We’ve rucked some cheap stuff up some steep stuff and we can tell you the answer is...sometimes. There are places you just can’t skimp and places you can save some dough. Here’s our two cents on the subject starting on the outside of your pack and working in. Full disclosure, we are not the lightweight or ultralight crowd which would recommend some very different items.
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Knives and Multitools
In the woods for more than 6 or 7 hours? Spend the money and get a decent pack. Cheap packs are cheap for a reason, they’re built with inferior materials using inferior methods. In our experience cheap packs might hold up but will probably fail when you need them most. They will cause undue energy expenditure due to bouncing, straps loosening, etc. For reference, the picture above is of a Mardingtop 65L ruck, a popular ruck on Amazon, that was loaded appropriately and failed horribly.
Additionally shoddily built packs might mean they tear and let go when you’re in the bush. Losing your gear 5 miles into the thick is a non-option. We recommend the old adage “Buy once, cry once,” spend some money and get a good pack you can rely on and won’t break you as you hoof it around the woods.
For reference, we're a huge fan of offerings from Eberlestock, and Camelbak but there's great other companies as well. Do some research, stop by some outdoor gear stores, see what's up!
We go back and forth on this. We’ve had expensive boots that fail and cheap boots that rock. We’ve had expensive merino wool shirts that don’t cut it and cheap polyester that does. Ultimately if you’re investing the big bucks you should get what you pay for, here at ATN we’re more about getting something that works and if it doesn’t; making it work for that trek, then throwing it out when we get home. This method can work OK in summer, in colder months it’s important to plan specific items that will keep you warm and most importantly dry.
The best advice we can give is to try to find deals on high end clothes from companies like Guidefitter, GovX, Sierra Trading Post or second hand. We’ve had good luck from these sources.
The biggest thing we can say about apparel is to make sure you’re prepared for the climate you’re entering and try to avoid absorbent materials like cotton at all costs.
We make it no secret that we’re hammock people year round. No offense to the tenters, just not our bag here at ATN. Yes, you have to spend money and get a good hammock. Make sure to get the tree-safe straps as well. If you haven’t hammock camped, in the words of the Mandelorian, it is the way. A cheap hammock runs the risk of ripping and dumping you out in the middle of the night, a cheap tent tends to be less than waterproof, which in severe weather can prove deadly.
For hammocking, make sure to pick up a lightweight backpacking tarp, some guy lines and lightweight tent stakes while you’re at it. Important add ons are bug nets and underquilts depending on the season. Mosquitos can definitely bite you through the bottom of a hammock so a good layer of Sawyer’s Permethrin is important.
For colder camping an underquilt is an absolute necessity. Even a high end sleeping bag’s padding will be compressed from your bodyweight and you’ll be susceptible to cold wind on your back if you don’t opt for this item.
Sleeping Bags and Blankets
Spend. The. Money. And make sure your bag is temperature rated for the conditions you’re entering. A bag rated for cold weather in the heat will be a very hot night and a warm bag in the cold will be a very cold night. Cheap bags are heavy, lose their padding easily, rip, are hard to zip...look they just suck. Get a good bag, you’ll be glad you did.
Additionally we like a lightweight camping quilt. It’s a great comfort item and adds that little bit of extra heat at night or a snug way to have a coffee in the morning. You can also use it as a pillow. Don’t get us wrong, this is a comfort item but we like it.
You can do water cheap with a stainless water bottle and a DIY filter system. However, we can tell you from experience, this method is inefficient, stainless water bottles are heavy and DIY filter systems run the risk of being ineffective.
We use the Sawyer Squeeze System which runs around $30. This system is lightweight, reusable, durable and consistent. We’ve had water from ponds, streams, even stagnant puddles and had no problems. Get it, use it, you won’t regret it.
We cheaped out here and might have gotten lucky but so far don’t see the need for more expensive mess kits. Importantly we don’t recommend the old aluminum mess kits you can find at WalMart (for example click here), for a few dollars more you can get a decent mess and stove.
Firstly, be sure you have a working knowledge of the first aid gear you carry. There’s no sense carrying nasopharyngeal airways or Celox if you don’t know when or how to use them. Using first aid equipment improperly can cause more harm than good.
Two fold here, we rock cheap first aid pouches so long as we have easy access to the items we need and those items are kept secure. The first aid items, however, we spend the money on. Even our adhesive bandages are researched and purchased with care (and in bulk).
Remember, there is no sense being cheap when someone’s life is on the line.
When purchasing first aid items we recommend utilizing North American Rescue and finding kits that are suitable for your level of ability. They have a variety of kits for civilian, law enforcement, and military usage.
We like food. We hoof it and we eat well on the trail. We’ve tried a variety of meals from dehydrated to MRE’s to snacks you can buy in the store. Here’s our take.
For MRE-style meals skip the military-style Sodexo or XMRE Blue Lines that cost over $10/per and go right for Omeals. Their meals are ready quickly, heat consistently, are reasonably tasty for an MRE and offer impressive energy gains. They don’t contain mashed Pop Tarts or the impossibly sticky grape jelly but for $6ish you can’t go wrong. They are low calorie so this is best for lunch or a trail snack.
For dehydrated meals we like Mountain House Granola for breakfast (and so do our kiddos). These meals are around $5, lightweight and easy to ruck. Dinner though we default to Peak Refuel and for vegetarian options Good to Go. These are much higher protein and more filling than Mountain House or MRE offerings.
For snacks we love a fried SPAM, some nuts, and dehydrated fruits. If you’re a super adventurer we also love to forage for trail snacks along the way! If you choose this route be sure you know what you’re putting in your body!
Knives and Multitools
Don’t cheap out here. These are important tools that can do everything from build shelters to remove splinters. We carry 3 knives in the woods, a utility pocket knife, a large fixed blade knife and a multitool. What we can say is cheap knives will dull and break when you need them most.
It's important to note that these are our opinions on gear and believe that while we love the time we spend in the woods and on the trail we also have other areas our money needs to go. If you're eager to get out in the thick and do some discovering it's possible to do that on a tight budget and with items that double up for everyday use. If you have any questions, comments or concerns please hit us up by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our job is helping you get out there, whether you have thousands to spend or a just a couple hundred bucks. Remember, if your life depends on it, it’s best to spend a few extra bucks, replan, or train yourself for your adventure so you’re staying safe.