Buying NOLS gear on a Budget
inspired by the November 2012 Staff Newsletter
Congratulations! You’re going on a NOLS course! If you grew up backpacking, you might not need to read this article, you’ve probably got a lot of the basic knowledge and gear you need already. If you are new to outdoor adventures, listen up and prepare to get ready!
You have a couple of options: Walk into REI with a packing list in hand, and nod solemnly as they outfit you from head to toe in shiny new gear. (Picture in your mind a splendid makeover movie montage with color-coordinated singing sales clerks). This method does work, but it might result in your instructors gently informing you that half of the stuff that you just bought is unnecessary and you’ll have to leave it behind in a storage locker. It also tends to be expensive and can be a heavy-weight option.
You could also show up at for the first day of your course and be outfitted head to toe by the NOLS issue room, renting some and buying some. If the cost is not an issue, and you don’t have much time and energy to learn about buying smart gear before you attend NOLS, this is a great option. Possible problems: smaller branches don’t carry items like boots, selection and sizes can be limited, first days are often very rushed and may result in a forgotten essential.
A third option exists for those who are on a budget, enjoy the spirit of the hunt, and have a little extra time to prepare. You don’t need to spend a fortune to have excellent, comfortable, and even stylish gear. What I want to share with you is where to look for great deals, what items to buy used or new, what to look for in terms of quality and features, and what items to rent, splurge on, or just leave behind altogether.
I shop for my backpacking needs at thrift stores, garage sales, and the hardware store. I’ve never seen a free box I didn’t like. I technically live well below the poverty line. And yet on my instructor course, Ron Rash, our extremely funny, offbeat, and often blunt Course Leader, told me that I started the course off as the most stylish student there. That lasted almost three weeks before I burned a large hole in my puff jacket, ripped a gash in the seat of my pants, and spackled myself with an exploding bottle of fermented peanut sauce. Then, as Ron Rash said I just looked like a homeless person. (But at that point, so did everyone else!)
You don’t need to give up your keen sense of fashion in order to spend a month in the wilderness. It doesn't require a lot of money to be warm, dry, and comfortable during a 30 day expedition. It does take time, skills, and resources-- but you're lucky because I am going to let you in on the carefully guarded secrets of the gear guru, bargain-hunter style.
The Ethics of Cheap
Save money: Public lands belong to all of us, and we pay for them every year with taxes. Whether or not you consider yourself wealthy shouldn’t limit your access to the beautiful wild places that have been set aside from civilization. NOLS offers tuition scholarships, but that often still leaves students with hundreds of dollars more to spend on boots, sleeping pads, and gaiters. As a society right now, it feels as though we are very thing-oriented and brand-driven, but it is possible to set all that aside when you leave the trailhead. Use your resources wisely, get a great deal, and in a small way, rebel against the consumer system.
Go green: There is a huge secondary benefit to spending less on your gear: buying used items helps to save the planet. You're keeping stuff out of landfills, and you are lessening the amount of new raw material that has to be cut out of the earth, and the energy it takes to refine raw materials into fabrics-- and that sense of self-righteousness makes you stand up just a little taller, which makes it look like you've got more self-confidence. Good posture means all your clothes fit better, and suddenly: you are way more attractive. You could be a model in the next NOLS catalogue!
Simplify: The third ethic of cheap: take the time to examine needs vs. wants. This is a huge tenet in lightweight backpacking theory. You don't need to bring a folding camp chair, or a pair of binoculars, or a waterproof digital camera! Find a perfectly sloping rock for your backrest, learn to move quietly so the birds will come closer, and use colored pencils in your journal to record memorable sights. Spend that money on a nicer sleeping bag and relish the fact that your pack is light, your back less sore, your quality of sleep is better, and you have fewer items to pack up in the morning--more time for quality coffee making, and less items to lose! It is a total win-win. Paul Petzoldt, founder of NOLS, told his students, “Before you leave you should make two piles: things you'll absolutely have to have and things you think you might need, and throw all the 'might needs' away.”
Patience and Timing
The first thing is patience. Outfitting yourself will not happen on one trip to the store. You will need to use your resources, in both the real and virtual worlds. Being patient will get you more gear for the same amount of money. Buy summer gear in October and winter gear in April. After the holidays, often people have upgraded, so you can get their used gear cheap. If you live in a ski town or some other seasonal sport town, start looking after the season ends.
Develop a zen-like state as you slowly move through the rack of long sleeved shirts at your local Goodwill. Keep your mind clear, and your expectations low. Do not skip a chunk because you have become bored or frustrated. Remember to look in adjacent sizes for shirts that have been put back hastily by other, less zen, shoppers. Bring your iPOD and listen to something that makes you happy. Set a time for yourself when you will leave the store in order to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Find an enthusiastic friend who knows your size and what you are looking for. Bribe them with offers of an appropriate beverage, whether a gourmet smoothie or a cold beer.
Just as in life, there are choices and trade-offs you will need to make. Even as a novice outdoorsperson, self-knowledge is valuable. What are your values? What makes you happy? Are you a cold sleeper or a warm sleeper? Are you hard on clothes, always getting holes in your jean’s knees? Do you need a good book to read before you go to sleep? Do you have unusually strong B.O? Having this knowledge will give you a place to begin asking questions.
Don’t buy cheap stuff. The price might be cheap, but the construction and materials should be solid. If you pay full retail for a new $30 pair of hiking pants, the quality will probably be a lot worse than a slightly worn $30 pair of hiking pants that started life as a $70 pair of hiking pants. This aligns with what Wendell Berry calls being a responsible consumer- buy good things that last instead of disposable stuff.
Some good brand names to look for at sales or consignment stores: Outdoor Research (OR), Patagonia, Mountain Hardware, ExOfficio, Big Agnes, Smartwool, Icebreaker, Marmot, Montbell, Isis, GoLite, Arcteryx, Merrell, Sierra Designs, Osprey, Black Diamond, MSR, Ibex, Brooks Range Mountaineering, Western Mountaineering, Feathered Friends. (LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, Columbia, REI, and Royal Robbins can be hit or miss. )
But don’t get too caught up with brand names! If you find an awesome, no-name wool sweater at at garage sale, and it fits perfectly (slightly loose, for layering), doesn’t itch, and if you look good in it, then go for it! Remember also that there are other brands who are marketing for a different audience than backpacking, but might have the perfect thing for you. Running, yoga, sometimes hunting, biking, or paddling gear can be repurposed for hikers.
As far as what looks good on you, if you embrace kitschiness as humor, you will have a lot more fashion options in any thrift store, but there is a fine line between kitschy and dorky: good luck with that. Often NOLS instructors will bring pieces of ‘flair’ such as amazing jhorts, sequined tube tops, or chef’s hats. Feel free to join the club-- you will not be the weirdest one there. Of course, the best goal regarding fashion is to want to be the person who looks the most comfortable hanging out on the expedition: better to sit there looking comfy in a cheesy outfit than to be shivering like a fool in less functional designer clothes.
Do Your Research
Learn more before buying much. Renting gear is awesome. Places like REI will rent you gear if you are interested in figuring out some of your personal preferences before setting out for a month or more. NOLS carefully chooses rental gear that balances student’s comfortable, overall durability, and efficiency. Most often recommended gear to rent: backpack, sleeping bag, windpants, light puffy jacket, various stuff sacks and an “attack pack.”
Research online: user reviews can be very helpful, as long as you take everything with a grain of salt, and cross check reviews on different sites. Backpackgeartest.org is a great resource.
Go check out the community message boards at backpackinglight.com and backpacking.net-- the folks there are eager to offer advice, and several NOLS alumni and instructors haunt the boards. Because they are both lightweight-focused groups, the advice will be biased in that direction. Again, take the advice with a grain of salt-- don’t deviate from the packing list that came with your course packet-- in general NOLS is getting lighter as the years go on, but we still carry large expedition-sized packs, because we are going on expeditions, and the amount of food and group gear just takes space.
Where to Start
Start at home! Look for a tupperware bowl with a lid in your kitchen, the waterbottle you carry with you to school, your favorite team’s baseball cap-- most likely you will have at least ten things to check off your list right away.
Grocery Stores, Dollar store, Grocery Outlet: your sources for snickers bars, small journals, hand sanitizer, toiletries, bandanas, lighters, and face paint. Gatorade or Bolthouse juice bottles make excellent lightweight waterbottles, due to sturdy plastic and a larger opening. Plus you get to drink whatever is inside them.
Thrift stores: A wide range exists from Salvation Army and Goodwill to Buffalo Exchange and other high-end consignment shops. Wicking polyester tees are easy to find at thrift stores, especially if you don’t mind shirts that tell the world you ran in the 2009 Key West 5K walk/run. Fleece is cheap and abundant, but look for simple pieces with thin, not bulky fleece, better for layering. Nylon running shorts are usually available in a rainbow of colors, and tend to weigh less than 4oz. Poly or poly blend (they can have a little cotton) button down plaid shirts make excellent and awesome looking sun shirts. Bonus points for pearl snaps. These should be thin-woven, almost see-through when held to the light.
If you live in a Big City consider: where do the 20 and 30-somethings live who have money/are outdoorsy? Go to their thrift stores first. Used gear stores do exist-- but they don't always have the best deals. If you live near a ski town, check the thrift stores right at the end of the ski season when people are cleaning out their closets. Remember that you can often get things NEW for 50% off, so don't pay 50% for something that is already super beat up.
Other things easily found at the local Goodwill: waterbottles galore, insulated mugs, paperback books that you don’t mind tearing up into three sections (one for each re-ration), hats of all shapes and sizes (fun hats are an excellent way to add flair to your outfit). Anything wool, or some wool/silk/poly/spandex blend. Thick wool button-downs, sized to go over your other layers, are a retro but still viable option. Wool is warm when wet, durable, and sustainable. It tends to regulate temperature and body odors better than synthetics. Men have the option of picking up a pair of synthetic/wool dress pants, which will certainly add to the professional look of your outfit, and are generally well made.
Hit or miss: sports bras, hiking pants, camp shoes, base layers, gloves. I don’t recommend buying raingear or inflatable sleeping pads from thrift stores. The consequences if either item leaks are just too high.
The sniff test is important for certain types of polyester. Most used clothing stores have a musty smell that permeates everything in there. If used gear has a significant stink you don’t really like, the two problems you have are that this gear is stinky and that this gear tends to hold a stink, so consider this stinkability factor in your shopping choices. Sometimes it can be washed out, and sometimes not. Try getting an enzyme-based detergent.
Target, Walmart, Costco: You might have opinions about shopping at a ‘Big Box Store,’ but honestly Target has great activewear shirts, nice thin nylon athletic socks, sunglasses, and travel toiletries. Stay away from Walmart’s camping section, except for maybe a bug head net-- their stuff tends to fall apart. But Walmart knock-off Crocs are good, also check for simple watches with an alarm. Costco has had light down jackets in the past, and usually has wool socks in 3-packs for $10. Women who are on the smaller side can easily fit into kid’s L-XL jackets and socks.
Garage Sales, Craigslist, Ebay: Probably the most time-consuming option, but it can be really fun. Helps to know exactly what you are looking for and what sizes fit you.
Websites: Steep and Cheap, Department of Goods, The Clymb, Sierra Trading Post, Minimus, Patagonia. Deep discounts on new outdoor clothing and supplies. Do a google search for coupon codes for an extra 20% off, or free shipping. Minimus offers individual serving size options for just about everything, which is especially great for those hot sauce connoisseurs. Patagonia Common Threads Partnership has a website that is dedicated to helping used gear find new homes-- but first you have to take the pledge to Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle, and Reimagine.
Cottage Industry Brands: Gossamer Gear, Anti-Gravity Gear, Jacks-r-Better, Titanium Goat, Dirty Girl Gaiters, ULA Equipment, Mountain Laurel Designs, Oware, Integral Designs, Melanzana: These are small companies, made in the US, selling some interesting and innovative gear. Check them out for great deals on sleeping pads, bivy sacks, rain kilts, tyvek ground sheets and much more.
REI Scratch n Dent Sales: Offered twice a year for most brick-and-mortar stores, you must first be a member to attend these sales. Be prepared for chaos. People line up a few hours before they open the doors. “Scratch n Dent” refers to the fact that the sale is made up of items that have been returned to the store over the previous months. Reasons returned could be anything from “poor fit” to “totally busted”.
When to Spend
Lightweight insulation pieces can be expensive even when on sale. But the weight/warmth ratio can make the investment worth it. Choose a piece that will layer well, and also try to find something that you like enough to wear around in-town after your course. Down or synthetic puffies often require special care, especially around open flame. If you choose a jacket in your favorite color, and in a style that flatters you, you will be more likely to take care of it during your course.
Boots or hiking shoes should not be too tight, and it is worth it to have an expert fit you, and to even buy special insoles. Blisters and foot pain take a lot from the joys of the trail. Gore-tex lined shoes claim to be waterproof, but with all the river-crossings NOLS does, Gore-tex just means that it will take longer for shoes to dry.
Rain Gear comes in three categories:
1) heavy and totally waterproof, but not breathable-- really only appropriate for deep sea fishermen in Alaska
2) light, inexpensive, and waterproof/breathable-- which will work fine to a point, but usually proves to be only semi-waterproof and partially breathable (if it rains all day, you’re gonna be wet) and finally
3) light, extremely expensive, and waterproof/breathable-- which is awesome if you can find space for it in your budget.
Sleeping Bags are the Great Debate items. For a long time it was between synthetic insulation, which is “warm when wet” and will dry out faster if it does get soaked and down insulation, which has a better warmth/weight ratio, but costs more and tends to be absolutely useless if it gets wet. New technologies have given us down bags with waterproof/breathable fabric shell, and also a new silicone-coated down called “Dry Down” that claims to eliminate the hazards of taking down into a wet climate. Unless you are willing to educate yourself on this tricky subject, rent a sleeping bag from NOLS and wait until after your course to buy one. Plus-- you’ll have access to great pro-deals as a NOLS alumni.
Make Your Own Gear
If you have leanings towards the crafty, get out there and knit your own warm hat, fashion a balaclava from a thrift store fleece, build a coozy for your mug out of sleeping pad foam and duct tape, and sew stuff sacks, a nifty rain skirt, or even a lightweight bivy sack. Check out DIY Gear Supply, Quest Outfitters, Seattle Fabrics, and Thru-Hiker.com To get ideas, the search term is ‘MYOG.’
Ask questions, be humble, and come with an open mind. We all are constantly learning, and there is power in being a beginner; power in seeing a glacier, catching a fish, making cinnamon rolls for the first time. Despite the focus and tone of this article, being outdoors is not about what you are wearing. Good clothing and gear should be able to take you into the backcountry in comfort; the real test happens when you are so immersed in your surroundings that what you carry fades into the background, and what you wear allows you to merge invisibly with the landscape.
“To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy not rich; to listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart; to study hard; to think quietly, act frankly, talk gently, await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common-- this is my symphony.”
William Henry Channing