Bomber Gore-Tex jackets and wispy carbon bikes are great, and we review them all the time, but there’s plenty of just-good-enough gear that costs much less and serves the same purpose: helping you get outside. To find the least-expensive gear that’ll still get the job done, I surveyed a group of professional guides, outdoor educators, and a couple long-term dirtbags. These are their picks.
Igloo Marine Breeze 48 Cooler ($40)
Yes, we love Yeti coolers at Outside. But you don’t usually need a food box that’s strong enough to resist a falling tree (yes, that was a real test) and costs half your monthly rent. If you’re car camping with the family, this cooler from Igloo keeps everything cold for at least a couple days, stands up to plenty of regular abuse, and costs less than a family dinner at your local pizza joint.
Black Diamond Gizmo Headlamp ($20)
This headlamp packs plenty of power for most backpackers. At 90 lumens, it’s bright enough for rummaging around in your tent after dark or making sure you don’t trip over a log during a midnight pee break. You can find even cheaper options, but we like this model from Black Diamond because it’s reliable and durable.
Thrift Store Polyester Shirt (About $2)
Polyester Hawaiian shirts are the uniform of choice for many rafting guides because they’re cheap, look great, block the sun, and wick water better than cotton. The shirts get ultrastinky after a few seasons, but it’s easy to find a new one.
Plastic Water Bottle ($1.40)
Most thru-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail prefer cheap gas-station water bottles (Smartwater seems to be the bottle of choice) over fancier alternatives because they’re cheaper and lighter while serving the exact same purpose. No, they aren’t as durable as a Nalgene, but they’ll hold up just fine for a few weeks on the trail.
Coleman Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad ($35)
I slept on a $30 Sojourner sleeping pad for more than a decade’s worth of river and backpacking trips. That pad, unfortunately, is discontinued, but this inflatable model from Coleman costs about the same and is damn comfortable and quite durable. It’s not packable, but it’ll do just fine for casual car-camping trips.
A friend hiked the entire Appalachian Trail with a poncho as his only rain protection. The material doesn’t breathe—like, at all—but it’s fully waterproof, and if you wear the thing right or cut a couple holes, you can get it to vent a bit.
Thrift-Store Athletic Shorts ($2)
If you need hiking bottoms, pick up a pair of used nylon shorts at your local thrift store. Tip: Buy a decent pair of synthetic or merino underwear, too, because long hikes in cotton briefs are terrible.