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Cheap Alternatives to Backpacking Essentials

Save money and save weight!

By: Jason Hatfield + Save to a List

I've been backpacking for a long time, but like most people, I use a mix of gear acquired over the years. Some of that gear is ultra-light and perfect for almost any trek, other stuff not so much. Normally this isn't an issue as I'm only going out for a week at most but, I'm getting ready for my first thru-hike. On this month long trip I'll be carrying a decent amount of heavy camera gear so getting everything else as light as possible while still being functional and durable is pretty important. 

So naturally, I started researching all the expensive fancy ultra-light gear, which is amazing but adds up quickly. As I started digging into forums and articles, a world of cheap and lightweight options started to appear. Some items can't be replaced with affordable pre-made alternatives, think down-gear, footwear, backpacks, etc, but items like cookware, stoves, and trowels can. Every trek is different and each hiker is different, but these are some of the best alternatives I've found that can work for most situations.  Some of these are I already employ, others I'll be trying soon! 

(I've bolded the weight and price for each item for ease and TL;DR)

1. Replace your heavy trowel with a tent stake.

This one is pretty important to me because it's a part of Leave No Trace. I've found a number of ultra-light backpackers won't talk about what they use for digging a cathole in the backcountry, likely because they don't use anything or just scrape at the ground a little with sticks or a rock. For around $3 you can replace your bulky plastic GSI Trowel with a snow stake that's half the weight and price (3oz vs 1-1.5oz); it's a lot less likely to break too! Before coming across this trick I was considering the well-made but expensive Tentlab "The Deuce of Spades Backcountry Potty Trowel ". If you're really crafty you can also MYOG (Make Your Own Gear) with the right tools and experience.

2. Save major $$ on a cook pot with a cheap aluminum cup.

Titanium is the prized material for ultralight cookware, finished pots of similar strength are often lighter than standard aluminum ones. The main downside to all that sexy titanium is a high price tag, but if you have the money the Evernew Ti Titanium Ultralight pot is worth it. Since I need my money for camera gear I decided to go with 1QT Imusa Aluminum Mug for only $7! Not only is it only 2.4oz, I can afford to replace it 7 times over before I reach the cost of a Titanium one. The downsides are it's not as durable, you'll have to use clothing to grab the hot handle, and for the most efficiency, you should make a 0.5oz lid out of aluminum.

3. Squeeze your water to save weight and money.

I love my SteriPEN Adventurer and it's probably seen a couple hundred days of use between backpacking, trail running, and traveling. The SteriPEN runs on batteries though, and not only does that mean I usually carry the weight of backups, I still run the risk of it not working. That happened to me last summer on a 30 mile run in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, and I mis-dosed by backup solution ending up with Giardia a week later :(. After this experience and more research, I decided to carry the Sawyer Mini for the Colorado Trail. I'll have to squeeze my water or use a gravity system but for only $20 and 2oz, 1/4th the cost and half the weight of the SteriPEN, I'll be able to enjoy fresh and safe Colorado mountain water. The only downside is the Mini doesn't filter viruses, so I don't recommend it for international travel. I'm not a big fan of chemicals treatment as a primary means of water treatment, unfond memories of the taste of iodine in boy scouts not to mention the long wait time, but I carry Katadyn Micropur Tablets for backup.

4. Ditch the expensive knife for a trusted Swiss Army.

I have a lot of well made and useful knives, but for the past 15 years, the one knife I almost always have with me is the Victorinox Swiss Army Classic SD Pocket Knife. It costs only $20, weighs only 0.74 oz, and has the right tools for almost every purpose backpacking.

5. Frogg Toggs and a rain skirt/kilt = a happy wallet and swamp-free nether regions.

OR and Montbell both make stellar ultralight rain kits, but like most rain gear it's not cheap and eventually needs replacing. For only $20 you can get a more breathable rain suit, the Frogg Toggs Ultra-Lite2 Suit, and afford to replace it more than a dozen times over. The Frogg Toggs is not as durable, especially the pants, but it's easy to repair with duct tape and at only 11.2oz many thru-hikers swear by them!

Now for the best part, the manly Rain Kilt/Skirt! Rain skirts don't offer full leg coverage but what they do offer are versatility and unmatched breathability. For only $30 you can pick up a ULA Rain Kilt that will keep you dry above the knees (if it's raining hard your feet are getting wet no matter what you're wearing) and do double duty as a ground cloth . I'm going to take it a step further and MYOG using Joe Brewer's video tutorial and about $25 in material from https://ripstopbytheroll.com/. This will allow me to make it in a custom length and keep the weight under 3oz.

6. Re-purpose food packaging.

I think I enjoy a hot beverage more while camping than any other time; a warm cup of hot chocolate before bed or hot coffee with a sunrise. I typically use an uninsulated plastic mug that lets drinks quickly cool and I'm forced to gulp half of it down. I've long considered the striking 2.4oz Snow Peak Titanium Double Wall Cup but $60 is a hard price to swallow. Thru-hikers to the rescue again with repurposing this insulated soup cup. You can pick it up for less than $2 at most grocery stores, and it comes with a sipping lid!

7. Find your favorite alternative to Starbucks Via

I'll be honest, I've never cared much for Starbucks Via, but coffee preference is such a subjective thing. I like Espresso and Cafe Bustelo makes my favorite instant coffee; it's dark, rich, smooth and for only $1.80 a box it's hard to beat.

8. Buy in bulk, store in little.

Many of us are familiar with travel bottles under 3oz for the TSA, but when it comes to backpacking you can go even smaller. These 15mL Liquid Dropper Bottles are perfect for storing Dr. Bronner's concentrated soap, gel toothpaste, and contact solution. These 1oz Natural Boston Round Bottles are perfect for storing hand sanitizer and long lasting mineral sunscreen.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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