How much does backpacking really cost?

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Home Forums Campfire Editor’s Roundtable How much does backpacking really cost?

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    Daniel Hu
    BPL Member


    Companion forum thread to: How much does backpacking really cost?

    Daniel Hu discusses the question: How much should I spend on my backpacking kit, and how can I do so responsibly?

    BPL Member


    Locale: N NY


    Jon Fong / Flat Cat Gear
    BPL Member


    Locale: FLAT CAT GEAR

    Well, this is really talking about disposable income, correct?  It seems like it is impossible to correlate financial investments relative to experiences and enjoyment.  That being said, looking at it this way could help you decide where you want to invest your disposable income.  I can justify backpacking, I can’t justify owning a personal watercraft or an off road 4×4.  Not enough return for me.  We have this debate about buying a Sprinter RV.  At our income level, if we bought one, the only way to justify that purchase would be to use it for all of our vacations.  Renting one every couple of years is a better option for us.  Again, looking at the pure financials, it could help to determine which activity has the best bang for the buck.  My 2 cents.

    Terran Terran
    BPL Member


    I would have spent it anyway. In possibly less healthy ways. I could have a newer car.

    if one sticks to the essentials, even buying top dollar equipment, it’s cheap compared many other hobbies. Unless you travel.

    The self reliance and the self confidence gained is invaluable over a lifetime of work. The health benefits of walking with a light load will result in less down time due to illness and injuries. Fewer health services will be required. Consider it as an investment in yourself. You’re making money. There’s accidents and there’s injury’s, but it’s a good investment

    David Thomas
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Woods. Far North.

    I was working in a suburban backpacking/ski shop in my mid 20s and we’d get to know the regular customers all of whom had taken a more traditional path of school-work-family-mortgage.  That’s why they lived in a upper-middle-class bedroom community.  We staff would talk about the two or three trips we’d take each month, while they’d use one of their weeks of vacation to go on one trip a year.

    They never told us to settle down and start saving for retirement.  I remember one guy describing how he had the outdoor gear and workshop tools he’d always wanted, but no time to enjoy them and feared his health would fail him before he had the time in retirement.  He explicitly advised us to keep taking those trips and having adventures while we were young.

    Monte Masterson
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southern Indiana

    Backpacking can run the entire gamut from cheap gear for someone who goes on trips near their home to thousands of dollars in cutting-edge ultralight gear and tens of thousands in travel to destinations. What I often see in the UL community is backpackers who constantly have to upgrade to “the latest thing” That’s where the big expense comes into play. I see it a lot on Gearswap and I think that’s fine if someone has the means to do it.

    Homemade Wanderlust (Dixie) did a good video recently where she shows just how much exponentially more expensive it can be to cut weight. However, for about $800 a nice full featured kit can be had which comes in at around 10 lbs.

    YouTube video

    Mustard Tiger
    BPL Member


    Locale: West Coast

    All depends on your budget, what your objective is, how dialed in you are regarding new gear, lightweight gear, ultralight gear, and even if you have the expendable income, are you willing to spend it? It’s no different than most other hobbies or pursuits, but also doesn’t have to be expensive to be lightweight.

    I recently bought a crap-ton of new gear (a lot of my gear was 10-20 years old and really needed to update a fair amount of it). I luckily have expendable income, no debt, no car payment, no student loans (paid my own way all the way through grad school because my parents have no money).

    When I was younger I was able to go sub-10lbs base weight. That meant I made a lot of my own gear (usually because what you wanted wasn’t available commercially, or in the rare event that it was, I couldn’t afford it at the time). Made my own Pepsi can stove, made my own quilt and found a sil-nylon tarp on clearance and seam sealed it myself. Wore whatever running shoes I had at the time and just bought stuff used, on sale, etc. Back then there really weren’t many if any cottage or boutique companies making specialized gear for lightweight and ultralight hiking. The internet wasn’t as big with forums and cell phones didn’t have the capacities and capabilities they have now. No air pods, no charging banks that fit into a pocket, etc. You had to be more resourceful.

    Today it seems like it’s more about what gear you own and being a walking advertisement on the trail and in many cases being a shill for these companies (sorry, meant “influencer”) and we’re told that we MUST have this or that gear in order to get out backpacking. We’re bombarded on YouTube with the latest, greatest “must have” gear, but if you spend a short amount of time watching this stuff you start seeing a pattern, and if you’re smart you’ll pick up on it and ignore it. Don’t get me wrong, these videos can be helpful, but it gets to a point where these influencers start sounding like Ron Popeil or Billy Mays, and all are reading from the same script and have the same format. I’ve been away from backpacking for quite a few years and recently got back into it, and in some cases things have changed a lot, most noticeably the weight of shelters, people are much more accepting of tarps and hybrid shelters (many used to gasp when I told them I only took a tarp) and there are many more high-quality lightweight packs and quilts are more popular. Aside from that it’s not that much different. Trails are more crowded though, and seems like backpacking is now sort of the hip thing to do (hipsters ruin everything), and to be seen on the trail wearing the latest gear, toting a camera in hand in order to get content for their channel.

    I’d also argue that it’s still not that difficult for people to go light on a budget. There are tons of people chasing the latest and greatest, and that means the used market can be a great place to find last seasons gear at a great discount for those more budget minded.

    Now get off my lawn!

    Glen L


    Locale: Southern Arizona

    My parents were depression babies and one of the mindsets I learned was penny pinching and putting back. It’s a hard habit to break but we all live in Babylon in the here and now. You can be frugal in your travels or have anything of your desires and the cost is accordingly.

    BPL Member


    Locale: N NY

    Still driving 1987 celica . I saved enough to go ultralight. My nightmare hiking ,camping experience in the USMC drove me to ultralight . Ha ha


    John “Jay” Menna
    BPL Member


    Locale: 30.3668397,-97.7399123

    Compared to other “vacations”, it’s also important to factor in that when you’re out on the trail, there are no hotel expenses, extravagant $100 meals, shopping sprees, or bar tabs to worry about. You don’t need to spend on wine or replace a forgotten headset. There’s no gas to fill up, no need for taxis or Ubers, and no one is waiting around for a tip.

    Terran Terran
    BPL Member


    Unless you take the Colorado Trail.

    Mark Verber
    BPL Member


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    This article touched on two of the key lessons I have tried to teach my kids and the the students I mentor about money. The first is compounding interest is powerful and starting to save early is useful.  The other is that once our basic needs are taken care of, careful use of our money can enhance our enjoyment of  life by enabling great memories and shared experiences which is more impactful than one more material possession.

    The cost of backpacking has been way cheaper (for me) than if I purchased a Starbucks each day and given me a wonderful set of memories and a sense of awe that makes life meaningful.  Zero regrets.

    MJ H
    BPL Member


    If you have gear shipped to your office, you don’t have to worry as much about the cost of gear.

    Mustard Tiger
    BPL Member


    Locale: West Coast

    Unless you take the Colorado Trail.

    I’ve noticed this trend over the years. hen  was on the CT I was poor, and there really want such a thing as a “town day” for me, aside of getting into town to get my resupply box. maybe grab a quick meal and then and get back on the trail. No hostels, no motels or hotels, no extravagant days in town, etc. Seems like this is the trend though these days with the younger crowd. Guess they have more disposable income than I did when I was in my 20’s! Also didn’t have the technology and didn’t have to worry about cellphone bills, charging devices on the trail, etc. I dismantled the CT guide book and took sections with me for each part of the trail I was on, and had upcoming sections in my result box and simply discarded sections after I finished each section.

    AK Granola
    BPL Member


    Kids are way more expensive than a backpacking hobby, even a lightweight outfitted one. I don’t buy a lot of tchotchkes for the house, fancy clothes or jewelry, or have others do my housework for me. I can therefore afford a really nice tent and sleeping bag and it’s totally worth it to me. It’s all what you value. I did loads of camping and hiking and backpacking in my 20s and made peanuts for wages. I didn’t have health insurance or a retirement account. I bought discount or used gear. That was all totally worth it too. What do you care about? That’s what backpacking really costs.

    BPL Member


    Locale: The West is (still) the Best

    Compared with other hobbies and activities, backpacking can be relatively cheap once getting past the initial outlay, then it becomes a matter of transportation costs if far.   Like trail running there’s footwear replacement costs with mileage (and even some resole designs).   Now if buying kits for every temperature and/or different climate, all those likely stored kits will start weighing in on the pocketbook.

    I’m just headed back to a mid with interchangeable inners (net tents for hotter, bivy’s for colder), .. and calling it a day for now.  Quilts?  Just pack sleep layers that can be used; I use Patagonia LW, then MH’s version of an Alpha Direct hoody if need be (waiting on a Senchi with chest zip which is my only “gear lust” item).
    Throw a 2 oz Montbell windjacket over all of it if needing to hang outside if “chilly” with its hood and chest pocket.  The Montbell is pretty multiuse btw, and while extra, as Swami (thru-hiker) points out  it weighs a mouthful of water.
    Been thinking about “bike-packing” but that just adds bicycle maintenance to a trip.

    “town day” … aside of getting into town to get my resupply box. maybe grab a quick meal and then and get back on the trail. No hostels, no motels or hotels, no extravagant days in town, etc. Seems like this is the trend though these days with the younger crowd. Guess they have more disposable income ..

    The towns have gotten in on the deal increasingly.  “Long distance” backpackers to them tend to be one more type of tourist to fill the town coffers.  A little stinkier but no one is going to split a side salad with a side of water.  Many younger thru-hikers split room costs however.

    A now middle aged UL thru hiker recommended hitting the grocery store first and downing (maybe sharing?) canned beans with maybe some canned corn to sait hiker hunger before going loose in town.  A way to cut costs and get something healthy in before being tempted by ordering thar chicken fried steak as a double order.

    Paul Wagner
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wine Country

    I started backpacking with a tube tent and a dacron II bag, wearing jeans and work boots.  You can backpack very cheaply, and the experience is still wonderfully rewarding.  Today’s gear fixation is just one more example of how people identify with a hobby, even if they don’t practice it very often.  People buy expensive cameras to use once a year on vacation.  They buy RV’s to use for a week once a year, etc.

    Of course, as we get older, the cost of outfitting the whole family is another question. WE gave up backpacking during our “childbearing years” partly because of the cost–and those kids keep growing. But we car camped instead, again without collecting a lot of expensive gear.  Now we have the time, we have the money, and we have no kids.  We still don’t have state of the art gear, but we’re happy with what we have, and use it at least a month every year, often much more.

    Steve Thompson
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southwest

    It is possible to backpack cheaply.  When I started the only purchased gear was a camp trails pack, a pair of redwing work boots, and a pair of ragg wool socks.  Everything else was hand me down or stuff my parents had sitting around.  Rain gear was a large trash bag with holes for my arms and head.  Ground cloth and tarp were painters drop cloths – with paint!

    I pretty much got started with less than one month’s earnings from my paper route.

    Fast forward 50+ years and I set out with a kit that cost me probably $2,500, acquired in spurts over the last 17 years.  At 65 I appreciate the weight savings, but my big expense is traveling each summer from the east coast to hike in the Sierra.  But local hiking is still cheap – a tank of gas and a couple days food.  And it is possible to outfit just about anyone for their first hike with functional enough stuff (mostly used and some borrowed) for $100; a nominal stipend to see if their eyes light up at the sight of a waterfall, the flight of a bald eagle, the view of thunder and lightning over Tucson, the howl of coyotes, or sunrise in Grand Canyon.

    Perhaps the question to ask is “how much does backpacking pay?”

    BC Bob


    Locale: Vancouver Island

    I live beside a golf course where people pay $249 + $20 for a cart (CAD) for a round of golf.  So I don’t feel too bad when I buy backpacking gear.

    Mark Wetherington
    BPL Member


    Locale: Western Montana

    I really enjoyed this article, it’s a topic I’ve thought about a lot since I started backpacking. Good analysis of it, although truly a difficult thing to full quantify given how intangible the benefits of backpacking area. Backpacking for me is such an ingrained part of my lifestyle that it’s hard to fully parse out the costs. I’m also fortunate where from having worked in outdoor retail and testing gear that I’ve been able to not have to buy many “big” items in the last several years. And given how long quality gear lasts, it will hopefully be a while before I have to. Living in western Montana the travel to most destinations I backpack is negligible to the point of trifling — the last trip I went on the trailhead was five miles away from the small “city” I live in and I traveled there via bicycle. Even if you were driving a muscle car, it wouldn’t have even been a gallon of gas.

    I think Steve is on to something with looking at it through this lens: Perhaps the question to ask is “how much does backpacking pay?”

    Hopefully BPL could do a follow-up essay attempting to answer this : )

    John Vance
    BPL Member


    Locale: Intermountain West

    As my hobbies have gone over the years backpacking has been quite inexpensive.  I have been through an embarrassing amount of gear, especially in the past 20 years, but have done well recouping the cost of items that didn’t work out for me.   Once equipped, my largest backpacking expense is fuel to some trailheads and food.   Pretty cheap for 10 days away at a time.

    BPL Member


    Locale: Colorado

    That video by Dixie posted earlier in the thread is informative, but a little extreme, since very few people are going out into the wilderness with really low-end crap.

    It’s probably more interesting for me to discuss quality gear that is a little heavier and much more affordable. For example, I think one could probably save 50% MSRP going from 4 lbs to 6 lbs on sleep system/shelter/pack while still getting good stuff. And obviously, a lot of people sell lightly used gear in this category when they upgrade to the premium level.

    BPL Member


    Locale: The West is (still) the Best

    Gear gear gear

    I think with experience, hikers eventually settle on a system until a “quantum leap” in materials occurs.

    There’s a self reported trend of getting baseweights very low, only to step back and buy slightly bigger gear here.   Whether for more comfort or the realization there’s about to be a “Wiley E. Coyote” moment of the “stupid light” variety occur.  Now I can see a dedicated trailrunner/fastpacker type getting gear below 5lb with that emergency bivy, but most will start adding something back for comfort and convenience.

    David Gardner
    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern California

    Just do like my younger brother, who repeatedly borrowed my “extra” (never-to-be-seen-again) gear, as I was constantly upgrading. Can’t complain too much, since most of the trips he used that gear for were with me. If you don’t know someone like that you need to upgrade to Family & Friends 2.0 :-)

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