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What to look for
Brands Discount stores carry products both from familiar brands and companies you probably haven’t heard of. Don’t be afraid of unfamiliar brands and remember, unlike third-party deals online (page 50), having a live customer service department is a huge plus.
Design Go with your gut: If you see a stove that looks nothing like, well, a stove, it’s either not going to perform well or, at the very least, stump you.
Craftsmanship Time for some hands-on shopping. If the product you want is unpackaged, great. If not, ask a salesperson if there’s a sample you can inspect, or if you can open the box. Examine the seams on packs, apparel, and sleeping bags. Small plastic zippers are a bad sign. Feel the material, if it feels thin, if there’s pilling, loose threads, or other signs of wear, skip it. If it can’t survive sitting on a shelf, it’s going to fall apart in the outdoors.
We headed to Walmart and bought the absolute cheapest gear we could find. Then we took the kit out for a spin in Northern California.
Ozark Trail 2-Person Dome Tent
The Good We appreciated the easy setup when it rained on our very first night. The short fly and waterproof walls kept the interior dry. The 49-square-foot floor proved plenty spacious.
The Bad Fiberglass poles feel flimsy. Headroom is limited when you’re sitting up because of the sloping walls. And no vestibule.
The Verdict If you only camp a few times a year in moderate weather, this is a decent tent. But it won’t stand up to strong winds and we’d miss a vestibule in extended rain. Materials seem fragile, but at $30, your biggest risk is guilt if you have to throw it out after one season. $30; 5 lbs.
Ozark Trail 2.0lb/40F Rectangular Sleeping Bag
The Good The bag lives up to its warmth rating, which is pretty amazing for the price and weight. Synthetic fill is moisture-resistant.
The Bad The rough polyester interior is uncomfortable against bare skin. The small plastic zipper snags when you close it and slips open when you move around. There’s no hood and it’s bulky (we struggled to fit it into its stuffsack).
The Verdict You won’t freeze, which makes this $25 sack a legit bargain. But wear baselayers (or make a liner from a sheet) to mitigate the scratchy interior, or spend a little extra on a more comfortable bag. $25; 2 lbs. 3 oz.
Ozark Trail Self-Inflating Mummy Sleeping Pad
The Good The exterior is polyester with a TPU bottom that makes it extremely durable and slip-resistant. And the 2 inches of loft give it a surprising amount of cushioning. It’s as comfortable as pads that cost more than twice as much. Bonus: we were able to completely fill it with just eight breaths.
The Bad Heavy. And at 8 inches by 7 inches rolled up (like a small sleeping bag), it takes up a lot of pack space if you don’t want to lash it outside your pack.
The verdict We’re hanging on to it for future trips. $40; 2 lbs. 3 oz.
SOG Barrage Internal Frame Pack
The Good The 60-liter packbag easily fits a week’s worth of gear. The zippered pockets in the interior keep smaller items from getting lost, and the durable nylon construction inspires confidence in its longevity.
The Bad Shoulder straps are thin and lack padding; they dug in uncomfortably when we carried 40-pound loads.
The Verdict The volume, organization, and durable material make it a great value for moderate use. But hikers with heavy loads and long distances will want a more comfortable suspension. $45; 4 lbs. 8 oz.
Coleman 10,000 BTU One-Burner Propane Camp Stove
The Good Tough, simple, and stable. The large burner accommodates frying pans and spreads out heat. The stove boils a liter of room temperature water in just over three minutes (at an elevation of 1,000 feet).
The Bad It weighs more and takes more pack space than standard backpacking stoves. It only works with Coleman’s cylindrical propane canisters, which add more weight and bulk.
The Verdict For mostly car-camping and paddling use, with occasional short-mileage backpacking, it’s a solid bargain. $20; 1 lb. 5 oz.
Test Gear: Tent + Pack + Bag + Pad + Stove = $160
Total Savings = $480*
*Based on average retail price for similar products approved by BACKPACKER testers