Hiking is a relatively simple activity to take up – no special skills are required. Indeed, the biggest hurdle to really enjoying hiking might just be getting the right gear for you. I set out to find out what gear is worth investing more money in, and with what gear can you afford to be more frugal.
When you are deciding how to spend your money on hiking gear, you should definitely spend more on your sleeping pad, sleeping bag or quilt, and your backpack. You should be able to save money on the rest of your gear, including your clothing and hiking shoes, your shelter, and your cooking gear.
When you are allocating cost for your hiking gear, comfort should be a major factor and something on which you will be willing to spend more. However, you will find plenty of budget options for other gear that provide good quality for the price.
Splurge On This Hiking Gear
A Quality Sleeping Pad
Any hiker who chooses to sleep on the ground, either in a tent or in a bivy sack, will want a quality sleeping pad. Again, comfort here is key. A good, quality sleeping pad with provide a good cushion for you against the hard ground, but will also provide necessary insulation to keep you warm during the night.
Only the most hearty of hikers and campers will enjoy sleeping on the ground without a sleeping pad. Roots, rocks, and uneven spots make it very difficult to enjoy a good night’s sleep. A quality sleeping pad – one that will give you comfort and not lose its integrity – is a must.
Further, you will want a quality sleeping pad to protect you from cold. Sleeping directly on the ground, or sleeping on a pad that does not insulate well, will make for cold, uncomfortable nights, except during only the warmest weather. Inexpensive, lower-quality sleeping pads will have a lower R-value and not insulate as well as higher-quality pads.
There are budget sleeping pads available, but you will definitely sacrifice durability and insulation if you choose to save money and purchase one of them.
I would recommend buying the Therm-A-Rest NeoAir Xlite sleeping pad (Amazon Link). This pad lasts a long time, is large enough to comfortably fit most hikers, and has an R-value high enough to provide insulation for all but the most extreme conditions.
Sleeping Pad Or Quilt
Staying warm and comfortable when you sleep is always worth spending money on. A good, quality sleeping bag or quilt offers several advantages that come with higher cost – better insulation, lighter weight, and better compressability.
There are differences between a sleeping bag and a quilt – while the bag is always enclosed and is a bit bulkier, the quilt is more of a hybrid between the sleeping bag and a blanket – it usually has the same insulating qualities as a sleeping bag but is even lighter and compresses more easily.
Higher-priced, higher-quality sleeping bags and quilts are much better insulators than budget options. Whether made with down or synthetic insulation, you will have to pay more for bags or quilts that insulate better – or have a higher “fill power.” This fill power will impact the temperature rating – which is usually more reliable with more expensive bags and quilts.
More expensive bags and quilts, because they have more efficient insulation with higher-quality insulation, are much lighter than most budget bags and quilts. Weight is always a consideration for hikers – you will get a much better weight vs. warmth ratio with expensive bags and quilts.
Bags and quilts with higher fill power, especially those made of down, compress quite well and take up less space in your pack than cheaper alternatives. Given that space is always at a premium for hiking trips, it is worth the extra cost to get bags or quilts that take up as little space as possible.
For sleeping bags, I would recommend the Outdoor Vitals Summit Sleeping Bag. (Amazon Link)
For a hiking top quilt, one of the best available is the Outdoor Vitals Down TopQuilt. (Amazon Link)
Once again, comfort is the name of the game when deciding to spend more on a quality hiking backpack. The difference between expensive packs and their budget alternatives are durability and also the ability to carry a load that puts as little stress on your body as possible.
Hiking backpacks undergo a lot of stress and wear and tear on the hiking trail. Stuffed with 30 pounds or more, tossed to the ground, tugged and pulled on – backpacks take a beating. You will want a bag that will last you for years, rather than you need to replace every season because it just can’t stay together. Spend more on a good backpack and you avoid this problem.
Further, more expensive backpacks do a much better job of distributing weight evenly, adjusting to your body, and offering stability that will make your hike much more comfortable. Cheap backpacks can’t carry a load well, and your shoulders, back, and neck usually pay the price.
One of the best backpacks that will be both durable and offer the most comfort is the Osprey Aether AG 60. (Amazon Link)
Save On This Hiking Gear
Hiking Shoes and Clothing
You will find that the budget options for the hiking shoes and clothing you take with you on the trail are very comparable to higher-priced alternatives.
You can find hiking shoes and boots that are durable and comfortable yet don’t cost a fortune. One feature of more expensive hiking boots and shoes that I find unnecessary is waterproofing. I prefer more ventilated shoes that allow your feet to dry more quickly if/when they get wet. Waterproof boots and shoes may keep most water out, but will sacrifice breathability and comfort.
I also enjoy trail runners as an alternative to more expensive hiking boots. While the boots may be more durable and offer more stability, you may be willing to give up those advantages for a more comfortable, and less-expensive trail runner.
For hiking shoes, I recommend the Merrell Moab 2 Vent Hiking Shoe. Amazon Link)
For Trail Runners, I would recommend the Altra Lone Peak 4 trail runner. (Amazon Link)
As far as clothing is concerned, you want to avoid cotton and wear wool or synthetic materials to wick away moisture, dry quickly and keep you warm when the temperature drops.
Some essential pieces of clothing are wool or synthetic-material socks, a dri-fit base layer, a down or synthetic insulated jacket, and of course pants and shirts made of non-cotton materials.
You can go to your local Target or Wal-Mart store and find cheap, quality alternatives that some specialty outdoor stores offer. I love wearing dri-fit clothing, and it is not expensive. I have also found good synthetic jackets that, while perhaps not as warm and light as more expensive alternatives, do a very good job of keeping me comfortable in cold temperatures.
Cheap, Quality Shelter
I am a big proponent of sleeping in a hammock for your hiking trips. I believe hammocks provide much greater comfort than sleeping in a tent, can offer a very similar level of protection against the elements as a tent, and are easier to set up and take down.
But perhaps the best part of a hammock vs. a tent is the cost. Even the most inexpensive tents made for hikers will cost more than $100, and you will need to pay up to 5 times that amount to get the very best tents. Meanwhile, you can find a good, quality hammock with straps, a bug net, and a rain fly or tarp for well under $100.
To me, there is no comparison. Don’t spend a fortune on a tent when a much-cheaper hammock might just be the better option for you. I would recommend the Lost Valley Camping Hammock system. (Amazon Link)
One of my favorite pieces of gear that I’ve had over the past five years is this little cooking stove. (Amazon Link) It weighs 4 ounces, fits on common butane fuel canisters, and does exactly what I need it to.
It doesn’t boil water as quickly as a Jet Boil System, but I really don’t care. I can put my simple, $20 pot (Amazon Link) on it and boil the water I need for any meal. Together with the butane canister itself, my entire cooking system costs less than $50, less than half of what higher-priced cooking systems cost.
Hiking is always more enjoyable when you have the right gear available to you. Some things are worth the price you pay to find real comfort on the trail. Other gear can be found at a price that softens the blow, and allows you to really enjoy your hiking adventures.