Times are rough, and I don’t have the spare cash to blow on top-dollar gear
for every essential. If I have to skimp on one, which one should I cut
corners: tent, sleeping bag, pack, or boots?
If this were a multiple choice question and I were forced to pick one, I’d go with b) sleeping bag. That’s because there are plenty of warm yet cheap bags out there—they just tend to be heavier and bulkier. And if a bag tends towards the chilly side, you can always add more layers of clothing to compensate. (A quick check of 20 to 40-degree bags on our database, Gearfinder.com, turned up 17 options that cost from $30-$75 from reputable brands such as The North Face, Eureka, Slumberjack, and Coleman.)
So, all that said, if you’re a fair-weather camper and just really need a tent to keep the summer bugs at bay, you could skimp on the tent. But, rather than go to Kmart or WalMart for a real cheapie that doesn’t even have a full rainfly, spend a tad more and get something that will at least get your though a surprise storm. (GearFinder.com check: plenty of sub-$100 tents from Coleman, Eureka, Cabela’s and REI.)
But now let me break away from the multiple choice. I actually did a story back in August 1999 that’s very relevant to your question. It was called “Attention Shoppers” and my assignment was to find everything I needed for a weekend of Oregon camping at Wal-Mart.
My colleague and I spent $520 on the whole two-person shebang—from tent to bags to kitchenwear to full layering systems, boots, and food. Everything worked fine until the rain rolled in, and our $40 tent started leaking like a showerhead.
Bottom line is this: If you really want to be savvy with your money, skimp on the little things like pots and pans, accessories, synthetic clothing, and foam sleeping pads. But stick to quality makers for the big ticket items. Not only will they protect you better and last way longer, they’ll be much more comfortable along the way. —Kristin