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How to pack for your first multi-day hike for about $250

Hiking can be an expensive hobby, and we’re constantly bombarded by shiny, new gear that promises to be ultralight, and ultra-efficient. Here’s how to go on an adventure on a budget.

Rear view mountaineer hiking woman with backpack and hiking poles standing alone on mountain top on ...
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I’m a firm believer that thru-hiking can, and should be, a cheap pursuit. That’s not to say that you won’t get better quality gear by spending a few extra bucks. As you spend more and more time in the backcountry, you’ll find that you’re inclined to splurge on the gear that matters, but the outdoors should be accessible to everyone.

If you’re strapped for cash, or new to thru-hiking, and don’t know whether you’ll enjoy it, you’re in luck: you can get all the gear you need for a thru-hike for under $250, and it’ll be decent quality, too.

My first thru-hiking adventure was as a student, and my backpack was more duct tape than fabric by the end of it. Needless to say, I learned how to prepare for the wild on a budget.

Which things should I spend more on?

The most important bit of gear is your tent, and this is where I’ve really noticed the quality difference. Yes, you can get a tent for $10, but it will be more like a beach shelter, and it doesn’t keep rain out in anything heavier than a shower.

Depending on the temperatures that you’re going to experience, I’d also recommend spending extra on a good quality sleeping bag. Getting a lightweight sleeping bag that also keeps you warm comes with a much higher price tag, so if you’re on a budget, consider which is most important. Are you mostly camping in summer? Prioritize lightweight. Winter camping or camping in exposed areas? Go for warmth, and suck up carrying the extra weight, or invest in a fleece liner to combine with a summer sleeping bag, which can be bought cheaply and packs down small.

If you can, definitely! Remember that you can also sell your old gear. Another great way to get bargains is to shop out of season. Warm sleeping bags and base layers will be cheaper in summer when demand is lower. For your first backcountry adventure, consider borrowing gear from friends or renting. That way you won’t waste money if you decide that you hate camping.

Ready to go on an adventure without breaking the bank? Here’s all the gear you need. (Note: I haven’t included clothes, other than hiking shoes. I’m assuming that you have some sports clothes already. If not, start with a nudist trail).

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Camping

If you spend on just one thing, make it the tent. Unless the weather is very, very favorable, a pop-up beach shelter won’t cut it. The Closnature 1-Person Tent is very lightweight, weighing just 3.7 pounds. There’s a separate rainfly and sturdy and spacious dome structure, and a repair kit to help your gear to last longer.

After your tent, your sleeping bag is the most important bit of gear to invest in. The Oaskys Camping Sleeping Bag is a three-season bag, designed for use between 10 and 20 degrees Celsius (around 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s a fairly small window, so if you’re camping during the winter or in exposed places, take thermals to wear at night or invest in a liner to go with it. It’s waterproof, made from breathable fabric, and at just three pounds, it’s not particularly heavy.

It’s incredible how much heat you lose by camping without a sleeping pad, and even a really thin one will keep you much warmer than simply sleeping on the ground. The R-Value on the Forclaz M100 Foam Hiking Mattress is only 1.2 (read more about R-Values and sleeping pads here), so this is definitely made for summer campouts, but it’s good value. It weighs 7.4 ounces, and being made from foam, saves you the hassle of blowing up a sleeping pad to inflate it.

Taking a pillow is a matter of personal preference, and if you’re scrimping on weight you can easily use a sweater stuffed inside your sleeping bag carry sack instead. Some people can’t sleep without a pillow, and the REI Klymit Pillow X is a good value, lightweight option, which being inflatable packs down very small. The bottom is made from durable 75-denier fabric making it very resistant to punctures on uneven terrain.

The Walmart LED Headlamp Flashlight is rechargeable, so there’s no need to buy batteries. A headlamp is essential for any backcountry adventure, but even more so during the winter when the days are short. Without one, if the trail takes longer than expected and you’re left hiking in the dark, you’ll struggle. Most of us have phones with flashlights now, but phone batteries are temperamental in extreme temperatures, and it’s much easier to hike and set up camp with a light strapped to your head, rather than handheld.

Walking

It might be tempting to set off on a hike in your sneakers, but they tend to have less grip and don’t give your ankles as much support on uneven, steep ground. The Sierra Hi-Tec Skamania Hiking Boots are waterproof with a breathable membrane, a thick, padded collar to prevent ankle chafing, and good cushioning on the removable insole. Make sure to pair them with some good-quality socks.

There’s plenty of debate over what size backpack to go for for a thru-hike. Being short, I like 40-liter packs, particularly if they have daisy chains and straps to attach any extras to the outside, but taller women and men might prefer a 65-liter pack. The Ozark Trail 40 Liter Hiking Backpack has an adjustable back panel to fit most heights, comes with a rain cover, and is compatible with hydration packs.

If you’re going on a reasonably flat expedition, you might not need trekking poles, but if there are going to be a lot of steep declines, a good set of poles will do wonders for your knees, and help you to gain momentum on an uphill climb. The Sierra Mountain Gear Series 6 Trekking Poles have three sections for easy height adjustment, come with hand straps and trekking baskets to prevent them from sinking into mud or snow, and are sometimes on sale for as little as $10.

Eating

I love a stove with automatic piezo ignition because you don’t even need to worry about forgetting a lighter. The Gas One Backpacking Stove comes with a carry case and is super compact and lightweight, and comes with a small gas canister for your first backcountry adventure. The stove arms are quite small, but they’re serrated so they grip pans well for their size, and the flame strength is easy to control.

Once, I went on a thru-hike where my stove broke and all I ate was flapjacks. It was miserable, and I had an upset stomach. Take a stove with you. It’s also great to be able to prepare a hot meal and drink to warm yourself up when you’re outdoors all day.

The Platypus SoftBottle is a pouch bottle that rolls up when empty, saving on space. The one-liter capacity is good for a half-day hike, or anywhere with regular water sources, but if you’re going off for multiple days, take more than one bottle. Remember to pack a filter and/or purifier if you’re traveling somewhere which doesn’t have safe drinking water.

The Quechua MH100 1-Person Camping Cookset is suitable for all types of stove (wood burner, gas, and induction). It includes a pan, lid, bowl, knife, fork and spoon, and since the pan handle is foldable, everything fits inside the saucepan. The lid is perforated with holes so that water can be strained out easily, good for most quick camp meals like pasta. The pan is made from stainless steel which heats up fast. This means your meal cooks fast, and you don’t use as much gas.

That brings us to a total of $257.90. The sky's the limit with camping gear, and the more regularly that you camp and thru-hike, the more likely you are to want to upgrade your gear and fork over cash for the latest technology. In addition to the basics listed above, you might want to invest in a power bank, a penknife, and a water filter or purifier.