Outdoor adventure sports are some of my favorite ways to get active and spend more time in nature, but no matter what your specific passion is—backpacking, kayaking, mountain biking, mountaineering, climbing, you name it—it can be expensive. While some gear (clothing, for example) can often be pulled from the wardrobe you already have, other items are specialized enough that you probably don’t have them laying around in your closet.
For many people, that initial upfront investment can be a big barrier to entry. Kayaks can run you hundreds of dollars and a good-quality mountain bike creeps into the thousands. Even if you have the cash, it doesn't make much sense to spend it when you're not even sure whether you like the sport yet. But the good news is, there are many options for getting discounted, used, or otherwise less expensive gear when you’re just getting your toes wet or upgrading your current outdoor kit.
Here are some of the best ways I've found to get great outdoors gear and apparel for less.
1. Rent your gear instead of buying it.
Taking up activities like kayaking, climbing, or skiing can be a hefty investment if you try to buy all your gear yourself. Renting gear is a great option when you’re first deciding whether you really want to commit to a sport.
You might be surprised to learn that your community outdoor shop, your nearest REI, and even your local university might have options to rent outdoor gear. REI, for example, rents snowshoes, camp stoves, sleeping bags, and some mountaineering gear, and more depending on the area. For example, Washington State University, near where I live in Seattle, rents mountain bikes, crampons, kayaks, wetsuits, and so on. And if local options are coming up short, there are several online companies that you can rent gear through, like Outdoors Geek, Last Minute Gear, and Gear to Go Outfitters. You just ship it back to them when you’re done.
It’s also worth mentioning that if you’re doing a destination-specific activity, like kayaking or skiing, you can likely rent gear at the lake you’re visiting or the ski resort where you’re planning to hit the slopes. It’s certainly not the cheapest way to go if you end up loving a sport, but a good way to dip your toes in the water without having to make a big investment before you know if you’ll stick with it.
2. Check discount gear sites and eBay.
Another shout-out to the blessings of the Internet, which has a whole bunch of sites that make it easy to find serious deals on the gear you’re after. Mass Drop, for example, uses the collective buying power of members (it’s free!) to offer cheaper prices on gear. It’s like buying in bulk—the more people who decide to buy the product that’s listed, the lower the price drops per person. Other popular discount outdoor gear sites include Camp Saver, Steep and Cheap, The Clymb, Sierra Trading Post, and REI Outlet. And eBay, of course.
Many of these sites feature last year’s models, so it’s less likely you’ll find exactly the brand and make you’re looking for—but if you stay broad, like, “puffy jacket” or even “Arc’teryx rain jacket,” you may score some pretty great deals.
3. Shop out of season at secondhand stores.
Search your area to see if there are any secondhand outdoor gear stores, which often make searching for the right gear less overwhelming. If you’re on the hunt for something specific, Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist are good places to turn. Even thrift stores can be loaded with golf clubs, skis, tents, and even the occasional hiking backpack.
For the best prices, just like typical retail, you should shop out of season—skis after winter, kayaks after summer. But don’t wait too long, or you might have a tough time finding the clothes or gear you need on the shelves. Think just a month or so after peak season is over, or in the few weeks leading up to it.
4. Find (or start) a gear library in your community.
Most outdoorsy people have a closet full of gear they’re not putting to use every single weekend, so if you have a friend who has a lot of the gear you need, it’s worth asking if you can take it for a spin. If you can find a few people who are interested, consider pooling your resources more “formally” and create a gear library, where you make your collective gear available to each other. Your friend isn’t using their sea kayak this weekend? Great. You’ve got a whole camp pack a day hiker can borrow? Superb.
Some outdoor organizations, like Wild Diversity in Portland, Oregon, which encourages queer people and people of color to get outside by removing barriers to entry, use this gear library model. I also know that graduates of a gear orientation through Washington Trail Association have access to their gear library as well, so check your local trail association or any outdoor clubs and organizations to see if they offer something similar.
5. Ask yourself, is it really necessary?
While some gear is necessary from a safety perspective (think: cold-weather sleeping bags, solid skis, microspikes) other things are just add-ons or upgrades. For example, a fork and knife from your kitchen work just as well as a camping-specific titanium spork that runs $ 12. A trash compactor bag makes a good rainproof internal layer for your backpack rather than a pack cover. Old pill bottles can be used for carrying spices when camping—there’s no need to spend on specialized travel containers.
Take stock of what you have that can be repurposed. In my kit, I tend to use Ziplocs over and over again instead of stuff sacks, and I’ve brought dryer lint in a toilet paper roll as a makeshift fire starter.
6. Save your big purchases for big sales.
OK, so, you’ve rented all you can, and you’ve made the best use of discount gear sites as possible. What else can you do? Shop sales.
The retail world has some pretty standard sale dates, and planning your big outdoor purchases around them is usually a good plan. July 4th, Memorial Day weekend, and Labor Day are all good times to shop. You can also sign up for newsletters from your favorite gear shop so you’re in the loop about when they’re running their heftiest discounts. REI, for example, has a massive anniversary sale around May every year.