Frugal Canoe Camping: Acquiring Gear on a Budget

Canoe camping is a memory generating activity for families and one of my all time favorite things to do. As a kid, I never really gave much thought as to how the camping trip was put together or where the gear came from. The planning was done for me and the gear was just there. Things are magic like that when you’re a kid, parents make that magic happen.

Well, now we’re the parents and it’s our turn to make the magic happen. Where do we start!? Camping gear is spendy, decent camping gear can be outrageous. Thankfully there are several ways to cut down on gear costs.

Inventory

First things first; make a list of what you need and check your own stock. You’d be surprised at how little you need and how much you actually have strewn about in your home. Once you know what you have, then you can hunt for the remaining items on your list.

Borrow

Ask friends, neighbors, and family. You never know who will have what you need for your excursion. Even if you can borrow a few pieces of gear, that’s a few less pieces to purchase or rent.

Like I mentioned before, my parents made the magic happen. They now have a good stock of camping gear and are happy to lend us supplies from their “Camp Library.” My brother does the same thing when his family camps, borrow from the “Camp Library.” Don’t be discouraged if someone is unwilling to lend their new gear, that may have been a big purchase for them, but perhaps they’ll lend their older items.

Use What You Have

No, you don’t need that new sleeping bag or the latest tent model. The older gear worked for those who camped before us, it’ll work for us now. Example: A friend of mine had a really cool laser lighter, I had waterproof matches and a Bic lighter. Both produced fire, neither of my methods required charging.

Purchase Secondhand

Used items are a great starting point. We have purchased two of our three tents from garage sales, they’ve both served us well and we saved hundreds. Two of the four sleeping bags that my family uses have come from garage sales. They were like new. The Kelty bag would have been about $150, but it was just $40 at a garage sale!

Secondhand Options

  • Facebook Marketplace
  • Ebay
  • Local Garage Sale
  • Online Garage Sale Sites
  • Craigslist

Be sure to check the gear before purchasing. Check for holes in tents, sleeping bags, and packs. If you are purchasing online; check the sellers rating, look closely at the pictures provided, ask for additional pictures if needed and don’t be afraid to ask questions. You don’t want to end up purchasing faulty gear, even if it is cheap.

Another way to acquire gear this way is to post a wanted ad yourself. Ask for gear online, perhaps someone has a stash of gear they’ve been looking to unload. It’s worth an ask, worst case, nobody responds. No harm done. A great time to check into this is at the end and beginning of the season. This is when outdoorsmen are deciding what they want to keep around and what they don’t want to store any longer.

Watch for Deals

Watch for deals at your local sporting goods store or online. Sales happen around holidays and the beginning/end of seasons. If you are on a rewards or point system at a certain store you may be eligible for additional savings. Memberships sometimes have additional percentages off.

Outfitters

Most outfitters will have a season end sale and many list their available used gear on their websites. My folks took advantage of this on one their canoe trips. They came home with quite a few pieces of gear to add to their collection and to replace some of their worn out gear. Outfitters keep up with the top of the line gear, this means that some of their gear is very lightly used before it needs to be replaced.

Our local outfitter had a season closing sale. I acquired a new Duluth day pack for $20, it was originally $99. I had used a regular backpack for many years, the straps were beginning to pull away, it was time to upgrade and what a find!

Gifts

For families that exchange gifts this might be a good one for you to acquire gear that you plan to use many times. Making an Amazon wish list or gift cards to outdoor stores may help your cause. My folks know that I love adventuring, they are the ones who introduced me to the great outdoors in the first place. They have gifted a number of our camping items to us, including my first canoe (secondhand) and paddle.

I still remember going with my dad to Cabela’s to pick out my paddle. I got to have a similar experience with my daughter when I brought her to an outfitter to choose her first paddle this last summer.

Gifting is also a great opportunity to help others grow their gear stock if you are upgrading yours. It seems a little strange to gift a used item, but there are items that are larger or harder to come by that would be greatly appreciated by the right person. When my parents upgraded their two canoes from heavy Royalex to one sleek kevlar, they gifted me and brother with the two canoes they no longer needed. We both are very appreciative of this gift. My family has made great memories in that beast of a canoe.

Grow Your Inventory Slowly

Grow your inventory slowly and learn what you really do need and what you don’t. If your goal is to have a fantastic camping set with all the fancy gear; grow it slowly. What has worked best for us is adding one or two pieces of gear each year. What this looks like is using mostly older, secondhand or borrowed gear while gradually borrowing less and less as the collection grows.

Just starting out, our “new” gear that we were adding was secondhand. It was “new to us” gear. The more trips we go on the more we learn what we need and a lot of what we don’t. The experience helps to discern what our camping crew deems necessary and what can be left out of the pack. We are huge fans of packing light.

Rent

The alternate option for gear you are unable to find, is to rent. You might just need a couple things, like a tent, canoe, or camp stove. Outfitters are there to help with multiple options. Most outfitters have options for renting just a few pieces of gear or outfitting an entire trip, some even include the food! Check out different outfitters in the area that you’re planning to go. There are numerous outfitters in the BWCA areas; Ely, Grand Marais, and Tofte.

Wherever you acquire your gear, be sure it’s gear that you need and will use. Unused gear can accumulate and take up space rather quickly. Making smart gear choices will keep your pack light and your items useful.

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