Pinching Pennies

The Thrifty Paddler

Tripping on a Tight Budget

You're dying to take a trip, but there's just one problem: You have no gear. That's right: You need everything, but there’s no time to research the best products, your wallet is filled with more lint than cash, and this trip may be what it takes to keep your sanity. You never expected the list of expedition essentials to be so extensive or expensive. Wish there were cheaper ways to ease into expedition kayaking? There are! Don’t be forced into thinking that shelling out hundreds of dollars on the latest gear is your only option. Believe it or not, less expensive gear functions almost as well as pricey “hi-tech” items for a fraction of the cost. The only real drawbacks involve size, weight, and sometimes durability. But since your kayak does all the heavy lifting, you can afford to pile on a few extra pounds of bulky gear while feeling good about saving some money and actually taking a trip. To help you fill some of your basic expedition needs without maxing out your credit card, subletting your apartment, or trading in your slick SUV for a used bicycle, I'm going to discuss cheap solutions for your major camping, cooking, and apparel needs. Becoming a thrifty paddler is all about knowing how and where to cut corners, while still being sensible and safe.

Good Sleep Is Not That Technical

The basic requirements for sleeping include a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, and a shelter. Contrary to popular opinion, you don't have to spend an arm and a leg on high-dollar equipment just to catch some quality Z's on a trip. Check out my recommendations below.

Sleeping Bag

There are many great attributes when it comes to high performance sleeping bags but in all honesty it really comes down to how small you can pack the thing and how much it weighs. Consider the standard $25 bag available at any discount store. Actually, any brand rated to 35 degrees will work fine and likely go on sale often. Most of these bags are tough, can and do last as long as their high end $200-$300 siblings and will keep you just as warm. Because of the sheer rolled-up size, these sleeping bags will require three to five webbing straps, some brute strength, and some sweet-talking just to cram one into a 20-liter dry bag. The large bag will take up a good amount of space in your hull but to save space, you can strap the whole bundle to the rear deck of your kayak. Alternatively, in place of the sleeping bag, you could smash a pair of snow pants, a pair of thick socks, a pair of mittens, a stocking cap, and a bulky wool sweater or fleece into the same 20-liter dry bag. Wear these at night, and you'll be able to sleep just about anywhere without getting cold. Better yet, chances are you’ve already got these items sitting around the house. If not, check with Goodwill or the Salvation Army.

Sleeping Pad

Sleeping pads are a must in the cooler months and will also make for a superior night’s sleep anytime. Without experiencing first hand the difference one makes, it’s hard to justify the $30-$90 cost. A fantastic alternative (and personal favorite) is a closed cell foam mat. These mats are usually stocked next to the sleeping bags and can be picked up for about $12 in the Wal-Mart camping section. This item would likely fill up an entire hatch but fear not! These babies are waterproof, nearly indestructible and can be strapped onto the stern of your boat. Save a few more dollars by buying a $4 to $10 Yoga mat instead. These things are sold everywhere and take up far less space than the closed cell foam pad but are also only about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Its an alternative but really only provides minimal cush.

If you’re really looking to save money and (to look really cool doing it) try this old survival trick: Take two 13-gallon kitchen trash bags. Fill both bags on their sides about six inches deep with dry leaves, tall grasses or pine needles. Lay the bags end to end (open ends in the middle) and you’re done. Save yourself a headache and just use the cheap thin ones. They make far less noise while you move about in your sleep. This method obviously has its drawbacks but we recommend that you try it at least once if only to impress friends with your wilderness skills.


Tents can range in price from $30 to $500 or more. The price difference has a lot to do with weight and packability, but you’re also paying for several other luxuries here, like ease of setup, resistance to rain and wind, interior room, vestibule storage space, and extended-season usage. But think about it in terms of basic shelter: If the cheap tent keeps you dry, it’s doing the job perfectly. Most of the other features listed above are more like creature comforts. Honestly, camping in a $30 tent is by no means less classy than retiring to a top of the line shelter. These cheapie tents may even go on sale in mid to late summer, and for another $8 you can boost its repellency to rain with a simple can of aerosol waterproofing spray. Some people may object, “If you just spend an extra $20 or $30 you could have a fairly nice tent!”—and in all honesty, they’re right! But the objective (on a tight budget) is to outfit your trip for as few dollars as possible. So to those people I say that the extra $20-$30 you save can be better spent toward a sleeping bag and sleeping pad.

If you’re not claustrophobic you might even consider buying a bivy sack. A company called “The Mountaineer” makes an emergency-style waterproof ventable bivy for about $25. A bivy packs extremely small, but is really only comfortable when you're asleep. If you get landlocked during a storm, you’ll have to take your chances out in the cold, wet outdoors or lay confined in your bivy like a child-sized waterproof playpen. Sure, you’re dry, but so is prison. To keep your options more “open,” make a pup tent from an $8 tarp, some nylon cord, and a few plastic stakes. Tie a cord between two trees, hang your tarp over the cord, stake the four corners to the ground, and you’ve got shelter! This option is perfect during summer nights when all you’re concerned with is fending off rain and bird droppings. While nature will be sleeping with you—and possibly bugging you all night—it’s the cheapest shelter money can buy. However, I do recommend buying a fully enclosed shelter if you'll be camping in mosquito, tick, fire ant, or poison snake country—for obvious reasons.

Cook for Less than a Freeze-Dried Meal

Ozark Trail is my personal pick for a low priced pot set. Available at Wal-Mart, I’ve used my set for four years and have never had any complaints. Actually, the set I bought came with a paper-thin vinyl storage bag which was useless after six months so I replaced it with a mesh bag. This cookware set me back a whopping $13.50, including the “aftermarket” mesh bag. Ozark Trail provides this stainless set with copper bottoms and without an inner coating (which eliminates any worries with the big Teflon scare) so cleanup with steel wool or your spoon is perfect. Contents include one large pot and lid, one smaller pot and lid, one frying pan (which shares the same lid as the large pot), two plastic coffee style cups and the junk vinyl case. I don’t drink anything except water when I’m on a trip, so the cups stay at home, leaving just enough space behind for a pocket butane stove. The MSR SuperFly and other mini canister camp stoves fill this void perfectly, where they're safe from damage. Despite years of heavy use, my cook set shows absolutely no signs of wear other than scrape marks from clean up.

To go cheaper, you could use an old steel pot from your kitchen collection, and cook over a campfire (if permitted in the area you’re camping) or make a home-made alcohol-burning pop-can stove (just Google "pop can stove"). As far as flatware goes, just eat right out of the pot you cooked in, using an old spoon from home. (Finally, a good use for silverware that's been ravaged by the garbage disposal!) A friend in the military or reserves may have some extra MRE’s (Meal Ready to Eat) to donate for your trip. These government-grade meals come packed with more food than you can likely consume in one sitting (around 3,000 calories) and include a disposable heat source and spoon inside each meal pouch. These meals have been loaded up with flavor since operation Desert Storm and are actually quite tasty in this camper's opinion. Or you could do away with all of this and just pack food that will not need to be heated. Things like beef jerky, tuna, fruit cups, cheese and crackers, and peanut butter sandwiches.

The Well-Dressed Cheapskate

I like to think dressing cheap is the current trend in camping. Most of the guys that buy those totally overpriced “performance” shirts and pants are just trying to pick up women with their outdoor look. The real science behind clothing is not that high tech. If it’s made from cotton it will soak up whatever you throw at it. So don’t pack your Levis and cotton long-sleeve if you’re worried about getting wet and staying that way. Be sensible.

Camping and Paddling Apparel

Buy a set of silk, poly, poly/wool, or wool long underwear for your base layer then just keep layering the synthetic or wool until you think you’ll be warm enough. Did you know that wool is not only a natural fiber but is breathable, extremely resistant to flame and won’t hold odors like cotton or polyester? Shop the clearance racks and at the discount stores or check into a few garage sales. During summer months the best pick for paints comes from Old Navy. For around $10 you can throw on a pair of paints with zippers at the knee allowing them to quickly convert into shorts. The paints are great for cool mornings and thick brush treks while the shorts are great for trail hiking and showing off your slick kayakers tan around base camp. Chances of finding a polyester shirt these days that fits your personality are really good. Though I usually wear a cotton shirt around camp or when hiking, Starter makes an excellent, inexpensive, quick-drying shirt (the "Dri-Star" line) available for about $6 to $12 in Wal-Mart's summer collection.

Complete your camping look with a hat. When you’re out in the sun for any length of time, especially on the water you need a hat! A wide brimmed hat is the best option but since most thin fabric hats will allow dangerous UV rays to pass right through, you need to be careful you’re not saving money at the expense of your health. Straw hats are an alternative to Gortex and other high-end materials used in hat construction. You might be surprised how many styles are available in straw without giving you a distinctive Spanish flare. An old baseball cap is not the best protection but it’s better than going without. If you go the baseball cap route, be sure to take one that is made from a thick material (not mesh) to protect your scalp.

Paddling Jacket

Paddling jackets look totally cool and come loaded with awesome features but is there a substitute that even comes close? Yes! A basic Stearns-brand PVC raincoat is the answer. These $8 wonders come complete with hood, taped seams, snap buttons, pit vents, elastic waist and cuffs, small pockets and a stuff-sack for storage. They make fantastic windbreakers on warm days to keep wind and cold water off your skin. If you’ve already got a $400 paddle jacket, you should still consider packing one of these cheap raincoats along. The extra weight and bulk is justified by the advantages of having a cheap, waterproof shell that you can wear without fear of puncture (on the trail) or melting (during cooking and campfire hi-jinks). Since these raincoats really aren’t designed for kayaking, they do start to wear under the arms after about 200 miles of paddling. But they'll easily get you through at least two completely rainy or cold trips.

Paddling Shoes

If you’re looking to slowly establish yourself with long-term quality gear, consider paddling in just a pair of neoprene socks. They cost around $15-$20 and provide some cushion against the pedals and floor of your kayak. Neoprene socks are something you’re going to want or need in the future anyway.

If you’re just looking for a summer kayaking shoe, you can buy something as simple as a watersock. These were really popular in the early 90s as beach/pool footwear. Basically they have an ultra flexible rubber sole with an elastic mesh upper that fits snugly around your ankle. These can be purchased for around $3-$8 at Wal-Mart or Payless Shoe Source. They’re a seasonal item so don’t get discouraged if you can’t find them until late May or June.

To save even more money, the ultra thrifty paddler could convert an old pair of running shoes into a pair of quick draining ultra performance aqua shoes in about an hour or less. Remove the tongue and cut a small hole out of each side of the shoe, just above the sole. Then drill six to ten 1/8-inch diameter holes straight through the sole to provide drainage. I recommend running shoes since they’re lightweight, extremely flexible, and you probably already own an old pair. If you use a different pair of shoes, make sure that they are flexible enough that they will never get lodged against the hull and prevent you from making a safe wet exit. Also, because of the materials used in running shoes, they will take hours or even days to dry out, so pack another pair of shoes to wear at camp. Sport sandals are a great choice.

Almost-Dry Pants

A little engineering and creativity can go a long way. If you’re paddling early or late in the year or even just through some cold river water, try a pair of rain pants duct taped around your neoprene socks. Rain pants can usually be found with a rain jacket in a pack called a rain suit. Again, Stearns is our first choice. Some of these pants come with openings at the pocket level, which allow you to utilize the pockets of your jeans (during intended use) but that is somewhat of a disadvantage for our use. Tape these openings shut from the inside as well as the outside before you get wet. Keep in mind that this is not going to do anything to keep you dry during a roll or wet exit. In fact, if the water is deeper than your mid thigh, don’t try this at all. If water flows in from the waist it will become trapped at your ankle where you’ve taped the paints to your socks. Then you’re getting into a whole other category of athletics or water aerobics for dummies. In other words, your "almost-dry pants" might become a potential "death trap." I only encourage taping the pockets shut because if you’re portaging through a shallow river and getting right back into the seated position, the water that’s beading up on the lower section of your pants will always find a way to get inside those holes up top. It's another instance of Murphy’s law.

Beyond the Budget Basics

These are just some of the low-cost alternatives to pricey, high-performance gear. You may find that buying the best gear from the start is worth the investment. Hey, that’s what keeps the economy moving and improvements in its technology. There’s nothing wrong with buying a paddling jacket, high end sleeping pad, Gore-Tex hats or any other gear. That is, unless it’s a $60 “performance” T-shirt that “wicks” moisture away from your body (Honestly, who are you people?) The tips offered in this article are meant for paddlers who are planning a trip on a tight budget, aren't sure what gear to spend the big bucks on yet, enjoy roughing it creatively, or treat camping as an escape from technology. Low-budget expeditions are also a great way to find out what gear you really don't need, and what gear you just can’t kayak without. In any case, it just goes to show that any devoted adventurer can enjoy kayak touring for very little money.

There's certainly no shame in adopting the low-tech approach. In fact, many well-outfitted paddlers I know still take several low-cost items along on every trip. And budget gear offered me a way to pursue my passion for paddling without having it soak up my entire paycheck. Truth be told, some of this less expensive gear works so well that I don’t anticipate ever replacing it with high-dollar technical gear. Ultimately, the biggest advantage of using inexpensive items in place of their high-dollar counterparts is that accidentally destroying them won’t result in a temper tantrum or an insurance claim—and in my book, that makes them priceless!

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© 2006, Wesley Kisting

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