Backpacking: Where to Splurge or Save

By Mikaela Gregory | 3.6.2019

Backpacking gear has a huge price range. A sleeping bag can range from $100 to over $1,000 and a cooking system can range from $50 to over $150! So, which items make sense to splurge and which are better to save? We've got suggestions for both!

Where To Save

Tent

Yikes. This statement might get me in trouble. However, I have used a midrange MEC tent as much as the top-of-the-line Big Agnes and MSR tents that cost double and found that they are both packable, light, and durable, which is what most backpackers require from a tent! If you are on the extreme end of ultralight packing or spend a lot of time winter camping, investing here would make sense for you.

Although I suggest saving on this purchase, I still do my research to make sure it has the following qualities.

What I look for in a tent:

  • 3 or 4 season rating for versatility!
  • Lightweight (compare with other tents in your price range)
  • Ease of assembly/dismantling
  • Reviews on waterproofness (some designs are more susceptible to leaking)
  • Design preferences (I like a lot of mesh for photos and views and the ability to sit up in the tent)
  • Reputable brand (buying from a company or retailer that is known to have good customer service helps if things aren't as you expected)

Hiking Poles

Poles provide support and stability and expensive ultralight poles don’t offer anything different! Since poles have a tendency of getting lost and left behind, pay the price that you will be okay with losing if that happens.

What I look for in poles:

  • Comfortable hand grip
  • Comparably lightweight
  • Reviews on durability

Sunglasses

Like hiking poles, they get lost, broken, and left behind. To me, sunglasses are a replaceable item despite how important they are for our eyes! Get a decent pair, but they don’t need to break the bank.

What I look for in sunglasses:

  • Polarized lenses. They should block 100% of ultraviolet light

Off-Grid Charging

A solar charger sounds perfect for long distance hikes with no access to plugs for several weeks. However, despite owning the best panel, I bring my Anker Power Bank for most trips since it has enough power for even multi-day hikes. Solar chargers are best for charging a power bank, which you can use to top off other devices while on the go or at night. Unless you plan to be out for long stretches, or need a lot of power, a quality power bank should be all you need!

Where To Splurge

Quality Base Layers

While wool undergarments are small and expensive, quality long sleeve and long pant base layers for sleeping, and short sleeve base layers for hiking, are imperative. The only time I brought a synthetic tank top on a backpacking trip, it was worn only one time because it smelled, unlike the wool t-shirt I wore for the rest of the seven-day trip.

Socks are another area I would recommend wool. Wool socks are the only kind of socks I wear backpacking. At $20 a piece, they are a steal for dry feet, the least smell, and no foot bacteria issues - winning! I choose the brand Darn Tough for most of my needs, whether trail running or hiking, but will go for Smart Wool for winter hikes and sleeping because their socks are the warmest.

Sleeping Bag

Your sleeping system is the most important investment you can make. I will not argue about your $50 camp pillow. If that makes you sleep well, I am all for it.

What I look for in a sleeping bag is:

  • A warmth rating that makes sense for you and your area. 15-degree Fahrenheit bags provide versatility. I personally us a -7-degree bag, since I run cold. In winter, I will even trade out my synthetic liner for a fleece liner.  
  • Packability (a general rule is that down packs down better than synthetic materials)
  • Proper fit and size (make sure to get the right sized bag by checking the measurements so that it will be effective at keeping you warm)
  • Reviews on durability and/or reputable brand

Photo: William Woodward

Cooking set up

A cooking set up should work well for how you cook outdoors. If you just want to boil water, go for a Jetboil system to save on gas. If you cook raw ingredients, go for the Snow Peak Giga Power stove in order to adjust the stove heat settings from low to high, depending on what you are making.

Sleeping Pad

Pads are every bit as important as your sleeping bag is a sleeping pad. They make a massive difference in warmth and comfort, since it provides insulation from cold surfaces. Again, a good nights sleep is important - invest here!

What I look for in a sleeping pad is:

  • R-value (the capacity to resist heat flow) of at least 4 (a sleeping pad will never cause you to overheat, you can go up to an 11 R-value and not worry about that)
  • Comparably lightweight (not a concern if going for a foam pad since they are the lightest, but when seeking pads with foam and air or just air pads, definitely look at this)
  • Packability (again, not a concern for foam pads since they are usually put on the outside of a pack)
  • Reviews on comfort and noisiness when moving
  • Proper size for your body and tent (a long version will provide more length and width)

Backpacking: Where to Splurge or Save

By Mikaela Gregory | 3.6.2019

Backpacking gear has a huge price range. A sleeping bag can range from $100 to over $1,000 and a cooking system can range from $50 to over $150! So, which items make sense to splurge and which are better to save? We've got suggestions for both!

Where To Save

Tent

Yikes. This statement might get me in trouble. However, I have used a midrange MEC tent as much as the top-of-the-line Big Agnes and MSR tents that cost double and found that they are both packable, light, and durable, which is what most backpackers require from a tent! If you are on the extreme end of ultralight packing or spend a lot of time winter camping, investing here would make sense for you.

Although I suggest saving on this purchase, I still do my research to make sure it has the following qualities.

What I look for in a tent:

  • 3 or 4 season rating for versatility!
  • Lightweight (compare with other tents in your price range)
  • Ease of assembly/dismantling
  • Reviews on waterproofness (some designs are more susceptible to leaking)
  • Design preferences (I like a lot of mesh for photos and views and the ability to sit up in the tent)
  • Reputable brand (buying from a company or retailer that is known to have good customer service helps if things aren't as you expected)

Hiking Poles

Poles provide support and stability and expensive ultralight poles don’t offer anything different! Since poles have a tendency of getting lost and left behind, pay the price that you will be okay with losing if that happens.

What I look for in poles:

  • Comfortable hand grip
  • Comparably lightweight
  • Reviews on durability

Sunglasses

Like hiking poles, they get lost, broken, and left behind. To me, sunglasses are a replaceable item despite how important they are for our eyes! Get a decent pair, but they don’t need to break the bank.

What I look for in sunglasses:

  • Polarized lenses. They should block 100% of ultraviolet light

Off-Grid Charging

A solar charger sounds perfect for long distance hikes with no access to plugs for several weeks. However, despite owning the best panel, I bring my Anker Power Bank for most trips since it has enough power for even multi-day hikes. Solar chargers are best for charging a power bank, which you can use to top off other devices while on the go or at night. Unless you plan to be out for long stretches, or need a lot of power, a quality power bank should be all you need!

Where To Splurge

Quality Base Layers

While wool undergarments are small and expensive, quality long sleeve and long pant base layers for sleeping, and short sleeve base layers for hiking, are imperative. The only time I brought a synthetic tank top on a backpacking trip, it was worn only one time because it smelled, unlike the wool t-shirt I wore for the rest of the seven-day trip.

Socks are another area I would recommend wool. Wool socks are the only kind of socks I wear backpacking. At $20 a piece, they are a steal for dry feet, the least smell, and no foot bacteria issues - winning! I choose the brand Darn Tough for most of my needs, whether trail running or hiking, but will go for Smart Wool for winter hikes and sleeping because their socks are the warmest.

Sleeping Bag

Your sleeping system is the most important investment you can make. I will not argue about your $50 camp pillow. If that makes you sleep well, I am all for it.

What I look for in a sleeping bag is:

  • A warmth rating that makes sense for you and your area. 15-degree Fahrenheit bags provide versatility. I personally us a -7-degree bag, since I run cold. In winter, I will even trade out my synthetic liner for a fleece liner.  
  • Packability (a general rule is that down packs down better than synthetic materials)
  • Proper fit and size (make sure to get the right sized bag by checking the measurements so that it will be effective at keeping you warm)
  • Reviews on durability and/or reputable brand

Photo: William Woodward

Cooking set up

A cooking set up should work well for how you cook outdoors. If you just want to boil water, go for a Jetboil system to save on gas. If you cook raw ingredients, go for the Snow Peak Giga Power stove in order to adjust the stove heat settings from low to high, depending on what you are making.

Sleeping Pad

Pads are every bit as important as your sleeping bag is a sleeping pad. They make a massive difference in warmth and comfort, since it provides insulation from cold surfaces. Again, a good nights sleep is important - invest here!

What I look for in a sleeping pad is:

  • R-value (the capacity to resist heat flow) of at least 4 (a sleeping pad will never cause you to overheat, you can go up to an 11 R-value and not worry about that)
  • Comparably lightweight (not a concern if going for a foam pad since they are the lightest, but when seeking pads with foam and air or just air pads, definitely look at this)
  • Packability (again, not a concern for foam pads since they are usually put on the outside of a pack)
  • Reviews on comfort and noisiness when moving
  • Proper size for your body and tent (a long version will provide more length and width)

Mikaela Gregory

Mikaela is a Canadian adventure and travel writer based in Vancouver, BC. She explores based on where she wants to hike, trail run and photograph and creates interactive, authentic travel itineraries found at www.bestitineraries.ca. You can sign up for Mikaela's free monthly adventure story on her website.

Mikaela Gregory

Mikaela is a Canadian adventure and travel writer based in Vancouver, BC. She explores based on where she wants to hike, trail run and photograph and creates interactive, authentic travel itineraries found at www.bestitineraries.ca. You can sign up for Mikaela's free monthly adventure story on her website.

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