Going out on your very first backpacking or camping trip can be a very daunting proposition, all the gear that needs to be accumulated and money spent, not to mention the skills learned. Even if you’re excited about backpacking it’s hard to justify spending money on expensive gear for an activity you don’t know if you will repeat. Believe me, I know! Every time we wind up at our local outfitter I'd see Beylah's eyes bulge at the prices and body shift toward the cheapest item on the shelf. There is, however, some compromise to be found in investing in quality products that don't break the bank, and every time we're out on a mountain or get in our tent at night, our smiles are constant reminders of it.
This is intended as a guide to help save money on the right items and take a little bit of the pain out of your first backpacking trip.
1. Tent ($100-200 or Rent) The key trade off you'll be making when buying a tent is weight vs. cost, you don't want to skimp on things like aluminum poles, a full rain fly, or durable (rip stop nylon) materials. A one person tent should not weigh more than 5lbs, and a 3 person tent (comfortably sleeps a couple) should not weigh more than 10lbs. REI, Kelty, and Eureka! are reasonable entry level brands. Try to steer clear of Coleman and go with a more reputable brand.
Renting a tent for the first trip is an option, however a quality tent is something you can hang on to for the better part of a decade and drag along on any adventure including car camping.
2. Backpack ($150-200 or Rent)
There is no need to pick up a big monster backpack that's going to store 2 weeks of gear for your first trip. Less is more. An entry level bag should be roughly 60-70 cubic liters. (Don't ask me why they use that system of measurement...) Fret not about getting a bag with lots of pockets and organizers either.
You'll want to learn how to efficiently carry most of your gear in the main compartment anyway. While you're at the store, make sure to take the time to try the pack on with a little weight in it, get it adjusted for your height and size, and have a salesperson show you the basics of how to load it with the weight distributed appropriately. A good internal frame pack should have nicely padded shoulders and a strong hip belt. It’s better to rent a quality pack if you can’t afford a well-constructed one then buy something cheap.
3. Sleeping Bag ($90-120) Getting the right sleeping bag is going to be a function of what kind of weather you're camping in than how much you want to spend. Start by looking at synthetic down sleeping bags rated about 20 degrees (their comfort rating is going to be around freezing). That should get you through most camping environments. However favorable conditions might allow you to purchase a bag with a higher temperature rating and save some cash. Don't worry too much about how much the bag weighs, if you get really into backpacking you'll probably upgrade to a goose down bag at some point. The North Face and Mountain Hardwear both make some excellent entry level bags which punch above their weight. Don’t rent a sleeping bag though. Nothing beats the feeling of snuggling down inside a toasty bag on a cold mountain night, the last thing you want to worry about is who was curled up in the bag before you.
4. Sleeping Pad ($50-100)
Mo' Comfort = Mo' Money. You'll want to make sure you pick up a self-inflating pad, not foam. Open cell will save you money, but closed cell will be more comfortable. Therma-Rest offers some very excellent pads for roughly $100 but you can pick up a cheaper pad for around $50 that sacrifices a little bit of comfort and durability. Make sure the pad is intended for backpacking and not car camping. There are a number of luxury pads on the market only suitable for car camping because of their size and weight. Your pad should only weigh about a pound.
5. Stove ($100) I'm going to endorse one particular product, the JetBoil Group Cooking System, as an entry level stove. You don't need to worry about any of the small difficulties like priming that other stoves require. It even self ignites so you won’t need matches or a lighter. For about $100 it's a solid system which offers performance for pretty much all but the most extreme environments. Alternatively, MSR makes some less expensive systems which may be more difficult to light and use.
6. Water Filter ($50)
Don't worry about a water purifier at first unless you're venturing into the third world. Pick up an MSR water filter for about $50. They're all essentially the same, like a hand pump Britta filter. A filter covers 99% of germs, including giardia and won’t leave a funny taste in your water that you get from chemical treatment. The comfort and small cost to know you can get drinkable water anywhere is well worth this small investment, and surely beats the weight of carrying around 20 Nalgenes!
Don't worry about expensive hiking clothing, just time the weather right and don't do difficult trails. Still, I always carry a light rain jacket and extra pair of socks just in case! Monster trails where you are sweating like crazy will require specialized clothing but that's not the place to start. Do something local, build up your confidence and then hit those dream trails when you're good and ready!
Cost to buy gear: $500-600
Cost to buy/rent gear: $200-$300
Coybow camping (camping under a simple tarp, rather than a tent) saves a lot of money. In good conditions you don't really need a tent, and if the weather goes south you can get by hiding under just a tarp. I can't say I suggest this (I feel like a big bear burrito under the stars), but it saves a lot of money on buying a tent because you can pick up a $5 tarp at Target and hit the trail right away.
Down Jackets are magically warm, practically weightless, and compress down to the size of nothing. A good down jacket is between $100-200 but the cozy feeling of being wrapped up in goose down in camp is invaluable, right?