Cheap and Free Ultralight Gear

So you want to try ultralight backpacking, but you don’t want to spend a lot of money on a new hobby? In this article you’ll find sturdy, lightweight “alternative” gear that won’t break the bank.

Finding newer and lighter gear inevitably means spending more money, but there are areas of your ultralight backpacking system that can be improved cheap (or even free) items around the house.

Camp Kitchen

Stoves: You can make your own camp stove out of an empty soda can or even a cat food can! These weigh less than an ounce and have no parts that can fail in the field (valves, seals, etc), and unlike conventional stoves, the fuel (HEET or denatured alcohol) can be found in most gas stations/hardware stores, if you need to resupply mid-hike. The bottom line: $0.50-$1.00!

Water Bottles: Any plastic bottle will do! Many backpackers like to use SmartWater or Gatorade bottles from the grocery/convenience store. These are MUCH lighter than Nalgene bottles or CamelBak reservoirs, plus have one added advantage: If it gets scuzzy or gross, just recycle it and pick up a new one! Small ones also work as a flask (for your backcountry cocktail needs) or a fuel bottle for your alcohol stove (Just be sure to label it properly!). Bottom Line: $1-$2!

Cutlery: I love my long titanium spoon, but $7-$20 might be a little steep, if you’re trying to assemble a full backpacking kit on a budget. For short trips, “borrow” a sturdy plastic spoon and/or fork from a fast food joint. It’s even lighter than my titanium spoon, and you can just toss it when it gets ratty. Bottom line: FREE!

Condiments: Full bottles of condiments and spices can be cumbersome and heavy. “Borrow” ketchup, mustard, mayo, jelly, sugar, salt, and pepper packets when you visit restaurants. That way you only pack what you absolutely need. Bottom Line: FREE!

Hygiene

  • Toothbrush: Sounds dorky, but cut one in half to save size and weight ($1)
  • Toothpaste: Make toothpaste dots! (Free! you have toothpaste at home anyway!)
  • Hand Sanitizer: Smallest bottle humanly possible ($1)
  • Soap: Dr. Bronners or Coghlan’s soap (Both cost about $3 for 2oz). Repackage into smaller bottles to save weight ($0.25 or free if you reuse household dropper bottles).
  • Toilet paper: Pull a few days worth off your roll at home. Package in a ziploc (free!).
  • Trowel: Use a stick or one of your tent stakes instead! (free!)

Tools and First Aid

Knife: This one isn’t for everyone, but I’ve learned that I almost never need a knife while backpacking. At most, I use it to cut cord, bandages, moleskin, or to open food packaging. I pack either a utility knife blade or a single edge razor blade as my “sharp thing”. You can make a little sheathe from a cereal or granola bar box! Bottom Line: Pennies!

First Aid Kit: People tend to go overboard when it comes to these. First and foremost, don’t pack items beyond your level of training. Just because Cabela’s sells backcountry staple/suture kits, doesn’t mean you have the skills to use it. Also, snake bite kits are useless. Make your own first aid kit! You can also use other gear (trek poles, clothes, utility cord) to pull double duty for first aid. Start with a Ziploc baggie. Fill it with:

  • 5-10 Band-aids (various sizes)
  • 2 sterile gauze pads
  • Smallest roll of athletic tape you can find
  • A few single-use packets of triple antibiotic ointment, alcohol pads, hydrocortisone, etc
  • 2 or 3 butterfly closures
  • Precut moleskin for blisters
  • A few doses of ibuprofen, anti-diarrheal, and any prescription meds you need.

Bottom Line: $10 at most

Repair Kit: 

  1. Wrap a few feet of duct tape around your water bottles or trek poles. Use it to patch holes in just about anything. Even works for first aid (in a pinch). Don’t bring the whole roll!
  2. If you like to have a sewing kit, pack a few feet of dental floss and a needle. Floss is stronger than common thread and works great for field repairs. Don’t bring the plastic container!
  3. Superglue: Fixes everything from gear to lacerations!
  4. Utility cord: 50 feet is enough to replace shoe laces, fix your tent’s guy line, and hang a bear bag! ($13 for the stuff I use).

Bottom line: Even with the expensive cord I use, less than $25.

Do you have any more suggestions?