The short answer is yes, but you’re going to have to steer clear of items with any bells and whistles. You’ll also have to wait until next year to buy a nice pair of boots—the right pair will last decades and are worth the investment.
Novice backpackers should first check out heavily discounted or used options. Buy synthetic layers at thrift stores and scrounge up any lightweight pot you can get your hands on. Be ready to pack heavy this first season. If the weight bothers you, think about building a nicer, lighter kit one item at a time.
And before you start grumbling about the price, remember—to backpack safety and effectively you will need a pack, a tent, a sleeping bag, a pad, a stove, and a water purifier. Spend less than $350 on all those items, and you’re getting a smoking deal.
REI Crestrail 48 Pack ($105)
I’ve been testing the inexpensive REI Crestrail 48 since February. The Freeflow back panel elevated the pack off my back to vent heat and the hip padding snugged down and moved freely when the pack was weighted. The pack isn’t particularly feature-rich, but extra bells and whistles can mean more opportunities for something to go wrong.
Kelty Discovery 2P tent ($99)
You'll be hard-pressed to find a less expensive tent that’s worth bringing into the backcountry than the Kelty Discovery. This tent is not flimsy—it has robust pole clips and sturdy poles, and while it isn’t super light, it will keep rain and bugs off you. I haven’t had this tent long enough to make claims about its durability, but I was impressed with how easy this free-standing tent was to set up.
Kelty Discovery 30 Sleeping Bag ($59)
This sleeping bag was plenty warm when I tested it in temperatures around 40 degrees, and the square design gave our testers plenty of room to cozy up in. The synthetic sleeping bag doesn’t pack down real small, but it will keep you comfortable through spring and summer. This bag is going to be my go-to car-camping bag because of its wide design and easy-to-use zipper.
Therm-a-rest Ridgerest Classic Pad ($20)
You can find a variety of pads in the $20 range, but I like this Therm-a-rest because its closed cell foam insulates better than its inexpensive counterparts. The ridges in the Ridgerest Classic create dead air space. Your body heat then warms that dead airspace, making for a warmer night's sleep.
MSR Pocket Rocket Stove ($40)
This is not the first time I have suggested this stove, and for good reason. It’s affordable, lightweight, and has never let me down in the field.
Potable Aqua Iodine Tablets ($7)
In the long run, a water purifier is going to be less expensive and produce tastier water. But if you can't swing the $50, then Iodine tablets will work. Look on the bright side—they make water taste like what you got from the hose as a kid. Bonus: they can also disinfect wounds.
So what’s our total? $330. Go spend the extra $20 on beer.