How to Enjoy Backpacking on a Shoestring Budget

August 07 2014

If you interested in going backpacking but who are overwhelmed by the prospect of accumulating the right gear, I encourage you to give the sport a try in as simple and frugal a manner as possible.

Here are some tips:
-Keep it simple in terms of what you want to accomplish and what you carry. Shoot for one night out when you expect good weather, and plan to make camp within a few miles of the trailhead.
-Enjoy yourself. Backpacking can be hard work, so take breaks. Admire nature. Appreciate the fresh air. Savor good views and the way the sky changes color when the sun is setting.
-Wear comfortable shoes and clothes. A pair of sneakers from your closet will be sufficient for most intro-level hiking trails. Wear clothes that dry quickly and that don’t chafe - think gym shorts and polyester shirt. No need to invest in technical clothing at this point, but steer clear of cotton.
-If you don’t need it, leave it. Especially for your first trip, lighter is better. I learned this the hard way by carrying books, too much extra clothing, a hatchet, complicated multi-tools, a gps unit, cumbersome chairs, unnecessary ropes, fancy cooking equipment, etc. Granted, it’s hard to know what you’ll need, but when in doubt you probably don’t need the item.
-Cook light. There are a lot of great websites with recipes for simple backpacking meals, search “freezer bag cooking” and you will find them. Consider an Esbit or other solid-fuel stove and metal mug for preparing a hot meal before spending a lot more money on a more complicated, heavier cook kit. Less to carry, less to clean. Some backpackers leave the kitchen at home and get their calories from protein bars. I prefer carrying a small stove to have the pleasure of hot coffee on cold mornings. I budget 1.5 lbs. for food per person per day. That’s a lot by some standards. 2-3 lbs of nutritionally dense dry food per person per day will be more than enough.
-Camp light. For warm weather trips, opt for the lighter tent and sleeping bag. Borrow them, or if necessary, rent these items from your local retailer or online. If you’re feeling adventurous, plan to sleep under the stars without a tent, perhaps bringing a tarp or heavy duty trash bags as backup in case it rains. Learn how to rig a tarp by searching “tarp camping.” Trash bags can also serve as emergency rain protection - search “trash bag poncho.” You’ll want a light sleeping pad, perhaps a repurposed yoga mat.
-Water is important. Being dehydrated is no fun. Research water conditions before you go, or pack in enough to get you through the trip. The most common ways to treat raw water are boiling, chemicals, and filtering. Water sourcing and treatment is something worth consideration before you hit the trail.
-Practice LNT. That stands for Leave No Trace. Seven guiding principles here: Plan ahead and prepare. Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Dispose of waste properly. Leave what you find. Minimize campfire impacts (and make sure you check the fire regulations). Respect wildlife. And be considerate of other visitors.

If you’re new to backpacking please feel free to email me any questions you might have. If you’re a veteran have any favorite tips or tricks, please do share. And I’d love to hear about your favorite backcountry campsite in Coastal or Northern California if you have one.

Happy trails!

Matt Heaton
[email protected]
San Francisco, CA

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