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Y’all: Do not wait to shop for the best camping deals when you’re two weeks away from your trip to Banff or Yellowstone. You will end up throwing money at full-priced gear in a last-minute scramble to get your gear packed. If you want the best deals on gear, the time to start is now.
Getting deals on camping gear is like shopping for everything else in the free world—it’s best to buy during the off-season. Hence, we are going to talk about getting camping gear now, even though the thought of camping outside during winter is absurd to any reasonable Canadian.
It took me a year to get all of my camping gear for approximately $400. I still think that $400 is a lot of money, but this amount has paid for itself in free accommodations on adventures into the wilderness. Camping gear can cost a whole lot more if you don’t make a buying plan.
Here are nine steps to buy camping gear for cheap:
Make a list of exactly what you need.
First, understand that there are two primary types of camping; “drive-up” or “car” camping and “backcountry” camping. The first is just as it sounds—you drive up and into a camping site, and pitch your tent right there. When you lug all of your gear to your far-flung campsite, in a pack, that’s backcountry camping. In general, car camping supplies are bigger and sometimes more “luxurious”, while backcountry camping gear is designed to be as lightweight as possible.
Interestingly, lightweight gear is more expensive, because they (supposedly) use new technology and better materials. *Eyes roll.* So before you splurge on an “ultralight” tent, make sure you actually want to backcountry camp. Don’t spend money on gear that’s going to sit in your garage collecting dust bunnies for the next decade and a half. If you’re more interested in a roomy, basic, summertime tent, you are going to have tons more affordable options.
Also, making a list will help prevent you from spending on gear that looks cool but that you don’t actually need. Camping stores like Mountain Equipment Co-Op and REI have masterfully curated displays, manufactured to have you drooling over pretty extras like a trendy fleece or the latest in thermos design. Your old fleece and water bottle work just fine. Stick to your list.
Give yourself lots and lots of time.
Every few weeks for at least six months, I would check in on Craigslist and at my favorite camping discount or resale sites and stores to hunt for items on my list.
Go for deals on the big purchases.
Saving $1 on a camping spork isn’t worth the time you spent looking for that deal. With pricier items, like a tent, sleeping bag, or backpack, you could shave hundreds off their sticker prices. That’s not to say you shouldn’t get discounts whenever you can; but don’t pick up ticky tacky stuff you don’t need just because it’s on sale. You don’t need that much stuff to get started.
If it’s a simple summer tent or starter sleeping bag, Walmart, Amazon Prime, or your local discount retailer will have some great affordable options. If you aren’t finding the specific gear you want in Canada for cheap (like a lightweight tent), it may be worth it to pay for the shipping from the U.S. from a website like Steep and Cheap or Sierra Trading Post.
(Hint: It's often much, much cheaper to ship to a friend or “border storage location service” located within the USA but very close to the Canadian border. Even with the exchange rate, you can save enough by taking this manual step to pay for a nice little weekend exposure down to the USA! I know that it doesn’t make a ton of sense, but it has to do with how tax is applied to mail orders vs how it’s charged while driving through the border.)
If you’re not sure about whether you like to camp, borrow or rent first.
It’s not ideal to spend any amount of money on gear that’s only used once! And lots of outdoors-people are willing to share their gear; we were all first-timers at one point or another! Ask the people in your network if they’ll loan you a big-ticket item so you can see if you actually like to camp before investing the $400. Just be sure to return it to them dry and in good condition.
The best way to find gear rental shops in your area is to google “camping gear rental [your city]”. Also, there’ll always be rental spots in any town that’s a launchpad to a popular wilderness area. Check with private shops (ski rental outlets are a good bet), co-ops like Mountain Equipment Co-Op and REI, outdoor recreation centers, universities, hostels, and non-profits aimed at getting low-income families into the outdoors. There are some items that can reliably be rented anywhere—like trekking poles—and so those could feasibly fall lower on your must-buy list.
Buy used gear.
I bought everything used except for my stove (which I couldn’t find used). There is so much used gear out there for sale, you really don’t need to buy anything at full price if you’re willing to put in that time. Often, newer models offer minimal changes except color schematics.
Scour community resale sites, like Craigslist, Kijiji, and VarageSale for deals on used gear. I bought my sleeping pad and trekking poles for about 70% off their retail price on Craigslist.
Also, reach out to your network! I’m a big believer in utilizing social media is this way. My friend recently bought a used backpack off an old coworker after posting about it on Facebook. The backpack was fully functional but worn, so the seller was too lazy to put it on Craigslist—but happy to take a bit of money for it! Outdoorsy people can get real gung-ho about upgrading or testing out new gear—and if they aren’t selling their old stuff, they may let you borrow it!
If you happen to be visiting the U.S., find out if there’s an REI Garage Sale where you’re headed. REI Garage Sales happen a few times a year at each store location, and are insane. Because of their generous return policy, they re-sell returned gear for a fraction of the price. You’ll have to line up early in the morning and prep for what is basically a Roman-style coliseum death match in Gore-Tex. My coffee was quite literally elbowed out of my hand by a middle-aged man cutting me in line, but I was still able to purchase an unused $470 tent for just $150.
Watch for sales and coupons.
Mountain Equipment Co-Op, Sail, Canadian Tire, and Bass Pro Shop will always have a clearance section, which is a good place to start. Still, these won’t be your best deals unless you have additional coupons or gift cards. Whichever your favorite camping supply store—including local shops—ask them about sales and mailing list coupons. I used an annual 20% off coupon on the one major piece of gear I couldn’t find used: a lightweight camping stove.
Use birthdays to ask for camping gear.
If you’re in a family unit, relationship, or friendship that insists on exchanging gifts, explicitly tell these people what you want. I’m so tired of giving and receiving gifts that are more about tradition than they are about providing real value or benefit. Don’t be shy!! I think people are generally very happy when a giftee drops a fat hint, especially if it’s well within their budget. (i.e. Ask for odor-proof food bags or an affordable headlamp, both under $30.)
Go in on gear with a camping buddy.
For most of my overnighters, I go with my best friend. She bought half of the gear, I bought the other half. I don’t own a bear canister and she doesn’t own a camping stove. Together, we own everything we need. In the coming years, I’ll round out my personal gear collection, but to get started, it was really helpful to divvy up shared items like a GPS tracker and a water filtration system between two people. If you don’t have someone to do this with, borrow from friends!
Make your own gear.
That’s right, time to harness your inner Macgyver. Some folks forgo “real” gear altogether, making tents out of tarps and a stove out of a cat food can. This is too savage for me.
There is one piece of equipment that I simply could not spend the crazy amount of money on—a tent footprint. A tent footprint is an additional piece of waterproof, durable fabric that protects your tent from the ground. It is sold separately from the tent, is essential to preserving the life of your tent, and costs upwards of $90. This is absurd. I bought Tyvek for $20 and made my own.
Do you have favorite ways to save money on camping gear? Share them below!
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