Camping and Hiking Gear: Where to Splurge and Where to Save
It's easy to walk into an outdoor retail store and immediately feel overwhelmed. With all the fancy fabrics, temperature and wind ratings and new lightweight gear, it is hard to know where to actually invest your money and what items it may be okay to spend a little less on to make your next (or first) camping trip more enjoyable. I’ll cover the basics below, warmth, shelter and sustenance.
On the high end, you’ll find bags made with synthetic outer materials and stuffed with goose or duck down. These bags will be durable, breathable and most importantly light and compressible. These days you can get a bag rated for 20 degrees that can be stored in something the size of a water bottle. When every inch of bag space counts spending more on a fancy sleeping bag is not a bad idea.
Towards the low end you’ll find cotton bags that are often filled with synthetic stuffing. These bags will be heavy and not be able to pack down anywhere near the size of the high-end bags, but they will be cheap and can keep you just as warm.
Really when it comes to purchasing a tent the main thing you need to think about is if it's something you'll ever actually be carrying on your back. Most of us will never be camping in harsh winter conditions, so let's rule out four-season tents and focus on the more ubiquitous three-season tent.
More expensive tents will offer you a significant weight reduction over cheaper tents. A lot of time goes into engineering the strongest and most space efficient tents. Designs are always changing to offer campers the most bang for their buck. Higher- end tents will use lightweight aluminum poles and stakes and have a layout that keeps pole use to a minimum in the first place. Spending more will get you a tent constructed with ripstop nylon and weather-sealed seams making it built to last. Also, look for a tent with a vestibule; this will give you a place to store your bag and boots without actually taking up floor space inside.
If you want to spend less money, go to any big-box store and find a great four-person tent for under $100 dollars. If you don’t need to actually carry the tent in your backpack, there is absolutely nothing wrong with these. The main difference between a cheap tent and a higher priced one is weight and size, but if you are just pulling it out of your trunk and setting it up, there is nothing wrong with saving your money on a less expensive one.
Hiking in a jeans and a t-shirt does not make you any less of a hiker. When it comes to clothing you don't need to look like you've stepped out of a catalog to enjoy the outdoors. Wear what makes you feel comfortable and wear what you have. Not having the latest, lightweight or moisture-wicking pair of pants isn’t going to hold you back.
Footwear on the other hand is something you should invest in. Specialized boots will offer you warmth, traction, stability and comfort in any sort of terrain you may encounter. If you think you’ll be doing mostly day hikes a pair of hiking shoes may be the way to go. Leather is always a durable option that will last a lifetime and offer water resistance. Boots made from synthetic materials will be a lot lighter than leather but will also wear faster. No matter what you go with, putting in the extra money for boots or shoes is a great idea; sore feet are a fast way to ruin any trip.
Cooking, or at least being able to boil water for meals or coffee is bound to come up at some point or another if you enjoy camping. On the high end of the spectrum you have lightweight stoves that can run on different fuels such as butane, propane and even gasoline. Spending more will get you a very lightweight stove and one that can be used at any elevation, which is definitely something to be looked at if you are backpacking and have to carry everything in your pack. If you don’t plan on cooking meals in the backcountry, look into the classic two-burner propane stove, it’s cheap, the propane canisters can be found all over the place, and it is very reliable. If you want to save more money you can even make a single burner stove by poking holes around the rim of an aluminum can and using alcohol as a fuel!
At the end of the day know that people have hiked and camped in conditions that are beyond what most of us will ever experience and they did it before Gore-Tex and synthetic materials were even heard of.