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Lightweight Backpacking, Wal-Mart Style

I love gear, but I hate paying for it. Could I get a lightweight shelter, pack, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad for under $100? And if I could... how long would it last me?

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by Benjamin Roode | 2010-12-07 00:00:00-07


Lightweight Backpacking, Wal-Mart Style - 1My Wal-Mart test kit.

Part of me loves gear. Lots of me hates paying for it.

When it comes to lightweight backpacking, why is cost so often the factor that weighs down a would-be hiker or torments an outdoorsperson looking for replacement gear? Space-age fabrics and titanium everything do loads to lessen your weight, but do an even better job lightening your pocketbook.

There are ways to skirt the cost, but they aren't always the most efficient. Searching for end-of-season sales might save a few dollars, but puts you at the mercy of the stuff no one wanted for the season that just ended. Making your own gear is preferable, but tough when it comes to fashioning your own backpack, sleeping bag, or tent (if you want one).

I rolled this problem around in my head one day when getting ready for a weekend hike. I was making my food list when it dawned on me: where does everyone go for the cheapest stuff they can find?

Of course: Wal-Mart!

After my epiphany, I set over to Wally World (and to their online store) to see if $100 would outfit me for a good, lightweight hike. I focused on four things: a pack, a tent, a sleeping bag, and a sleeping pad. Those are usually the most expensive items a lightweight hiker needs on each trip (food, mess, and clothing/footwear are all much more subjective in my opinion).

My mission: outfit myself with these four pieces of equipment for $100 or less.


I scoured Wal-Mart's website and store to find a backpacking outlay that most closely matched my getup for the times I've trekked the Appalachian Trail (no thru hikes, just a few section hikes). I succeeded in outfitting a rig that actually weighed less than my standard getup. I also noted that Wal-Mart's huge stores have opportunities to find alternate items that can easily be converted into lightweight hiking gear.

Initial Findings

Weight is the top priority, and looking at the labels on many of the products I picked up doesn't help. In almost every case, the items I bought at Wal-Mart were mislabeled when it came to weight. For example, the backpack weighed 3.4 pounds instead of the listed 6.4 pounds. A great find, yes, but some of that weight must have come out of the hip belt and shoulder strap cushions. A lack of internal dividers may have also contributed.

Other mislabeled weights:

  • Wenzel Starlight Tent: Listed 3.4 lb / 1.5 kg; Actual 2.8 lb / 1.3 kg
  • Ozark Trail 3lb Sleeping Bag: Listed 3.0 lb / 1.4 kg; Actual 2.6 lb / 1.2 kg

Another thing to note is that Wal-Mart's supplies look like they wouldn't last more than a week on the trail. I guess durability is something you sacrifice when you're looking exclusively at cost.


Backpack: Stansport "Willow" Internal Frame Backpack 75L

Weight: 3.4 lb / 1.5 kg

Cost: $35 on sale, online

Support: Compared to both my Cerro Torre and my modified Columbia day-pack, this bag has little to no support. It's an internal frame, and it has more internal room than my biggest long-hike pack - both things I didn't expect to find at Wal-Mart. The straps will begin to dig in pretty quickly, especially if you overload this bag, which is tempting due to its large single interior compartment. The internal frame itself is light, which is good, but the whole bag seems flimsy, and repeated or long-term use will take its toll quickly. It rests well on the body, but the thin straps mean you have to really tie it onto yourself to get a good feel out of it.

Space: I could fit all of the Wal-Mart gear (tent, pad, bag, mess, stove) into this bag. The thin wall fabric meant difficulty in organizing and balancing the pack, but this fabric also cut down on weight.

Strength: Those thin walls don't inspire confidence for the long trail. This cheap pack will last about as long as you'd think $35 would last for a larger backpack. Zippers are also a concern, but they're not the worst I've seen on a backpack.

Overall: I liked the pack and would use it for a 2-3 day journey. Problem is, I don't see it lasting much longer after that. Good beginner pack that I believe would help a friend get an initial feel for backpacking.

Tent: Wenzel Starlight Backpacker Tent

Lightweight Backpacking, Wal-Mart Style - 2

Weight: 2.8 lb / 1.3 kg

Cost: $24

Ease of setup: This tent needs to be staked and comes with standard pin stakes. You can easily substitute lighter stakes for this shelter. The rain fly is cumbersome to get on with one person. You might get a little frustrated with the classic design (not a dome tent), but we're talking weight and economy here, not aesthetics.

Room: Lots of room inside, though I couldn't share it comfortably with my wife, despite the packaging's assurances that two can sleep in it. Great for a solo hike if you prefer an actual shelter.

Rain: Make sure to seal this tent, and all tents, before use.

Overall: It's a good weight for a good price ($24) if you want to take a tent. Problem is, if you're experienced, you can make a nice tarp shelter for much less weight and less money. A beginner might not want to worry about advanced lean-to-ism, so this is a good option (Note: both Wal-Mart and Target have several backpacking tent options both in-store and online).

Sleeping Bag: Ozark Trail 3lb Sleeping Bag

Lightweight Backpacking, Wal-Mart Style - 3

Weight: 2.6 lb (surprise!) / 1.2 kg

Cost: $9

Comfort: I performed this experiment in the summer, so this bag was not comfortable for me personally – too warm. I'm sure up a mountain this 45 F (7 C) bag would be fine. Easy to get into, easy to get out. Not for cooler weather, as this is a standard rectangular bag.

Compressibility/storage: The bag leaves a lot to be desired in compressibility. The new version has a lot of loft, but it doesn't get much smaller than the bag it comes in (it's not a compression bag, either). Tying it with shoelaces or extra para-cord for other uses helps, but I'd like it to get smaller.

Overall: It's a sleeping bag. If you play your cards right, it can help, but this is an area where going with a more expensive, lighter, and more easily compressible item will pay big dividends.

Sleeping Pad: Wenzel 71x24 inch (180x61 cm) Sleeping Pad

Lightweight Backpacking, Wal-Mart Style - 4

Weight: 1.2 lb / 0.5 kg

Cost: $10

Comfort: This is a standard foam pad without egg crate bumps or inflation. There is minimal support and comfort on ground, pavement, or hardwood flooring.

Compressibility/storage: The pad rolls up just like any other pad and is not very compressible.

Overall: A good simple pad. Another case where, if you're just starting out, you might want to invest a bit more in a lighter pad with more support, possibly an inflatable one. If you're feeling creative, you can cut strips off this standard pad and reinforce the shoulder straps of your bag for more shoulder comfort. You won't be losing much from the pad.


Lightweight Backpacking, Wal-Mart Style - 5

Total Weight: 10 lb / 4.5 kg

Total Cost: $78

The gear performed well on my one-night jaunt on the trail. The tent set up OK and proved to be roomy enough to enjoy. I didn't see any rain on my trip; you will have to rig your own rain protection over the Wenzel as the seams and walls seem pretty thin. The bag kept me warm (when I was in it) but I tend to be a warm sleeper anyway, so I kept it open most of the night. It was soft and felt like it would insulate pretty well at the 45 F (7 C) rating. The sleeping pad was a standard thin sleeping pad. I normally use an inflatable pad, so this foam-only version was a little less plush. It did insulate from the ground well and kept roots or the odd stone (which I found under the tent after my test) from poking into me. The bag sat well on a SUBSEQUENT three-mile side hike DURING THE TRIP and had plenty of room for clothing, first aid, food, cooking, and even entertainment. The bag was by far the best buy of the kit: I'll be using it until it falls apart, now that I've reinforced the shoulder straps.

I'll be using this set-up for as long as it lasts, which I doubt will be very many trips. As the old adage goes: you get what you pay for. My estimate is that for this set-up, you're paying for about a week's worth of overnight backpacking, maybe two.

That's not to say this is a bad deal. Just as you might not buy long-term furniture or gourmet food at a Wal-Mart, you shouldn't expect top-of-the-line ultralight hiking gear. This is something to consider when weighing the cost versus the utility and longevity of these products. You're getting most of the things you need for a good hiking trip in one, cheap place. They'll work, and they'll last you through the trip. Think of it as paying for one night in a motel room. Here, however, you're getting a week in nature's hotel room.

It's a good set-up for shorter trips where you don't want to worry about ripping your gear or replacing it afterward. It would also be nice for beginner backpackers who aren't sure they are into the sport enough to spend the big bucks to get the better gear.

Wal-Mart Backpacking Gear

Does not include weight for food, clothing, or first aid.

  Listed Weight (lb / kg) Actual Weight (lb / kg) Price
Backpack 6.4 / 2.9 3.4 / 1.5 $35.00*
Tent 3.4 / 1.5 2.8 / 1.3 $24.00*
Sleeping Bag 3.0 / 1.4 2.6 / 1.2 $9.00
Sleeping Pad 1.0 / 2.2 1.2 / 0.5 $10.00
Total 13.8 / 6.3 10.0 / 4.5 $78.00
*Available online only.


"Lightweight Backpacking, Wal-Mart Style," by Benjamin Roode. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2010-12-07 00:00:00-07.


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Lightweight Backpacking, Wal-Mart Style
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Lightweight Backpacking, Wal-Mart Style on 12/07/2010 14:37:50 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Lightweight Backpacking, Wal-Mart Style

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
longevity on 12/07/2010 14:45:20 MST Print View

i get the feeling that itll last longer than you think ... material wise the fabric is likely as or more durable than a lot of UL gear ...

here's a question ... what was you total base weight with those items and everything else

Kevin Haskins
(kevperro) - F

Locale: Washington State
Trekking Poles! on 12/07/2010 15:00:00 MST Print View

You left out the Wally World trekking poles.... my favorite cheapskate find! ;-)

I find them as usable as my old Leki poles although the carbide tips wear/round significantly faster. They are adjustable out to 135cm, weight is about 10.5oz each pole and they will set you back $18.88/pr.

Mina Loomis
(elmvine) - MLife

Locale: Central Texas
tent on 12/07/2010 17:51:26 MST Print View

"I didn't see any rain on my trip; you will have to rig your own rain protection over the Wenzel as the seams and walls seem pretty thin."

So that's what my customers at REI are talking about (!) when they come in asking for a tent that's "waterproof," that will "keep the rain out." I find myself thinking"duh..." as I assure them that yes, the tents are waterproof, and will keep the rain out, that that is generally what a tent is for...

Kathy A Handyside
(earlymusicus) - M

Locale: Southeastern Michigan
Lightweight Backpacking, Wal-Mart Style on 12/07/2010 18:31:42 MST Print View

I've managed to find some good little finds at Wal-Mart. For instance, I found one of those metal folding trowels for $6.00 - a cheaper knock-off version than the $18 one at a major backpacking equipment store. And I couldn't see any difference between the Wal-Mart one and the more expensive one. At another discount store, I found a great headlamp - a Cyclops Atom for $5.99 and it rocks! It weighs less than an ounce, is BRIGHT, and you can take it off the headstrap and clip it on a hat or whatever. Of course, it is only on or off and doesn't include strobes or Morse-code SOS flashes or anything like that. But it's a great little headlamp and I use it a lot. I also found a neat Sterno-type stove that comes with a windscreen/potstand that sits on top of a can of Sterno-type fuel, but I can also use it as a windscreen/potstand with my Trangia burner. Cost was $5.99.

The thing is, you can occasionally find some useful, cheap things at stores other than the mainstream major backpacking stores. True, you get what you pay for, but you can score some fairly good items here and there. Part of the fun of shopping for me is looking at items in the stores and finding things that might work for backpacking.

Brian UL

Locale: New England
Re: Lightweight Backpacking, Wal-Mart Style on 12/07/2010 19:08:54 MST Print View

I love being reminded how cheap and easy it is to enjoy the great outdoors. You can have just as much fun with cheap gear as you can with custom $$ gear.
here is some from the site:
-Eastsport Mesh Backpack (5.5 x 12.5 x 17.5) $9.00
-Foremost Tarps 8 x 10-foot Brown/Green Reversible Tarp $4.99
-Wenzel Emergency Poncho $6.97

There is a lot more stuff in the store than on the site. Drop cloths can be used as tarps. There are cheaper emergency ponchos ( like a dollar) available. The famous grease pot and aluminum mug, LED head lamps for 20 bucks, SAKs.
You have a lot more options if you get creative and take your scissors to all that over built gear. Rectangle bags can become quilts with a little basic sewing.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Trekking Poles! on 12/07/2010 19:35:42 MST Print View

Yep, the outdoor products trekking poles with black diamond "latch locks" are the most significant Wally World item, IMO.

Craig W.
(xnomanx) - F - M
Re: Re: Lightweight Backpacking, Wal-Mart Style on 12/07/2010 22:17:36 MST Print View

I'd use a 6x9 or 8x10 blue tarp over a Wenzel tent any day.

Better yet, pair the blue tarp with a frame hunting/hauling pack like this:

Wrap your gear in the tarp and lash to the pack. While it's pushing the $100 budget, I think it's more versatile, comfortable, and waterproof than both a crap shelter and a pack too small to fit your sleeping bag well.

Edited by xnomanx on 12/07/2010 22:25:41 MST.

Dan Durston
(dandydan) - F

Durability on 12/08/2010 00:17:45 MST Print View

With regards to durability and product life, I've found that main determinant with cheap products like this is how well it's sewn, rather than the materials used. I was given a Wal-Mart pack a few years ago that I used on a few occasions. The fabric was reasonably heavy and durably nylon, but the stitching was weak and when you tightened the compression straps the seams would tear open or the straps would tear off. I'm not saying this gear is like this, just that you could get good gear or poor gear and not really know which it is if you don't know how well it's been sewn/reinforced.

Tony Burnett
(tlbj6142) - F

Locale: OH--IO
Re: tent on 12/08/2010 05:43:47 MST Print View

"I didn't see any rain on my trip; you will have to rig your own rain protection over the Wenzel as the seams and walls seem pretty thin."

I bought my 60 yo father that same tent (from Campmor) 3+ years ago (IIRC, it was $25 on-sale). He loves it. We've been through some horrible rain while he used the tent and he has never once complained about it leaking. I'd say he has 15-20 nights in the tent and over a third of the nights (mostly on trips with me) have seen some steady to very, very heavy rain.

We did add another ~6" of mesh to the rear window in order to increase ventilation.

Edited by tlbj6142 on 12/08/2010 05:44:42 MST.

Wallace Hunter
(jeepingetowah) - F

Locale: South Central
Very happy people are positive here... on 12/08/2010 07:35:33 MST Print View

In such hard economic times for many folks out there... many are challenged with deciding what to spend what "little moneys" they do have. I am very encouraged by the positive feedback I see here, and how it really encourages one to know that they can enjoy the wilderness, even in short stints, and maybe only in certain types of weather with reasonable affordability.

I am exteremly guilty of buying high priced gear myself, but I am going on the AT in March and I do not have the current resources to DIY all my stuff right now. However, after my return I have told my wife, that I plan only some of the cheapest items, or I promised to DIY all my gear going forward.

I hope that I can do it, and with this community behind us, I believe it will be in my future.

*my only drawback is that these things all come from China. Not that I dont like the Chinese, but rather I love to give my $$ to cottage companies for hand made high quality gear.

Steven McAllister
(brooklynkayak) - MLife

Locale: Atlantic North East
I love it!! on 12/08/2010 07:53:25 MST Print View

Great concept for an article and I'm sure it will generate some good comments and advice.

Joe Bancks

Locale: Midwest
Good work on 12/08/2010 09:33:15 MST Print View

Wonderful experiment. Thanks for writing about it.

I was part of a similar discussion on a Yahoo hiking forum:

I had found an "Outdoor Products" backpack at Wallyworld for $35, which weighed about 2.5 lbs. The discussion that followed was pretty good.

Someone mentioned seams and stitching. I agree, that's going to be the greatest weakness in cheap gear. And I agree, the key is keeping your weight down, and being reasonably gentle with the gear.

Unlike this guy:

I seem to remember a BACKPACKER article some years back, where they gave three people $100 each to totally outfit themselves, one at Walmart, one at thrift stores, and another on eBay.

Edited by JackPike on 12/08/2010 13:12:46 MST.

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Lightweight Backpacking, Wal-Mart Style on 12/08/2010 09:49:20 MST Print View

I fully agree with the concept behind this article in that an experiment in which one tries to find an inexpensive alternatives to high-priced gear as a means to introduce others to backpacking is a stellar idea. However, I'm personally against the notion of making these purchases from a corporation well-documented for mistreatment of it's employees.

The author has done a great job of setting a goal, meeting it, and beginning to test the results. Understandably, confining the experiment to one store allowed for a somewhat scientific data set but I jones more for an experiment like this to be performed at thrift stores.

* edited to add that this is my personal opinion.

Edited by sharalds on 12/09/2010 13:59:47 MST.

Joe Bancks

Locale: Midwest
Thrifty on 12/08/2010 10:21:57 MST Print View

Thrift store outfitting is a super idea, especially for folks in mountain-west metro areas (Denver, Phoenix, SLC, Seattle, etc.). Harder going in midwest thrift stores. But if you're looking for a gently used Thighmaster, the pickins is easy.

Edited by JackPike on 12/08/2010 11:44:33 MST.

Joe Bancks

Locale: Midwest
Walmart goodies, part 3 on 12/08/2010 11:41:37 MST Print View

Another bit of "kit" (as our English friends say) to be found at Walmart: cheap, lightweight nylon cord. Last I checked, 100' of it sold for $3.

Christopher Knaus

Locale: Northern California
Lessons Apply to New Scouts on 12/08/2010 12:56:39 MST Print View

The description of budget backpacking equipment and shopping at Wal Mart reminds me of experiences introducing Scouts to backpacking and getting them set-up. Some gung-ho parents want to rush off to REI, intent on dropping hundreds of dollars to get little Timmy "the best" before his first event. My counter advice is that an 11 or 12 year old boy should probably start with functional (i.e. moderate weight) but inexpensive Target brand equipmnet, hand-me downs and/or borrowings. He can then learn the basics of proper and care for his equipment (e.g. Goose down and kool-aid don't mix!)with very little exposure. Over time and with discretion, equipment could be upgraded as
a) the boy matures and assumes responsibility for his stuff,
b) both he and his folks are sure that he is really "into it",
c) when or if elements of the budget equipment gives out, and/or
d) there is an occasion such as a Philmont trek or advanced 50 miler which warrants a treat or reward.
Bottom line, equipment selection is a great opportunity to teach a youngster about budgeting and responsibility.

(epilektric) - MLife

Locale: Midwest
Lightweight Backpacking, preferably not Wal-Mart Style on 12/08/2010 13:08:08 MST Print View

Not to sound like a skipping record but I agree with Sam H. An article focused on cheap alternatives is especially relevant at this time but there are other retail establishments with a better record of employee treatment than Wal-Mart.

I have had success with alternatives like thrift stores, garage/yard sales, Craig's List ads, and Freecycle. There are also other department stores to choose from with better records.

Douglas Prosser
(daprosser) - MLife

Locale: Camarillo, California (SCAL)
Lessons Apply to New Scouts on 12/08/2010 13:27:32 MST Print View

Chris, you have it right on point. Last night I had these conversations with a number of new scout parents. I told them to come see a number of us leaders & we can outfit a scout pretty well and relax about the gear. We keep small old packs & gear kits for new boys. The boys can try different things and see what works for them. We let them know of really good gear items & sales that come up.

The biggest mistake we told the parents was running out to purchase hiking boots. Every year we have some new boy on a hike complaining of foot pain due to new boots. We told them sneakers will work fine as long as not "skate" sneakers. Trail runners would be even better.

Just keep it cheap & light and the boys will enjoy the experience.

Rebecca Treat
(rebtrea) - M

Locale: the Great Northwest
Walmart on 12/08/2010 18:16:52 MST Print View

But WAL-MART! I would never go in one on principal...there are a few things more important than "a deal"