There aren't too many shortcuts to a good backpack or sleeping system. Those you've got to bite the bullet on and if you skimp a little too much then you might have to replace or upgrade later. Shelter however, can be one equipment item that you can improvise on. A tarp can be an alternative if the weather is right and a Lean To makes for good protection against the elements in most cases.
But, you'll need other essentials to make the most of your backpacking experience and before you shell out all that hard earned cash, have a look at some of my cost savings ideas on backpacking equipment. There are some very, reasonable alternatives to the expensive equipment out there that won't make you feel like you're giving up on a lot of frills. And the money you'll save here can go toward that upgraded sleeping bag, backpack or tent that may have been just out of reach before.
Water Bottles - Here's one of the simplest ways to save a few bucks without a ton of sacrifice and there are some definite benefits by 'downgrading' your water bottle selection.
One other very distinct advantage of the Nalgene is that it's thicker construction allows you to use it as a warming bottle for those really cold nights. If you're planning on 4 season camping then owning a Nalgene comes in handy. If you pour nearly boiling water into your Nalgene, shove it in a thick wool sock, and sleep with it between your thighs, the heat given off will keep you incredibly warm during the night.
Instead of the Nalgene, consider bringing along a pair or more of the everyday store bought water bottles [$1 or less]. Some brands are super thin so beware of those but Smart Water, for instance makes a fairly resilient bottle which means you can reuse it again and again.
Another reason to bring along that common water bottle is the threaded connection it has fits the Sawyer water filtration system perfectly. If you're out on the trail for more than a day then bringing along enough potable water just isn't practical and if there isn't a potable water source on the trail then you've got to invest in a water filtration system.
The Sawyer mini [pictured right] is priced under $20 and will purify up to 100,000 gallons of water. That's an absolute bargain for that investment. And what tips the scale for the common household water bottle over the Nalgene is that the Sawyer filter fits on that common bottle, not the Nalgene. Sawyer does offer a small collapsible bag free of charge with the Sawyer mini filter kit but I've found it way too small and difficult to fill. Instead, I bring along 1-2 Smart Water type bottles to use to fill up from the creek, pond or stream then screw on the Sawyer filter and squeeze the purified water into my Nalgene.
Of course, the most cost effective way to cook would be to build a campfire. That's certainly one way to go and not a bad choice. Before we dive into all the ways to save money, let's consider for just a moment, everything that that $40 investment in the MSR gets you.
First, in the way of camp stoves, it's a big winner terms of weight. At 3 ounces, you won't even notice it in your pack. And it packs down into the size of a small tomato paste can. What's more, it can boil two cups of water in under 4 minutes. The engineers did their homework on this baby. It lights up very easily, requires only a marginal wind screen [the more protection it has, the quicker it boils water] and the fuel adjustment knob allows the chef in you a little finesse when cooking up that camp meal.
So, $40 might not be a huge investment for all those perks, but if you'd rather spend those two $20s on upgrading your sleeping bag to a 3 season or opting for the 2 man tent to give yourself a bit more room, then perhaps consider the home-made alcohol stove as an alternative.
For a marginal investment of about $0.57 you can pick up a can of Fancy Feast Cat Food and turn that empty can into an excellent little camp stove that is a great option to the conventional. Building one on your own will take you all of 5 minutes and apart from purchasing a burning fuel [heet, denatured alcohol, etc...] you're off and running.
Mini Bic Lighter - There's no shame in carrying a mini bic lighter with you on the trail. If you're into starting fire with other means, that's perfectly ok, but the insurance that a mini lighter gives is well worth it. And for under $1, it's something that should be a staple in every backpacker's front pocket.
Dryer Lint - not only is dryer lint free, it's also invaluable in starting camp fires. If you've been out on the trail longer than expected and daylight is waning, dryer lint can get your fire going in no time. It's weight is nearly negligible and even with just a pocketful you'll easily start 2-3 campfires.
Thermarest was one of the first self-inflating backpacking mattresses created in the early 1970's by two former Boeing engineers [ref Wikipedia] and they've got no less than a dozen models currently on the market. Although they are stellar, the don't come cheap. Retail $19.95 - $229.95
One definite option to consider is the foam Yoga style mat. For some it may not offer enough padding for a good night's rest but for others it may do the job just fine. And if you're using a hammock then you may not even need anything under you. Note that a foam mattress will provide some insulation against the cold and will extend your hammock camping season.
Pocket Hand Sanitizer - stores like 5 Below and the Dollar Store offer some surprisingly inexpensive backpacker essential items like travelers toothbrushes and toothpaste which I find are necessities for me. And pick up a bottle or two of pocket hand sanitizer while you're there. It's great for disinfecting bug bites and scrapes and if getting a fire started is difficult due to damp wood, squeeze out a few handfuls of hand sanitizer on your kindling. It ignites easily and burns hot.
Handkerchief / Bandana - Another no-brainer to add to your list of backpacking essentials is a bandana or two. I like wearing mine around my neck. Soak it in water to keep you cool. Spray it with Off! to keep the bugs at bay and use it as a washcloth or hand towel for cleaning up.
So there you have it. These $5 and under backpacking essentials will certainly add to the comfort and safety of your next backpacking trip and won't break the bank.
I'm putting together an alcohol stove series on my YouTube channel so if you're interested in learning more about them or want to build one for yourself be sure to check it out and subscribe.
See you on the trail!