Pile of camping gear around a camper

Camping gear: where to splurge vs. save

Building up a camping gear collection can be an exciting step to spending more time outside and planning trips. For some people, scoping out new gear inventions online or wandering down store aisles while thinking about upcoming trips can be almost as fun as the excursions themselves. But with so much gear to choose from, it can be hard to know where to invest and where to count your pennies – especially if you’re stocking up all at once.

To help you make some decisions, check out our picks for splurge-worthy gear, and some areas where you can safely save a few bucks if you’re building up your camp equipment on a budget.

Where to splurge

Camper reading in a tent

Sleeping bag

Your sleeping bag (along with your tent) is easily the most important piece of gear you’ll purchase – especially if you plan on 3- or 4-season camping. Spend some time researching bags so you can make an informed decision based on your needs (synthetic or down? mummy or barrel?) and make sure your bag is properly rated for the temperatures you’ll be sleeping in. If you tend to get cold when you sleep, you might want to look at warmer bags and use an insulated sleeping pad, like the MEC VectAir.

Tent

Choosing a proper tent is a big part of having a successful camping trip, and it’s worth it to get one that’s built to last for many future trips too. Look for a tent that’s leak-proof, has good ventilation and heavy-duty zippers, and sets up fast in case you roll into your campsite after dark. Also, consider what it will be like to hang out inside your tent. Take things like headroom and living space into account to make sure you’ll actually enjoy spending time in your investment.

Some examples of tents made to last? The MEC Wanderer 2 Tent is roomy and easy to set up, and the Big Agnes Tumble 3 MtnGlo Tent comes with lighting built in.

Cooler

Having a cooler that doesn’t do its job can cost you some money in spoiled food (or can ruin camp dinners). When shopping for a cooler, look for proper insulation, an airtight lock or zipper so it won’t leak, and think about how easy it is to move around. If you get a cooler that’s durable, you’ll get lots of use beyond camping – picnics, lakeside BBQs, backyard parties and more – which makes them a good all-round investment. Yeti is known for crazy-tough coolers, like the Roadie 20 Cooler or the Hopperflip 12.

Cooler and pile of camping gear on a picnic table

Solid shoes

For hiking or exploring beyond your campsite, leave the flip-flops behind and make sure you wear sturdy, comfortable boots or shoes. If you really want to splurge a bit and up your camping game back at your site, bring a pair of insulated booties – they’re the epitome of comfort when you’re playing cards around the picnic table at night. They also don’t weigh much and are awesome to put on after you’ve been out on a day hike.

Where to save

Pouring camp coffee

Cooking gear and stove

While complex cooking systems definitely have their place in the outdoors (we know many foodies like to take it outside), lightweight stoves and inexpensive dishes – or even unbreakable thrift store finds – can be more than enough if you’re building your camp kitchen kit. Simple, portable double-burner stoves like the Primus Profile are a great option if you’re feeding a few people, or you can keep it simpler still with a trail stove, like this Primus Classic. These may be designed for the backcountry, but they can work for daytrips, road trips or car camping too.

Lighting

Headlamps are an inexpensive way to stay safe and have fun after the sun sets. Plus, they’re super convenient because they’re hands-free and make late-night bathroom treks a lot easier (just remember to avoid shining them in people’s eyes if you’re chatting around the campfire.) Want more social lighting? Strap your headlamp to a water bottle for a quick makeshift lantern.

Tools and fire-starters

Specialty hatchets, saws and knives can be useful in the backcountry, but a simple hatchet can do the trick around most campfires. You’ll need it to chop kindling, even though most parks offer pre-chopped wood. If you have trouble lighting fires, try a homemade fire-starter recipe by dipping cotton balls in petroleum jelly.

Renting and swapping

One the best ways to save is by renting gear. If you’ve decided this is the summer you want to try your hand (err… legs) at stand up paddleboarding, or if you don’t want to pick up a new tent quite yet, consider renting gear before you buy. It’s a good way to be thrifty while you decide what’s right for you.

Another way to save? The MEC Gear Swap. It’s been going strong since 1997, and is where you can buy, sell or swap used outdoor gear – there are also gear swap events at MEC stores.

Group of friends paddleboarding at a lake

Buying camping gear doesn’t have to be expensive, but there are certain investments worth making to ensure your time spent outdoors is the best it can be. With these tips, you can decide when to spend your money and when to pocket it for future adventure funds.

Jenn Martin, blog writer
Jenn Martin

Writer searching the globe for the best stories, songs and summits.