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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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » Lightweight Backpacking, Wal-Mart Style


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eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F - M
wallymart on 12/12/2010 14:56:15 MST Print View

i actually think that big box stores are the bet place to start for certain things ... like underwear and midlayers and socks and gloves

keep in mind that quite a few folks that work outdoors buy clothes at big box stores ... the clothes should last quite a while ...

ive never had to return any clothing to a big box store yet ... the wallymart and costco underwear is still going strong

home depot gloves last longer than a lot of those fancy outdoor gloves for a fraction of the price ...

i might just have to go buy a wallymart 29$ daypack ... thats weights 28 oz and has an aluminum stay and test it till destruction ...

the one the folks here seem to have no issue with ...http://www.bplite.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=2498

someone also reviews their $30 Arrowhead 50L 2.25 lb pack positively here ..

http://at-trail.blogspot.com/2010/03/hiking-backpack-outdoor-products.html

i suspect there's a definite snob factor at work here ... hell there was a snob factor with one of the REI threads a bit back ;)

Edited by bearbreeder on 12/12/2010 14:58:42 MST.

Frank Steele
(knarfster) - F

Locale: Arizona
Great article on 12/29/2010 14:55:19 MST Print View

nice to see that you can drop weight without dropping loads of cash (Wish I had tried that)

As for the wahhh "Walmart treats its employees bad" crowd. If they don't like their job, quit, simple as that.

DAVID DUBE
(zerodaze)

Locale: American Southwest
Keep it real on 01/01/2011 18:28:52 MST Print View

The late Harvey Butchart was a determined explorer of the Grand Canyon, logging some 12,000 miles and 1,000 days, summiting its peaks and finding new ways to get from the rim to the river. He did it wearing K-Mart boots and backpacks. He wouldn't know what to do in an REI.

On principal I abhor Walmart for the many reasons already cited. But let us keep it real. Consumerism is a disease, yet it has lifted many millions out of poverty - at a very high cost to the planet. I visit and hike the Grand Canyon several times a year. It is a ten hour drive each time. I know that the relative merits of my frugal miserly ways of making my own gear and babying it to last me a lifetime (and buying local) hardly makes up for my transportation to get me to trailheads.

Greg Geiger
(ghgeiger) - F

Locale: Appalachian Trail
more goodies on 02/15/2011 13:10:44 MST Print View

I just wanted to chime in with some more goodies that are available at walmart.

- 5/8" CCF sleeping pads for $5

- 250 gram coleman isobutane canisters for $4.50

- Nite-Ize S-Biners in SS and plastic, multiple sizes for $2+ (I've seen these in both the camping section and the hardware section next to screws and picture hangers)

and my personal favorite...

- Sawyer .1 micron water filter element w/water bottle for $40 (I ditched the bottle & use the filter in a gravity setup)

Nathan Baker
(Slvravn) - MLife

Locale: East Coast - Mid Atlantic
Re: more goodies on 02/15/2011 13:18:05 MST Print View

Greg - do you know how much the sawyer filter weighs from the bottle combo? Thanks

Greg Geiger
(ghgeiger) - F

Locale: Appalachian Trail
sawyer weight on 02/15/2011 13:48:36 MST Print View

Mine weighs in at 69 grams or 2.43 ounces.

Nathan Baker
(Slvravn) - MLife

Locale: East Coast - Mid Atlantic
Re: sawyer weight on 02/15/2011 16:45:36 MST Print View

Thank you Greg. It appears to be a bit heavier than the inline, but a few dollars cheaper too.

Greg Geiger
(ghgeiger) - F

Locale: Appalachian Trail
water weight on 02/16/2011 08:46:21 MST Print View

I realized last night that I had stored it wet, so I dried it out overnight and reweighed it. It now weighs in at 62.6 grams or 2.21 ounces. It's possible that there's still a little bit of water in there, but then again, when you're on the trail it's going to be wet anyways.

obx hiker
(obxcola) - MLife

Locale: Outer Banks of North Carolina
more goodies on 02/16/2011 09:08:08 MST Print View

Sams and probably walmart also carry Cuddle-Duds which are technically speaking Ahem.... marketed to women. they are VERY light, comfortable next to skin, and hit the sweet spot for me on adding warmth without too much insulation for high exertion. The V-neck top in a size M which I can wear and I wear a mens lg ( the stuff is very stretchy and I wanted a snug fit) weighs 3.7 oz. A lg hoodie which I've really enjoyed this winter weighs 6.7 oz and we're talking anywhere from $10.00 on clearance at Sams to @$20.00 per piece full retail. Cuddle duds has a very thorough website you can google if interested but no mention of weight. I think pants weigh @ 5oz. I cut a pair off just at the knee and they weigh 3.1.

Michael Ray
(topshot) - MLife

Locale: Midwest
Cuddle Duds warmth on 02/16/2011 11:00:33 MST Print View

FYI for those that want to try them, my wife says CDs are clearly not as warm as Capilene 2 from 2 years ago.

James S
(HikinNC) - F
Buying the cottage on 02/16/2011 12:10:57 MST Print View

Buy what you can afford and what keeps you safe and having fun. Snobbery is more costly than any gear I'll ever afford. As others have said before me, Walmart isn't even close to being the devil. If you don't want to shop there - don't. Problem solved.

obx hiker
(obxcola) - MLife

Locale: Outer Banks of North Carolina
cuddle duds warmth on 02/16/2011 12:17:08 MST Print View

that sounds right. I first looked at them as a very light sleeping layer, bag liner thing; which btw the mld momentum 50 liner looks like a weight saving temp boosting solution to that concern, but found them fine for a high activity level layer. They are very open, almost like hosiery, and seem to work like a cross between a woven layer and more of a fishnet air pocket effect. Put it this way you wouldn't wear them alone unless it was pretty warm. The cuddle-duds website for ex doesn't really display or expose the sheer nature of the material. If it did there would be modesty issues.

Jim Morrison
(Pliny) - F

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Tarp shelter for less money and less weight? on 02/27/2011 22:05:17 MST Print View

You mentioned a tarp shelter might cost less and weigh less. Can you direct me to a place that advertises one or give me a brand name?

Greg Geiger
(ghgeiger) - F

Locale: Appalachian Trail
Re: Tarp shelter for less money and less weight? on 02/28/2011 16:02:21 MST Print View

I was browsing the camping section of walmart this afternoon and saw a product that I've never seen before. A 5x7 urethane coated nylon backpacking tarp made by Outdoor Products for $9.88. I weighed it (in the produce section ;)) & it came in right at 8 ounces with the stuff sack & tag. I'd say that it was about 7" long and 4" diameter in it's stuff sack. I would guess that it's somewhere in the 70 denier range.

Here's a pic:Outdoor Products 5x7 tarp

Michael Ray
(topshot) - MLife

Locale: Midwest
Re: Lightweight Backpacking, Wal-Mart Style on 04/25/2011 07:39:51 MDT Print View

Another thing I haven't seen mentioned yet is Outdoor Products 3-pack of dry sacks for $10. I use the larger green one as my food bag with an OpSak inside it. It seems pretty airtight and water resistant at least.

Another find is braided catfish line. All but one spool (and the mason's line) they sell is twisted, but this 1 spool I believe was 100 lb (~1.5mm) and braided.

Tom Caldwell
(Coldspring) - F

Locale: Ozarks
3.4 oz, $5.88 Packable Daypack on 06/07/2011 23:23:16 MDT Print View

Outdoor Products Packable Daypack

Wal-Mart Packable Daypack

I spotted this at my local Wally World today. Couldn't resist, at least it's an excuse to take a short hike.

Edited by Coldspring on 06/07/2011 23:29:45 MDT.

Michael Ray
(topshot) - MLife

Locale: Midwest
Polycro on 06/08/2011 06:45:11 MDT Print View

I guess this hadn't been mentioned here before either. You can get window film kits (polycro) near the paint and tool area. The normal window kit should give you 6 sheets of 5x6 for $9. Mine currently has them marked down to $5. They also have large door kits that are 7x10 that could be used as a very light albeit see-through tarp. That was marked down to $4.50.

Aaron Benson
(AaronMB) - F

Locale: Central Valley California
Re: Re: Tarp shelter for less money and less weight? on 06/08/2011 07:41:31 MDT Print View

I found myself at the 'Mart a few weeks ago and curiosity got the best of me...

Stitching and material is good; grommets are the weak point, it seems.

(My first time pitching a 'tarp' - quick and easy. I can dig that!)

I was actually surprised that there was not more separation from the other
grommets; this was the worst one.
Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Edited by AaronMB on 06/08/2011 07:55:54 MDT.

Michael Sagehorn
(msagehorn) - F
Wal Mart has good finds on 07/27/2011 22:14:37 MDT Print View

Here's what I buy at WalMart:

1) Sturdy cotton khaki hiking shorts- $10-lasts for five years and I wear them nearly every day.

2) Hiking pole- I bought a red, collapsible pole 12 years ago and it has supported my poncho "hooch" many times, walked many a mile, and even regrettably killed a rattlesnake that wouldn't slither away after giving it plenty of opportunities to escape in a campsite loaded with 12 year old Scouts.

3) CA Fishing license- REI and the local sporting goods stores don't sell them. Why not?

4) Coffee percolator-French press coffee on a camping trip is a way too girly-man for me.