My 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.
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
Weight: 2.8 lb / 1.3 kg
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
Weight: 2.6 lb (surprise!) / 1.2 kg
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
Weight: 1.2 lb / 0.5 kg
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.
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.|