All humans, rich or poor, benefit from the outdoors. But let’s face it: quality outdoor equipment isn’t cheap, and assembling all the gear you need to go on an overnight backpacking trip can cost thousands of dollars if you purchase only top-end gear. So when my editor and I were discussing these issues, we decided to take on the challenge of assembling a list of the cheapest, minimally viable equipment needed for an overnight backpacking trip, and when it comes to low-cost value, Walmart comes to mind.
One of the reasons outdoor equipment can be so expensive is that a lot of research and development has gone into making gear lighter, more capable, and more compact. Essentially, better, more expensive equipment enables you to carry less weight on your back (and have a more enjoyable time), do more tasks with fewer items, and put more things in less space in your pack. So we had the idea to see what we could find at our local Walmart to drive down economic barriers to entry so the cost-conscious could also enjoy the outdoors.
To accomplish this challenge, we assembled a list of 10 essential items you should take with you every time you enter the backcountry, and a few more items you’ll want to take for overnight camping. Our 10 essentials list includes: 1) a pocket knife, 2) a first aid kit, 3) a water resistant/waterproof jacket, 4) water bottles, 5) a water purification or filtration device, 6) a light source, 7) shelter, 8) a fire starter, 9) sun protection, and 10) a map and compass. Beyond the 10 essentials, you’ll need: hiking boots or shoes, a backpack, a sleeping bag, and a camp stove and fuel. Oh, and you’ll also want to bring some food. (Please note, this is not an inclusive list.)
To evaluate our selections, I’m going with the following criteria. For my top pick, I’m listing the best quality product at the lowest price point. And for my alternate, I’m selecting the minimally viable option that will get you by at the cheapest cost. We’ve found a way to get you kitted out with most of the essentials (except a backpack), for just under $200. Now, manage expectations: this is a bare bones list.
I’ve appreciated CRKT’s knives for years, and the M16-01S is a solid choice for under $20.00. CRKT’s MSRP is $54.99, so this is a steal. There are better knives out there, but the M16-01S will get you by. This is the same model knife that my wife took on her deployment to Iraq in 2004. It will serve you well.
You simply can’t go wrong with a Victorinox Swiss Army knife. This was one of the first knives I’ve ever owned and I still have it and use it from time to time. Despite the marketing hype in the knife world, this short 2-inch blade will be up to most camping tasks. Plus, the knife also has a nail file, small pair of handy scissors, a toothpick, and tweezers — very useful for pulling out splinters!
First Aid Kit
Of all the first aid options available at Walmart, I like this one the best. It’s small, yet contains everything you need to treat bug bites and stings, minor burns, and take care of minor wounds. The kit designer also included a few electrolyte tabs — which can come in very handy to treat heat exhaustion — and some moleskin for foot blisters.
For a few extra dollars, I’d go with the top pick here, but if cutting costs is important, this 30-piece kit is a minimally viable option. I like this one over the other options under $5 because it contains gauze pads and a few butterfly stitches.
When it comes to water bottles, you can’t go wrong with Nalgene 32-ounce wide mouth bottles. When I first started climbing in the early 1990s, these were my go-to canteens since they are rugged and, when it’s below freezing outside, the wide mouth allows enough space to punch through forming ice to get to your water. You can also put boiling water in them and not worry about them melting on you. This variant’s temperature range is minus 158 degrees Fahrenheit to 212 degrees Fahrenheit. It is made of Tritan, which will take a beating, and is BPA-, BPS-, and Phthalate-free. The tethered cap is also handy so you won’t drop it in between boulders or have it go bouncing downhill. I’m a fan. While I prefer Platy collapsible canteens these days, I always take at least one 32-ounce Nalgene with me on every trip.
Believe it or not, Smartwater bottles in 1 and 1.5 liters are go-to water bottles for many Appalachian Trail hikers. They’re cheap, pretty dang durable, reusable, and connect well with screw-on water filters. More about those later. If you’re going for cheap, get two or three of these and they’ll get you by, and then some.
When in the backcountry, it’s important to protect your gut and make sure you are drinking the cleanest water possible. While I prefer a different system when I hike, I know a lot of long-distance backpackers who swear by the Sawyer MINI filter. The MINI is Sawyer’s lightest personal water filtration system and provides 0.1 micron absolute filtration. This means it filters out 99.99999 percent of all bacteria and protozoa, and 100 percent of all microplastics. #ProTip: Don’t waste money on the Sawyer squeeze bags that go with this filter. Simply fill an empty Smartwater bottle with water from a spring and screw the Sawyer MINI to the bottle and drink right from the filter. For more on how to do this, check out this video. Please DO read the directions and be cautious about what sites you select to get your water from. The MINI is a great piece of gear that is rated to filter 100,000 gallons of water before it needs to be replaced.
Boiling your water or using purification tablets are perfectly acceptable ways to help protect your gut while staying hydrated in the backcountry. The downside to tabs over water filters is that tabs don’t filter out dirt, debris, and other floaties in your canteen. When used as directed, they can be effective. Again, be very careful about what water source you choose to get your water from in the backcountry. For more on finding potable water sources, check out this Centers for Disease Control website.
It’s always a good idea to pack along a headlamp when you are in the backcountry, even if you are not staying overnight. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve intended on returning to my car before dark and had to use my headlamp to help me see down the trail as I was chasing daylight. This headlamp by Energizer looks pretty good. It delivers 350 lumens and will keep your hands free to set up your tent or cook a meal at night. The high mode will cast a beam about 80 feet, which is pretty decent. You can also set it on a dimmer mode to save battery life — which is a pretty cool feature at this low price point. Just pack along a few extra AAA batteries as well. I always bring backups.
This tiny flashlight isn’t big and isn’t bright, but it will be enough to get you through a night of camping. It will cast a 50-lumen beam 40 feet and run for two hours on three AAA batteries. At this price, you might want to buy two. Again, it isn’t great, but it will do the job.
Good backcountry tents are expensive, generally costing several hundred dollars. Most of that cost is in the design and lightweight fabrics. Of all the tents Walmart offers, this Coleman two-person dome tent looked best to me. Although it weighs almost nine pounds (ugh), I liked that it has a full rain fly that covers the entire footprint of the tent, which is super important during a downpour. It also has a full mesh body, which is nice when it is hot out. You can leave the fly off, and enjoy a cool summer evening while keeping the bugs out. Coleman designed this tent with a single-pole design for a quick setup. I like that it has continuous pole sleeves and a fully covered vestibule. You wouldn’t want to take this tent winter camping, but for late spring, summer, and early fall, it should do just fine.
If you are going backpacking in a forest, you should seriously consider hammock camping. When my wife and I are out on the Appalachian Trail in the spring, summer, and fall, we leave our Mountain Hardwear Trango 2 tent at home and sleep in our Warbonnet XLC hammocks. We beta-tested this idea a few summers ago with cheap Walmart hammocks and they worked amazingly well. This Equip One hammock is rated to 400 pounds and packs down pretty small. It’s intended for one person, but, inevitably, your hiking partner will also want to sit in it with you because they are just so comfy. I dig that this hammock is only 1.4 pounds and it comes with a hanging hit of two rope straps and two carabiners. Just know there’s a bit of an art to hanging hammocks. Don’t be intimidated. There are plenty of videos on YouTube to show you how. Know that when you sleep in a hammock, you are being subjected to air cooling all around your body — so put your sleeping pad in the hammock and lay on it. Also, bring a 9- x 9-foot tarp and 50 feet of paracord and two tent stakes with you. If rain threatens, you’ll be able to put it up over your hammock and stay dry.
My camp stove has a piezoelectric igniter, but I always carry a tube of waterproof matches with me just in case. These babies have saved many lives over the years and they are clutch when you might need to light a fire in the wind and rain in a survival situation. I highly recommend windproof matches for any backcountry trip.
Always take sunscreen along when backpacking, because getting sunburned sucks and can make a multi-day trip miserable. Neutrogena makes a great skin-friendly sunscreen that doesn’t leave you feeling all greasy and won’t clog your pores. It’s water-resistant for 80 minutes as well. This 100 SPF is my go-to, and I think you’ll like it too.
Who doesn’t love a party when the banana boat pulls into port? Banana Boat Sport used to be my go-to sunscreen until I found Neutrogena’s dry-touch. It, too, is SPF 100 and water-resistant for 80 minutes. It’s also an ounce more in weight and a tad more expensive.
Navigation: Map and Compass
Let’s be honest. Before you learn to navigate using a GPS, you should learn to navigate the old fashioned way — with a map and compass. The beauty of taking the time to learn how to read a map is that you’ll learn to appreciate terrain, speed, and distance in a much more detailed manner. Plus, when the batteries run out in a GPS or cell phone, you can always rely on a trusty compass and the Earth’s magnetic field. This compass is super light (1.8 ounces) and has an easy-to-read liquid-filled compass, swivel bezel, and adjustable marching line. Like windproof matches, I always carry a compass like this when I’m in the backcountry.
Ok, so that wraps up the 10 essentials. Now, let’s talk about boots, backpacks, sleeping bags, camp stoves, and cookware.
I was pleasantly surprised to see Walmart selling Altra shoes. While footwear is a very personal choice based on myriad fit variables, the general trend with long-distance hikers today is to wear trail runners over hiking boots. I was dubious at first, believing heavier and sturdier boots were better, but after I tried trail runners, I’ll only wear boots in the winter. For spring, summer, and fall, trail runners are much better. Why? First, they’re lighter — and an Army study found that one pound off of your feet equals five pounds off of your back. Second, they typically provide more cushion. And third, they typically dry faster in wet conditions. I’ve been a fan of Altra running shoes and their zero-drop shoes for years now. I love that the toe box is shaped like a foot (instead of a bullet), and they provide lots of wiggle room. While I’ve gotten many blisters in boots, I have yet to get a blister while wearing my Altra trail runners. (I currently have the Altra Lone Peak 4.5 and love them.) The Superior 4.5 has a MaxTrac sticky rubber outsole, lightweight and responsive Quantic midsole, and an improved and more rugged upper.
While I’m absolutely sold on Altra running shoes, ASICS is a reputable brand that’s been delivering quality trail running shoes for a long time. I like the Gel-Scram 5 because they are a bit more rugged than standard running shoes and have a decent sole that will give you good traction on rocks. While I prefer Altra’s zero-drop, the Asics Gel-Scram 5 has a 10 mm heel drop and a full AMPLIFOAM midsole for enhanced cushioning. The GEL technology in the sole should also provide you a more comfortable heel strike over many miles.
I have a soft spot for Coleman sleeping bags. The very first sleeping bag I ever owned was a Coleman. It was made out of cotton and bulky as hell, but it got me through six years of Boy Scout campouts. Considering that top-of-the-line down sleeping bags cost upwards of $700, manage your expectations with this bag. It’s far from the best available on the market, but isn’t a bad beginner bag. It is rated to 25 degrees Fahrenheit and contains Coletherm hollow polyester insulation, so it will still retain some warmth if it gets wet. (Down will not). I like that it has a draft tube to keep cold air from moving through the zipper. Keep in mind, it’s heavier than most bags — at 3.7 pounds, and won’t stuff down to the size of a water bottle — like a top of the line down bag will. With sleeping bags, the more you pay, the lighter and more compressible the bag.
If it’s not going to be too cold on your trip, this bag should get you by. Surprisingly, it’s 0.2 ounces heavier than Coleman’s 25F mummy bag. This 50 F bag is pretty basic. It has a snag-free zipper, which I like, and a pouch on the interior for small items like flashlights. It’s not as compressible as more expensive bags, so it will take up more room in your pack. Consider getting a compression stuff sack if you go with this option. If every dollar matters, this may be the bag for you.
I’m a big fan of isobutane backpacking stoves. These single burners simply screw into the tops of butane fuel tanks (not included). At 6.7 ounces, this burner isn’t the lightest pocket rocket stove I’ve seen, but it will take a 6-inch pot or pan on top and can boil a liter of water in just over three minutes. It delivers 10,000 BTUs of cooking power and will run for an hour on one Coleman C250 220g fuel canister. You can pay more for lighter stoves, but this one isn’t bad. At under $20.00, this is a value purchase.
Like the Peak One stove, this single burner does not come with a fuel tank, but it does come with a nice carrying case. I dig that it has a piezoelectric igniter and a burn temperature control. I have seen some ultra lightweight hikers use pocket rocket stoves like this out in the bush, and at 13 bucks, this might be worth a shot. P.S. I found a friendly Canadian who reviewed this product on YouTube.
If you use a single burner stove, you’ll need something to boil water in. I really like titanium mugs for this purpose. If you are cooking for two or more people, you might want a one-liter pot. But if it’s just you, this will work fine. I like to save weight wherever I can, and metal is heavy, so go with titanium. This one will hold about 15.2 ounces of fluid and can nest with a Klean Kanteen water bottle. #ProTip: Don’t burn your lips on the hot metal. Wait a bit there, cowboy.
If you’re cooking for two or more and don’t want to splurge on titanium, this stainless steel cook pot by Stanley might be a good option. It is made of 18/8 stainless steel — which is the same steel used in quality razors — and will hold 24 ounces of fluid. The vented lid doubles as a strainer and two nested insulating cups fit within. It’s bigger and bulkier, but has greater capacity.
How you should choose backcountry gear
Selecting backcountry equipment generally comes down to capability, weight, and cost. The greater the capability and the lighter the weight, the more you’re going to pay. Like all things in life, it’s a decision about tradeoffs. If you are just getting into backpacking, the items in the list above will carry you through your first overnighter at a low price point. They won’t be the best or most comfortable items, but they will work acceptably.
FAQs about backcountry gear
Q: How did you get started in backpacking?
A: My dad got me into Boy Scouts and camping and we used a lot of Coleman products like sleeping bags, coolers, and tents.
Q: Why is high-end backpacking gear so expensive?
A: High-end gear is expensive due to the research and development that goes into developing the lightest and strongest materials for the task. Let’s face it, carrying a heavy pack sucks. So, typically, the lighter the gear, the more it costs.
Q: Do you know of any good video resources to help me decide what gear to buy and how to use it?
A: I’m a huge fan of Jessica Mills and her Homemade Wonderlist YouTube channel. She’s an amazing woman who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail on a budget, and later the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails. She’s a wealth of knowledge.
Got questions? Comment below & talk with T&P’s editors
This post was sponsored by Walmart.