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Dirt-Cheap Gear

As a hiker, backpacker, trail runner, and crew leader for WTA, Holly Weiler spends a lot of time on trails. She needs quality gear for all that time outside, but she doesn't want to spend a fortune. So she's spent years perfecting her bargain-hunting skills. Here's how she outfits herself comfortably and cheaply - and how you can too.

I honed my bargain-hunter skills as a poor college student in the late 1990s. In those days, I spent time on my favorite trails while logging miles for the cross-country and track teams, and I killed time between my last class and the start of team practice by hitting the racks at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store. One favorite purchase at the time was an Adidas running top, which I feared was overpriced at $4, but also justified by what I perceived as the high quality of the garment. Flash forward nearly 20 years, and that shirt is still in top rotation for running, backpacking and trail work.

The number one trick to saving money on gear is knowing where to skimp and where to splurge. Even in those early days of scrounging for deals, I knew that while it was fine to save money by purchasing running clothes at the thrift store, I needed to save up for the more critical purchase of new running shoes. The same applies to hiking and backpacking. Clothing and certain types of equipment can easily be found on a shoestring budget, but when the perfect fit is crucial, as it is for items like footwear and some backpacks, it can be better to go to a gear store for a proper fitting. The exception is when you know exactly what you are looking for and find it through an alternative source like a gear consignment shop or a Facebook gear-swap group.

Lake Stuart Trail by Derek Henderson.jpgFill up your pack for less with thrift-store finds. Photo by Derek Henderson.

Keep in mind that while you may find quality used equipment at fair prices via used gear swaps, you generally won’t find screaming deals. For the best bargains, you need to rely on the combination of patience and luck that comes from browsing your favorite local thrift store. Or consider becoming a bit of a thrift-tourist on your way to the next trailhead, as outdoorsy towns sometimes have better outdoorsy thrift items. Either way, the proceeds from a new-to-you gear treasure will likely support a worthy nonprofit.

My absolute favorite thrift store target is the versatile wool sweater. Nothing beats wool for durability and keeping a hiker comfortable in a variety of conditions. One of my recent finds is a pretty blue Woolrich that set me back $2.50 and is in good enough shape to transition seamlessly from day hike to evening meeting. Another favorite is a super-soft merino wool shirt—and it was sporting the right color tag to earn me an extra 50 percent off. Even at thrift stores, it pays to shop the sales.

The number one trick to saving money on gear is knowing where to skimp and where to splurge.

It is worth noting the itch factor with wool. I like my wool sweaters as part of a layering system that includes synthetics underneath. If you prefer to wear your wool without other layers, test the scratchiness against your bare skin before making your purchase (and look for merino on the label). Read the tags to determine if your find is machine washable, which more commonly applies to wool-synthetic blends. Wool may require a bit more work, but it’s versatile and has the added benefit of not holding on to stink the way some synthetics can. I prefer 100 percent wool, and I’m not opposed to hand-washing my sweaters with Woolite. Most wool requires a little extra care to avoid shrinkage. (But even if that happens, the next logical step is to try your hand at up-cycling the garment into items like headbands, hats or pot cozies.)

A pair of vintage snowshoes snagged at a thrift store. Photo by Holly Weiler.

Speaking of headbands and hats, these are also items to look for in the thrift store. Widebrimmed sun hats seem to be the most common hat in the thrift stores I frequent, but I occasionally find quality stocking caps and trucker hats too. Consider washability before purchasing a used hat of any design. Watch for gloves, mittens and scarves too. I’ve found it’s even possible to forego the classic cotton handkerchief by upgrading to soft silk scarves.

If you’re in the market for hiking pants, I have noticed a recent surge in the availability of those with zip-off pant legs. They have apparently gone out of style. For a dirtbag hiker who doesn’t care about fashion, these pants are typically available for less than $5. I have also found that business-casual wool pants make a nice addition to my trail-work attire, especially for work parties in cool conditions. I look for the ones that have an inner liner so they don’t itch.

Base layers are also abundant; for these, focus on the athletic aisle. Most fun runs have abandoned the standard cotton tee in favor of synthetic, and there are always scores of castoffs available. You may end up sporting a finisher shirt for a marathon you didn’t run, but for inexpensive layering options, a used running top is the way to go. For base-layer bottoms, check the selection of leggings. Look at labels to be sure the one you select doesn’t contain cotton; with a little luck, you may discover some merino wool hidden among the more common synthetic options.

Loren's hand-me-down shirt
WTA staffer Loren Drummond sewed most holes in her well-loved wool baselayer, but she left the thumbholes as they were. Photo by Erik Haugen-Goodman.

The main problems to look for in thrift store clothing are tears or holes, stains, wear along the seams (check the inside seams, too) and failing zippers. The latter are a deal-breaker for me, but sometimes I’m willing to overlook other small defects if my purchase is strictly destined for a life of hiking, backpacking and trail work. My brand-new items sometimes return from their first outing with exactly these types of damages, which is one of the main reasons why I look for thrift store finds in the first place. I promise, it isn’t nearly so painful to put an ember hole in a down jacket if it cost less than $10. When a clothing item does receive an injury, whether pre- or post-acquisition from the thrift store, small damages can be repaired with Tenacious Tape or gear patches.

These gear savings ideas are great for the entire family, especially the youngest members, who may outgrow their hiking clothes over the course of a single season. It may be more difficult to outfit the youngest members of a hiking family with gear that’s specific to hiking, but most athletic clothing serves the purpose. There are generally many options that would work well, even though they were originally designed for soccer or basketball. Read labels carefully to avoid cotton and cotton blends, and note the difference between waterproof and water resistant.

It’s worth mentioning that multi-use gear is one of the best ways to save money. Look for gear that transitions from hiking to running to biking to boating, or whatever your favorite pastimes are, and you won’t have to outfit yourself separately for each activity.

Clothing isn’t the only gear to watch for in the thrift stores either. My favorite backpacking tea kettle cost 50 cents. I see inexpensive cook sets on a regular basis, generally sporting a Boy Scouts of America stamp on the bottom. Sometimes they’re of the nesting variety that includes folding utensils tucked inside. If you’re lucky, you might find adjustable trekking poles, and I know hikers who get by just fine by using cast-off ski poles.

The information in old guidebooks can be dated, so cross-reference the information with up-to-date resources. Old or new, they can serve as a good jumping off point for you research. Photo by Holly Weiler.

Don’t forget to check the book and map section, where I frequently find both used guidebooks and Forest Service maps for less than $1. While the information may be a little dated, I have also found lesser-known trails by reading through an old guidebook and then confirming route descriptions with land managers.

I have also managed to collect rare finds over the years: new Rite in the Rain notebooks, a still-in-the-package Therm-a-Rest for $5 and even Nordic skis and snowshoes at bargain prices. Don’t forget to check the locked displays at the front of the store, where you might be lucky enough to find an antique folding knife like your grandfather used to carry.

This article originally appeared in the May+June 2017 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.