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Last night I attended a free seminar at REI, given by Carol Crooker, editor-in-chief of Backpacking Light. This was probably one of the best free seminars/workshops I’ve ever attended. Not only was I totally interested in the subject matter, but Carol is from Arizona (just down the road, in fact, in Mesa), and she backpacks primarily in the Western Mountains and Arizona desert. So all of the information she gave was extremely useful for anyone hiking in the desert, plus she had especially helpful tips for female backpackers in general. And she’s 5’10”, about medium build, so she had extra insight into things like long-length hiking pants for women! (She recommends Isis pants for taller women by the way).

The #1 thing I learned was that going ultralight is super expensive. Backpacking in general is not a cheap hobby. I reeeeally have to restrain myself everytime I go into REI, to not buy the latest gear. It’s alot like the computer industry; there’s always new components made of stronger, lighter, smaller, more durable, more functional, etc materials that will improve your backpacking experience. What is currently the most state-of-the-art, absolutely lightest model that you can get, may become next season’s heavyweight. Luckily, I am an extreme newbie to backpacking, relatively speaking, so I’m not quite caught up in the craze of having the absolute lightest equipment.

Carol had a good point that she kept bringing up — backpacking is an individual experience, and the bottom line is that you should be doing it for fun. So if your trip wouldn’t be fun without frying up some pancakes every morning, then by all means, bring a frying pan — just try to buy the lightest one you can find and try to cut weight in other areas. Or if you can’t stand wearing the same clothes (or the same underwear, heh) for three days in a row, then bring that extra set to change into and try to compensate elsewhere. One of the gals in the audience just has to have a fully enclosed tent with a floor; the thought of sleeping out with the desert critters just didn’t appeal to her. So she’d have to pay more money to possibly find an ultra-lightweight fully enclosed tent, if she actually wanted to reduce her weight. For me personally, I need ankle support, so I’ll choose to carry a couple more pounds on my feet with heavier hi-top boots rather than wear a lighterweight pair of trail running shoes.

Right now I pack a 25-30 lb load. And this is when I divy up the equipment with others (i.e. split the weight of the tent, stove, food etc). Carol Crooker’s desert backpacking gear list can be found here. Her total initial pack weight is 14.52 lb, and that includes everything for one person: food, shelter, stove, water purification, etc. Wow! That is amazing. I could drastically reduce my backpacking load in all sorts of ways, and most of it involves spending gobs of money on new equipment. For example, Carol’s insulated jacket by Bozeman Mountain Works weighs a mere 8 oz, and it is currently the lightest synthetic top in the world. However, it also costs $280. Not everyone can afford the sky-high prices of top-of-the-line lightweight gear, so I figured I’d jot down some of the more budget-minded ways to upgrade your equipment.

Frugal Ways to Upgrade Your Backpacking Equipment

  • Make your own gear. Carol mentioned a couple of items that would be relatively simple to sew — a bevy, for example, or a camping quilt. Also, she mentioned that the first area where you can really cut down your weight is the kitchen. For example, instead of a gas or butane stove, you can save up to one pound of weight with a soda can stove. You can pay up to $20-30 for a soda can stove (Carol uses one by MiniBullDesign), or you can make your own for the cost of the can. Wikipedia has a nice little article on beverage-can stoves. Here is an excellent review on several alcohol stoves, including the homemade soda can stove.
  • Test out gear for free. Go to BackpackGearTest.org and learn how to become a gear tester. After you join their community, you have to write two owner reviews on gear you already own. Then you have to complete one test series (consisting of three reports over a period of time on BackpackGearTest.org provided gear). After that, you graduate to being able to test out more than one item at a time. It involves a bit of your time to test out the gear and write the reports, but since you’ll be spending your time doing something you enjoy (backpacking!), and you get to keep the items you test, then it’s probably worth your investment. I’ll be looking into it, that’s for sure.
  • Buy used gear! Carol pointed out that people tend to reduce their pack weight in increments. When backpackers reduce their weight by moving on to the next lowest weight level, they try to sell their old equipment to offset the costs of the new equipment. There are special forums that you can buy or sell used gear, namely The Lightweight Backpacker and Backpacking Light.
  • Wait for sales. Carol has a favorite brand of hiking socks — Smart Wool — that are pretty expensive. And unfortunately, socks are one of those items that get worn out and need to be replaced fairly often. So she waits until they go on sale at REI-Outlet, and buys a big batch at a time. Along the same lines, REI has a twice-yearly garage sale that I’ve mentioned before, which is a GREAT way to get quality gear for ridiculously low prices. Their spring garage sale is coming up at the end of February.
  • Shop at outlet stores. Online outlet stores, like REI-Outlet, and Sierra Trading Post are usually good places to find last year’s models at more affordable prices than your local outdoor stores. Be on the lookout for coupons. If you sign up for REI Gearmail, you can get notified of special offers and store events. New subscribers get a coupon for 15% off one full-price item. You also get emailed coupons periodically. Right now I have a coupon in my inbox for 20% off anything at REI-Outlet.

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