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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

Introduction

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.

Method

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.

Comparisons

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.

Results

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.

Citation

"Lightweight Backpacking, Wal-Mart Style," by Benjamin Roode. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/lightweight_backpacking_wal-mart_style.html, 2010-12-07 00:00:00-07.

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Lightweight Backpacking, Wal-Mart Style
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eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
differences on 12/08/2010 19:30:11 MST Print View

dan ...

i guess we do different things ... my stuff usually goes from abrasion ... rarely from blown stitching ...

all those rubbing against rocks like a cat against a scratching pole must be bad ... lol

im pretty impressed by the functionality and value of stuff i see at wallymart, costco, and other discount stores these days

not tooo long ago costcos had 15$ merino tops ... some store owner who sold dead bird started yapping about all the cheap made overseas goods ... the fact that it was made in canada shut him up pretty well

Lawson Kline
(Mountainfitter) - M

Locale: LawsonEquipment.com
Nice Work! on 12/08/2010 21:12:51 MST Print View

Hey Benjamin,

Nice job on the article. It was well written, short and to the point.

I will say though, I don't agree with your thinking. Why would you ever encourage someone to buy disposable backpacking gear? Especially at the cost of destroying the wilderness your planning to hike in. This isn't a backpacking article this is an article on consumerism...

Best Regards,
Lawson

kevperro .
(kevperro) - F

Locale: Washington State
I love Wal-Mart on 12/08/2010 21:54:16 MST Print View

My favorite store. I love all that disposable Chinese stuff.

donald buckner
(toomanyarrows)

Locale: Southeast U.S.
Walmart on 12/08/2010 22:56:54 MST Print View

I know there are those that do not like Walmart for various reasons. I hear about the way they treat employees alot. In my experience, the employees enjoy their jobs and are happy and helpful. It is my favorite store, because I am a spend thrift at heart, and I almost always get the best deal there. A few years ago it was "lite my fire sporks" for $2.33. Remington fleece long underwear,(thick,warm, tapered legs, zip neck) after hunting season for dirt cheap. I could go on and on with some of the great deals I've scored there. Walmart is here to stay. The consumers have spoken. Boycott if you want, but that's not my choice. I still spend way too much on overpriced specialty items that really I cannot justify but I do it anyway, ie backpacking light synthetic pull-over, $125! or was it $150(can't remember). So I keep the cottage industry going too!

Daniel Fluri
(dani) - F
ecology on 12/08/2010 23:34:43 MST Print View

funny, all these reactions about ecology. as if all that expensive spinaker, cuben and what-not would last any longer!

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: ecology on 12/08/2010 23:50:32 MST Print View

Given the proper skill and knowledge set, I'd wager that cuben, spinnaker, and "what-not" WOULD last longer. Why? Because not only are they tried and tested materials, they are most often assembled into a product by skilled craftsmen. Not vastly underpaid people overseas. I'd also wager that the cuben and spinnaker markets are exponentially less destructive to the environment and human rights than Walmart. There's plenty of merit in being thrifty and I'm not going to judge that. But personally, I'd rather pay the "little guy" 2-3 times as much for a quality, responsibly produced product than the disposable garbage from big box stores.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
disposable on 12/09/2010 02:06:41 MST Print View

some of you guys assume that stuff in big box stores is disposable ... simply not true

as i said costco carried MADE IN CANADA merino for $15 dollars not too long ago ... other stores including wallymart have items that would last through normal usage ... the fabric is frequently as strong as UL materials ... and the warranty is usually no questions asked

its a disservice to all those dim sum eaters to say that things made there can't be of decent quality ... most appliances in the world are made in asia, black diamond makes their cams there, dead bird and other big name brands make their clothes there etc ... companies have been making electronics there for years ... and wages are rising, china is actually become more expensive to manufacture in

how hard is it to make a pack, or a pot, or a pair of fleece pants ... i find the quality of big box discount stores to be sufficient for most cases ... its not like everyone here is summiting denali, or climbing el cap, or bushwhacking the amazon

if you want to buy local or cottage thats up to you ... just don't pretend that things in big retail discount stores arent any good

and yes i do buy made in canada when i like it ...

Edited by bearbreeder on 12/09/2010 02:13:27 MST.

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: disposable on 12/09/2010 02:46:39 MST Print View

Eric,
Perhaps the negative commentary coming from people, including myself, is not directed at the workers who make the products, or even the products themselves (sometimes). My comment above may have been a little misguided in that respect. However, the desire for localizing production, supporting responsible companies, stimulating small business, and scores of other economic and socially related topics are at the heart of the issue.

Socioeconomics aside, most people wouldn't really care where or who made a product, as long as it was a good value and of good quality. Unfortunately, socioeconomics is a HUGE factor in the decisions people make and the viewpoints they take. In the economic climate we're in now, it becomes difficult for people, myself included, to support huge conglomerates when small business are struggling. I admit its tough not to become more polarized as time goes on, especially with the backwards politics and media we're bombarded with each day.

So, while I've nothing against the workers producing goods overseas, I do take exception with the conglomerates. I'll always support my American small business counterparts as much as I can. Yes, I BItch about this country, but I love it as well. Ultimately though, it's really not about being American. It's more about the responsible small business part. I research just about every specialty product or company I buy from. I want to be informed.

I'm not trying to make myself out to be some sort of elitist. I do shop at stores like Target, Home Depot, Sears, and yes, sometimes Walmart. Often those are the stores where the product I need is available. If I know I can get the product from another source, I might defer to that other source.

Bottom line. If a company can present a product that I can feel proud to buy, and I can be proud to support that company as a whole, then I'll gladly be a customer regardless of nationality or location. At this point, for me, I just can't do that for the huge corporations, regardless of the fact that I can buy a tent for $25 that would suffice for a few seasons.

Before I get in over my head with this type of subject, it's time for me to hit the sack. G'night, all!

Todd Miller
(toddkmiller) - F
Re: disposable on 12/09/2010 04:15:46 MST Print View

Good point about Costco Eric. As a scout leader and avid hiker, I marvel at the low-cost high-quaity gear they often carry. I DO buy quality but it never hurts to get a deal at the same time. Costco has had some excellent products in the cold-weather clothing area as well as backpacks, hiking poles, etc. Maybe I will try the $100 challenge there myself...

Benjamin Roode
(bgoeso) - MLife
Wal-Mart issues on 12/09/2010 06:54:27 MST Print View

Hey guys!

Thanks for the comments on my article. I'm relatively new to the site but have been outdoorsing for awhile.

I agree on Wal-Mart: I don't like shopping there. In fact, this is the most recent time I can remember shopping at one (in-store or online), and I wrote the article some time ago.

There is a reason I picked Wal-Mart: the article focuses on cheaper alternatives to ultralight gear, mainly to show those who have been scared off by high prices or who are new to the sport that they too can hit the trail. I hypothesized that a lot of Americans in such a predicament are most likely do at least some of their shopping at Wal-Mart in the first place. Focusing on Wal-Mart, despite its poor reputation regarding employee treatment, meant the article could serve its purpose to the most people possible.

I'm happy for the feedback and really want to try the thrift store idea suggested in the comments. I now live a bit closer to potential opportunities (near Harper's Ferry) to try that out.

Thanks again.

- Ben

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Lightweight Backpacking, Wal-Mart Style on 12/09/2010 08:28:10 MST Print View

Server hiccup/double post-- sorry

Edited by dwambaugh on 12/09/2010 08:30:17 MST.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Responsible consumption on 12/09/2010 08:28:10 MST Print View

I had been thinking about going through this exercise on paper but never got around to it. It is an interesting exercise, but it does point out issues with sustainability and the social-political issues of big-box retailers.

We should take responsibility for the products we buy, in terms of the products and the organization we purchase them from. Everyone loves a bargain, but buying non-sustainable junk from a retailer with documented predatory business practices is not good for the environment or our communities. I think we should support those suppliers who have good manufacturing and general business practices. It makes little sense to tout the need to save the environment and then do business with the likes of Walmart or Monsanto. Please surf to http://walmartwatch.com and have a look around. You will be amazed at the scope of the issues involved with Walmart. I would keep in mind that Walmart is not the only irresponsible retailer out there, just the biggest.

I am also opposed to buying cheap gear for kids-- cheap meaning poorly made goods. Raising a family is expensive, but buying poor quality products teaches them the wrong thing in terms of responsible consumerism and may even turn them away from the outdoor experience due to the poor performance of the products we buy for them. I have railed against buying kids cheap musical instruments for the same reasons; I personally found that trying to play a cheap guitar was physically painful and simply didn't allow many techniques to be practiced. Buying gear that fails, wears out prematurely, and has poor performance just adds more to the landfill and gives kids a distaste for what could be rewarding pastimes.

I think it is far better to buy good used gear, which is recycling in its best form and provides good quality gear at reduced prices.

Craig W.
(xnomanx) - F - M
Re: Responsible consumption on 12/09/2010 09:04:49 MST Print View

If we're going to sit and rail against Wal-Mart and the consumption of cheap, almost disposable goods, why don't we open it up, get honest, and look at the big picture?
Shouldn't we be railing against the overconsumtion of high-quality goods as well? What of those that amass mountains of unused, unneeded cottage gear, just to try it out to find the "perfect" system? So what if it's sold second hand; now we've got trucks and trains burning fuel to re-circulate the stuff.

Are Dri-Ducks more durable than Wal-Mart goods?

I'd wager you'd get just as much life, if not more, out of a Stansport Wal-Mart bag than any UL sil-nylon Gossamer Gear or other cottage offering (no offense to GG).

I'm just saying that if we're going down this road, lets at least get honest.

Michael L
(mpl_35) - MLife

Locale: The Palouse
wow on 12/09/2010 09:39:25 MST Print View

I agree with Craig here.

walmartwatch is just a tad biased. Even when walmart is doing what they want they find a way to complain that it isn't enough.

Walmart has done a lot of good and I will happily shop there anytime.

kevperro .
(kevperro) - F

Locale: Washington State
Sustainability on 12/09/2010 11:13:13 MST Print View

Wal-Mart in our community is a blessing and a curse. It is a curse if you are one of the small local businesses that have to compete head-head with them. It is a blessing for the very large sector of society that is at the bottom of the socia-economic ladder. For those who make $20K a year saving a little money and having all their shopping in one location (they ride a bus to shop) is of huge benefit.

In terms of sustainability, I don't think any of us live a sustainable lifestyle. If you take the average American energy usage and resource consumption and translate that to the population of the world it is clear that the globe couldn't support that for any length of time. That isn't an excuse not to change but I think some of the high-horses we climb upon are pretty flimsy.

PAUL RICHARDSON
(p178@aol.com) - F
Not so simple... on 12/09/2010 11:13:33 MST Print View

While I can agree that Wal-mart has several flaws and I would certainly recommend purchasing used, quality gear over Wal-mart items, Wal-mart fills a pretty important niche. Having grown up in the rural South, I know many people that would have little to no job opportunities if it weren't for Wal-mart. I also know a lot of people that do most if not all of their shopping there because of price (clothing in particular.) They may want to buy better quality clothing and items, but they can't afford it. Sustainable (responsible) or cheap; pick one.

Katharina ....
(Kat_P) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Coast
honest on 12/09/2010 11:18:45 MST Print View

+1 Craig

Lawson Kline
(Mountainfitter) - M

Locale: LawsonEquipment.com
Walmart on 12/09/2010 12:39:05 MST Print View

I agree with Craig. Consumerism is the biggest issue here. Having 10 hi-quality tents that you never use is just as bad as buying 1 "disposable" big box tent. In some cases big box gear will last just as long as UL gear but there are other things at play here including every-time you save a dollar at Wal-mart your that much closer to loosing your job.

I personally think the big gear makers are just as un-responsible as any of the big box stores. They might use higher quality materials but they are still building their gear un-responsibly.

All I can say is buy cottage gear.

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: Walmart on 12/09/2010 13:19:56 MST Print View

Agreed with Craig and Lawson about consumerism. Just take a walk down the aisles of practically any store and you'll see hundreds and thousands of items that are useless pieces of junk (yes, that's only an opinion) that will find their way to the trash or basement or garage sales in 1-3 years from time of purchase. But, people still buy this stuff because it fills some sort of immediate need, and I won't speculate on people's motives for buying things.

Walmart creates jobs, but it destroys jobs. From the linked study below: "On average, Wal-Mart store openings reduce retail employment by about 2.7 percent, implying that each Wal-Mart employee replaces about 1.4 employees in the rest of the retail sector. Driven in part by the employment declines, retail earnings at the county level also decline as a result of Wal-Mart entry, by about 1.3 percent."

The mom and pop bakery that's been there for 40 years is forced to close. Jimmy's toy store closes from lack of sales. Jimbo's fishing and hunting outlet looses business and he has to fire his employees. And Julie's clothing shop takes a hit and closes. All these stores employed people that now have to find work elsewhere. Perhaps at the new Walmart?

Like it or not, Walmart is here to stay. Personally, I don't like it.



http://www.newrules.org/neumarkstudy.pdf

Edited by T.L. on 12/09/2010 13:20:42 MST.

Michael L
(mpl_35) - MLife

Locale: The Palouse
well on 12/09/2010 13:43:28 MST Print View

####Walmart creates jobs, but it destroys jobs.

The linked study concludes that the retail job growth is lower than in a but-for world of no Walmart. They didn't destroy jobs so much as lead to less growth of them in THE RETAIL MARKET.

1. They even admit that it only applies to retail sector and that "we suspect that there are not aggregate employment effects, at least in the longer run, as labor shifts to other uses."

2. I am not sure that even that might be ignoring the fact that another big box retailer would have taken Walmart's place. In rural towns the first mover is often the only mover. So Walmart gets the blame even though if they didn't enter, Target or somebody else would. The competitor would have the same effect as Walmart. So I don't believe they adequately controlled for this.

Anyway you slice it, Walmart has bad and good. But in the end they get much more of the blame based on their size.