The Budgeted Backpacker’s Guide to Gear

Reaching the summit of a mountain after days of hiking is an exciting moment for a hiker, and she did it because of her stamina, drive, and, her equipment. Backpacking gear can either make or break a multiday trip. Hiking gear can be expensive, but there is good quality equipment offered at a more affordable price. For those on a budget, remember: buying equipment is an investment, but once you get it, it will last for a long time. Follow these tips on how to find the best equipment needed to have a good time hiking, at a lower price.

Remember: With all the gear you choose, look for brands that you are familiar with and trust. All of the gear listed in this guide can be found at an REI or Eastern Mountain Sports near you.

Boots and Socks: Don’t Let Your Feet Be the Problem

Boots and socks are two very different items for one body part, but they are equally as important. Hiking on rougher terrain and carrying more weight than usual wears on the feet. Finding the right boot and sock combination is essential in order to hike safely and to have a good time. Look for comfortable, durable, waterproof and stiff-soled boots. Backpacking boots are designed for all varieties of loads, on or off the trail. They have varying degrees of flex and usually require some break-in time.

Do not just buy shoes and then wear them on a strenuous hike. Take time to break them in by wearing them on a regular basis.

There are multiple different boot cuts. Generally, low-cut boots are not good for backpacking because there is a greater chance of injury when carrying a heavier load. Mid-cut boots wrap around the ankle and offer cushioning and protection. They are smart choice for shorter multiday trips with a moderate load. High-cut boots offer leverage and full ankle support.

Look for boots with Gore-Tex®. This membrane keeps feet dry in wet environments with a slight trade off in breathability. Vibram® rubber is used on the outsoles and is known for grip and durability.

Feet should not slide inside of the boot. A good-fitting boot will hold your foot in place without being too tight or too loose. When buying, walk on inclines and declines. If you detect heel-lift on inclines, adjust the laces on top of the insteps and check again. On declines, toes should not feel too compacted in the toe box or slide forward.

Take the weight of the boot into consideration when buying. People tend to forget that while backpacking, they are carrying everything, including their shoes. You don’t want to pick too a heavy boot when carrying a lot of weight. Look for a boot that weighs less than 3 lbs 8 oz. The lighter the boot, the easier it will be to lift up your foot for that next step up the mountain.

Boots will be the one item that it will be necessary to splurge on. Getting the right boot is essential; even if this is the most expensive item you’ll buy for hiking. If the boot is not right, it could ruin the entire trip.

Check out a few of these:

Men’s: Merrell Moab Gore-Tex XCR: $99.95; 1 lb. 15 oz.

Garmont Flash 3 XCR: $139.95; 2 lbs. 8 oz.

Salomon 3D Fastpacker Mid Gore-Tex: $150.00; 2 lbs. 2 oz.

Merrell Outbound Mid-Leather Gore-Tex: $210.00; 3 lbs. 5 oz.

Women’s: Merrell Moab Gore-Tex XCR: $99.95; 1 lb. 13 oz.

Vasque Breeze Gore-Tex XCR: $140.00; 2 lbs. 6 oz.

Patagonia P26 Mid Gore-Tex: $199.95; 1 lb. 12.6 oz.


Socks are extremely important as well. Get backpacking socks because they offer the right cushioning, durability, support, versatility in regulating body temperatures, and efficiency in evaporating and wicking away moisture. Look for wool socks, especially merino wool. Merino wool will help keep your feet dry and therefore defends against funguses and blisters. Smartwool™, Eastern Mountain Sports, and REI are very good brands of socks. You will want to buy at least three pairs of socks so that you can alternate them each day. Try your thickest pair of socks on when trying on your boots.

Clothing: Hike in Style and Comfort.

Clothing is one of the easiest pieces of gear to purchase. However, the tricky part it is limiting what you buy. Make sure to conserve weight; if done right, clothing can weigh the least.

Layering is very important. No matter what season you are hiking in, temperatures can drop or rise at any time. Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) makes a brand called Techwick™. This brand offers superior wicking and is engineered to pull sweat away from the body. It has low moisture pickup and doesn’t retain moisture, but it has a fast dry time. Remember, the drier you are, the more comfortable you will be, and the drier your clothing is, the lighter it will be. Techwick™ makes sports bras, underwear, short-sleeve shirts and long-sleeve shirts. For pants, look for convertibles, which change from pants to shorts in one zip. The prices range from $11.00 for tank tops and under garments to $79.00 for leggings and fleeces.

Eastern Mountain Sports also provides a nice layering program called SYNCWear. It has a series of rainwear and fleece jackets that can be zipped together. EMS brands are generally cheaper, but are great quality items and will last a long time. These items range from $35.00 to $100.00 in price.



Backpacks: The Weight Savers

The length of the trip determines the correct capacity of the backpack needed for the hike. There are daypacks, multiday packs and extended-trip packs. It makes sense to bring a small daypack along with a multiday pack on the trip. The daypacks come in handy for quick treks up a mountain. With all gear, go with a brand that you are familiar with and that you trust. For packs, look for Osprey, REI, and Black Diamond.

When looking for a pack, look for the capacity. This is the amount of liters that the pack will hold and will determine whether or not the pack will be able to hold everything needed for a multiday trip.

Fit is the most important feature. If the pack doesn’t fit your body correctly, it can cause back pain and foot pain. Measure your torso length to figure out the fit for the pack. There are different sizes (small, medium, and large) to fit especially to your torso length. Here is how to measure your torso:

If the hip belt feels uncomfortable on a pack, look to see if you can get the belt custom molded to fit your body. Custom molding improves fit, eliminates pain or hot spots, and reduces break-in time on the trail. Packs with adjustable suspension can also fine-tune the fit of the pack to your torso. These packs are lighter and less complex. Remember, you are carrying everything inside of the pack, as well as the pack itself. So, keep the weight of the pack as light as possible:


REI Flash 65: $169.00; 3 lbs. 2 oz.

Osprey Atmos 50: $199.00; 3 lbs. 6 oz.

Black Diamond Infinity 60: $219.95; 3 lbs. 13 oz.

These packs all have the capacity of multiday packs that have the key features that should be in a pack, good fit, and adjustable suspension. They are also in the lower price range for backpacks.

Sleeping Bags and Pads: Sleep Tight.

Sleep is what hikers need in order to recoup from a long day of hiking and physical exertion. Choosing a bag and pad that will fit you best can be difficult, but it is possible. When backpacking, you will want to keep the weight down while keeping comfort.

There are two types of bags: goose down and synthetic. Goose-down is very light, easily compressible, durable and breathable. Do not get a down bag wet because the feathers will bunch together and the bag will not be as warm. These bags are more expensive, but are worth it in the long run. Synthetic bags excel in damp and cold weather; therefore it is possible to get through the night in a damp bag. These bags are cheaper, however, they do not compact as easily as down bags and are a bit heavier.

There is a big difference between men and women’s bags. Men stay warmer than women and therefore require less insulation per unit of warmth in their bags. Women’s bags are made to fit a woman’s contours. They are usually cut shorter and are narrower at the shoulders and wider at the hips. Extra insulation is added in the upper body and in the footbox. These are just a few bags, but remember that both goose down and synthetic bags come in many temperatures, not just the ones listed below.

Marmot Trestles +15º: $99.00; 3 lbs. 10 oz. Synthetic

REI Radiant +25º: $179.00; 2 lbs. 5 oz. Goose-Down

REI Halo +40º: $199.00; 1 lb. 8 oz. Goose-Down

These bags are meant for backpacking in weather above fifteen degrees Fahrenheit. They are also on the lower range of prices for bags.

Sleeping pads are another necessity for better sleep in the wilderness. They provide insulation and cushioning. The pad will capture air warmed by your body and keep the air from leaking into the ground beneath you. For backpacking, you will want a more comfort so you can sleep better. Choose from pads with greater thickness and durability but also look for less weight. When buying a pad, test it out in the store and look for the amount of cushioning that you require, the length and width you prefer, the “packability”, and the amount of time it takes to inflate. Don’t worry; you won’t get any weird looks. There will probably be someone else on the floor next to you.

A great pad that costs a small amount is the REI Lite Core 1.0. This pad is self-inflating and only costs 59.50 with an average weight of 15 oz.

Tents: The Portable Homes

Tents protect hikers from the elements during the day and night. When backpacking, you want to minimize the tent weight without getting rid of comfort and safety. The type of tent needed for most backpackers is a backpacking 3-season (spring, summer and fall) tent. This is the most popular model because it provides privacy, water protection, and a bug-proof space. Screened panels allow ventilation and stargazing. There are also zippered flaps that can be closed to increase the temperature inside and to windproof the tent.

When purchasing a tent, think about the size of your group. The smaller the size of your group, the cheaper the tent will be. Also consider the interior space, vestibules for storing gear, and weight.

A great tent is the REI Half Dome 2. This two person tent costs $179.00, has two doors, vestibules for storage outside of the tent, and a total package weight of 5 lbs. 8 oz. If the tent is split between two people, each person will carry about 2 lbs. 8 oz.


Check these websites for deal updates and sales:

Both REI and Eastern Mountain Sports have student deals. Eastern Mountain Sports offers a 20% discount on all EMS full price brands, and a 15% discount on all national full price brands. By joining the EMS mailing list, you will receive updates on sales and receive coupons. REI members get the annual REI member refund: 10% on eligible purchases.

Customer service at both of these stores is very good, and the sales associates have experience in backpacking. Ask any question and they will be able to answer it.

So now that you have the information, go out and get started on planning a great multiday trip. Have fun, stay safe, and remember to thank your backpacking gear.