Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Dan Crane: Backpacking on a Shoestring Budget

Anyone who has ever walked into an outdoors store, or perused an online backpacking retailer, knows that backcountry adventuring can be really expensive. Modern high tech fabrics, over-engineered designs and trendy manufacturers are a recipe for one humongous bill on a credit card. It can be so disheartening to anyone on a budget, that probably more than a few people have left a store feeling woefully inadequate.

A lack of funds should not deter anyone from exploring the Adirondack backcountry though. Instead, it is an opportunity to show some ingenuity since there are many different strategies for getting some outstanding gear on a shoestring budget. Buying at the right time, taking advantage of a good deal, purchasing used equipment, and making your own gear are just a few ways to prepare for outdoor adventures without breaking the bank. Although, there may be a few cracks.

Getting a good deal on outdoor equipment is often all about when to buy. Supply and demand influence the prices of oil, real estate and breakfast cereal, just as much as they do outdoor gear. Buying during the off-season or late in the season usually leads to some better deals, and consequentially, save some serious cheddar. For example, buying summer gear in late August or early September (i.e. NOW!) often yields great deals as retailers want to unload inventory for incoming winter goodies.

Coupon codes can yield even better deals when buying products online. These coupons can often cut the costs of a single product from anywhere from five to 30 percent, which can be buku bucks! An online search for these coupons can often yield worthwhile results, although many turn out expired. A list coupon codes for several retailers is on the sidebar of my website.

If new equipment remains too expensive, then try shopping for closeout or used equipment. Sierra Trading Post is a top-notch website selling mostly closeouts and other discontinued products for super low prices. Searching Craigslist, eBay or even Amazon can yield some excellent deals on used gear. In addition, GearTrade is a website specifically devoted to selling used and/or closeout deals. GearTrade allows for financing future purchases by selling old and outdated equipment too.

One of the easiest ways to procure excellent equipment is to make it yourself in the comfort of your own home. The advantage to homemade equipment is there are no excessive bells and whistles to increase cost and weigh you down, plus labor costs are low and excessive promotions and media events are nonexistent. The downsides include purchasing the materials, designing the product and putting it together.

For those not creative enough to design their own equipment can always find plans for equipment on the Internet. From these plans, one can always make any necessary modifications to produce exactly what they wish.

Although I am not a highly creative person, I built my own alcohol stove out of a beer and soda can from an online design. This stove is not only lighter than almost any on the market, but also it works so well, it is now my go-to stove during the warmer months.

For those lacking the ability, or confidence to build equipment on their own, there is always option of finding a capable friend to do so instead. Get your creative friend psyched up about building their own equipment, in addition to your own, and then set them loose. Just be sure to offer to pay for the materials and some extra for labor, and you just might get a unique piece of equipment. And when your friend is not around, brag to everyone in camp about how your gear is homemade. Just avoid mentioning it was not your home.

A friend of mine built me a pair of lightweight hiking poles made out of golf club shafts. After several years of use, I broke my first pair slipping on a steep incline, so he made me another pair. Although not telescoping, these poles remain my frequent companions on outdoor excursions, especially while bushwhacking off-trail.

Another option is to find everyday items to act as substitutes for backcountry gear, which is even less expensive than buying new or used equipment. Since so much of the cost of a popular gear relates to the brand, finding an everyday item replacement can save mucho moolah.

A perfect example is the Nalgene water bottles, which were the staple for backpackers and hikers for many years. Unfortunately, these bottles can be pricey, and are certainly not lightweight. A cheaper alternative (and much lighter too), is using Gatorade containers as a water bottle. They are about the same diameter as Nalgene bottles, so they fit in most any place where traditional water bottles do, plus they are pretty much free.

These are only a few of my favorite ways to save on outdoor gear. Does anyone have any additional ones? Please share them in the comments below.

Photo: Bog southwest of Oven Lake in the Five Ponds Wilderness by Dan Crane.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.




3 Responses

  1. Lindsey says:

    I’ve been able to find hiking pants (the same material as those $100 at Dick’s, made by Columbia) at TJ Maxx for much cheaper. Plus big box stores like Target carry a lot of cheaper camping gear and now carry sweat-wicking shirts and socks.

    Hardware stores like Tractor Supply also carry some gear, sometimes for somewhat cheaper. I’ve also found it worth looking at stores one wouldn’t think would have anything useful for backcountry, such as farming stores (think Walker’s in Fort Ann, NY).

    Adirondack-based gift shops also sometimes have backcountry gear. My Wilcor hiking pole comes from The Towne Store in Schroon Lake (they have a whole bunch of camping supplies, too).

    I hope this helps add to the list, I hate buying expensive gear only to later find out I could have gotten a deal!

  2. I can relate to your notation of ‘over-engineered designs.’ I can butcher a steer in less time than it takes me to zipper up my own raincoat, which has so many ‘technical features’ that it’s night on impossible to use efficiently. This week I bought a pair of light hiking boots in Placid, and they’re fine, but when the very helpful women used the phrase ‘shoe technology’ I knew I was about to get hosed.