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How To Find Outdoor Gear on a Budget

by Amanda Phillips
How To Find Outdoor Gear on a Budget

You may notice the website got a new gear section (woohoo!). Looking at gear lists when you are just getting started, or even when you have been going for awhile, the costs can seem astronomical. However, there are a lot of great ways to get gear for cheap, in fact, almost nothing on my gear list was purchased full price. I thought I would share the ways that I afford backpacking, hiking and climbing gear on a budget. See next week’s post for a similar round-up of clothing rec’s.

General Strategies

In general, when gathering gear for an adventure you have three options:

  • Borrow
  • Rent
  • Buy

Borrowing gear is a great way to start. It let’s you try out things before you purchase so you have a better idea of what to look for, you can learn about what you like and dislike and best of all, it is free! Be a good borrower, take good care of the gear, clean before returning and it helps if you drop it off with your friend’s favorite beverage. Some gear is not realistic to borrow however, like hiking boots or backpacks, in which case…

Renting can be a great option too! This also allows you to try things before you buy it for a lower price. If it is gear you might only use once or twice, renting is certainly worth it. Make sure you factor in the time and effort it takes to get to the gear rental place when considering if it is better to rent or buy. Rental places include stores like REI, or your local outdoor retailer, college or mountaineering clubs, or national parks for things like bear cans.

Before you fully commit to buying gear, try to make sure you really need it. It is easy to be caught up in the new styles with the latest improvements, but over the years I have found trusty favorites are often better than flashy new items. Don’t get too caught up in shaving ounces or having the perfect pack for that Instagram shot. You can lessen your environmental impact by buying used gear, supporting companies with strong environmental advocacy, and sharing what you can. 

Eventually, the time will come when it makes sense to invest in your own gear. Luckily, there are cheaper ways than simply heading to REI and maxing out your bank account. Read on to find out some of my strategies for finding affordable gear. 

REI Garage Sale

If you live near an REI, chances are you have heard of their legendary garage sales.  A great way to snag significantly discounted gear, items sold at an REI garage sale are returned items from customers and have been previously used. They could easily have a serious defect or be essentially brand new. Gear bought at an REI garage sale cannot be returned, so it can be a bit of a gamble.  Going to a garage sale requires being an REI co-op member, living close enough to an REI to physically visit one, waiting in an abysmally long line and fighting other outdoor enthusiasts for discounted used gear. Not the most convenient, but sometimes there are some awesome deals. 

 

About half of my backpacking and climbing gear came from an REI garage sale.  When Michael and I first started backpacking four years ago, we went to a garage sale and bought a sleeping bag, tent, poles, pad, stove and down jackets for $500 each. Most of this gear we still use! 

Best for: tents, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, clothing, kitchen gear

Spotty: packs, hiking boots, electronics, stove

Pass: things that you need to fit perfectly, or want the ability to return

Pro-Deals

As someone who works in an environmental field, pro-deals are something I occassionally take advantage of. Many brands have partnerships with websites like ExpertVoice to offer people in the outdoor industry special prices on gear. I can already hear people saying “cool Amanda, but what about those of us that don’t work with fish all day?”  Luckily, there are a number of ways to get access to pro-deals, from working as a guide, in law enforcement, or the military. If your work won’t qualify you for pro-deals, some clubs like the Mountaineers give access to volunteers. Do a little outdoor stewardship and get some gear discounts in return!

Keep in mind that many of the pro-deal items are non-returnable, and rarely have free shipping. Sometimes the cost of shipping is higher than the discount. There are sometimes limits to how many items you can order from one manufacturer and usually they are restricted to personal use only (i.e. no gifts or purchases for friends). 

Best for: tents, pads, sleeping bags, clothing, pots and pans, dog gear, electronics. 

Pass: things that you need to fit perfectly, or want the ability to return

Gear I have purchased from the Pro-Deals: (not an exhaustive list).

Superfeet-Green, Gregory Pace 8

Discount Websites

There are a number of online outdoor retails that specialize in selling discounted outdoor gear. It is often previous season items, less popular colors or limited sizing. However, it can be a great source for gear that may not be the most cutting edge, but is more than sufficient for most things. Some sites I frequent are Steep & Cheap, the Clymb, and REI’s Outlet. Often gear on these sites are only available for a short period of time, which can be difficult. 

Massdrop, a community-driven commerce platform, can also be a surprisingly awesome place to find discounted gear. The discount tends to be less than the other sites, but items that wouldn’t normally go on sale can be found on the site. It works by members pledging to buy items at a certain price-point, then Massdrop talks to the retailers and promises x-number of guaranteed buyers if they are able to give a group-discount. Massdrop can be a great source for small, cottage industries that wouldn’t normally show up at the big box stores. 

Best for: anything where you don’t need the newest style or color, random sizes.

Pass: gear that you want a specific style for, often don’t have exactly what you are looking for 

Gear I have purchased from discount websites: (not an exhaustive list).

Enlightened Equipment QuiltPlatypus Big Zip LP Reservoir

Craigslist & Facebook

Craigslist and Facebook can be great ways to get cheap gear directly from people. Both Facebook Marketplace and neighborhood buy nothing groups are great resources for gear. With both craigslist and Facebook, you can speak directly to people to ask questions and potentially bargain. I tend to do this for bigger items, because it isn’t quite worth the effort for smaller items. I bought a fair bit of my climbing gear off of craigslist and since I was dealing directly with the previous user, I could ask about what kind of shape the gear was in. I purchased things that were unlikely to degrade over time (carabiners, not harnesses). 

Best for: big ticket items, lightly used gear

Spotty: climbing gear

Pass: safety gear (ropes, helmets, harness)

Gear I have purchased from Craigslist: (not an exhaustive list).

Carabiners, Quickdraws, Mad Rock R3 Bouldering Pad, Osprey backpack

Local Events & Stores

Many local groups do a used gear sales. If you have many outdoor friends, consider hosting a gear swap of your own! My local outdoor shop, Ascent Outdoors has numerous gear events, sells sample sale products and used gear. It is one of my favorite places to find gear! 

Best for: used gear, sample gear

Pass: safety gear

Shop the Sales

Lastly, if you are looking for a specific item, or need to find something that you would prefer not to buy used, sometimes the only option is buying it full price. Some types of gear don’t change seasonally and won’t likely show up at discount sites, or people tend to buy once and never upgrade so they are difficult to find used. For this, the best strategy I have found is watching the seasonal sales. REI and Backcountry, as well as Ascent Outdoors regularly have coupons that allow 20% off one full-price item. I usually save my big purchases for those sales. Black Friday sales often show up for smaller companies like enlightened equipment and can be a great way to snag specialized gear at a discount. 

Best for: things that rarely go on sale

Pass: items that show up at garage sales or on discount sites

Gear I have purchased from retail store sales (not an exhaustive list).

Osprey Aura AG 65LMSR Lightning Explore SnowshoesGarcia Bear Can, Platypus Gravity Filter

Unconventional Gear

Get creative about what you consider gear. One of the classic examples is using an alcohol stove made out of a cat food can instead of a backpacking stove. It is cheap and light!  Trash compacter bags make great pack-liners, and places like Costco often sell down blankets that can be modified into a quilt.  Try looking at things with a “gear eye” when shopping and you may be surprised how many things can be re-purposed! Reddit can be a great source of inspiration, including the Camping Gear thread or the Ultralight thread. 

The exception is safety equipment. For things like climbing or mountaineering, using things that have been designed for your activity may be important for your safety. Don’t use nails attached to your shoes instead of a crampon just because awesome mountaineers of the past used this method to scale the peaks. Fudging sizes for a deal or buying things like a rope that you don’t know how many major falls occurred is not worth the risk. 

Finding affordable gear isn’t impossible, it just takes a little flexibility and creativity! What is your best gear score? Where is your favorite place to buy gear? Let me know in the comments! 

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