Don't let a lack of expensive gear keep you from enjoying the great outdoors
By Christopher Nyerges 02/01/2012
Some time ago, an editor of a magazine asked me to write an article about low-budget camping. My first question was, “What do you mean by low-budget?”
He thought about it for awhile, and then told me to keep the total shopping list under $2,000. Wow! That’s low-budget? He then explained that he was assuming that the reader had absolutely no equipment at all, and he or she would have to go out and purchase everything from scratch.
I eventually wrote an article titled “Backpacking on a Shoestring,” and everything I suggested could be purchased for under $300 or so, if you followed my instructions.
However, I had to think back when I was about 10 and how my brothers and I got interested in hiking and backpacking in the Angeles National Forest. Even if we couldn’t get a parent to drive us, we could just walk outside our door and in a short while, we were in the mountains. We certainly enjoyed exploring the hilltops, valleys and hidden canyons — that appeals to everyone. But unlike so many of the urban attractions, we knew we could do our mountain exploring without ever having to pass through a ticket booth or pay an admission fee. For all practical purposes, the mountains belonged to the people, and they were free for anyone to enter and explore. For us at that age, that was critically important. We didn’t go hiking on a “low-budget.” We didn’t even know what the word “budget” meant. We went hiking and backpacking on NO budget. We had no money, and none was needed to head to the hills.
Over the years, of course, I have gradually acquired camping gear that works for me and that I feel is worth having. I don’t mind spending extra money on an item if I know it’s the best and if my life might one day depend on it. On the other hand, to this day I don’t care much for useless gadgets that just take up space and add weight to the pack. I like to travel as lightly as I possibly can.
So, I thought readers might enjoy hearing how we went hiking on no budget. Some of you will chuckle at our youthful enthusiasm and silliness. A few of you might even think we had a few good ideas.
We NEVER purchased special clothes designed for hiking or backpacking. We just wore what we called our “play clothes” — clothes that we weren’t worried about getting dirty or torn but were still durable enough for a weekend or a week in the hills. We simply dressed for the season and took an extra sweatshirt along if it was cold.
The one area that could have used improving was footwear. I usually had poor footwear on the trails, but I never let it bother me. The worst time was when I wore some old suede shoes while hiking in the snow. My feet were wet and cold the whole time, so I was either constantly moving or sitting by the fire all the time. Eventually, I learned that you could put a plastic bag over your socks and keep your feet sort-of dry in the winter.
But since most of our hiking was in fair weather, wearing our “city shoes” into the hills was usually not a problem.
Heck, every kitchen has a knife, doesn’t it? We just wrapped a small kitchen knife in a piece of cardboard for safety and put it in with our gear. One year, we received Boy Scout knives as Christmas gifts, and we carried them all the time. Now, I wouldn’t leave home without a Swiss Amy knife.
Why would we need to go out and buy something special just for hiking and backpacking when every kitchen in the world — well, at least OUR kitchen — had dishes, silverware and pots? We’d pack an old pan and pot and would sometimes just carry an old pie pan and an empty can. We reasoned that with the pie pan and can, we could crush them and bury them before returning home and wouldn’t need to carry them back. We’d also grab a few plastic forks and spoons and maybe an old metal one. Nothing more was needed.
Back in the mid-1960s, plastic wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is today, and the plastic that was around back then was low quality. So we didn’t have plastic containers to use for water. On occasions, I actually carried a glass mayonnaise jar as my canteen, and I wrapped it with cardboard so it would be protected. Eventually, I spent about $1 and purchased a metal WWII-era canteen. It was a very good investment.
However, we tried to plan so many of our hikes around the known water sources that I never bothered to carry a canteen half the time. Today, inexpensive water containers can be obtained just about anywhere, so humanity seems to have solved this problem.
Stove? We simply cooked right on the flames of our small camp fire. I’ve never carried a stove — to this day!
Sometimes we’d find a flashlight in a drawer at home, but more often than not, it simply didn’t work. Perhaps the batteries were no good. Either way, I never got addicted to needing a flashlight at night. Did you know that the average adult has the ability to see in the darkness almost as good as an owl after spending just 30 minutes in the dark?
Lantern? For this, we had NO budget. If we had a lantern, we’d have to buy fuel and wicks and stuff called “misc.” However, on some occasions, we actually carried an old soup can. We cut out both ends of the can, and put an old clothes hanger through the can for a handle. Then we cut a hole in the side of the can, and inserted a candle. That was our “lantern.”
Another variation of the can-lantern is to cut open an aluminum can so that, when standing upright, it appears to have two “doors.” You then hang the can by the pop-top, put a candle inside, and you have a lantern. If made properly, the wind will catch the doors and turn the candle away from the wind. I learned this trick from fellow survival instructor Ron Hood.
Though we have marveled at the beautifully-carved walking sticks at backpacking stores, we never even came close to buying one. For one thing, after you spend $40 for a beautiful stick, who wants to mess it up on the trail? Additionally, we discovered that there was never a shortage of sticks in the woods that could serve as a walking stick.
Tents are heavy and expensive. Consequently, I have never carried one. The closest I have ever come to packing a tent was when I used tube tents a few times in the early to mid-1970s. But otherwise, you can usually avoid the need for a tent if you simply pick your campsite well.
MAP AND COMPASS
Get real! We just went up to the mountains and followed the trails, often with no idea where we were going, other than some obscure rumor from someone that a friend of a friend had talked to and suggested that maybe this particular trail actually led to some really good place. It all sounds very silly and imprecise as I think back on it, but that’s how we did things.
After awhile, we got to know more and more of our local trails, and we would go back to our favorite spots again and again, day or night, summer or winter. No map or compass was ever needed, and we never got lost.
We would take book matches that we got for free at the local supermarket and stick matches from our parents’ kitchen and wrap them up in several wrappings of plastic. Back then, there were no Bics, no magnesium fire starters and none of the high-tech devices that today assure fire for even the village idiot.
Food in the backpacking shops always seems to cost too much. Freeze-dried, specially portioned exotic meals, MREs, special candy bars, juices, etc. etc. Why? We would just go to the supermarket and purchase dry things like rice and buckwheat groats and spaghetti. We also purchased dry soup mixes and instant potatoes then we’d get a bottle of dried spices and some nuts and seeds, some fresh fruit like apples and avocadoes and perhaps some cheese. After awhile, you’d have good food at a reasonable cost.
But in the very beginning — as I said, we had NO budget — we just looked through our parents’ cupboards and picked out anything that was dry and light and that we thought we might like. Doesn’t every kitchen cupboard in the world have at least enough odds and ends to make a few decent trail meals for a week or so? Ours always did. And though some of our meals were very slim, it was partly because we didn’t want to carry any more weight than was absolutely necessary. This is why I have pursued the study of wild edible plants for most of my life — but that’s a story for another time.
Some of the ways that we did things might help some of you to keep the weight in your pack as low as possible and with as much money in your wallet as possible. I have always believed that simple enjoyment of the outdoors should be as unadorned as possible. Part of the attraction, to me, is to be in the outdoors where you can think and be with yourself and your friends. Why clutter it up with all the overpriced gimmicks and gadgets that take up weight and occupy too much of your time?
I’d like to hear from readers who have unique low-cost camping methods to share.
Christopher Nyerges is the author of books on the outdoors, including “How To Survive Anywhere.” He does a weekly podcast for Preparedness Radio Network, and he blogs at ChristopherNyerges.com. A schedule of his classes at the School of Self-Reliance is available by writing to PO Box 41834, Eagle Rock, Calif., 90041.