Beginner Backpacking on the Cheap


Skunk Happens
Is there a Curtis Creek Manifesto for the backpacking world? I'm thinking about chasing some blue lines this summer and some of them can't be driven to. I have no pack yet and will try to use as much of my car camping gear as I can. I already have fly fishing, skiing, and two kids in college to eat up my money. Backpacking will only happen if I can do it cheaply enough.

If I just do a tarp and hammock set up to sleep in, how do I keep the skeeters off at night? I have a one burner Gaz stove. Would one canister make it through a weekend of boiling water for one? Volume-wise, how many liters or cubic inches would be a decent size backpack for a weekend fisherman? What kind of maps do people use? I don't even know what to ask for.

Dustin Bise

Active Member
Ok, lots of questions.

As far as a good book

For stoves, I use a whisperlgiht. There are a ton of good options, the best option on the cheap is to make one out of a tunafish can. google it. awesome small light stove for 1. (in the summer) There are lots of sizes of canisters, but yes, it should last you. test it at home first.

I like to have a 100 liter pack personally, because then i can be lazy when i pack it and still have it packed well. I prefer to carry less then 40lbs. That is no problem. Ultralight through hikers are at like 15 lbs.

Get a good water purifying system that works for you. Everyone will tell u a different story, but I recommend aquamira 2 part chemical treatment all the way.

Sleeping in a open shelter in moquito territory is torture. If you expect bugs to be bad either a tent with an inside (heavy) or your groundcloth+fly and a skeeter bag. somepeople will just seal up there sleeping bag and rock a head net. I prefer the whole tent because the away from bugs living space to read and hang out in the evening is worth 2 lbs.

Ed Call

Well-Known Member
Stewart, not sure about the manifesto, but likely. Backpacks could be swapped easily with gear whores that have more than they really need, just a matter of how much volume you want in a pack. Mosquitos will find a way in through just about anything in small numbers, but you can get bivvy sacks that have nice mosquito mesh to do the trick. Most would not be too expensive. You could also try the mesh head covers, effective, but not quite as great for sleeping. I have used my old campingaz single burner stove and the small blue canisters and gotten plenty of boils out of the canister. Eight to ten uses for quick water boil, throw in packet food to absorb the water and then eat. The larger cansiters are still pack small but allow more actual cooking time if you need to do more than just boil. Altitude will have a big impact on fuel use though. Green trails maps are pretty economical and cover a decent area if you are planning to explore much of the territory in them. I like the contour lines and find that navigating with them is not bad at all. I now have what I think to be a nice hand held GPS, but unless I'm targeting a specific point with coordinates I actually prefer the maps. There are a lot of online maps that show some detail. How much you will need to rely on the map for navigating would set my threshold for how much detail and reliability I'd want in my maps. Always carry the ten essentials and whatever else you need. I always carry a full day, sometimes two, more food and stuff than I need for my trip. I think the extra weight is worth it. I probably carry too much emergency stuff, but so far there has been no compelling reason for me to reduce what I have. Thinking of all this really makes me eager to get off my lazy ass and get back out on some trails, the sooner the better. Check REI's website, they have a pretty good set of pages dedicated to getting into backpacking and such. Best of luck.


Skunk Happens
Thinking of all this really makes me eager to get off my lazy ass and get back out on some trails, the sooner the better.
There is one little blue line that is calling my name, and I think it wants me up there after the 4th of July. :D If it has fish I may never speak of it again. ;)

Thanks guys. I need a little help with the lingo to avoid bad choices. The bivvy sack may be a good start for me. I do like a tent, but not sure I want fork out for one yet. I'm going to order that book Dustin. I read some of your threads about NOLS.

Does anybody just eat MREs on short trips like this, or do they add too much weight?


Not to be confused with freestoneangler
Stewart, there is a lot of high tech gear these days and many backpackers are gear heads just like many fly fishers. The good news is that you can often find last year's or last decade's stuff cheap! Many shops also rent gear. There are any number of backpacking books so I'd head to the library or your local shop. REI has some great educational info on their website. This should keep you busy for a while: REI, Mountain Gear and other shops often have classes as do clubs like the Mountaineers; REI just had a free Intro to Backpacking tonight. There is another free backpacking class on April 14th so keep you eyes open for these kinds of learning opportunities. The Mountaineers multi-session backpacking classes started last week unfortunately otherwise that would have been a good one to take.

Just like one doesn't need the latest rod $700 rod to catch fish, you don't need the newest gear to go backpacking. You can always upgrade as you go once you learn what you like and don't like. One of the main differences will be the size and weight of the new gear (it's smaller and lighter) and to some extent, comfort but the old stuff still often functions as well and sometimes better than the new gear. There are also DYI backpacking gear sites if you like tinker and/or money is really tight.

You can often find old school frame packs at yard sales or the Goodwill really cheap. It should work fine to start with especially if you are using your bulkier car camping gear as you can attach your bag and matress pad to the outside. If you use a tarp and pitch it low, you can simply suspend a piece of netting from the tarp over the upper part of your body and head. Just get a large piece of mosquito or no-see-um netting from the fabric store or outdoor store - no need to hem it. I prefer a tarp to a bivy and many use both together but good bivys can cost more than a tent. I'd buy this before a bivy: While there are some very expensive high-tech tarps on the market, a simple nylon one or heck, even blue tarp will work to start with. On a clear night, you won't even need it, though I'd always bring it. I'd spend the money on a decent mummy sleeping bag and pad if you don't have one. Your Gaz stove will do just fine. How much fuel you need is as much a function of whether you're heating water for dehydrated food or actually cooking as it is how many days you'll be out there. MRE's will work but are heavier than dehydrated food. If you are only going for one night though, the weight of the food, stove and fuel may be heavier than the MRE's. Most people like to filter or treat their drinking water; iodine tablets work and are cheaper than water filter pumps although they don't taste as good. There is so much ths could be said on this topic so keep asking questions - and have fun!

Dan Nelson

Hiker, Fisher, Writer, Bum
I could go into a great deal of detail here but I'll stick with one key tip for new backpackers: Assembly the majority of your other gear before you get your pack. The size of your gear will determine what size pack you need. For instance, if you are going with only essentials (small closed-cell foam sleeping pad, tarp instead of tent, one-pot cooking) and sticking with lighter weight gear, you can get by with a 40 or 50 Liter pack for a weekend trip (some guys make do with a 30liter pack). Older, heavier, less expensive bulky gear will require a bigger pack -- maybe a 65L to 70L. If you add in lots of extras (photographic equipment, fishing gear other than basic rod, reel, fly box) you might need an 80L or larger. So, get your gear assembled, then find a pack it will fit in. Last thing you want to do is get a pack that's too small to hold all the gear -- you'll end up buying another pack, or buying new, lighter (and more compact) gear. Of else you'll be trying to hang gear off your pack's exterior and that isn't a good idea for a number of reasons.

BTW: IF you want more specific details on any aspect of backpacking, feel free to PM me: I worked for the Washington Trails Association for a dozen years, I've written 12 hiking guide books for The Mountaineers, and for the last 20 years I've been reviewing outdoor gear for Backpacker magazine, Outside, Seattle Times, National Geographic Adventure, Mens Journal, etc.). I also have an overstocked gear closet and could possibly help you out with some of your gear needs.

Steve Call

Active Member
Everyone here has offered great advice. I see you have kids in college, so you're probably of an age where sleeping on the ground can be tough on the back. I'd recommend investing in a good sleeping pad. The down side is they're bulky, but easy to strap on the outside of your pack and generally don't weigh much at all. Getting a good night's sleep and being able to move in the morning makes all the difference in the world.


Active Member
I started backpacking in 1961 when gear was much heavier and far more primitive than today. I have probably walked about 1,500 miles in the Sierra, most of it at 10,000' or better-all with one of Dick Kelty's original metal frame packs. How I would love to retrace some of those steps today with modern equipment!

Since I was solo much of the time I decided early on that the extra effort of carrying a tent was worth it in order to be ensured of a good night's sleep in a mosquito free and dry environment. Somehow I always managed to be near lakes and fish, the mosquitos seemed to like those areas as much as I did. Today you can buy a bivvy tent that weighs about 3# and protects a lot better than a tarp. Since I was above timberline most of the time there was rarely anything to attach a tarp to so the tent became a no-brainer.

I am no stranger to budget backpacking. One summer I had a job working 3 eight hour shifts on Sat and Sun and spent the rest of the week in the Sierras. Not much money but a lot of good times. Three things that I learned not to scrimp on were a good down bag, a sleeping pad(6' of 1/2'' ensolite in those days and heavy!) and good boots.

I'm assuming the Gaz stove is similar to the Bluet we used back in the day(butane canister?) that were always challenged at high altitude and in the cold. You can extend the range of the canister by keeping it warm and this meant that the stove always spent the night it the sleeping bag with me. Two canisters were always good for 5 days out.

Good luck with those blue lines. If you get addicted to backpacking like many of us have give some thought to a trip into golden trout country in the Sierra. The vistas and the memories will last you forever.


Dustin Bise

Active Member
On that note, i dont recommend down unless your winter camping. modern synthetics are better in any situation with the potential for wet weather. Down is great for snow camping though.

For sleeping pads I use a thermarest, but there are lots of great options.

I highly reccomend, like dan, that you get a pack large enough to carry everything on the inside. I dont like to strap gear to my pack if avoidable.


Skunk Happens
Thanks for all the info. Freestone, when you said rent, that clicked. I've got a source for that and had forgotten. Whatever I can't buy now I can rent cheaply enough and at least see if I like it. That gives me lots of options. If the fishing's good I'll probably end up going often.

Bob Jones

Still truckless now farther away
Sounds like you have lots of good advice and the trouble you take to check it allout will pay off . There's nothing like it getting out there. I also love the high sierra and the cascades My wife ani hiked mostly around the mount hHood and Jefferson area and we eally were happy with our REI tent and the Black Ice sleeping bags. Synthetic fill {Polarguard} and the thermorest mattresses. Ours were the standard size. I still have our stoves they were a whisper light and a off brand propane that I liked a lot but is no longer available.we did stricktly a one pot to heat water and the instant meals,and used instant coffee and powdered gatorade. Her pack was usually about 30 lbs. and mine about 35. Always carry the 10 esentials and extra food. Actually I still have and use most of our gear, Just not backpacking. My arthritic hips stopped our hikeing. We used the USGS maps and I was very carefull about knowing our territory for each trip and most of the time we didn't have to treat our water or just boiled it. We never took water from a large stream or lake. Good luck and Enjoy .

Ed Call

Well-Known Member
I just got one of the thermarest inflatable sleeping pads, not the self inflating foam one. Packs down really small. Less insulation factor from the ground but half the weight, a third the bulk and can fit inside a pack to better protect it. A military surplus store could be your friend. A bivvy could be found, likely in gore-tex and maybe even a snap in bug screen for your head.


Love vintage graphite!
"Mountaineering, the freedom of the hills". Not exactly the Curtis Creek of backpacking...more like the Bible, but a great reference to have around.
Personally I use a Deuter 65+10 pack for anything longer than a day or two. Cost me less than 100 bucks at REI and has a really nice adjustable set of straps. In my opinion the fit on a pack is extremely important, especially if you are hiking 10+ miles a day for a few days. I'd also suggested trying on a bunch of different brands of backpacks at REI and see what feels good after they load it with weight. Then if you are surfing craigslist you'll know what brands/models you can work with.

If you want to get serious and can sew there are awesome DIY guides on how to make a ultralight tent ( You can buy all the necessary fabric (I usually go to Seattle Fabrics off Aurora). Craigslist is also a good source (as mentioned above).

On MREs - I only carry them for emergencies and never as my main source of food. Usually if I'm looking to go light I'll plan on something close to 2000 calories a day using a mixture of cliff bars, trail mix, and dehydrated food.


Grad student, in fishing, and in life.
Opinions about backpacking gear vary tremendously as this thread already has shown. The one thing that I think most people will agree on is that there is a critical mass of equipment that is required for a successful/comfortable backpacking expedition. This gear can be expensive. I am talking about things like stoves, cookware, tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, backpacks, water purification etc etc..... This gear is all very expensive, and comes in variety of forms, ie white gas vs canister, synthetic vs down, 1 wall tent vs 2 wall, charcoal vs ceramic filter etc.

The point is, before you go out and drop a grand at REI buying a whole bunch of gear that you think you need, you should try it out. So, beg, borrow, steal, whatever you have to do, to get your hands on some gear without buying it. After a trip or two you will start to realize what your preference is on a lot of the aforementioned debates.

Often in backpacking there is no "right" answer. Some equipment is better suited for some applications than others. After a trip or two you will have an idea of what kind of backpacking you see yourself doing in the future, and then you can buy the gear that is going t best suit your individual needs. Plus this strategy reduces the sticker shock of buying all your gear at once.

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