Finding the right gear is an easy thing. Find that gear at the right price for you is the real trick!
Of course, there is an uncountable number of hiking and backpacking products on the market today. I’m not going to attempt to fully cover all of them in today’s article. Instead what I’d like to do is offer some of my recommendations for gear that strikes a balance of price, value, quality, and reliability.
Remember, we’re not looking for the lightest gear, the newest gear, or gear from the most recognizable brands. Instead, we’re looking for the perfect blend of value so you can spend less and do more. Cheap backpacking gear is what we’re after here without sacrificing too much on quality.
SHORT ON TIME?
CLICK HERE TO JUMP RIGHT TO THE GEAR LIST
How to Pick Budget Backpacking Gear
Understand Your Needs
One of the best ways to find the right budget gear is to understand the limits of your skill, your gear, and your needs. The more you know about your gear and the more skills you have stashed in your noggin, the less you really need to spend on the gear in the first place.
For instance, maybe you don’t really need a waterproof breathable Gore-Tex coat for hiking in the summer around the mountains of North Carolina. It’s going to be too hot and humid for that coat anyways. You might be better off going with a much cheaper ultralight backpacking rain jacket. Besides, it’ll be lighter in the pack anyway!
On the other hand, perhaps you’re hiking in the middle of winter. You need an outer shell jacket that is windproof and waterproof. That jacket needs to be able to manage perspiration. You could try an expensive WPB jacket, but you know that a non-breathable cheap waterproof jacket with pit-zips will do the job better and still cost less. You’re smart!
It’s easy to get sucked into buying more, bigger, heavier, or more expensive gear. Instead, make sure to stay true to your needs and work within the bounds of what you really need.
Know What to Leave Behind
If you’re willing to sacrifice some features you can find the gear that’s a lot cheaper in most cases.
For instance, imagine you need a GPS as a backup navigation system on the trail (or even a primary one). You could go out and buy the newest Garmin handheld mapping GPS and drop up to $700 on a brand new Montana model.
Instead, however, you know that what you really need the GPS for is a backup navigator. You upload the location of your car, each campsite, and a few emergency exits into a cheaper GPS like the eTrex 10 which sometimes costs as little as $85 new.
Understanding what features you can leave behind means you’ll better understand where to spend your money.
The same can be true of tents, hammocks, backpacks, and every other piece of gear.
Don’t Be Afraid of New Brands
When you go looking for cheap budget gear you’re guaranteed to venture into new brand names. You’ll be sorely disappointed in your search for the most affordable backpacking gear if you insist on sticking with name brands like The North Face, Patagonia, and other big names. These brands tack on a huge brand premium that all but disqualifies them from “budget” gear categories.
Today more than ever it’s easy to find new inexpensive brands making equivalent gear to what you’re used to getting from big name makers. A no-name polyester hiking shirt from Amazon is likely just as good as a Mountain Hardwear shirt for most hikers and yet will likely cost a fraction of the price, for instance.
I’ve actually found tons of gear and manufacturers that I love just by trying new products. Don’t be afraid to try cheap backpacking gear, you might be surprised!
Not every situation merits off-brand gear, however. There are some pieces of gear where I think it seems sensible to go with off-brand products and others where it might be prudent to stick with the proven brands.
For instance, I’m pretty likely to buy a cheap pair of off-brand merino/nylon blend socks as the consequence of them failing to meet expectations is likely relatively low. On the other hand, I might not be willing to save money on an off-brand cheap compass with mixed reviews. The consequences of that compass being inaccurate or failing are much too high to risk for saving a few bucks.
Weighing Cost vs Value
This one can be a bit hard to nail down. What constitutes value? To you, value may be getting $10 off the best name brand gear at nose bleed prices. To me, value may mean finding the absolute cheapest piece of gear that will do the job.
I have a buddy who makes good money and just the other day I noticed him using super glue to repair his old combat boots. He is more than capable of simply buying new boots but, to him, value comes in the form of getting the longest possible service life out of a single piece of gear – no matter what it takes. In all honesty, I’d probably just buy new boots but that’s me.
For me the process goes like this:
- 1Determine the must-have features.
- 2Determine the “nice to have” features.
- 3Find the best products on the market for my needs.
- 4Compare the cost savings between must-have features and nice to have features.
If I weigh the cost savings between nice features and required features and find that the price difference is substantial, you bet I’m likely to save the money and go for the cheaper product. This kind of ties into what we talked about earlier as far as understanding what features you really need and why.
Weight Savings Per Dollar Spent
Another way to measure cost versus value may be weight savings vs price.
For ultralight hikers like myself, weight savings is paramount. In fact, I used to make excel spreadsheets comparing the weight-savings and cost of gear to see which one was the best value.
Here’s an example using camping mugs. Let’s say I already own a mug that weighs 10 ounces. I’m comparing it to Mug A that weighs 8 ounces and costs $60 versus Mug B which weighs 9 ounces and costs $25.
At the core of the argument, Mug A is the “better mug” because it weighs the least. However, I want the best value for my money which in this case is weight savings per dollar spent.
So Mug A costs me ($60 / 2 ounces saved) = $30 per ounce of weight savings. Meanwhile, Mug B costs me ($25 / 1 ounce saved) = $25 per ounce of weight savings.
This is just one way to consider looking at value and cost as a backpacker.
The Best Budget Backpacking Gear of 2020
For this article, I’m going to use a heavy dose of personal judgment as well as a technical understanding of gear to make these decisions. Of course, if I fully explained every detail about how each piece of gear works and how to compare it to other gear in the same category this article would turn into a full-size coffee table reference manual.
That said, I will do my best to add notes and thoughts for your consideration as we go!
I actually just got done using my Sierra Designs quilt on a quick overnight in Michigan’s Huron National Forest. Temperatures dropped into the 30’s and yet the bag had no problem keeping up!
You’ll have a hard time finding a quilt with comparable specs at this price and I’ve tried a lot of backpacking quilts.
This is my top pick for a 3-season budget backpacking quilt.
A solid contender for second place, the Therm-a-Rest Corus is a great alternative sleeping bag.
Therm-a-Rest is a fantastic brand with great customer service and products – they stand behind their stuff! This is the same company that makes brands like Platypus, MSR, and others!
One big difference is that the Corus doesn’t have a mummy-style hood while the Sierra Designs does.
No name-brand here, just affordable performance. This pad is crazy light for the price and it’s quite thick, too!
Compare this to one of today’s category leaders – the Therm-a-Rest Neo Air xLite at 12 ounces. Sure, this pad is 2 ounces heavier than the Neo Air but you’ll save nearly $100 by going with the cheaper product.
It’s pretty hard to ignore the fantastic reviews, good price, and lightweight.
I’ve been using Sea-to-Summit dry bags for ages and really love them. They’re not the lightest weight dry bags out there, but they’re affordable and durable.
In this case, I recommend the eVent compression sack for storing your quilt. It will help compress your quilt into the smallest size when in your backpack. Plus, the eVent bottom helps release air so you don’t end up with a balloon in your backpack.
It doesn’t get much cheaper than this for a backpacking tarp.
Tarps are lightweight, flexible in setup, and can be used almost anywhere. There are cheaper options out there, but this one balances price with good user feedback and it comes with all the guylines and stakes you need.
This one is a bit heavy for a tarp, at about 24 ounces in total, but it’s super affordable so… we can’t have our cake and eat it, too – right?
If you’re going to hit the trail with a tarp for shelter, you need a groundsheet to go with it.
Groundsheets help protect your sleeping pad (inflatable ones) from damage that could happen be sleeping directly on forest floor debris.
They’re also helpful for keeping running rainwater off of your gear and your sleeping equipment. This one is so cheap that you’ll be hard pressed to find a better simple option.
At just over 4 pounds for a tent, I have to admit this tent feels a bit heavy for my personal tastes. But, as we said earlier, if we want things to be cheap we can’t expect them to also be cutting-edge, right?
This tent is a simple single person backpacking tent that will get the job done. And, unlike my first tent, it’s actually made from decent materials and should be up to the task of getting you on the trail and staying dry through rough nights.
For those who don’t feel comfortable trying a tarp, this is a great alternative option that will get the job done on the cheap.
These tents are almost identical to my all-time favorite tent stakes. The triangular Y-shape cross-section makes them hold well in soft or wet soil yet gives them the strength to push into hard soils.
You’ll save a little bit of money by going with these off-brand stakes.
There’s not a lot to lose by saving a few bucks on tent stakes so just do it.
There are no two ways around it. When it comes to cheap, affordable, lightweight backpacking stoves you just can’t argue with the Etekcity.
It may not have the build quality of some higher end stoves, but for the price, it’s hard to argue. Plus it comes with piezo ignition system where you can light the stove with the push of a button.
Don’t forget to pair this with a canister fuel for use in the field.
Usually, you’ll get a lot better performance out of your backpacking stove if you use a windscreen. No matter what type of stove you use, a windscreen helps keep heat from being carried away by moving air.
In some cases when you’re camping in an exposed location you’ll need a windscreen just to get the stove lit and stay running.
This one folds up so it can be tucked away without worrying about crushing it.
Sometimes people ask me what my favorite fire starting technique is. Surprise! It’s a Bic lighter.
All jokes aside, don’t forget to pack a lighter for your trip. A mini Bic is will last for several seasons of lighting stoves if you’re quick about it.
Pack one with your stove and one in your repair kit for backup.
In the spirit of keeping things nice and affordable, here’s a stainless steel cooking pot that won’t break the bank.
Sure, titanium is lighter, but stainless is cheap and durable and it will get the job done just fine! At 6.8 ounces you’ll have enough room to heat up and boil water for meals.
Learn more about ultralight meal preparation and easy freezer bag cooking recipes to improve your backpacking at our sister site Hike With Less!
If you know my work, you know that I love using long handle spoons with my freezer bag cooking on the trail. It’s simple, easy to use, easy to clean, and highly effective.
Plus, this method saves you money in the long run!
With a spoon, you can scrape clean your plate, bowl, or pot. Plus the front of this specific spoon has a flattened shape to it that helps with cleaning out all your bowls for less cleanup work!
Sea to Summit is my go-to for readily available, reliable dry bags.
For clothing, I’d go with an 8-13L dry bag depending on how much clothing you have and how bulky it is.
Remember these bags will trap air so be sure to squeeze the air out before you roll them up. There’s a bit of a technique to it. You’ll learn.
My first ever backpacking rain jacket was a Marmot PreCip. It lasted a long time and served me well.
Today one of the best rain jackets on the market for an affordable price is still the Marmot PreCip.
There are other affordable jackets out there but the Marmot PreCip is a good jacket from a good company that will serve you well and keep you dry at a pretty great price so it gets my solid stamp of approval.
Frogg Toggs gained popularity in the backpacking community because they’re cheap and they work just fine.
Are they the gear of choice for elite mountaineers in life or limb situations? Probably not.
These rain pants are fine, however, for those who want cheap pants to keep the legs dry in 3-season conditions. They are also notorious for being easy to repair with nothing more than just duct tape!
No matter what time of year it is, I like to carry a thin long-sleeve polyester hoodie.
Having clothes with built-in hoods means they can pull double duty and help keep you warm through a larger range of potential weather. Good!
Note: Polyester is important for moisture management and warmth retention in case it gets wet. Don’t use a generic cotton hoodie.
This is a great layer for around camp in the evening and morning or for hiking in when temperatures get a bit too crisp for a tee shirt.
Another versatile layer, the lightweight long sleeve shirt can be used for warmth, layering, or sun protection.
Personally, I usually carry a very lightweight long sleeve shirt like this in white color for keeping the sun off on those days when it’s blazing down. I hate slathering on sunscreen, but I burn easy!
Plus, having the long sleeve shirt in the bag adds another way to manipulate your layering to match the weather.
Cheap polyester hiking shirts have never been easier to find. Used to be I had to buy name-brand Mountain Hardwear shirts or other top-shelf brands. They easily cost $30-50 per shirt when you buy from these big brands.
Instead, this two-pack of generic polyester shirts will get the job done and save your wallet!
Note: There are many different thicknesses and weaves of polyester that can be used in shirts. These changes in manufacturing details can make a real impact on the way a shirt feels or performs in the field. You may have to experiment to find the right shirt from the right brand that feels comfy and wicks sweat away from the way you want. The perfect hiking shirt can be hard to pin down.
I love to use polyester running shorts with built-in liners as my short/underwear/pants on the trail. That means carrying less gear, using simpler systems, and staying comfy.
There are tons of advantages to this but suffice it to say that running shorts make a fantastic, cheap, and effective all-around 3-season choice for the bottom layer.
I look for shorts with smooth waistbands where the backpack hip belt will sit. Carry two pair to switch them out as needed, keep them clean, and keep one pair dry for sleeping in at night if you should choose.
Feetures socks are comfy, compressive, and made from durable and wicking materials. These are critical features in a backpacking sock in my view.
I like quarter socks because they’re just tall enough to make sure your shoes aren’t rubbing against skin. If you wear a tall boot you’ll want a longer sock.
These come in single pairs (one sock for each foot) and they have a lifetime guarantee on them for a replacement or refund.
It’s hard to find baselayer pants at a cheaper price than this. Plus, there are like two dozen colors or more (no joke) so you can find something you like.
Tight baselayer pants are a great layering option. I wear them under my running shorts on cool mornings. Wear them under your rain pants on cold days.
These are made from polyester and spandex. Polyester wicks away moisture and spandex allows them to hug the skin and remain comfortable.
A tight fitting polyester beanie is super important to any layering system for 3-season use.
I wear mine in camp at night and in the morning. Plus on cool nights I’ll sleep with it on since I usually use a quilt and not a mummy bag.
It’s also nice to have a beanie between your head and the rain jacket on cold rainy days.
An absorbent towel is super handy on backpacking trips. It might not be the most ultralight option out there, but I pack pretty light and it’s an item that makes the list for me so I feel good recommending you carry one as well.
These are great for drying out your tent if it gets wet, drying off after a rainstorm, cleaning up, and just about anything else you can think of on the trail.
Go with the smallest size you can get to save space and weight you don’t need something the size of a bath towel.
In the outdoor world, popular TV figures have convinced many people to carry huge knives, saws, multi-tools, and other obscenely large and heavy tools on the trail.
I’m here to tell you that in the overwhelmingly vast majority of likely situations, a simple Victorinox Classic will do the job just fine!
At under an ounce, you’ll have:
- Scissors (nail clippers)
- Nail File / Screwdriver
Sure there are times where it would have been nice to have a multi-tool, saw, or huge knife on the trail for me. I’ve yet to encounter a situation, however, where I couldn’t get the job done just fine with my little lightweight knife.
Keep it simple. Keep it light.
I started using Platy Bottles when I found that hard-sided bottles (I was using a traditional Nalgene at the time) wouldn’t fit into the side pockets on my full Osprey pack.
Since then I’ve come to love these durable, long-lasting, flexible water bottles. When they’re not full you can collapse them into almost nothing – I carry an extra (third one) one on most trips in case I need it.
They also weigh a fraction of what most hard-sided bottles weigh.
Overall I highly recommend that any backpacker give them a try. You might find, like I have, that these are hands down the best backpacking water bottles out there.
Let me first say that tent repair is just one part of a full repair kit. However, it’s a good starting point and it will get you going!
This repair tape is made to bond with ripstop nylon and gets you back into a waterproof/windproof territory quickly. It’s a solid field fix if done right.
Far from the original version of this style of backpacking trowel, this cheap aluminum trowel stands on the shoulders of its innovative predecessors.
Nevertheless, however, it’s still a cheap option that is lightweight and effective.
Proper disposal of human waste (poo) is critical to preserving the enjoyment of hiking areas for the users who come after you. Don’t be an idiot – bury your poo!
I use this stuff for everything!
- Hand washing
- Body wash
- Dish washing
- Minor wound cleaning
- Laundry on the trail
- Face wash
The list is practically endless.
Maybe one thing you overlooked was Dr. Bronner’s being used as toothpaste. Yes, it’s okay to do so. I’ve been using it as toothpaste on the trail for years and love it.
Some people don’t like the taste or the texture, but for me, I like to keep things simple so I use one bottle of Dr. Bronner’s for as many tasks as I can.
This little 4-ounce pump bottle is probably more than you need on the trail.
Honestly, I’ve been using an empty shampoo bottle from a hotel visit years ago (about 1 ounce in size) which I filled with mosquito spray from some generic pump bottle. It’s still working great.
I just put my thumb over the top of the bottle, shake a little on, and then rub it wherever I need bug spray. You can learn more tricks like this at our sister site, Hike With Less.
Pretty much everyone says these filters are the bees knees. I haven’t tried one yet so you’ll have to let me know how you like it.
They’re simple, lightweight filters that get the job done out there.
Personally, I still prefer to use bleach, iodine, or chlorine dioxide myself.
For hikers who tend to get wet feet and hike with wet feet (me!) some foot cream at the end of the day before bed can help repair soft feet.
I like to rub a little on before getting in my sleeping bag if my feet are particularly wet, soft, or beat up. It restores a bit of health to macerated feet.
Headlamps are where it’s at. Some lightweight hikers prefer hat clip lights or other alternatives, but a headlamp is by far the most applicable solution for most hikers.
I have always used a headlamp even when there are cheaper or lighter options because good light is important. If you’re forced to hike at night you need to be able to see what’s in the trail while keeping your hands free.
Plus if you roll into camp a bit late, good luck trying to set up your tent, tarp, or hammock while also holding a flashlight. Forgetaboutit.
Don’t forget an extra set of batteries.
Most of the time your cell phone is a vital companion on hiking trips. Making emergency calls, checking apps, or looking at your phone’s GPS are all great reasons to bring one along.
Plus, as time goes on, cell phones are getting reception on more and more trails every year.
If you take your phone, don’t forget to take a charging cable. A universal cable like this might save another hiker in a pinch who has a different phone than you do so you can share the love!
It doesn’t get much cheaper or more reliable than the tiny Anker PowerCore 5k. I’ve been using the old version of this charger on the trail for years.
It’s a good option for charging your phone once or twice as well as keeping your Kindle charged up for nighttime reading in the tent!
If you plan to use your phone a lot or if you’re going a long distance between resupplying, consider a larger battery pack like this one that will charge your phone many times.
Carried or Worn Gear
For the price, I doubt you’ll find a better backpack anywhere. This is a modern internal frame pack with extremely similar design and components to high-end brands like Deuter, Osprey, and Mountain Hardwear.
Sure, it might weight a bit more and it probably is lacking some of the refined design elements and ergonomics of packs three times its price, but what can you do? This pack should save you a load on your initial gear cost and it will get you out on the trail for a few seasons before you upgrade.
I like that it has a fully adjustable torso length, sternum strap, and hip pads with two sets of load stabilizer straps.
As long as you fit and adjust this pack properly it ought to keep you going pretty well out there.
There’s a lot to know about hiking poles and how to choose the right ones.
In general, I avoid the shock absorbing poles. They don’t do any good and they weigh a lot!
Instead, I look for the lightest weight poles I can find. You’ll be carrying them all day every day, so keep them light.
These are three piece poles that snap together with a single adjustable segment at the top. They’re similar to some of my favorites from Black Diamond.
I got a pair of these bad boys a while ago as a gift and I’ve been happy with them. They’re extremely affordable, but they’re pretty well polarized so I feel good recommending them as a cheap hiking option.
One of the best things for on the trail is the included case so you can store them in your pack without getting them scratched.
They also come with a micro-fiber cleaning cloth to keep the lenses in top shape.
La Sportiva makes some of the best footwear in trail running and climbing (in my view). I’ve been hiking in their trail running shoes for years and I wouldn’t go anywhere else!
These shoes have a nice rubberized lower to keep rocks, dirt, and dust from getting into the shoes quite so easy. On top is a very thin mesh upper that dries out quickly and stays cool when hiking.
Trail runners are a great 3-season backpacking option for footwear that I recommend to everyone!
I think I’ve been hiking with this hat since I started. Outdoor Research makes some great headwear and handwear so it’s no surprise to me that their Swift Cap is still popular years later.
This hat is made from a thin mesh that has a vertical strip of solid fabric over it. It’s very comfortable, cool, and it keeps your head safe from the sun. I burn easily so it’s a must-have for me!
I highly recommend giving the Swift Cap a try. It packs up nice, too.
Wow, that was a big list!
I included every item from my personal backpacking checklist on this round-up. What I didn’t do, however, was include duplicates. I mentioned T-shirts, but it’s up to you to decide how many you should carry.
If you cover all the gear categories on this list you’ll be good to hit the trail! Do a little research and tailor this list for the time of year you’ll be going out and you’ll save yourself a ton of time.
My goal was to share with you all the major gear categories and gear pieces that you need to get started and to show you the cheapest versions of them that will get the job done.
No, the gear on this list isn’t the “best” of the best. It will, however, get you out on the trail having fun at a very affordable price!
There’s nothing wrong with getting started on the cheap and slowly upgrading. I can’t tell you how many backpacking stoves I’ve owned over the years looking for the perfect one. I wish I had started with something cheap but instead, I’ve bought expensive gear over and over again looking for the right thing.
Get out there on the cheap and have fun while you keep your wallet full!