I meet a fair number people who would like to try backpacking. Unfortunately the initial cost seems to be pretty high. Even an overnight requires a lot of big ticket gear (tent, sleeping bag, etc). Generally I don't just happen to have a bag, pack, tent, etc. in all the right sizes for any given person who might want to try a trip with us.

How can you introduce someone new (with little or no gear) to backpacking without them needing to invest a lot of money upfront in gear?

Specifically, pack, tent, and sleeping bag. A poorly fit pack can make someone miserable, and overly heavy tent + sleeping bag can likewise make for misery. Miserable first trips turn into last trips.

By cheap, I mean less than $100 per person for their first trip.

  • 2
    They or you don't have any friends that can lend you equipment? And there's nowhere they can rent from? Commented Feb 2, 2012 at 21:11
  • @whatsisname -- Yes, how dare I hike and introduce people to hiking without a large group of friends who are more than happy to loan out gear. Commented Feb 3, 2012 at 1:53
  • @Russell Steen: Looking at answers to this question, I think you might want to put a monetary value on "cheap." Otherwise, I think you're getting subjective answers. Commented Feb 3, 2012 at 12:30
  • Have you tried renting gear from REI? Super easy and cheap for a single trip. Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 18:44
  • 1
    This is a gear-focused question, so I didn't want to make this an "answer", but focus on taking them to a location that will amaze and awe them in some way. That's what got me. On my first trip the borrowed gear I had was awful (so was the weather the last day), but the experience was memorable and it made a lasting impression because of where it was. The trip was miserable, but I loved it. Maybe I'm just odd. And yes I know this is a old question, but I just can't help myself.
    – montane
    Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 21:52

7 Answers 7


Tent: A 2 person tent divides up really well between Tent/rainfly, and poles/groundcloth, a 4 person tent breaks down each component even more. Share with a bigger tent and you should be good to go

Sleeping Bag: Go in the summer months, when the temperature will be warm. I live in the Mid-Atlantic, and typically take an Army Surplus Poncho liner as my sleeping bag on trips in the late spring-early fall. In the height of summer, I bring a cotton sheet (I know, cotton is bad, but it's all I got).

Sleeping Pad: If you are careful about your sleeping spot you don't need one of these. However, it's always the first "luxury" item that I pack. I won't camp without my mattress. If you can, however, I'd loan mine to the newbie friend, or use a spare/borrow one from a friend.

Stove: Most backpacking food reads like: Boil X volume water. Add powder. Stir. Let sit Y minutes. Plan to share food/utensils, and you should be good to go.

Food: Again, double up and plan to cook/eat 2 person meals instead of 2-1 person meals.

Eating Utensils: All the friend would need is the bowl and spoon. Bowls can be repurposed from frozen dessert topping containers, large butter/margarine tubs, etc. Sure, it will fall apart after a few uses, but you can't beat the price

Water Bottles: If you know anyone who beverages out of plastic bottles, collect and reuse them. Wash them out and use as water bottles. I've personally used 1 liter soda bottles for months before they wear out. Best part, it's free (assuming you'd drink the soda/water/juice to begin with).

Backpack: Either borrow a full pack from a friend, or pack as much as you can in your pack and have him bring along the biggest backpack (daypack) he has. Alternate days.

One final note: You can rent almost all the gear needed from a local REI. I'm not sure if you need to be a member (recommended if you will be buying a lot of gear), or if they will rent to Joe Public, but worth looking into.

  • 1
    I marked this as correct because it specifically gives good suggestions for each of the problem areas. Commented Feb 5, 2012 at 20:33
  • Sleeping pads: they isolate you from ground. Without it may be much much colder. But you can make isolate layer from the clothes or some dry grass/leaves. Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 17:44

I would begin thinking about the overnight accommodation. You can do this fairly cheaply in the UK if you stay in a hostel, walkers lodge or a bunk barn. Many of them provide bedding and often food as well. Thus removing the need to take a tent or sleeping bag. Some places even provide tents for a charge!

If accommodation cannot be found then I would take a larger tent if possible and share the load of other stuff between the group. All the new person would need is to borrow a backpack. Then as long as you can put up sleeping in the same tent with them it will reduce the upfront cost! Assuming you have the larger tent!

I would choose a well known and relatively easy route as well. Don't get them scrambling on an arête on day one! Keep to a fairly low mileage unless you know the fitness of the person rather well. In my experience a lot of people exaggerate their fitness and walking with a backpack is quite tiring for the uninitiated.

Before you go I would check the following:

  1. Do they have warm clothing.

  2. Know what to do in an emergency

  3. Decent suitable footwear - it doesn't need to be the new best hiking shoes you can buy - are the shoes worn in. etc.

  4. Make sure they leave any unnecessary items in the car or at home.

  5. Basic Waterproof would be required.

  6. Basic knowledge of the countryside by-laws and customs.

Another obvious one is to get the person trying it out to join just for the day first! To see if they like it! before doing an overnight stroll somewhere..

Finally if you are in a reasonable group say 4+ people then you are likely to have spare stuff between you.


Ask the newcomer if they can ask around their friends to see if they have anything like a tent or sleeping bag they can borrow - I tend to find quite a few people have things like that lying around from festivals if nothing else, and are usually more than happy to lend them out to people they trust (perhaps I just have trusting friends!)

In terms of tents, I find it useful to have a bigger tent (4 man or so) so people can sensibly share without purchasing a tent on their own. Obviously if you already own one though you probably won't want to splash out on another!

The other point to keep in mind is that how much gear you need depends on where you're going and what you're doing, or in other words, pick an easy route that doesn't need much specialist gear! I find it's much better to keep things easy and then have someone wanting to come back for more of a challenge, rather than throw them in at the deep end and perhaps put them off entirely.

That said, make sure they have the basics like good footwear, a waterproof, etc. - it's all stuff they probably have anyway and if they don't, stuff that will come in useful generally not just for hiking! Most of the other outdoor essentials (stove, fuel, maps, compasses etc.) a group will have already, thus they can be shared.

  • Good, waterproof footwear usually costs much much more than $100. But my first backpackings I've done with sport shoes, that were soaking, but somehow I've withstanded it. Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 17:46
  • @ŁukaszLech Sure, by "good footwear" in this context I more meant something that was just suitable for walking - but I agree I could have been clearer! Having said that, often where I am in the UK there's lots of sales where I've picked up good, waterproof walking boots for £50-ish or less, and they've lasted well.
    – berry120
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 20:37

I tend to think backpacking is one of the cheapest activities to take up, as it takes very little cost to start.

Sure, they need some good boots, a rucksack and some warm clothing - but that's all really cheap. They won't need a compass or a stove if they are with you on their first outing - they won't even really need to know much: you can teach them along the way, and that way of learning is really valuable.

I, and most people I know who like the outdoors, have spares of pretty much everything else. I know I have 6 tents of differing sizes, many sleeping bags etc so ask friends and neighbours.

  • +1. When you read a backpacking forum or visit an outfitter like REI, you would get an impression that backpacking is very expensive, but most of the time you really just very few things, unless you are doing something really extreme, and in that case it probably isn't a good idea to bring an inexperienced person along. Commented Feb 2, 2012 at 21:42

Sleeping pads: I was on a motorcycle trip with very little storage space. I bought a couple of those inflatable pool mattresses at Walmart. The adult-sized, rectangular ones were cheaper than the tapered ones, and they re-folded nice. They also proved to be more durable than I expected. I only used one of the pads on my trip (5? nights). It made a few squeaky noises as I moved in the night, but I found the tradeoff quite nice. $1.99 sleeping pad alternative is cheap/light/compact (though I'd still bring 2 in case of puncture).

When you buy gear can have a huge impact on cost. In particular, a cheap tent and sleeping bag can halve in price if you buy it on a real sale (not the post-marked up so we can mark it back down Christmas sales).

Tent: I bought 4 hiker/biker tents from Sports Authority when they were on sale for 10 bucks. I think the sale price is now 15 bucks. It's a compact and reasonable weight tent (requires stakes to stand, though). It's super-fragile. I've broken a couple poles and ripped a door before. Low quality, but at a rather great price.

Ground Cover: cheap tents often have really thin floors, making ground cover somewhat necessary to help the tent endure. Those mylar emergency blankets can function as ground cover, doubling the lifetime of your cheap tent. Throw the mylar away every trip and use a new one.

Backpack: Weight- = Cost+. I bought a 7 pound backpack for under 40 bucks. It was actually quite (unnecessarily?) rugged. Thick fabric, beefy zipper, etc. Very adjustable, fitting friends with about a foot in height difference and 50 pounds in weight difference. Anyway, if you don't want to rent or buy used, adding a few pounds can save you/your friend a ton.

Walking poles: My girlfriend (now wife) mocked me for suggesting a pair of walking poles on her first trip. They look ridiculous to anyone who hasn't backpacked. I bought a pair of cheap poles for 20 bucks. First stream crossing in February (hovering around freezing), she almost fell in. She caught herself with a pole and now considers them a necessity. There's not a huge difference in quality between those cheap poles and the ones my folks bought me for 80 bucks. However, for an even cheaper alternative, see "stick found on ground at trailhead". As an aside, freezing stream crossings might not be a good first trail.


Even if you want to go for city-sightseeing trip for one day, you wan't go below 100$ assuming you have nothing, including shoes, clothes and rucksack.

But this is extreme situation. Everyone has something to wear and some kind of rucksack. You shouldn't started from extreme with novices, so we assume you choose some plains or little mountains during summer, and you wait for better weather, so you wan't need storm-proof clothes during day and warm sleeping bags at night.

Let's start with clothes. You can assume that everyone has some sport shoes and jeans trousers. They are good enough for start. In cheap shops like Decathlon you can buy fleece from about 10 Euro, if you have a luck you can get something on sale cheaper. But sweater would be enough.

Sleeping bag - you need some, but you can buy something cheap. For about 25 Euro you can have something with comfort temperatures about 10 degrees. Sleeping bags with comfort temperatures about 15 degrees are actually coverlets, not sleeping bags, and it may be a bit shivering to sleep in it outside even on plains in summer, but you can get it for about 10 Euro. Foam pad - the cheapest I've seen costed about 5 Euro (in Tesco or other Auchan).

Tent - novice won't need it. 1-person tents are extremes. Typical tent can accommodate 2-3 people. There should be a free place in your tent, or in someone's else.

Rucksack - yes, it is must-have. But most of the people that have studied have a bigger one. How else could they take their belongings to dormitory? If someone is in that extreme minority, that don't have one, it should be quite trivial to borrow one.

This was practiced million times in student mountain guides clubs. The people who started their adventure with backpacking usually don't have professional equipment from start.


Several strategies that I don't see listed elsewhere:

  1. Plan an easy hike during a period of prolonged good weather---think an out-and-back trip of less than 3mi (5km) on well-maintained trail with minimal elevation change into an overnight camp. In addition to giving your friend a positive first experience, it lowers the demands placed on equipment. Furthermore, plan on carrying as much of the group gear as possible to lower the demands on your friend. Similarly, think of how much group gear you can share on the trip---stove, water purification, trowel, bear cannister/bear hang kit suffices for the group. Cost: FREE
  2. Repurpose any of their normal clothing that is reasonable. Basketball shorts, synthetic leggings, wool sweaters, an old polyester dress shirt, track suit pants, a baseball cap, gardening gloves, wool slacks from a retired suit, sports bras, etc. The options are endless. Help them go through their closet to piece together a wardrobe, steering them away from cotton. The average first world citizen likely has a wardrobe that would be the envy of any 1800s explorer. Remember to help them with non-cotton underwear and socks---these are easily forgotten and can lead to severe blistering and chafing. Help them plan out a functional set of layers (most beginning backpackers carry wwwaaayyy too much clothing). Their outfit might be a bit aesthetically...curious...but it will be functional. Provided you've planned an easy trail (you did, right?), most any pair of well-fitting athletic shoes/walking shoes/trainers/running shoes will suffice. Cost: FREE
  3. Modern mass-market products are incredibly cheap and lightweight---think of the ubiquity of smartwater bottles among the thru-hiking crowd. A set of plastic cutlery and/or chopsticks from a takeout restaurant will suffice for a night. Ziploc bags and even plastic grocery bags are great ditty sacks. A large trash bag is an excellent pack liner. Modern ultra-processed foods aren't great for your long term health, but are nutrient dense, have lightweight packaging, and are shelf-stable (no need for expensive freeze-dried meals on a short overnight trip (or ever, for that matter)). Go with your friend to the grocery store to help them put together a good menu of trail snacks/ dinner / breakfast. Cost: free -- cost of a meal
  4. Hit the thrift stores for any clothing they're missing. And maybe you'll find a killer deal on a down sleeping bag that some bored, rich person donated. Cost: varies---cheaper than head to toe Patagonia/Arc'Teryx/Montec/Noronna/...
  5. The big ticket items (tent/sleeping bag/pad/backpack) are the hardest. If you don't have spares that will work, ask your other friends. And your friends' friends. And your neighbors. And online hiking groups/clubs/social media circles/mailing lists. Cast as big a net as possible. Cost: FREE--Adult Beverage. You can also often rent these items for a nominal cost from chains like REI or specialty outdoor retail shops. Many universities rent equipment through their outdoor recreation departments, often to the public as well students (even cheaper if you can find a student to rent it for you).
  6. If you've successfully planned out the easy overnight trip for a solid weather forecast in an area with minimal bugs, consider cowboy camping under the stars. Instead of finding a tent, they just need a scrap of tyvek house wrap or plastic painting drop cloth from a construction site to use as a ground cloth (and possibly makeshift tarp). Even a blue plastic tarp can work great. Make sure to either cowboy camp together or find tent space for them---sleeping in a tent while they cowboy camp their first time sleeping outdoors is a bad look. Cost: almost free

The basic philosophy of all these tips is that modern outdoor gear is really nice, lightweight, strong, and makes adventures more comfortable. But it is also incredibly expensive and overkill for simple trips in good weather. I love my forged titanium, carbon-fiber impregnated, dyneema composite, waterproof-breathable doohickeys as much as the next avid outdoorsman. But making do & doing without by using a bit of knowledge and improvisation will always be lighter and cheaper.

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