New backpackers are often surprised at how expensive backpacking can be. “Isn’t it just going for a walk in the woods?” Well, sort of.
To backpack safely and comfortably, there are actually several pieces of gear which make all of the difference and their price points can really start to add up. Tents, sleeping bags, footwear, base layers, backpacks, cookware – the list is almost endless. On top of that, lightweight gear is often more expensive, due to the fabrics used and manufacturing processes.
In short, you don’t have to spend a fortune to enjoy backpacking. You will likely be overweight and under-prepared for your first few trips anyway. The more you backpack, the more you will start to pare down your weight and only spend money where you really need it.
Here are our top tips for deciding where you should spend your money, depending on your level of experience and comfortability…
Expensive vs Cheap Backpacking Gear
Backpacking is often considered dangerous, as you are removed from society and out in the wilderness, often for days at a time. Having cheap gear that falls apart, is uncomfortable or doesn’t work properly can put you in danger, or in a very bad mood at the least.
That being said, there are some areas where it is okay to “cheap-out” and spend a little less money. I try to prioritize gear from things that could save my life, down to luxuries like bedtime socks and foldable poop-shovels (yes, really.) I spend more money on the things I need, and see how much is left over to add certain levels of comfort for my trip.
For example, my priorities for hiking around the Pacific Northwest and similar climates may be:
3. Sleeping bag
5. Rain jacket and pants
1. Sleeping pad
2. Thermal Jacket
3. Wicking baselayer (one set)
4. Merino wool socks
1. Backpacking food
2. T-shirts and pants
3. Cookware (Stove and pots etc.)
This is not a comprehensive backpacking list, nor the same list that other people might come up with, but it is a good starting place.
For me, keeping warm and dry if Crap Hits the Fan is my number one priority, hence the prioritization of rain gear and a good tent and sleeping bag. I know that at the very least I will have a dry place to regulate my body heat if I really need to.
I also really hate backpacking with an uncomfortable pack, so I splurge on those.
Are expensive backpacks worth it?
It is a difficult question to answer, as it largely comes down to your personal preferences. For me, absolutely yes they are worth it! When trekking with a poorly-fitting or cheap pack, it can really start to bring down your mood. If your trail is difficult or the weather takes a turn, then you really are in danger of becoming totally miserable.
I like the comfort of knowing that no matter what: my pack will carry the load I put in it, it fits properly and the hip belt takes the weight off my shoulders, and it has a good level of organization so I can find things quickly when I need to.
What if I’m brand new to backpacking?
If you are new to backpacking, then I would suggest borrowing one from a friend or finding a used one and heading out on a 2-day trail. This will quickly identify any areas of the backpack you are uncomfortable with, and which features you like – which will then help inform your decision to choose one that you’ll love.
My Recommended Pack for Backpacking…
I have to say, I am a total Osprey convert. I have been using my Osprey Ariel AG 65 for three years and love it so much. I chose the 65L model as I was also traveling abroad to go backpacking, but many people find that the 55L is the best size for multi-day trips.
I love the use of compartments, sturdy material and the way that the hip-belt takes almost all of the weight off my shoulders. I once had an eye-watering 50lbs in my pack on a 2-day Patagonian hike (I was carrying a lot of personal items as well, in order to cross the border!) and it felt comfortable right until the end.
Osprey also have an amazing “Almighty Lifetime Guarantee” across all of their products, and their customer service is top-notch.
Also read: Osprey Atmos AG 65 Backpack Review
Why Are Backpacking Tents So Expensive?
Backpacking tents are made of a combination of materials which allow them to be waterproof, breathable, lightweight and sturdy all at once. It is a difficult combination to perfect, and as each of those categories improves – so the price increases.
If you consider that a tent is essentially a portable house that needs to stand up in strong winds, keep rain out yet pack-down to the size of a laptop – then the price is quite understandable.
My recommended tent for backpacking…
I love my MSR Hubba Hubba NX and have used it for over three years. I have camped out in some pretty windy, rainy spots and it has never once failed me. I usually pack the tent poles on the outside of my pack, and use the rest as internal padding around my food and cookware.
I chose the two-person version because I wanted the option to camp with other people, but I probably should have gone for the MSR Hubba NX one-person version to save even more space and weight – mine is like a palace when camping alone, and all for under 4lbs!
Also read: What Is the Best Two Person Tent?
Do I need expensive hiking boots for backpacking?
Quality footwear is absolutely essential. Your boots or shoes need to be strong enough to carry your weight plus up to 40lbs extra over uneven, rocky and damp terrain. Suffering an ankle injury or feeling miserable from sore feet is something you really want to avoid on a backpacking trip.
Again, it is possible to find great boots for discounted prices, but it is a little harder to test boots as they have break-in periods. As a general rule, if you find a pair you like – hold on to them and then buy them again once yours give out!
My recommended hiking boots…
I love my Lowa Renegade Mid GTX hiking boots. I have had two of these consecutively and wouldn’t trade them for anything! They are so supportive with a heavy pack, totally waterproof and breathe really well.
Do I need a lightweight sleeping bag for backpacking?
For me, the sleeping bag is one of the most important items. When I am totally beat at the end of the day on the trail, I find infinite comfort in the thought that I can curl up somewhere safe and warm.
Down is a great material as it is super warm yet compressible. There are many entry-level sleeping bags which are totally adequate for a backpacking trip. Some synthetic models are really great too, and they dry much faster than down which is preferable for wet climates.
For most new backpackers, the difference between a $200 and $500 sleeping bag will be a few pounds and a few cubic inches of space, and it just isn’t worth the extra money.
When you start really getting into it and that bit of space and weight becomes really important, then you might want to consider purchasing a more expensive, smaller sleeping bag. In the meantime, cut down on non-essentials like extra food and luxury items!
My Sleeping bag for backpacking recommendation…
I am very emotionally attached to my Mountain Hardwear HyperLamina Spark sleeping bag. It is not the warmest or lightest, but it has been on every adventure and has never let me down. I am not sure that it is still being manufactured, but if you ever come across one then you’ll have yourself a very good sleeping bag.
I’ve also used a friend’s Kelty Cosmic 20 on multiple occasions when I needed something warmer. This is a hugely popular sleeping bag among new and seasoned backpackers, for its combination of price, weight and warmth. You won’t go wrong with a Kelty Cosmic!
Tips for backpacking on a budget:
1. Know your brands
Most well-known brands will be more expensive than knock-offs. I am usually happy to pay this price difference as I know that behind the scenes, a lot of work has gone into the R&D, manufacturing and testing processes to make sure that the items I buy are top-quality.
Do some research and find consistently top-rated brands, then figure out which sit within your price range. There are certainly some out there which add on an extra few hundred bucks for their brand name, under the illusion of “higher quality”.
2. Shop around
You don’t have to buy directly from the manufacturer to get good gear. Shopping at outlets and other retailers is a great way to find gear cheaper, especially if they are trying to sell off last seasons’ must-haves or surplus stock.
3. Don’t write-off used or discounted gear!
Take a look through your existing gear. How many items have small holes, stiff zippers or a few blemishes, but still work totally fine? There’s a misconception that used outdoor gear is no longer safe, but this is simply not true.
Thrift stores are a great way to find bargains when it comes to outdoor gear! Just make sure you fully inspect the item before you purchase it. Yes, I have put up a tent in the middle of a thrift store before, much to the entertainment of the staff.
Secondly, keep a list of the things you want to buy. When it reaches the end of season, new models will replace your “dream items” and they will very possibly be available for cheap at places like REI Outlet. Remember, there will always be a “better” version in the pipeline – it is how companies stay afloat – but don’t be conned into thinking that last year’s gear is no longer good enough.
Should I buy Ultralight backpacking gear?
Ultralight backpacking is more of a frame of mind than anything. A base weight of 12 to 25 lbs is considered “ultralight” and is usually undertaken by experienced backpackers who are looking to trim every possible ounce from their gear, perhaps for an ambitious thru-hike or a personal challenge.
As a beginner, I don’t recommend jumping straight on the ultralight train for two reasons:
1. Ultralight gear is considerably more expensive!
The fabrics and manufacturing processes for ultralight gear does bump up the price an awful lot. An ultralight down sleeping bag can cost you three times as much as a regular (and still very lightweight!) backpacking sleeping bag.
2. Ultralight gear requires care and experience
Many ultralight enthusiasts sleep under lightweight tarps or simple bivy sacks – and these can be a little daunting for people who haven’t spent much time in the backcountry!
Ultralight gear is also generally less durable because the fabrics are so thin. If you jump right in as a beginner you may spend a lot of money, only to rip or snag your gear through improper care.
It is much better to start with your standard backpacking get-up, refining your gear and weight over years as you do more backpacking trips.
My final thoughts…
I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it again: I love backpacking! It is one of the most rewarding activities; but the gear side of things can feel overwhelming. Instead of spending too much time in front of a computer researching what to buy – get out there with what you have and see how it works, then adjust and swap things out accordingly.
There is no such thing as “the perfect backpacking list” and it is totally down to your personal preferences. ~ Happy trails!
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Suzie Hall has a passion for all things wild and is a scuba diver and Orcalab researcher based in Hanson Island off the north coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. She spends most of her time exploring this great wide earth and her travels have taken her to some remarkable locations including Patagonia, Kyrgyzstan and the wild British Columbia coast. Fueled by a drive to protect our wild spaces and their inhabitants, Suzie works in conservation projects around the globe and lives to write about the amazing people, places and wildlife she encounters.