We humans are hardwired, through millennia of survival in a world of scarcity, to be concerned with acquisition despite living in a modern world of surplus and excess (at least for most of us researching backpacking gear online.) This extends back to our hunter-gatherer roots. We like stuff. More of it can make us feel more secure. It is in our biology, and this tendency is thrown into overdrive by a culture of heavy marketing and glorified consumption. I’m certainly not immune. Keeping all of this in perspective when shelling out hard-earned money is wise. Backpacking gear can get absurdly expensive. I know it took me a few months to build up my gear kit just to get out for my first overnighter. If you’re new to backpacking or in the process of refining your existing gear, saving money can be the difference in how soon or in what conditions you’re able to get out in the wilderness. Buying low quality gear, however, can lead to less fun on the trail or even dangerous situations if essential gear fails in the backcountry. Below is a list of websites, places, and methods to find quality gear and outdoor clothing affordably, as well as the caveats involved with “bargain hunting” (because sometimes things are cheap for a reason…)
BORROW OR RENT (I know, snooze…)
I know, I know. We are not a “rental” culture or much of a “share” culture. This is America. We own. Despite some philosophical tendencies otherwise, when it comes down to it, I’m the same way. If you can get past that attitude, however, you might save yourself from spending a bunch of money on something you thought you would love but don’t actually like after real world use. For rentals, talk to local outfitters and, if you’re a student, check your university rec center or with school-affiliated outdoor clubs. If you borrow gear from a friend or family member, make sure you’re not a jerk. Treat their gear well (ask them if you should know any vulnerabilities or ways you might tear something up unknowingly), return it promptly, and return it in the same or better condition than when you borrowed it (clean up after yourself.) If you can’t easily afford to replace something you might borrow and accidentally break or lose, think long and hard about how that might play out and decide accordingly.
If you have strong building, making, or crafting skills (sewing is especially useful), Do It Yourself gear can be the best option available. Not only can you often make your gear very cheaply (or free in some cases,) but you can customize gear to your needs and tastes. There is also great satisfaction and meaning in making your own tools, especially when used for your personal passions. Here are a couple of sites with DIY plans and advice (or check out my DIY Silnylon Stuff Sacks post for a good beginner project.)
You’re probably not going to find a fancy ultralight tent or a cuben fiber backpack at the thrift store, but you might find a LOT of the clothes you need for dirt cheap. To name but a few items, I have found countless base layer shirts (sometimes brand new with tages), a fully seam-sealed, waterproof, pocket-packable Columbia rain jacket, many a fleece of all weights and sizes, nylon REI shorts and pants, and what is still my favorite fleece beanie. All of these were bought for pennies on the dollar compared to retail price and were in excellent (if not new) condition. (UPDATE: I have found more great clothes than I can even use at Goodwill since writing this original post. This includes every major outdoor brand - Marmot, North Face, Arcteryx, Kuhl, Smartwood, etc.)
While clothes are the easiest score, other gear is not out of the question. I found a brand new, with tags, daypack with a nice bladder (marketed under the Trek bike label) for $5 that I only recently retired (I actually still use the bladder for a DIY gravity water filter setup.) Fleece blankets (great to use in lieu of your sleeping bag in the heat of summer or cut to size for your backpacking dog's blanket in the winter), cookware, and cups /mugs are also found frequently in thrift stores. Dig around, though, especially in towns with a strong camping and outdoor culture. You might be shocked to see what people donate to thrift stores.
Besides illicit sexual encounters and often sketchy job listings, you can find GREAT gear on craigslist for a song. Every now and again, I just search “backpacking” to see what’s out there (or "camping" to broaden the scope.) Frequently I see top notch gear at good-to-great prices. Do your homework, though… I also see gear priced higher than you could find on discount sites or even higher than full retail. Also, be careful anytime you’re meeting a stranger. It is probably always safest to meet in a public place when reasonable. You might consider bringing a friend along if meeting at a private residence especially. I usually try to speak with someone on the phone when buying (or selling) on craigslist just to get a feel for them. I've never had anything but pleasant encounters buying and selling on craigslist, but caution is wise.
Ebay can be an excellent place to grab gear both new and used. It is also a great place to buy small bits of gear without huge shipping costs (who likes paying $7 shipping for a 2 oz bundle of ultralight cord?) Of course, pay attention to feedback ratings, beware of knock-off products, pay attention to country of origin (I typically only buy from US sellers), and be aware of “weasel words,” misdirection, and other scams. Most sellers with high feedback numbers and ratings are as reputable as any brick and mortar store (and frequently are simply the online presence of brick and mortar stores.)
ONLINE DISCOUNT RETAILERS
Dozens of discount retailers are out there. This list could be in the dozens. I’ll let someone else compile that list, but here are a few I use often and with good customer service and fair return policies (something lacking in many discount retailers I could name.)
- Sierra Trading Post (w Coupons) – Sign up for Sierra Trading Post coupons if you are building your gear kit and are comfortable buying online. Warning, they send coupons almost daily, but the coupons offer BIG, BIG savings, often on top-notch gear. Clothing is especially well priced. (If nothing else, use them to buy Smartwool socks for absurdly great prices. They list some as “seconds” or “imperfect,” but I’ve yet to find a discernible flaw.) I’ve also bought packs, trekking poles, a first aid kit, dry bags, and many other accessories I use on most every outing. STP has definitely played heavily in my gear acquisition.
- REI Outlet – While not as heavily discounted as Sierra Trading Post, REI’s Outlet section of their website has led me to some great deals (including the boots I use most trips, a pair of Adidas Gore-Tex Terrex Swift boots for $45.) Check their daily deals and weekly deals listed on the landing page of the outlet section. Also, if you’re not already a member of REI (only $10 for a lifetime), I suggest doing so and signing up for their email registries. Membership offers 10% back annually on all full price purchases (not the outlet or sale items, unfortunately), and you get great discount coupons throughout the year, too. If you live near an REI, they also have "Garage Sales" quarterly where they sell slightly used or returned gear for great prices. Beware - it can be a hippie stampede!
- Campsaver – I haven’t bought too many things from Campsaver.com, but when I have the deals have been solid and the customer service is great. Their big sales are especially good, and they also have an outlet section. You can sign up for their email list for coupons and sale notifications.
- Amazon – Oh, Amazon. The great online behemoth. Love them or hate them, they carry almost everything and usually at a great price. I’ve bought plenty of gear there myself. Check the third-party affiliate sellers for even better deals on many items, but always check their user reviews first.
I suppose I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t acknowledge the deals you can find in big box stores (like the Kmart grease pot I use in my cookset.) Just be wary of cheaper quality brands that break easily and aren’t necessarily worth even their low, low prices (and often low, low customer service and business practices.)
CLOSING CONCERNS & CAVEATS
- Your Local, Independent Outdoor Store Is Probably Awesome - While your local store probably can't afford to offer screaming deals at every turn and still keep their doors open, they likely offer excellent service, expertise, and local knowledge if they've been around for a while (like the fine folks at Cumberland Transit here in Nashville.) Get to know them, and support them as best you can afford. If buying online or from a larger retailer is only going to save you a tiny amount, skip it and go local. You can also look for sales and don't be afraid to POLITELY ask if discounts are available, especially on high-priced items.
- Buy Off-Season – Sales are best when items are trying to be moved at the end of season. Buy your winter gear in March or later, and your summer gear in September or later for best prices.
- Check Your Vanity – If you’re willing to compromise your fashion-sense, sometimes you can get really great gear at silly-cheap prices because it looks kind of lame (like my electric blue Gore-Tex Adidas boots for only $45.) This is most apparent in apparel, but even essential, utilitarian gear can be had on the cheap because someone thought that ultralight backpack would look great in day-glow purple.
- Try Not To Buy “Temporary” Gear – If possible, wait to get what you actually want rather than spending money on something you expect to try to resell or throw away later. If it's junk and you know it, but you think it will get you through the coming trip (or the next couple of months, etc.), try to avoid supporting crappy companies and wasting your money. If you must buy gear expecting to ditch it soon, try to buy used, and aim for something that will retain its value.
- Resist Great Prices On What You Don’t Want – Be careful not to get too caught up in the “great deals” you find, especially with online discount retailers. It can become all too easy to talk yourself into what you don’t really want because it’s so cheap. “I told myself I wasn’t going to buy a tent over 3 pounds, but this 5.5 pound tent from a manufacturer I like is soooo cheap, I should just get this one.” You'll likely end up with a nagging sense of buyers' remorse and getting rid of it later, often at a loss.