For the budget-conscious backpacker, a trip to your local backpacking store can be disheartening, and upon first glance, it may even seem that the price of a little trip to the woods is prohibitively expensive. If you’re into having the newest items with the most marketing behind them, be prepared to pay through the nose. Otherwise, as long as you have some time and patience you can put together everything you need without breaking the bank. Here are my tips, compiled back from when I was a cash-strapped college student who preferred to take summers off for backpacking.
Tips for getting good deals on hiking gear:
- Take your time. Start looking for your summer gear in January. This is simple supply and demand -- in the United States, I often see a rise in used backpacking gear on eBay after Christmas, and it tends to sell on the low-end due to the lack of demand this time of the year.
- Stay out of the backpacking store unless you're headed for their bargain barn. Except in the returns department, it's rare to find fair prices on gear from major retailers. Check for outlet malls or for online bargain websites instead.
- Look for used gear: This is a big one, and likely the best path to get the highest-quality gear for the lowest price. Make a list of everything you need. If you have a decent thrift store nearby, routinely stop by to see if any items on your wishlist come through. Once you know the layout of the store, it will only take you a few minutes to do this.
- Garage sales are a great place to find hiking gear. Check Craigslist for garage sales in your area.
- Shop eBay in the off-season to find big-ticket items like tents and sleeping bags. There won't be as much bidding competition in the off-season, and items will often close for lower prices than average.
- Check out military surplus for modern-issue gear. Many famous name sporting goods equipment manufacturers supply the military as well as the general public. One example is Therm-a-Rest, which has been supplying the military with some of its best sleeping pad models (in drab green) for many years.
- See if your local sporting goods store resells returned items. The Seattle REI is famous locally for “the basement.” Smaller REIs usually have a "yard sale" once a year.
- Consider alternative styles of gear (which are frequently lighter too) as these are sometimes cheaper. I have a few good examples where this is true: First, tarps (favored by long-distance hikers) tend to be much cheaper (and lighter) than a lightweight tent. Second, long rain ponchos make great replacements for a set of waterproof pants and a jacket. Ponchos are usually very light, and they are much more comfortable than a rain suit due to the open ventilation. They are pretty effective except in the windiest of conditions, and most backpacking models are made to cover a backpack too. Lastly, solid fuel stoves are typically much lighter than conventional backpacking stoves, and can be found for as little as $10 new.
Amazon.com is also a great source for discounts on overstocked sizes and styles of items. There can be massive price variations between one size of a shoe and the next half-size up. The deals are a bit hard to find on Amazon.com, however. Use a deal finder like BlueMoon Deals to quickly find the best bargains in your sizes.
In summary, make it a habit to go to your backpacking gear retailer only after you've exhausted all other avenues for finding the gear you need. You can get the biggest bang for your buck by buying used gear at thrift stores, garage sales, on eBay, or by shopping the returned merchandise department of a large sporting goods store. When you buy new gear, check for outlet malls or online deal-finding websites like BlueMoon deals. New backpacking gear can undergo tremendous markup before hitting store shelves, and consequently, retailers are willing to drop prices drastically to offload overstocked merchandise. If you want to build up a good set of backpacking gear for a reasonable price, there is no reason why you can't. All you need is a little patience and a dab of luck.