When you are looking to build a budget thru-hike gear kit, you need to find the most performance possible for the best weight and size.
Hiking for beginners on a budget was a fun way to learn and dig more into inexpensive and cheap backpacking gear while maximizing performance.
To build a quality budget backpacking gear kit, you must have a solid approach to the kit and manage this. You will need to focus on your big three, shelter, sleep system, and backpack, as they will take most of your budget.
An easy way to look at cheap hiking gear is online at Amazon. If you are lucky, you may have a surplus store in your area or a similar place to look at and purchase used gear at a big discount which may help you too.
For this to work, you want to find all the best for-cost gear and, if possible, any backpacking bundles that may exist.
Some vendors will package-specific gear together at a discount when purchased together, so always keep an eye out for those deals!
Jump to: Budget Kit
Defining a “Budget” Thru-Hiking Kit
Budget is always in the eye of the buyer; the average spent for gear each year on the Appalachian Trail is approximately $700-5000 per REI(1).
So for a budget approach, let’s start with $1000 as the low budget end and see what we can get and where the worry for safety may be.
In addition, the kits need to cover a minimum of 20-degree temperatures with an R-value on the sleeping pad of 4+ to ensure real cold performance.
This will let you know that you will be warm and comfortable in nearly all environments outside of unpredictable winter storms during three-season thru-hiking.
What Is Included In A Budget Kit
Just like with any gear kit for backpacking you need to fill in some specific big ticket, big weight gear in the form of the big three, and then all the supplementary items and any luxury items to round out the complete kit.
You always begin with your big three though as this will make up nearly all your pack weight and will be where you can get the biggest drops in base weight, which is vital for thru-hiking.
Big Three – Backpack, Shelter & Sleep System
Starting here is the right place; you will want to start with your shelter system first, be it a tent, hammock, or maybe a tarp.
Most thru-hikers will choose a tent as this is what they are most familiar with but the other options can help you get better sleep and lighten your load.
Once you know this, you will be able to make informed decisions on the right sleep system for you and the trek you are planning. This can be as simple as a sleeping pad and bag/quilt or on a hammock using an underquilt and top quilt.
Only once you know your shelter and your sleep system can you look to choosing your backpack as you need to know the space of the first two before you can make an informed decision on your pack, which needs to fit them all.
Choosing a Budget Shelter
Your home on the trail, whether your thru-hike is a week-long or six months long. Your shelter will be your first purchase as it helps you make the choice on your sleep system. You will want to spend a good chunk of your budget on this gear.
As to how big it should be, this will come down to personal preference, but the longer your thru-hike, the more having space becomes a need.
This leads to most hikers choosing a two-person, or 2P, tent for the space it provides to relax and dry gear in overnights.
Choosing a Budget Sleep System
Once you have found your shelter, you can look into your sleep system as a ground sleep system versus a hammock sleep system will vary greatly from each other.
Your sleep system will include your lower insulation layer or sleeping pad for the ground or a hammock underquilt when suspended.
Then you will need a sleeping bag or backpacking quilt to provide insulation from the air above you; quilts have grown in favor of three-season use for performance and lighter weight.
These will be bulky items but ones that should compress smaller if using down gear. If you should choose synthetic materials, they will compress less and require more internal pack space (liters).
Choosing a Budget Backpack
When looking for the perfect budget backpack, you need to look for a few things, typically at least a 40-60L capacity and a cost of no more than two hundred dollars.
Barring these criteria, you want to be as close to this as possible as your backpack by now. You should know the shelter and sleep system size to know the basic volume you will need.
If you have the extra money looking for a budget ultralight backpack may be smart but I would focus on your shelter and sleep system first.
Creating a Layering System on a Budget
While many overnight backpackers may carry much more clothing, a thru-hiker tends to be very specific to the clothing they bring, focusing on minimal clothing and building a layering system to gain warmth when required.
Most will choose not to duplicate clothing, following clothing similar to the Skurka Core 13. Then most will choose to bring an extra pair of socks and underwear as this allows cleaning.
Any more clothing than this is just highly inefficient as all your clothing will weigh you down and do nothing to combat your stench over multiple days, putting in hard miles.
For most thru-hikers on the common long-distance hikes like the AT, this will start during colder months on a NOBO thru, which means warmer and longer layers, many choosing some fashion of merino base layers covered by pants and a long sleeve shirt.
Outside of this, you will typically have two pairs of underwear and two pairs of hiking socks. This allows you to easily swap out each day while washing and drying your other pair to help maintain foot health.
For many, this layer will also include a fleece jacket or one of the highly popular Alpaca Hoodies.
Mid Layer (Warmth)
Mid-layers will be gear items meant to keep you warm and conserve core body heat at all times.
When you are pushing yourself hard, you will find that you get cold very fast when the activity stops, regardless of outside temperatures in some cases.
These would be clothing items like a puffy insulated jacket and sometimes even puffy insulated pants.
Outer Layer (Weather)
This is gear that is more for protection from the elements. This would be the rain repellent or near waterproof gear; for some, this may include wind gear. On trails like the Appalachian Trail, you will have lots of opportunities to wear your rain gear, don’t skimp on this protection.
For many humid and rain prevalent areas, you will want to pack a set of clothing to keep you warm and dry over the night. Most clothing items on humid or rain-soaked trails will never get fully dry, so you want to get good sleep with dry clothing.
Choosing Budget-Friendly Cook Gear
Your cooking system will be how you prepare foods on the trail, and some may choose to go with cold soaking, which means eating cold foods, while others will bring stoves and fuel to create cooked foods.
The more ultralight method would be to avoid a stove and fuel and those weights, but should you be in cold and wet trails, sometimes that warm meal is the pick-me-up required to keep you from tapping out!
Filtering Water on a Budget
Your basic need to get drinkable water is important on the trail as unfiltered water can contain many diseases.
A filter for your water is a core need to maintain robust health on the trail, so choosing the right one for you is important.
Electronics & Technology
This will include items to keep your phone charged between towns, from taking pictures to using it for FarOut or similar map apps.
Your phone is also a lifeline to reach people for rides, play music, and take your mind off things for a while.
The only other gear many will choose to bring now is a GPS locator device, which allows an SOS signal to help with a single button and text when no cell service exists.
Other Essential Budget Gear
This will be all the little odds and ends you should carry with you, like a compass and items that don’t fit into any other area. This can also include items like mini Bic lighters for fire or to cook with.
Keeping Healthy on a Budget
Toiletries are pretty straightforward, and you can take them from home without any real purchases or minor additions at most. Below are the most common items you would choose to include:
- Blister Relief
- Hand Sanitizer
- Advil / Ibuprofen
- Sewing Kit
- Tooth Paste (Pellets)
- Liquid Soap
While you may feel the need to pack a huge “first aid” kit, it is not really needed to stay safe in the backcountry, especially when you are consistently just a few days from town.
Seeking Quality Over Quantity
There are loads of “cheap” backpacking gear on the market, but much of it can’t survive six months of abuse, so if you choose to cheap out on the wrong gear, it may lead to needing to replace it one or more times on the trail leading to time delays and money problems.
You need to think about your gear. I have listed below gear with a proven track record to last from others’ reports and not just the “budget” and hope.
Putting it All Together
Now that you have a better understanding of the concerns and preparation of the gear to get the best performance for the money you have to spend.
Let’s build out a solid starting kit. Everything below would be an excellent backpacking bundle without exploding your budget.
Below we will start you on a $1000 budget, but also, if you can spend a bit more money, the item you buy should be less weight and preferably packed down into a smaller space.
Focusing on the Big Three Gear Items
Now let’s begin building out the big three for your budget backpacking kit. You always need to start with the gear that will go into the backpack before choosing your backpack, as this will ensure you know you will buy a pack that can fit everything.
Trekking Pole Tent – 3F UL Lanshan 2 (Or Pro For Single Wall)
The 3F UL GEAR Lanshan 2 is a popular two-person tent that is among the most cost-effective ultralight tents available on the market. The new 2021 version offers increased room to be more comfortable for taller individuals.
The Lanshan 2 is built to last and is suited for all conditions and activities. It’s specially made for UL hikers.
Solo hikers will appreciate the perfect balance between internal space for rest and pack breakdown at night and its overall lightness.
With enough room, including a separate entrance and a vestibule for each side, the Lanshan 2 can easily accommodate two people or one thru-hiker with all their gear.
The fly’s bottoms curved, allowing for continuous air circulation and the reduction of moisture buildup, which can be the bane of drying a tent out in the morning.
The tent body is a 5000mm waterproof PU coating over silicone-treated nylon ripstop. All seams are sealed with waterproof, solvent-free polyurethane tape.
Semi-Freestanding Tent – Paria Bryce 2P
The Paria Bryce 1-person and 2-person backpacking tents are lesser-known tents that may be a perfect match for someone needing a non-trekking pole tent.
This tent’s 1P and 2P versions incorporate top-notch features, high-quality materials, and flexible pitching options to make either of them the perfect tent for backcountry use.
Choosing between the two comes with an eight-ounce difference making either choice a strong and lightweight option.
3F Lanshan 2P Weight: 40.8 oz | 2.55 lbs | 1155 grams
3F Lanshan 2P Pro Weight: 36.7 oz | 2.29 lbs | 1040 grams
Paria Bryce 2P Weight: 55 oz | 3.4 lbs | 1559 grams
Sleep System (Quilt and Pad)
One fantastic option newer to the space, the team at Featherstone, has made other gear, but this budget backpacking quilt is entirely out of the ordinary!
Using 850FP duck down that’s treated to manage moisture. It packs a punch in a small price tag versus the normal competition in this space!
This quilt also has no issues being fully opened into a blanket, so if you are looking for something that can cinch up on a colder night but open wide for those warmer summer nights, look no further!
Weight: 23 oz | 1.44 lbs | 652 grams
Alternate Quilt Option – Aliexpress Ice Flame UL White Goose Down Ultralight Quilt (Sub $200)
For many the questionable tactics used in China make these an option they may not choose but if you really have a tight budget the Ice Flame is an excellent option.
The 3-season ultralight is comfort rated to 32 degrees and weighs in at only 20 ounces on the large, this makes it a very good option for those looking to grow a kit without going in on an expensive quilt right off.
Sleeping Pad – Paria Recharge UL
Paria uses a different method than others; instead of crinkly thermal wrap, they stuff their pad full of high-loft synthetic micro-fiber insulation.
This provides a more true 3-season pad with an estimated R-value of 3.5. You’ll stay nice and warm during those early spring and late season trips.
This pad has huge strength as it uses high-strength 40D diamond ripstop nylon and TPU lamination technology to provide ultimate durability and ruggedness to survive countless adventures.
Weight: 20 oz | 1.25 lbs | 567 grams
Getting a lighter backpack could be helpful, but Osprey is well known for being high quality and durable. While heavier than others, it holds this weight better and on the hips, helping ensure a better hiking experience.
Weight: 56.4 oz | 3.52 lbs | 1600 grams
Runner Up – Waymark EMBR
Now just recently from Waymark is the amazing EMBR following up on the other lines of backpacks this pack represents an over 60L capacity while keeping the price a shade under $300 and while this may be a stretch I know the gear and the performance will make it a perfect investment.
The EMBR was to be streamlined with essential features that you need from a larger pack, while still reducing weight.
At just over 2 pounds in weight, this large capacity pack is the ideal companion for weekend trips, shoulder season backpacking, and long-distance thru-hiking.
Runner Up – Matsix Ultralight Backpacks on Etsy
I have an amazing frameless Ultra400 55L backpack that I was able to get from his shop, which has listed ready-to-ship options along with the ability to help craft you a more specific backpack to fit your needs or trip.
These are all done at a fraction of what the big companies will charge you for something similar, and I can state that as high quality but budget. This is an amazing place to find a cool and unique backpack for your thru-hike.
For most thru-hikers, the choice in clothing would be to get merino wool for its smell resistance but in a budget approach, knowing that in the end, you will smell the same as everyone else, you can look instead for synthetics and blends.
Shirt – TSLA Thermal Long Sleeve Compression Shirts
Pants – TSLA Thermal Compression Pants
Underwear – Woolly Clothing Men’s Merino Wool Boxer Brief
Socks – Darn Tough Hiker Merino Wool Micro Crew Socks
Weight: Varies By Purchase
Keeping you warm when activities slow down is vital; there are many jackets, but this Trek is favorably compared to jackets three times its cost!
Puffy Jacket – Decathlon Trek 100
Weight: Varies By Purchase
Your protection when the trail goes haywire, don’t overlook these gear as they are important to keep you safe when things aren’t going well!
Weight: Varies By Purchase
Since most will begin with cooking food for pure comfort sake, this is what we will put together to help you get on your way, though I suggest highly learning about cold soaking and trying it out at least once.
The BRS is well known for being exceedingly lightweight as it is built from titanium and matches up with all the normal fuel supplies the more expensive stoves use.
Personal preference here, but to keep a clean container, I find a spoon more helpful than a spork, but hikers use both. There is even a pair of chopsticks if you want to level up a skill.
I love Hilltop Packs, and I have two of their bear bags now, a Dyneema and an Ecopak, one for myself and one for my wife.
They put high-quality work behind everything they do. While there may be a few more “budget” versions, they lose size and capacity or are made of easily wearable materials or of questionable quality.
Weight: Varies By Purchase
Your ability to get water will be vital on long-distance hikes as you will not have a tap to pour water, which will mean getting water from sources you find along the way.
Weight: Varies By Purchase
Affordable Tech for the Trail
Power Bank – Anker Portable Charger, USB-C 10000mAh with 20W Power Delivery
Quick Charger – Anker Nano USB C Charger 20W
Weight: Varies By Purchase
Final Tips for Sticking to Your Budget
When money is tight, finding an affordable set of backpacking gear for thru-hikes is vital. Fortunately, there are ways to save money and acquire the necessary equipment. The following are tips on how to backpack on a budget:
- Purchase used gear whenever possible. Check online classifieds, garage sales, and thrift stores for lightly used backpacking gear.
- Stick to the essentials. It is tempting to buy all the bells and whistles when first starting out. However, only purchase gear that you know you will use regularly.
- Rent gear before buying it. This is a great way to try out different types of gear before making a purchase. Outdoor stores often have rental programs for backpacking equipment.
- Join an outdoor club or Facebook group. This can be a great way to meet other people interested in backpacking and to learn about gear options. Many clubs also offer group discounts on gear purchases.
Research Before Purchase
Continue to read up on gear until you buy it. This way, you’ll ensure you want it (no buyer’s remorse), and know what functions each piece serves and how to use it.
You may also find that you don’t need some of the gear on your list. The point is: be 100% sure about everything on your backpacking equipment list before buying it.
Weigh your options carefully, and compare prices, reviews, and features before settling on a particular item. Sometimes, spending a little extra money on gear that will last longer or perform better is worth it.
Other times, you may be able to find a perfectly good piece of gear for less money.
Find Deals, Wait For Sales
You want to shop around before making big purchases for new and used gear. But, also be patient and wait for those items to go on sale.
You can often save significant money simply by waiting for the item to hit its clearance price or for yearly sales to roll around.
Another way will be if you know somebody with the gear you need for your trip, see if they will let you borrow it instead of purchasing everything new.
If you are handy with a sewing machine or know how to repair gear, you can save money by making or repairing your gear. There are loads of “make your own gear” options online that can be customized to your specific needs.
Choosing a budget backpacking kit is not rocket science, but you still need to be cautious and choose based on the hike you are attempting; a trip into the Sierras on the PCT needs different gear than an Appalachian Trail thru-hike.
If you don’t prepare, you may be tapping out far before you would otherwise choose to. Your gear needs to be an extension of you.
If you know of other awesome deals on cheap hiking gear or quality-performing gear, please drop a link to them in the comments below or the name itself, and I will research it and update here if it is a better option!