On a budget but still want to be comfortable and safe on your outdoors adventures? Here’s a guide to what you need to spend money on, what you don’t and how to find effective clothing, tools, boots, bags and whatnot on a budget.
We’ll focus here on general gear for basic outdoors pursuits like hiking, backpacking and camping. Most of that will be applicable to specific sports or activities too. If you do one of those then you’ll likely understand that speciality items — say a helmet for riding motorcycles or shoes for climbing — are expensive for a reason: they either amplify your performance, keep you alive or help you stay comfortable while working hard in extreme conditions.
We frequently receive comments from readers who’re surprised by the price tags on some of the gear we wear in feature stories or review or talk about. There’s two reasons we tend to feature flashy stuff: 1) It’s what you want to read about; new technology is what you click on and it’s our job to test new, exciting stuff then tell you what it’s like. 2) We spend a lot of time outside, often in unpredictable conditions, while doing stuff that’s hard or dangerous. It’s what we love doing and it’s what we prioritize in our lives; I don’t drive a fancy car, I go camping with my dog. But I get it, you want to get out there too and maybe you haven’t quite gotten to the devote-your-life-to-it point yet or just can’t afford a $600 tent. I’ve been there — I was penniless for a while following some serious injuries sustained while being screwed by my previous company — and I still got outside. Here’s how.
The Cheapest Viable Product: Alps Mountaineering Taurus 2 ($77)
In general, the quality and usefulness to price ratio of Alps Mountaineering is off the chart. It’s a long ways from being the nicest stuff you can buy, but it is totally useable, decent quality and you’ll be able to spend many a comfortable, dry night in this tent. I can’t find a definitive weight for it, but at somewhere between 5 and 6lbs, it’s not light.
Back before I did this professionally, Lara, Wiley and I camped out of an Alps Aires 3P ($161). Again, far from fancy, but it got the job done for basic backpacking and car camping everywhere from the High Sierra to Death Valley to Big Sur and, two years later, still looks and works like new.
What You Get If You Spend More: More money nets you less weight. But, less weight can be a double-edged sword; it obviously means you’re carrying less, but that can come at the expense of quality and livability. If you want to save weight on a budget, just pare the tent size down to a minimum — 1P for one person, etc.
Don’t bother with a hammock. Those are wonderful when you’re in the right place, but any time the weather gets bad, you’re above the tree line, on a beach or you want to be able to bone your hiking buddy, hammocks just won’t get the job done.
The Cheapest Viable Product: Kelty Cosmic Down 20 ($125)
A good sleeping bag is a good investment and this isn’t an item we suggest you try and scrimp on. Yes, there are bags that carry the same temperature rating for half the price. No, they will not keep you half as warm as this Kelty. I’ve spent dozens and dozens of nights in mine, carried it all over the planet and it’s never let me get cold, even down to temperatures below its extreme limit. That’s value. I wholeheartedly recommend this product based on significant experience with it.
Over synthetic insulation, down packs much, much smaller and lighter, facilitating easy carry in a backpack, on the back of your motorcycle or anywhere else. Just try to keep it dry, the Kelty’s untreated down will lose its insulative abilities should it get wet.
Don’t believe Old Wives’ Tales; wearing your layers inside a sleeping bag in cold conditions will absolutely make you warmer. Just again, make sure those layers stay dry.
What You Get If You Spend More: More money again nets you less weight and packed size. Higher fill power downs loft into a larger volume from less weight. 20 degrees is a good all-round temperature rating for a bag; it’s not too hot for summer in the mountains and just warm enough for bad weather in early spring or late fall. You can expand the bag’s comfort in colder temperatures by adding a sleeping bag liner. Expensive silk ones pack small and light but this polar fleece one is just as effective and costs only $18; it’s what I use.