We all know that outdoor gear can get expensive quickly… but what if I told you it didn’t have to be that way? Here’s my favorite tips & tricks for scoring gear and clothing on the cheap…
- Don’t get attached to brands
Instead of shopping for a brand, shop for specifications. Identify what you need in an item, and look for that instead of shopping for a particular brand. If you need a 4-person tent for car camping a couple of times each summer, do you really need to spend $300 on a lightweight, packable MSR Elixir, or will a $90 Coleman Sundome serve you just as well?
It may seem like all the cool kids are wearing Patagonia this year, but there’s a reason the brand has nicknames like “Patagucci” and “Pay-agonia”. After deciding I wanted a black down puffer coat (to wear during my commute in the winter when I worked in downtown Cleveland), I discovered that REI’s store brand (REI Co-Op) makes a range of 650-fill down puffers that look almost identical to Patagonia’s offerings and contain only slightly less down. Instead of spending $200+, I paid $140 for a lightweight parka that looks just as good and kept me plenty warm on the city streets. That it packed down to almost nothing for hikes was a bonus!
While we all may secretly covet those $700+ Arc’teryx parkas, sometimes a less expensive option is just as good. I’ve been wearing my Columbia interchange 3-in-1 parka in the snow for about 16 years now, and it’s still in great condition and performs wonderfully. I do wish it were a different color (the dusty mauve looks very dated now), but I have a hard time convincing myself to replace it when it does its job so well! I feel like Columbia is often overlooked as an outdoor brand because it’s “cheap” or “entry-level”… the truth is that Columbia isn’t cheap, it’s affordable. Every Columbia item I’ve used has been well-made and has performed admirably.
Likewise, it’s finally getting to be time to retire my Coleman Pine River 4 tent, which I purchased for about $75 back in 2008. It’s been taken on many trips over it’s 12-year lifetime, and has seen a lot of seam sealant and Scotchgard. It’s still serviceable (I won’t get rid of it) but it’s getting to be time for an upgrade/replacement due to some small recurring leaks, stains, and holes in the mesh. Since it’s really only used for car camping, it will probably be replaced with a Coleman Sundome (the updated version of the Pine River) or a similar tent by Ozark Trail or REI Co-Op.
- Shop the sales
Identify your local outdoor stores (REI, Cabela’s, etc.) and sign up for newsletters so you’ll know when there’s a sale on. If there’s a store you find yourself purchasing from more frequently, look into their rewards programs and credit card offers (but only sign up if it makes financial sense for you to do so).
For example, a REI co-op membership has a one-time fee of $20, but you’ll get 10% of your full-price purchases back as a member dividend at the end of the year. Even though I mostly shop sales at REI, I still spent enough on full-price purchases to get my membership back as a dividend in less than a year.
At the end of every season, I look at the sales going on at L.L. Bean. Usually I can get between 40-60% off a nice piece of outerwear when their website is updated at the end of the season. We’re lucky to have a lot of outdoor stores within driving distance here, so it’s sometimes nice to make a day of driving between REI, L.L. Bean, Cabela’s, Appalachian Outfitters, and Fin Feather Fur to browse the sale items and clearance sections, even if we don’t end up purchasing anything.
- Thrift shop
A wool sweater is a wool sweater. A $10 thrift shop wool sweater will keep you just as warm as a brand-new $100 L.L. Bean wool sweater, provided they’re both 100% wool and of decent weight… and sometimes you can find that $100 brand-name sweater at the thrift shop for $10! In winter, I hike in a black merino turtleneck that I bought at a thrift shop for $5. I’ve also purchased plenty of quick-dry workout gear from the thrift shop that I use for hiking, as well as two pairs of Pacific Trail rain pants that I only paid $3 a pair for.
There are a few things that I would not buy at the thrift shop, mainly anything that goes on my head or my feet. I’m kinda skeeved out by the thought of used shoes–who knows what kind of hygiene the previous owner may (or may not) have had! Saving a little bit of money is not worth potentially exposing myself to someone else’s fungus and bacteria, and there’s often not a good way to clean and sterilize the inside of shoes. I’m also not so hard-up that I won’t buy myself new underwear and socks, for the same reason (also, I just really love new underwear… it’s called self-care, okay?). When I do purchase clothes, I bring them home and immediately put them into the wash to make sure that they’re clean and free of any tag-along pests.
- Buy used (swaps, estate sales, etc)
You can find plenty of secondhand gear online. Try your local Craigslist, as well as apps like OfferUp and LetGo. In addition to Facebook Marketplace, there are usually local “buy/sell” groups that you can join to find items for sale close to your location. There’s also the usual standby of looking on eBay for secondhand goods, although you’ll usually pay for shipping to your location.
Local outdoor groups will sometimes have a gear swap where members can meet up and swap or purchase their used gear. You can find special interest groups near you on Facebook or Meetup, or ask a local outdoor store or park office if they know of any local meetup groups or swap events.
A fun option is to visit local garage sales (yard sales, tag sales, whatever they’re called in your region) and estate sales. EstateSales.Net can show you estate sales near you and provides preview images so you know what to expect in the sale. Warning: estate sale shopping is a dangerous hobby. Since usually everything in the house is for sale, I can always find something I didn’t know I needed when I go to one!
If you have a REI nearby, becoming a co-op member can save you big money when it comes to buying used. REI co-op members get access to the store garage sales, where returned items in new or once-used condition are sold at a steep discount (with the reason for the original return attached). This is how my boyfriend and I got our $100+ Therm-A-Rest sleeping pads for less than $50 each. The label on mine said the woman who bought it new returned it for being “too thin”, while my boyfriend’s was returned for being “too soft”. Chances are the people who bought them first didn’t realize you still have to blow into a ‘self-inflating’ pad!
- Utilize gear rental
Some outdoor stores will rent gear for you to use for a weekend. The idea behind this is that you’re likely to purchase gear from the shop after trying it out, or that you’ll come back and rent from them in the future if you’re renting an item you won’t need often. I’ve admittedly not explored this option myself yet, but I did recommend renting a bear canister from the local REI to a friend of mine who asked if I had one they could borrow. Since they would only need the canister for a couple weeks, it wouldn’t make sense for them to buy one if they could rent!