A Low Cost Outdoor Gear Guide: Hiking, Backpacking and Camping Equipment

Before buying expensive outdoor gear, take time to consider your needs and to consider your alternatives.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
March/April 1984
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Learn to make your own outdoor gear.
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Before we dive into an outdoor gear guide that can help you to thoroughly (and safely) enjoy your camp­ing, hiking, and backpacking trips, we'd like to offer a few words in rebuttal to what we view as an unfortunate (and spread­ing!) think-warp. This dubious "philoso­phy" would have us believe that only the very best, newest, and most expensive out­door gear is good enough. It's a son of "passing up the Joneses" mind-set: We're supposed to feel shame if we dare to appear on the ski slopes, the hiking trail, or in the hunting camp not decked out in the latest flashy duds and equipped with the highest­-tech accessories that (lots of) money can obtain.

Of course, most of today's miracle fibers and space-age gadgets are everything their proponents claim them to be ... and there's a time and a place for just about all of them, as any camper can testify if he or she has ever spent a miserable night shiver­ing at the edge of hypothermia in a worth­less sleeping bag inside a leaking excuse for a tent. But far too often, many of us allow our fantasies (concerning the kinds of ad­ventures we'd like to have one day) to se­duce us into buying apparel and gear de­signed specifically for the harsh conditions of above timberline winter climbing expedi­tions or months-long backpacking treks through real wilderness . . . and such pur­chases are a form of outfitting overkill for the average weekend outdoors person.

Such over gearing allows us to feel a little closer to realizing our largely unrealizable desires for heroic adventure and greatness. It's human, it's understandable . . . but it can also lead to wasting money that could be better saved for financing a real adven­ture someday.

In short, while owning "state of the art" gear is nice if you can afford the price, it's just not a prerequisite for enjoying the sorts of outdoor activities most of us will actually have the time, money, or inclination to ex­perience. What you do need, though, is equipment that will keep you warm, dry, safe, and comfortable under any circum­stances you can realistically expect to en­counter while enjoying the kinds of outdoor recreation you regularly participate in. 

Avoiding the Retail Trail

With that notion in mind, let's look at a few ways you can save money on your camping equipment and hiking accessories.

Make it: If you're a seamstress or seam­ster of even moderate ability, you can save close to half the cost of top-quality clothing by taking advantage of sew-them-yourself kits (see Sew Your Own Outdoor Gear). And the more advanced sewing­-machine pilot can easily assimilate the few additional skills needed to fabricate such items as tents, backpacks, and sleeping bags. By the same token, any good-with­-wood handy person can whip together an Alaskan packboard and packsack in short order, saving the considerable cost of a store-bought load-lugger.

In brief, weigh your needs against your skills (or lack thereof), and try to identify at least a few projects that might be within your capabilities. To get you started, we've outlined several do-it-yourself items in this outdoor gear guide:

How to Build the (Unofficial) Boy Scout Candle Lantern  

How to Make and Pitch Tarp Shelters and Camping Tents  

Make Cold Weather Camping Gear From Wool Blankets  

How to Make a Hobo Stove  

How to Make a Backpack: The Alaskan Packboard and All-Purpose Packsack  

One-Pot Recipes for Backpack Travel  

Sew Your Own Outdoor Gear  

Buying used: One cobbler's shop in our area has several shelves lined with high ­quality used hiking boots . . . footwear that folks have brought in for repairs and then ­— for who knows what reasons — abandoned. After a respectable wait, the refurbished stompers are put up for sale . . . at prices that send our hands diving for our wallets every time we visit the place. You can find the same sort of bargains in your neighbor­hood, too, if you'll take the time to look for them.

Yet another source of good buys on a wide variety of used merchandise (and new goodies, too) is the ubiquitous flea market. (And don't overlook its smaller cousin, the neighborhood garage sale.)

Of course, no discussion of good deals on used clothing would be worth its salt with­out mention of the Salvation Army and its kindred thrift shops everywhere. Army sur­plus stores, bulletin board notices, news­paper classified ads, word of mouth, and factory outlets that sell seconds and last year's fashions at substantial discounts are also worth noting.

Exchanges: Quite often you can work out arrangements with friends and neigh­bors to make exchanges of property . . . either short-term (borrowing and lending) or permanent (bartering). Borrowing and lending is probably the most sensible way to get your hands on those items you'll be needing only once in a while. . . swapping, perhaps, a week's use of your canoe this summer for access to cross-country ski equipment when the snow flies.

Rentals: Renting makes sense when you need something you don't own and can't borrow. It may also be the way to go when you're thinking of buying an item and would like an opportunity to try it out —under actual field conditions — before parting with your hard-earned bucks. These days, most large sporting goods outlets in popular outdoor-vacation spots offer rentals. And such businesses provide yet another way to save substantially while gearing up for the boonies: Ask about buying used rental gear. One of the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors recently got a beau­tiful pair of top-line Asolo ski-touring boots just that way. . . for a mere $15, with a set of ski poles tossed in to sweeten the deal!

Sales: Sooner or later, though — no mat­ter how much energy and resourcefulness you put into trying to get around it — you're going to run into a situation where you'll need an item that you can't make, trade for, borrow, find used, or rent. In short, if you want it, you'll have to buy it — the "Ameri­can way" — new and at retail. In such an in­stance, you first ought to explore buying retail-but-on-sale items. Witness, for ex­ample, the change-of-season bargains that are traditionally offered by sporting goods purveyors. If you can just hold off purchas­ing that new pair of skis until, say, Feb­ruary or so, you're likely to find that you can pick them up at a "winter merchandise clearance" sale for a third off. . . or more. And the same holds true, of course, for warm-weather items. Fall is the best time to shop for lightweight hiking boots, shorts, and the like.

Comparison shopping: As a last-ditch effort to save at least a little on those "gotta have it before this weekend or I won't be able to go camping" necessities, at least do a bit of comparison shopping before you buy. Most communities of respectable size have more than one sporting goods retailer . . . and chances are excellent that you can save considerably more than the price of the gas you'll burn while looking around by looking around (and, of course, you can always use the telephone). Besides, it's a good exercise in breaking out of the habit of compulsive buying. If you put a "gotta have it now" purchase off for even a little while, reason will often step in to supplant compulsion, and that overwhelming urge to lighten your purse will be much easier to fend off.

Gearing Up

Let's swing our attention now to a survey of the basic items of outdoor apparel and gear you'll likely want to include in your outfit.

Footwear: Today the trend is away from the expensive, heavy, ankle-high leather hiking boots with waffle-patterned Vibram soles that everyone was clonking around in a couple of years ago. (Vibram — while unbeatable in some circumstances — can be downright treacherous on smooth, wet rocks, and the waffles tend to leave acne scars on the face of the backcountry.)

Many experienced and active outdoors­folk are turning to lightweight, cool, quick­drying, leather-and-nylon (or other fabric) hiking boots for warm-weather wear . . . and high-topped, insulated "work" boots for winter walking. (In extreme cold, rub­berized arctic snow pacs with felt inserts are the ticket.) In any case, look for hard rubber soles with a tread design that's less damag­ing to the ecology than is the deep waffle pattern.

When shopping for new boondockers, wear the same type, thickness, and number of socks you'll be using when on the trail. And try on new boots at the end of the day, when your feet are puffed up to hiking size.

Clothing: The amount and type of garb you pack into the woods will depend, natu­rally, on the season and the sort of country you're planning to visit. But even the sum­mertime desert can get nippy at night, so we recommend the following items as the minimum for just about any altitude or ter­rain, year round: A wide-brimmed hat for protection from sun and rain, a long-sleeved wool shirt, full-length pants (even if you'll wear shorts during the days), extra socks, a lightweight nylon windbreaker, and some sort of rain gear (preferably a hooded pon­cho that's cut long in back to fit over a pack).

In general, think realistically (and, to be safe, perhaps even a bit pessimistically) about the climatic possibilities for the area you plan to visit, and you'll have no trouble identifying the duds you'll need.

Personal gear: In addition to clothing, there are a number of other items that should go along on any overnight wilder­ness adventure. As a minimum, you'll want the following: a compact first aid kit ap­propriate to the conditions and risks you'll be facing (be sure it includes moleskin and other foot-care necessities) . . . sunglasses . . . sunscreen (with PABA) . . . insect re­pellent (in bug season) . . . a sharp knife that's big enough to take care of common cutting chores around camp (but not too danged big) . . . a compass (especially im­portant if you plan to venture off the trod­den path and if you know how to use that valuable tool) . . . a compact flashlight. . . a container of waterproofed matches . .. a plastic bottle of biodegradable liquid soap (for clothes, dishes, and you) . . . medica­tions . . . and any other personal tidbits you feel you can't get along without.

Shelter: Suitable shelter for backpacking can be anything from a primitive tarpaulin lean-to to a sophisticated, miracle-fiber, four-season expedition tent! (For a reasonable do-it-yourself compromise, see How to Make and Pitch Tarp Shelters and Camping Tents.) What you'll need will de­pend on — among other considerations — the frequency and type of camping you'll be do­ing, the number of people you'll regularly have to shelter, the amount of weight you're willing to tote around, the weather you can reasonably expect to encounter on the ma­jority of your outings. . . and the amount of money you wish to invest in a portable home.

If you'll be spending a lot of time in a tent, demand such features as a sewn-in floor, bug netting, adequate ventilation, a separate rain fly (unless the tent is of Gore-Tex or a similar breathable-but-wa­terproof material), and — if you plan to camp in lightning-prone areas — nonmetallic poles. Those are the basics, but options — like ves­tibules and awnings — can be purchased un­til you're blue in the face (and financially embarrassed).

Backpack: For short hikes that won't keep you out overnight, a sturdy "day" pack (or even a few commodious pockets) will suffice. But for more extended treks re­quiring a greater amount of gear and carrying comfort, you'll need a proper backpack. There are two basic types: the trusty exter­nal frame and the newer and slightly more specialized internal frame.

The time-tested external-frame pack con­sists of a metal, plastic, or fiberglass exo­skeleton, from which is suspended a many­ pocketed nylon or canvas packsack. The ex­ternal frame offers excellent support and keeps the pack away from your back, pro­viding sweat-reducing air circulation.

The internal-frame pack looks like a large bag equipped with shoulder straps and a waist belt. But hidden inside — sandwiched between two layers of material next to your back — is a large "X" of flat metal (or some other supportive material) . . . a framework offering excellent rigidity without the clum­siness of an external frame. Since most in­ternal-frame rigs consist of one large pock­et — rather than being of the two-pocket style common with external-frame units ­— they can hold a greater bulk of gear. And because they ride closer to the pack, inter­nal framers are infinitely better suited to such hiking situations as rock climbing that call for balance and a slim profile.

If you'll be doing most of your hiking in rough, up-and-down terrain that demands balance, you might find the internal-frame design a good choice. But for general pack­ing purposes, the external-frame arrange­ment is hard to beat. Try them both before you decide on one design or the other. And with either design, look for sturdy materials . . . well-sewn seams. . . metal rather than nylon zippers. . . and wide, padded shoul­der straps and waist belt.

Finally, if you have virtually no money to drop on a commercial backpack or if you'll be hauling unwieldy loads that don't fit well into a standard pack (like quarters of elk or deer, for example), you should consider building a low-cost Alaskan packboard, with a detachable packsack . . . see How to Make a Backpack: The Alaskan Packboard and All-Purpose Packsack.

Camp kitchen: You should carry some sort of compact stove, even if you plan to do most of your cooking over an open fire. The choices are many, ranging from the home cobbled "hobo" stove (see How to Make a Hobo Stove), which costs nothing to make and burns twigs and small sticks, through the little "sterno"-type canned heat units, to any of the myriad of high-tech one burn­ers that use propane, white gas, or alcohol.

Of the commercial offerings, the gas­burners (like the SVEA 123 from Optimus­Princess) are the most popular and — for general use — practical. But for cleanliness, ease of use, and quick, sure lighting, the bottled-propane models are the best bet (they're usually the least expensive of the lot, too). Though very safe, alcohol stoves are finicky, and their fuel may be difficult to find in some areas, while canned-heat cookers put out barely enough Btu to (slow­ly) heat a can of stew or (even more slowly) boil water, but they are by far the least ex­pensive to buy and the lightest to carry.

Nested pots and pans of stamped steel are superior in every way to their flimsy alumi­num counterparts, and a low-cost cooking set of steel will last a lifetime if it's well cared for. Look for a frying pan with a fold­ing handle and a lid that's shaped to do dou­ble duty as a plate. Nested knife, fork, and spoon sets are inexpensive and available everywhere . . . but you can also haul your "silverware" from home without giving up much in weight or space savings.

If you'll be hiking and camping near a source of potable water, a collapsible plastic or canvas bucket is probably all you'll need to haul water into camp and to serve as a washbasin. (Keeping a small flask in the tent at night, though, can save you a chilly run to the river when that midnight thirst strikes.) Of course, arid-country camping will necessitate your packing along plenty of water, and the type of canteens or other containers you use will be largely a matter of personal choice.

Sleeping bag: The two most important considerations when selecting a sleeping bag are 

[1] type of insulation and 

[2] manner of stitching. Goose down is probably still considered the best all-around choice for backpacking because of its superb insulat­ing qualities, feather-lightness, and com­pressibility. But down does have shortcom­ings . . . including a very high price and an almost complete loss of loft and, subse­quently, insulating ability, when wet.

Generally speaking, the strong and weak points of the many synthetic insulating materials are just about opposite to those of down: That is, the synthetics are far less ex­pensive than goose-fuzz and will hold their loft and insulation even when sopped . . . but are also much heavier and far less com­pressible than is down.

However, no matter what sort of insula­tion you opt for, avoid bags that are stitched all the way through. Along those stitching lines, there's no loft and therefore no insula­tion. "Laminated stitch-through", "box­stitching", and "overlapping 'V' tube" are all superior to "through" stitching. (Or, you could probably get by with a wool-blanket bed roll. See Make Cold Weather Camping Gear From Wool Blankets.)

Think Thoreau

By way of swinging back to our opening note — and to toss out a philosophy worth keeping in mind as you read Make Your Own Gear: Outdoor Equipment Ideas for Backpacking and Camping — we'd like to turn the lectern over briefly to that preeminent American thinker, back-to-the-Iander, and outdoors­man Henry David Thoreau: "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone."


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