Before I mention anything else, let me say this: do not try to shop for camping gear two weeks before your trip to the Boundary Waters. You will end up overpaying. Then you will be sad and unable to enjoy your wilderness adventure.
For the best deals on gear, the off-season is the time to shop. Not only is everything less expensive, it allows you to make the best use of these great tips!
Make a shopping list
Costs can build quickly if you don’t make and follow a buying plan. Start by listing everything you’ll want on your trip so you can work out what you already have, what you can borrow, what you can improvise, and what you need to purchase.
It’s important to understand that there are different types of camping. Many people camp at drive-up sites, which are popular in state parks. Other folks prefer backcountry camping. That’s where you lug your pack and all your gear to some far-off campsite that might be a mile-or-so away.
For drive-up or car camping, your supplies can be bigger. Backcountry camping gear, however, should be as lightweight as possible. Be sure your reserve isn’t too much for you to carry! You don’t want to start your trip with a pulled muscle.
Most importantly: making a list will help prevent you from spending too much on gear. It’s so much fun going into REI to ogle the displays, but you have to remember these stores curate this stuff to make you want to buy it. Yes, that portable espresso maker looks awesome, but it’ll add 12 oz. to your pack, which you just can’t spare.
Give yourself lots of time
I really can’t stress this enough. All through the off-season, I check Craigslist, resale sites, and local shops for the items on my list. My most recent find was a waterproof, puncture-resistant blanket that folds up to about the size of my wallet. I found a similar one online for $30; I got mine for $8, including shipping.
Which brings me to my next point…
Buy used gear
There is so much high quality used gear out there. People with money to burn buy fancy camping equipment and then only use it a couple of times in their backyard before giving it to Goodwill. (They have to clear out old stuff periodically to make room for all their new stuff. These are the people who buy the portable espresso machine.)
I’ve found great, gently-used supplies on Kijiji, VarageSale, and eBay. The best deal I ever got, though, has got to be the soft cooler I found on Facebook Groups. The guy had it listed at about 70% off its regular retail price. He threw in an unwanted stocking stuffer his mom had given him: the Bear Grylls Ultimate Survival Kit!
And speaking of fun gear, check out REI Garage Sales. They do them a few times a year, and they’re amazing. When you return something to REI (and they have a very generous return policy), they can’t resell it as new, so instead they sell it for a fraction of the price at these big sales. I’ve seen $450 Gore-Tex boots for a hundred bucks.
Be prepared, though. Big sales like this can turn into brawls quick. Someone’s nana will elbow you in the face with zero remorse.
Focus on big purchases
When you’re looking for these deals, make sure to prioritize the big-ticket items. A $500 tent at 50% off is worth your time, whereas a dollar off a multitool is not. Don’t waste your time looking at little stuff on sale.
Look online for how much the average item costs new. A basic tent might run you a couple hundred bucks. The same tent at a second-hand store would probably be closer to $50.
Sometimes you may find yourself in a situation where you’ve found a great deal on a piece of equipment you need but you’re short on money as it is and a few weeks away from payday. If the deal is really good (like 40% off) and you want the item badly, consider taking out instant payday loans. While it’s not a usual situation in which you would consider getting an advance, by financing your purchase this way you could win much more than you’d lose.
Borrow or rent gear
This is an especially good option if you’re unsure whether you even like camping. You don’t want to be like those people who buy things they only use once!
Campers love sharing their hobby, and they take wilderness safety seriously. If you tell them you don’t have a certain piece of equipment you know you’ll need, they’re likely to share their gear willingly. Just be sure to always return what you borrow in good condition!
Most people camp with a buddy, and if you’re a first-timer, you definitely should. If you don’t own a camping stove, maybe your friend does. You can also split the cost of year. I met my best friend at summer camp. We still camp together all the time, so we’ve shared the cost of things many times over the years. For instance, we went in on a big vintage army tent that we use every time we camp together.
Watch for sales and coupons
Yes, coupons. They’re not just for groceries. Mountain Equipment Co-Op, Bass Pro Shop, and Canadian Tire all send out ads in mailers and newspapers. These ads almost always include coupons. They usually mention a sale, too, or list marked-down items.
Clearance racks are standard in most stores, too. Go in and check them out periodically, and while you’re there, ask if the store has any mailing lists. Some places even have special offers available only to people on their list.
Just ask – especially around your birthday
You might have a friend who tried camping and didn’t like it, or maybe they just don’t do it anymore. This friend may very well still have some of their old gear just taking up space in their home. The only way to find out is to ask. Use your network to spread the word that you’re planning a trip and seeking supplies.
And don’t forget about gifts! My mother still asks me for a wish list a few months before the holidays. I always include some items I know she can find for a decent price, like a headlamp or some water filters. If you’re not into the idea of writing out an actual list, you’d better practice dropping hints! In fact, your friends and family will likely appreciate you pointing them in the right direction. Gift giving can be so stressful otherwise!
Make your own
You don’t have to be MacGyver (wow, am I ever dating myself) to DIY some slick gear. At summer camp, they taught us to make a camp stove out a candle and a coffee can. We made bacon and eggs on them. They were delicious.
Maybe that’s too savage for you, but you can save a huge amount of money on some essentials. For example, a tent footprint. A tent footprint protects and extends the life of your tent considerably by protecting it from the ground. It’s kind of like a big tarp. It costs about $90. This is insane. So I made my own out of durable, waterproof Tyvek, which you can buy directly from DuPont for $20.
Did I miss anything? Do you have your own great money-saving tip? Let me know in the comments!