Buying Backpacking Equipment?

Some people are reluctant to start wilderness backpacking because they have the impression that it costs a lot of money. They would be right. Backpacking can be expensive. To make it even more difficult, new backpackers sometimes have to spend a significant amount of money before they even know if they are going to like it.

While day hiking is almost free (you just need shoes and a water bottle), extending the trip and spending several nights on the trail requires heaps of gear, special food, campsite reservations, and gallons of gas to drive to the trailhead and back. Many Troops provide some gear and some things can be borrowed, especially non personal items like stoves and water pumps. Sometimes, however, it’s awkward to borrow personal items like backpacks, jackets or sleeping bags. Consequently, many neophytes find themselves at REI the night before they are supposed to leave, buying lots of expensive things from a pack list supplied by the outing leaders. It’s double the problem if father and son are going on their first backpacking trip at the same time.

Lots of Scouts end up at REI the night before a trek

As a result, parents of new backpackers often scrimp on their initial purchases and buy things that don’t work well or are too heavy. These inadequacies become very obvious after just a few hours of walking along a trail in uncomfortable boots or wearing an unfitted backpack. It’s not unusual, then, for the new hiker to quickly decide they don’t like backpacking at all. When this conclusion is reached, the new equipment gets stashed in the garage and the ersatz hiker reaches for the remote control.

So spend the time to get what you really need. Here are some options.

Online purchases are cheap and good, but not always fast

The lowest prices for quality backpacking items are usually found online. Amazon.com has developed a reputation for selling common camping items at the lowest prices around and as an added bonus there is no sales tax. Websites like “Steep and Cheap” have daily specials on clothing and equipment that can approach a 75% discount off list price of some items. And virtually everything you need for the trail can be found for relatively low prices at sites like E-Bay and Craig’s List if you don’t mind used gear (sometimes it’s new). Of course, online purchases are not fast. Orders usually must be placed a week or more before the trip.

Department Stores and mass merchandisers like Target and Big 5 usually stock camping equipment at low prices, and you can get things quickly. So it’s a very tempting place for parents to shop. However, their inventory is seldom appropriate for backpackers, especially beginners. Most of the items on their shelves are made for car campers and will not withstand the demands of the trail. Cotton is a common fabric for clothing and sleeping bags are too heavy. Specific tools like walking sticks and butane stoves seldom survive the rigors of a high mountain pass because that’s not what they were designed to do. So they break at the worst possible moment and there is nothing worse than carrying cheap, broken equipment home from a long backpacking trip.

The fastest way to get high-quality backpacking equipment is to visit stores like REI or Sports Basement that specialize in wilderness sports. As a result, they are very popular with Scout families. However, these stores are seldom cheap. You have to pay for the expertise of their salespeople and the convenience of getting everyone in one place. (These stores do conduct periodic sales where slightly damaged gear can be purchased at huge discounts.)

Backpacking is like life. You can't have everything.

As with most important things in life, you can purchase backpacking equipment fast, cheap, or good, but you can’t have all three at the same time. Most experienced backpackers will tell you it’s better to always buy the best gear you can afford. Start with a few important things and then keep adding quality gear over time. In the interim, borrow what you need or scale your hiking to fit the equipment you have.

The next blog will answer the question, how much does it all cost?

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2 comments

  1. Michael D. says:

    Readers sent suggestions through Facebook or email about places to purchase backpacking equipment. Goodwill and other Thrift stores sometimes sell wicking shirts, fleece, wool socks, jackets, and even down sleeping bags. One Scout hiker says he buys all his backpacks on Craig’s List for a fraction of the list price. The common theme – shop around and don’t buy things at the last minute.

  2. balogna says:

    There is one thing you forgot to mention. There is also the people who go to REI the night before the trip, then spend lots of money, but they don’t know what they are buying and therefore there money goes to waste (this mainly happens when parents go to buy things for their children)

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