Wendy always wondered whether you need to drop hundreds of dollars on premium hiking gear. So, for a number of years, she didn’t. Here’s what she learned and where she thinks you can save on gear.

Many years ago, I hiked to the top of a 3,265m peak — Java’s Gunung Lawu — in borrowed sandals and cotton socks.

My Indonesian friends in Jogjakarta had convinced me it would be a wonderful adventure, and that they could lend me the necessary gear.

As well as lacking my own gear, I had no idea back then, that at that kind of altitude, things are just a bit harder anyway.

On the first day of the overnight trip, we hiked from 5pm to midnight, steadily uphill. I struggled to keep up and became so exhausted that every time we stopped for a brief rest, I fell asleep instantly right where I sat.

I still remember waking after probably only a minute or two of napping, and realising, with horror, that I was on the side of an (only slightly) active volcano, freezing cold (who would have thought a mountain in the tropics would require a jacket?) and had not enough snacks (my friends had generously organised the food, but apparently my capacity for snacking exceeded expectation). 

Eventually, we set up camp, sleeping on $2.50 foam pads. The next morning, everyone mercilessly insisted I get up again at 6am to drag myself to the summit. Actually, they tried to make me get up a 4am to reach the top by sunrise, but I pretended to sleep through their efforts to wake me.

As I staggered to the summit around 8am, we were greeted by throngs of cheerful Javanese Uni students in flip flops. FLIP FLOPS!

They thought that was perfectly acceptable footwear for what had been the most gruelling expedition of my life. But, it did ingrain in me (for a time) the idea that you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to go for a walk. At least, not all the time.

 

This was followed by several years of cheapskate preparation for increasingly bigger adventures.

A few months after Gunung Lawu, I climbed Merapi, a nearly 3,000m volcano near Jogjakarta.

This time I invested in a $9 pair of sneakers from the local mall.

Some years later I did Tasmania’s Overland Track in $12 sneakers (also from an Indonesian mall). The soles fell off on the second day, and I had wet feet for the full six days because, missing soles aside, cheap sneakers just aren’t that waterproof.

I also took an ancient, ill-fitting 30-litre pack ‘borrowed’ from my cousin a few years earlier, with my tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat all strapped haphazardly to the outside. Luckily nothing fell off along the way.

 

 

Where’s the sweet spot on investing in outdoor gear? | @thetantrap

 

At some point, I did start to wonder though. Even though one could get by with cheap gear, maybe, if perhaps one did spend a little money on better equipment, hiking could actually become even a bit (more) pleasant? Or at least one’s feet would be a little drier.

The following is a list of the main categories that you’ll need to invest in for multi-day hiking and my assessment of to what extent you can get away with the cheap version!

It’s by no means an exhaustive list, you can download a complete checklist for overnight hiking gear.

 

 

For the purposes of this piece, ‘cheap’ versions are generally defined as what you would get from somewhere like Aldi, Decathlon, or even Kmart.

‘Proper’ gear, is the kind of product you would get from a well-known outdoor brand, like Paddy Pallin, The North Face, Mont, Mountain Equipment and so on. It’s subjective.

Shoes

Yes, you can walk a long way in flip flops, even further in sneakers, and my Aldi hiking boots have covered a fair few kilometres, but once you upgrade to proper hiking boots you’ll never go back.

Don’t spend $400 on shoes for your first ever hike; but do wear thick wool socks and carry Band-Aids.

If you want extra flexibility in your footwear, you might consider a pair of trail runners over hiking books.

Clothing

Hiking pants, tops, socks, jackets, waterproof gear, and more. I’ve happily survived snow camping with a down jacket, soft-shell jacket and gloves, all from Aldi.

I also tend to buy the cheapest hiking pants I can because I destroy them so quickly (maybe there’s something to be said for their lack of durability given the price tag).

Recently though, having upgraded to more expensive brands for technical gear like a waterproof jacket and a down jacket. Not only is it better fitting but it’s much less bulky than my Aldi introductory gear.

We Are Explorers has previously tested all of Aldi’s cheap hiking gear and presented their findings. Spoiler alert: sometimes it does pay to invest…

Read more: The Dark Side of Cheap Gear

 

Saphira Schroers, I Tested A Full Kit Of Cheap ALDI Hiking Gear Over Nearly 100km, down jacket, fleece jumper, hiking boots, Aldi, undies, socks

Saphira Schroers Aldi haul before she tested all the gear over 100km. | @hikertrashling

 

Miranda Fittock, I Tested A Full Kit Of Cheap ALDI Hiking Gear Over Nearly 100km, woman, jacket, trees, leaning

It sure looks the part, but I find as a general rule, the cheaper the price tag the less durable it’ll be. | @hikertrashling

Sleep System

Again, a cheap foam mat and basic sleeping bag should keep you alive, albeit probably awake when you don’t want to be. Cheaper sleeping bags also tend to be heavier and bulkier though (a common trait for cheap gear), so keep that in mind.

If you’re heading somewhere properly cold, you want to be sure you won’t actually get hypothermia, so ensure the temperature ratings are realistic for the conditions.

All in all, it didn’t take too many slightly chilly and lumpy nights out, for me to see the value in a thicker mat and a cozy sleeping bag.

 

 

Now I even have a $40, 80g inflatable camping pillow that’s about 12 zillion times more comfortable than shoving a scrunched-up rain jacket under my head. A piece of gear that our readers said they can’t go without.

 

Tent

Like the sleep system, even Kmart gear or similar will keep you alive (assuming you don’t encounter extreme weather), but the lighter, more durable gear, is worth the investment long term.

If you calculate the per night cost of sleeping in the finest tent you can find, it doesn’t take too many nights out under the stars to undercut what you’d pay for a night in the cheapest hotel or backpacker dorm.

And the same principle of ‘price per night’ applies when it comes to considering the difference in longevity between a cheap tent and a premium tent. If the cheap tent is going to last half as long as a solidly built tent (generous) then it better be half the price.

 

How Much Should You Spend On Hiking Gear

A 2.4kg Macpac tent — an excellent model, but I’ve since upgraded to a lighter Big Agnes (full disclosure, my partner Peter got me the new tent for Christmas — he usually has to carry to the tent, so there may have been some self-interest there…) | @wendy_bruere

Pack

A good, well-fitted pack will make your gear feel kilograms lighter. I seriously can’t stress this enough.

The further you want to go and the more you want to take, the more a top-of-the-range pack will be worthwhile.

In Saphira’s comprehensive review of Aldi outdoor gear, her 45L hiking backpack worth $34.99 had a dismal load capacity of just 10kg.

Read more: Why You Should Get Fitted Before You Buy A Hiking Backpack

 

Miranda Fittock, I Tested A Full Kit Of Cheap ALDI Hiking Gear Over Nearly 100km, hiking pack, woman, fern, Aldi

Saphira admiring her Aldi backpack before it exploded… | @miranda_c_fittock

 

‘My hiking backpack managed to physically fit everything I needed for an overnighter, but then it tore. A nice big rip right in the outer pocket,’ said Saphira.

‘The poor quality of the seams was apparent when I first got the backpack, so I wasn’t surprised. With another one or two overnighters, even at the recommended load, this backpack would belong in the trash.’

 

How Much Should You Spend On Hiking Gear

My amazingly comfortable (sub $300) Osprey Hiking Backpack and my cheap(ish) but very functional Decathlon pants. | @wendy_bruere

Hiking Poles

Initially, I was reluctant to use these. I’m not the only one. Myrthe wrote a comprehensive article on poles in spite of admitting, ‘I used to make fun of people using hiking poles’ and Ruby’s ode to hiking poles started the same way.

To me, they looked weird and who needs special sticks just for walking? Like Ruby and Myrthe, It didn’t take long for me to convert after trying them out though.

Uphill, downhill and river crossings are where you’ll really notice a difference. I got my first poles at Decathlon, and when they broke after about a year of regular use, I was ready to invest in some sturdier ones.

Myrthe’s article covers the range of hiking poles available for different budgets, with poles under $100 to those that approach $300.

 

Safety Gear: Including PLB, First Aid Kit & Maps

In my early days of adventuring, I was extremely lax about all this.

It stemmed somewhat from the ingrained idea that I wasn’t outdoorsy and adventurous, therefore nothing I did could by definition be extreme enough to need, erm, basic safety gear.

Don’t be like me. And don’t skimp on safety gear. Make sure you’re equipped to deal with emergencies and know how to find your way if you lose the track. You can check out this article on PLBs and Satellite Messengers for more and you can often borrow a PLB from National Parks if you’re not sure you need to actually own one yet.

 

NSW National Parks And Police Are Asking You to Think Before You TREK, J Spencer, First Aid Kit, safety

@NPWS_JSpencer

Water

There’s a range of ways to purify water in the outdoors — Steripen, iodine or chlorine tablets, boiling it, or my current favourite, the Lifestraw.

I spent years just drinking the water I found straight up. Even where I was advised it was rather best not to. While I got away with it — as far as I know I’m not harbouring any exotic parasites — I eventually realised that if I ever made myself properly sick then having gastro two days hike from the nearest road (and toilet) would be highly unpleasant.

 

How Much Should You Spend On Hiking Gear

Filling my excellent Lifestraw Flex with water dripping off the rocks. | @wendy_bruere

 

Iodine or chlorine tablets are a cheap way to start, but I don’t love the taste of iodine in water (although I have a friend who says he reckons it grows on you by around day three).

My Lifestraw Flex is lightweight, only cost around $50 and has the advantage of filtering out all the floaty bits from murky water sources. 

Food

The last revelation to come was food. For YEARS I just accepted that hiking food was pretty dull. (The We Are Explorers Camp Kitchen would say otherwise).

I dated a guy who thought lentils and curry powder, maybe with a splash of vegetable oil for calories, constituted a reasonable meal after a day of hiking. Sure, I thought at the time. Good idea.

 

How Much Should You Spend On Hiking Gear

A hearty laksa, with a few bonus lentils. | @wendy_bruere

Even if I was planning fancier fare, it was usually based around couscous, instant mashed potato, with maybe some dried peas and a few nuts stirred through.

Then in 2020, I went out on an adventure with an extremely experienced friend who organised all the food. We ate curry, risotto, pasta – meals with freeze-dried vegetables, spices, rich sauces. We had hot chocolate for dessert. Breakfast was oats, but with nuts, seeds, fruit and coconut milk powder.

I realised that spending a bit more and planning a bit better was worth it. Varied, nutritious food is both delicious and good for morale.

 

How Much Should You Spend On Hiking Gear

A mix of Woolworths staples, freeze-dried food and proper curry powder from the Fijian grocery store. | @wendy_bruere

 

How Much Should You Spend On Hiking Gear

Supermarket quick-risotto, with dried peas and freeze-dried cheese. | @wendy_bruere

 

These days I still utilise a lot of budget supermarket staples, but also spend a bit extra on freeze-dried fruit, vegetables and meat to pep up meals.

But, fancy food isn’t much good without the right tools to cook it.

Cooking Gear

Clearly, there’s a lot you can do with a camping stove, gas canister and lightweight pot. They’re also not that expensive and will last for as long as you look after them.

 I still use those three items to make all my camp meals, though I’ve been eyeing off the MSR Whisperlight, with a refillable fuel bottle.

 

How Much Should You Spend On Hiking Gear

A reasonably cheap, lightweight and entirely glorious camp cooking setup. | @wendy_bruere

To buy, or not to buy?

Now, I still maintain that you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to go for a walk, and if you want to try out multi-day hiking you can most definitely manage it on the cheap.

However, if you decide to make a habit of it, a few strategic purchases can make hiking easier, drier, safer and just generally much more enjoyable. Take it from me…

Your best bet to economise if you have time on your side, is to wait for the inevitable outdoor sales this year (‘end of season’, ‘easter weekend’ etc.) and stock up on quality gear from reliable brands when they’re heavily discounted.

 

Cover image by V.H.S