. This means they'll last forever and weight next to nothing.
Use Plastic Cutlery Instead of Titanium Sporks
When I first got into backpacking I bought a titanium spork. It's cool as hell and weighs almost nothing.
But to be honest, you don't really need it. You can get a plastic spork from Taco Bell for free and it weighs even less than the titanium!
The only downside to using free, plastic cutlery is that they're easy to break and can melt if you're not careful around the fire. I'm not sure if cutting the titanium spork cost is worth it but if you're trying to backpack on the cheap, this is definitely an easy place to start saving money.
Get Off Brand Synthetic Clothing
Cotton sucks. If you're doing any hiking, camping or backpacking, you want to minimize the amount of cotton clothing that you bring with you.
Why does cotton suck?
- It holds moisture
- It holds stink
- It can't insulate once it gets wet
- It makes you hot when it's warm
- It makes you cold when it's cold
Basically cotton does the wrong thing all the time. The only reason we use it in all our clothing is because it's cheap.
Instead of cotton you should buy wool and synthetic materials like polyester microfiber and spandex. Both of these materials will dry out quickly and help regulate your temperature. If you've ever seen an NBA or NFL player wearing sleeves on their arms/legs, it's probably a synthetic material that helps wick away sweat and help cool them down.
It's counter intuitive to think about wearing additional material to help cool you down but if you're sweating a lot, this stuff can be a life saver.
But the real money saving tip is to buy the off brand versions. Nike owns the market with their DRI FIT gear but the discount stuff at TJ Maxx and online at Amazon is the same stuff and performs equally as well. The knock off synthetic clothing usually costs about 1/3 as much as the name brand and after owning both, I don't notice anything different between them.
Use A Smart Water Bottle
There are a lot of different water bottle options in the backpacking world. I bought the Platypus Squeeze water bottle from my local backpacking store because it was pretty lightweight and I liked that it could be compacted/rolled up when it was empty.
But it turns out the best water bottle option is also the cheapest.
Smart Water bottles are the perfect size for the side pouch of your backpack. They're also really cheap and lightweight. You can get one at a gas station/convenience store for about $2 or online from Amazon but the shipping costs will kill you.
These water bottles hold 34 ounces of water which means you won't have to fill them as often as a smaller disposable water bottles. They aren't quite as large as the Platypus Squeeze but they're way cheaper and work well.
Also if you're using a Sawyer or Platypus filter, you can screw the clean water outlet right onto the top of the water bottle and drain directly into your water bottle.
Use A Plain Old Bic Lighter
There are a ton of prepper/camping firestarter kits that use flint as a means of starting a fire. These seem cool and you'll inevitably buy one as a backup but they're way harder to use than what it looks like in the video on the sales page. Maybe I just suck at it, but I spent about 15 minutes shaving off little pieces of magnesium only to fail to light them.
My favorite way to start a fire? A Bic lighter. It costs $1 and will work hundreds of times.
For a backup fire starter I'd recommend some all weather matches like these ones from Zippo.
Then with the money you saved you can buy some real fire starter kits that will burn even wet wood with just a single lighter and nothing more.
Use A Garbage Bag As A Pack Liner
If you have a down sleeping bag or any other water-sensitive gear, it's really important that you keep it dry. There are a lot of different waterproof bags you can buy but they all cost at least $5-$10 and are usually pretty small.
A cheaper and easier option is to just use a regular old garbage bag. These cost about 10 cents each and are gigantic. I keep one in my sleeping bag area at the bottom of my backpack to keep my backpack dry, then another one tucked away just in case I want to store the other stuff in my backpack and keep it dry.
Make Your Own First Aid Kit
This one might actually not be a big saver unless you have a lot of medical gear lying around your house. But if you want to save a little weight at the same time you can try making your own first aid kit.
When I bought my backpacking first aid kit it came with a ton of stuff that I didn't need. It had over 100 band aids, tons of different medicines, creams, metal finger splints and different pills.
After paring it down to just what I needed, I was able to cut out about half of the stuff in the kit.
Even if you don't decide to make your own first aid kit, you should at least go through the kit you buy and figure out what you can get rid of. The first aid kit listed below is what I'd buy as a starting point then see what you can take out.
Print Your Maps From CalTopo
A topographical map is an essential for any backpacking trip. Even if you have GPS on your phone or a dedicated GPS unit like the Garmin 64ST, it's always a good idea to carry a physical map as a back up.
If you're going on a shorter hike and won't need to rely as much on your map then you can save a little bit of money by using CalTopo and printing your map out ahead of time.
In addition to providing detailed topographic maps, CalTopo can also give you the elevation change for your route by day to help you plan your route. Here's what it looks like:
While CalTopo won't compeltely replace the need for actual maps, it can get you by if your trip is short enough or the terrain is easy enough.
Use A Cat Food Stove and Heet
A cat food/beer can stove is a really simple alcohol stove that uses Heet as fuel. This is way cheaper than the traditional screw on stove and using disposable fuel canisters.
Here's a quick tutorial on how to build the cat food stove, courtsey of TheSodaCanStove.com. Check out their website for detailed info on how to make this stove and how it works. They also have a good guide on what types of fuels to buy here.
Buy Durable Stuff from AliExpress
If you haven't heard of Aliexpress before, it's basically the Chinese version of Amazon/Ebay. The prices are really low, usually about 1/3 of what you'd pay on Amazon.
A good rule of thumb is to only buy things that are simple and sturdy from AliExpress. Stuff like sporks, cups, tarps, etc have few moving parts and are hard to mess up.
You should avoid buying things that have a low margin of error or are prone to breaking. Examples of these kind of items would be inflatable sleeping pads or anything with electronics inside. If something goes wrong with these items you'll probably be in trouble and the reliability on AliExpress gear just isn't as high as what you'll find from higher quality manufacturers.
MYOG (Make Your Own Gear)
There's been a big increase in people making their own gear over the last 5-10 years, especially when it comes to sleeping bags/quilts and shelters. If you have a little bit of sewing ability or the hunger to learn, it's fairly straight forward to stitch together a tent or a quilt.
Got Your Own Advice?
If you've got your own money saving hacks you use when you go backpacking leave a comment below!