Gearing Up without Going Broke
Where do you take friends and family when they come to visit?
Is it on your favorite hike, to a great coffee shop, to the biggest shopping mall, or somewhere else?
For me, though a few places make the list, bringing people to the grandest and most gorgeous gear shop near me is an absolute must.
From the moment you step past the threshold, you are done for. Perfectly framed photography of incredible places and seemingly superhuman people dot the brick walls. The music, the gear, the decorations, and the store design create a hypnotizing ambiance. It's like you just wandered into your own area’s version of Everest Base Camp, plus a rock wall and coffee shop. People are talking about the thru-hikes they are planning, some guy is debating over which item to take ice climbing, a group is headed to an avalanche safety course, and then some perfectly rugged sales associate approaches to say, “Can I help you find something?”
At that point, I try not to swoon and remind myself that I can not afford at least half of the items in the shop.
That is how buying outdoor gear is. It is amazing because it will allow you to go on endless varieties of adventures, but it is difficult to commit to at such significant price tags. For a beginner hiker, finding a middle ground is crucial. Though it might be tempting to say, “ Whatever, how bad can it really be to wear cotton?” or, “I probably will not need that much water, anyway,” the reality is that the environment you hike in is not controlled. Every year, people find themselves lost, trapped, severely injured, and even facing death in the outdoors. Being prepared and avoiding tough situations means having the right gear.
While having the right gear is essential, new hikers (and experienced hikers, too) should not have to spend hundreds just to get on the trail.
Here is my hiker’s guide for where to invest, where to not, and how to find lasting gear at reasonable prices.
The Ten Essentials
First, make sure you have the foundational items of hiking. Check your pack with this list to make sure that you have the basics of staying safe on the trail.
The 10 Essentials Include:
- Navigation: Topographic Map, Compass, and Optional GPS / Altimeter
- Sun Protection: Sunglasses, Sunscreen, and Hat / Clothing for Sun Protection
- Insulation: Extra Clothing for Coldest Possible Weather
- Illumination: Headlamp or Flashlight and Extra Batteries
- First-Aid Supplies: Enough for the length of Trip
- Fire: Lighter, Waterproof Matches, and Firestarter
- Repair Kit and Tools: Knife, Multitool, Duct Tape, etc
- Nutrition: Enough Food for an Extra Day
- Hydration: Enough Water for an Extra Day
- Emergency Shelter: Tent, Tarp, Bivy Sack, Poncho, Space Blanket, etc
Make sure you always carry the 10 Essentials and know how to use them. Learn more with our Beginner's Guide to the 10 Essentials.
Clothing and Gear Considerations
Finding clothes for your first hikes is simple, and you likely have many of the basics already in your closet. You need non-cotton clothing from top to bottom, because cotton will not insulate you if it becomes wet from sweat or elements. Even if you are striking out on a blisteringly hot summer’s day, choose clothing pieces that wick moisture and dry quickly.
Synthetic workout clothing, old sports tops or bottoms and yoga clothes all have about the same technical value as hiking-specific brand name basics. Save money when you are first starting by hitting the trail in as many items that you already own as possible, and fill in the gaps with clothes that are affordable, versatile, and quality enough to last for many trails.
In general, you need these layers to mix and match for the perfect blend of venting and insulation on each hike:
- Layer One: is a moisture-wicking base layer, meant to keep you free of sweat.
- Layer Two: is an insulating layer, there to keep you warm.
- Layer Three: is an outer layer, protecting you from wind and moisture.
Much like your hiking basics, the insulating layer is simple to find. If you have a fleece jacket or synthetic pullover, these are perfect options for staying warm on the trail.
Of hiking clothes, a good outer layer and a sturdy pair of hiking boots are the most crucial to invest in. Though you can easily begin hiking in tennis shoes and with an inexpensive poncho, hikers who want to go further on more trails should first consider buying a sturdy pair of boots and a fully waterproof shell.
Keep in mind when buying clothes that sustainability impacts the beautiful places you are getting out to enjoy. Try to be conscious about buying new pieces, manufacturing practices and the amount of wear you personally will get out of each purchase.
Finally, the last item that every hiker needs: a backpack.
When first beginning, using a fabric backpack you have on hand or a second-hand backpack is a great option. However, much like with an outer shell and boots, this quickly becomes an item that hikers need to invest in. Buying my day hiking backpack was one of the best purchases I have ever made, and there is an ocean of options available to fit your needs.
Buying on the Cheap
When it comes to buying quality gear for discounted prices, REI members have huge benefits. Becoming an REI member comes with a $20.00 sign up fee, and the cost is well worth it. After signing up, members have access to consignment gear and heavily discounted returns both at local REI garage sales and in a special section in stores year round. Not only can quality items be found for far less than retail pricing, but these items are saved from being thrown away and wasted. I have found both clothing and gear for hiking, camping and climbing at REI garage sales, and highly recommend membership to new hikers.
Another benefit for REI members is the REI Garage, an online clearance center with some good deals. Buying online can be risky with certain pieces of gear since fit and personal needs are so important as you clock in the miles. When buying shoes and backpacks, try to visit a store and find the right size and fit before buying online.
For those new hikers looking to support small businesses, there are also plenty of options away from the big-box outdoor retailers.
Look up local outdoor-specific consignment shops and check in regularly to find the best deals on what you need. If you decide after purchasing that you want a different piece of gear, you often are able to resell the item in the shop. Personally, I have had great luck in a local consignment gear shop, and sometimes even find discounted samples with the tags still on.
Lastly, do not neglect local businesses. Though they might not have the variety of a big box store, these shops often offer special discounts for locals or regulars that relatively match REI’s 10% dividend. Keep up with clearances and end of season sales, where smaller stores have to move out the season’s items.
No matter if you are shopping big or small, in person or online, timing your purchases is important for landing the best deals. Avoid shopping for a winter coat right as they hit the racks, but instead wait until the middle or end of the season to buy.
Beyond the Basics
Many outdoor companies maintain excellent return policies and warranties, which does factor into the up-front price of brand new items. Next month’s guide to investing in outdoor staples will detail how and why certain pieces of gear are better bought shiny and new, so stay tuned before rushing into any consignment staples for hikers wanting to take on more miles.
As you continue to hike further and more often, some more specific gear will open up new seasons and possibilities. With gear designed for narrow uses and seasons, I suggest borrowing or renting before purchasing. Backpacking gear is a significant investment, especially for hikers uncertain if they will enjoy it.
Microspikes and snowshoes will allow you to hike in icy or snowy conditions, but the price is not worth it if you go once and never again. Local rental shops will have individual pieces of gear as well as some packages for full trips. There is no shame in deciding that some area of outdoor recreation is not for you, so be wise about where you invest your effort and money.
Whether you are preparing for your first significant hikes or planning to level up the trails you take, ensuring that your gear is functional is critical for staying safe, confident and happy on the trail. With effort and an understanding of your needs, it is possible to enjoy the outdoors without spending a fortune.
The natural world is for everyone, regardless of bank account, brand of jacket, or experience level. Wherever on the spectrum you find yourself, I hope these tips power you to head outside with excitement and confidence.
Enjoy your hikes!