Some time ago, as a group of us sat around a campfire, we started talking about the gear that everyone carries, and everyone began to share what they’d paid for their gear.
I was a bit surprised at the high price of much of the basic gear—not because I didn’t think the kit was worth that dollar amount, but because I began my camping and outdoor “career” on no budget.
My friends were somewhat shocked and asked me for details.
“I never had much money growing up,” I told them, “and part of my interest in hiking and camping was that it cost me next to nothing.”
We then began to discuss how much everyone spends on basic gear for a camping trip. One friend, who said he felt he had a “low-budget” kit as well, began to add everything up. He said it totaled about $2,000. It made sense, and none of his basic gear was extravagant.
However, I had to think back to my youth, when I really had next to no money.
Back in the Day
When I was in my early teens, my brothers and I got interested in hiking and backpacking in the nearby wild areas. We didn’t have a car, and we didn’t need one for this.
We could just walk outside our door and, in a short while, we were in the mountains. We certainly enjoyed exploring the hilltops and valleys and hidden canyons.
Unlike so many of the urban attractions, we knew we could do our mountain exploring without ever having to pass through a ticket booth to pay an admission fee. For all practical purposes, the mountains belonged to the people, and they were free for anyone to enter and explore.
And, for us at that age, that was critically important. We didn’t go hiking on a “low budget.” We didn’t even know what the word, “budget,” meant! We went hiking and backpacking on no budget. We had no money, and none was needed to head to the hills.
Over the years, of course, I’ve gradually acquired camping gear that works for me and that I feel is worth having. I don’t mind spending extra money on an item if I know it’s the best and if my life can depend on it.
On the other hand, to this day, I don’t care much for useless gadgets that just take up space and add weight to the pack. I like to go as lightly as I possibly can.
So, I thought that American Survival Guide readers would enjoy hearing how we went hiking on no budget. Some of you will chuckle at our youthful enthusiasm and silliness. A few of you might even think we had some good ideas.
We never purchased special clothes designed for hiking or backpacking. We just wore what we called our “outdoor clothes”—clothes that we didn’t worry about getting dirty or torn but durable enough for a weekend or a week in the hills. We simply dressed for the season and took an extra sweatshirt along if it was cold.
To this day, it’s rare that I buy any special outdoor clothing, because I try to purchase garments with a basic survival quotient that’s more or less built in so that I feel somewhat prepared in the city or woods.
Probably the one area that could have used improving was footwear. I usually had poor footwear on the trails. The worst time was when I had some old suede shoes while hiking in the snow.
My feet were wet and cold the whole time, so I was either constantly moving or sitting by the fire. Eventually, I learned that you could put a plastic bag over your socks and keep your feet sort of dry in the winter. (Still, I’m not a fan of walking around with plastic bags on my feet.)
Because most of our hiking was done in fair weather, wearing our “city shoes” into the hills was usually not a problem.
My advice is to always buy footwear that’s sound and well-built; and don’t assume that a bargain is always a bargain. I also know my foot size, and yard sales have proven successful for finding good shoes and boots that fit.
Yes, I’m as addicted as the next guy to the remarkable array of knives that are out there. And I‘ve purchased some that were so expensive that I was afraid to use them, because, well, because I had paid so much for them!
But back in the early days, I knew that I simply needed a durable knife that offered some protection. Every kitchen has a knife, doesn’t it? We just wrapped a small kitchen knife in a piece of cardboard with tape (a makeshift sheath) for safety and put it in with our basic gear. (Here’s a suggestion: There are inexpensive “bartender knives” you can buy for under $10 at supermarkets; they’re ideal for anyone on a low budget.)
Eventually, we received Boy Scout knives as gifts one Christmas, and we carried them all the time. Today, I wouldn’t leave home without a Swiss Amy knife and a Leatherman tool.
Why would we need to go out and buy something special just for hiking and backpacking when every kitchen in the world—well, at least our kitchen—had dishes, silverware and pots? We’d pack an old pot and pan.
Sometimes, we’d just carry an old pie pan and an empty can. We reasoned that with the pie pan and can, we could crush them and bury them before returning home and wouldn’t need to carry them back. We’d also grab a few plastic forks and spoons and maybe an old metal one. Nothing more was needed.
Back in the mid-1960s, plastic wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is today, and the plastic that was around back then was low quality. So, we didn’t have plastic containers to use for water.
On occasions, I actually carried a glass mayonnaise jar as my canteen; I wrapped it with cardboard so it would be protected. Obviously, that wasn’t ideal, and I doubt I’d ever do that again.
Eventually, I spent about $1 and purchased a metal World War II canteen. It was a very good investment. However, we tried to plan so many of our hikes around the known water sources that I never bothered to carry a canteen half the time.
Today, inexpensive water containers can be obtained just about anywhere, so humanity seems to have solved this problem!
For a stove, we simply cooked right on the flames of our small campfire. I’ve never carried a stove—and I still don’t! However, I understand the need for a stove. I’ve carried a small Esbit cooker, which I really like. These are still available online for just a few dollars.
Backyard stoves are many and varied, but they’re not often portable. However, the many foldable “tommy cookers” that have been produced in the last few years are very worthwhile and highly recommended.
Sometimes, we’d find a flashlight in a drawer at home but, more often than not, it simply didn’t work. Perhaps the batteries were no good. As a result, I never got “addicted” to needing a flashlight at night. (Did you know the average adult has the ability to see in the darkness after 30 minutes? And, it’s almost as good as an owl’s night vision!)
Nevertheless, things have changed a lot, technology-wise, in the area of flashlights in the last several decades. I no longer consider a large C- or D-cell flashlight. I’d rather carry the smaller, AA flashlights with bright LED lights. Good ones can usually be had for as little as $20 or so.
Lantern? Remember: We had no budget. If we owned a lantern, we’d have to buy fuel, wicks and stuff called “miscellaneous.” However, on some occasions, we actually carried an old soup can.
We cut off both ends of the can and put an old clothes hanger through the can for a handle. Then, we cut a hole in the side of the can, and inserted a candle. That was our “lantern.”
Another variation of the “can lantern” is to cut open an aluminum can so that, when it’s standing upright, it appears to have two “doors.” You then hang the can by its pop-top, put a candle inside, and you have a lantern.
If it’s made properly, the wind will catch the doors and turn the candle away from the wind. I learned about this can lantern from fellow survival instructor Ron Hood.
I can see carrying a Coleman lantern if I were car-camping or for the backyard. Otherwise, I just use candles.
Although we used to marvel at the beautifully carved walking sticks at backpacking stores, we never even came close to buying one. For one thing, after you’ve just spent $40 to $70 for a beautiful stick, who wants to mess it up on the trail?
Additionally, we discovered that there was never a shortage of sticks in the woods that could serve just as well as a walking stick. So, this is an item you really don’t need to spend any money on.
Camping tents are heavy and expensive. I‘ve never carried one. The closest I’ve ever come to packing a tent was when I used tube tents a few times in the early to mid-1970s. Often, you can obviate the need for a tent if you simply pick your campsite well.
I’ve owned “one-man” tents for use when hiking, but they’re small and not really that comfortable. I carry a tent if I’m car-camping, and I like the Coleman brand (purchased on sale, that is). Because there are so many options out there, I suggest you get a tent you can afford and that’s large enough to fit your needs.
But, remember that camping tents are not designed to be out in the sun day after day. If you do that, they’ll last about a year or so before they begin to deteriorate.
I do suggest buying a new tent at a camping store. However, if you see one at a yard sale, you should at least check it out.
On many of my first backpacking trips, I never carried a sleeping bag. I slept in a hammock with a tarp, and I was cold! My first sleeping bag was lent to me by my older brother, and it was a layered-paper sleeping roll designed for just a few uses, and I was cold. I‘ve carried just a blanket or two with me, and I’ve gone backpacking with just an emergency space blanket, and I was cold.
I’ve learned to sleep in holes, lean-tos and various natural shelters with no sleeping bag. And I stay warm!
A sleeping bag is one item for which it pays to get the best you can afford. Down is best, but some of the modern fills are just as good and are easier to clean. Buy a sleeping bag that can be compressed into a small bag.
Alternatively, I’ve purchased good-quality sleeping bags for as little as $5 (and never more than $50) by watching the ads in the newspapers or by going to yard sales.
Sometimes, my brothers and I would grab a roll of toilet paper from the bathroom and toss it into our pack. But, we often forgot to do this. We discovered that the woods are full of “toilet paper”: Leaves, moss and other natural materials will work fine, with some practice.
Map and Compass
Usually, we simply went up to our local mountains and followed the trails. We explored and, little by little, we learned about the areas. Yes, do get a map of the areas you plan to explore; maps are not expensive.
If you choose to get a compass, a good Silva compass can be found for under $20 online or at any backpacking shop. Take the time to learn how to use it in conjunction with your map.
Make sure you have several ways to make a fire. Include plenty of butane lighters. I often get four-packs from 99-cent stores.
I like magnesium fire starters, ferrocerium rods and the traditional flint-and-steel. These tools are not expensive, but you need to practice using them so that making a fire becomes second nature.
Originally, I recall finding a suitable canvas pack at the local Army surplus shop. But those heavy, old packs are “dinosaurs” compared to today’s modern packs. The choices today are varied. Be sure to select a pack based on your weight and space requirements, as well as your personal budget.
I use many different packs. I like the relatively inexpensive packs made by the Eddie Bauer company, as well as packs made by 3V basic Gear.
Some of the ways my brothers and I did things might help some of you keep the weight in your pack as low as possible and also help you keep as much money in your pocket as possible.
I’ve always believed that simple enjoyment of the outdoors should be as unadorned as possible. For me, part of the attraction is to be in the outdoors, where you can think and be with yourself and your friends. Why clutter it up with all the overpriced gimmicks and gadgets that take up weight and occupy too much of your time?
I’d like to hear from readers who have unique, low-cost camping methods to share. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the August, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.
You're signed up for the American Outdoor Guide Boundless newsletter.
We can't wait to send you the latest tips, trends and info. Want more right now?