Cheap outdoor gear: how to get outside for less money

Let’s talk for a second about the cost of being outside.

I don’t mean windburn, sunburn, blisters, or even dirty fingernails, though those are very serious tragedies indeed.

What I’m talking about is the cost in dollars for outdoor gear. The actual flow of hard-earned cash out of your pocket and onto the ski slopes or into the fishing boat. This whole outdoors thing sounds so basic, and it should be basic, but for some reason I keep running headfirst into cash needs.

I tend to think of this as mostly a winter problem. Winter gear is so pricey and you just need more of it: snowpants, jackets, mittens, hats, mittens, ice skates, ski boots, skis, mittens, snowshoes, poles, more mittens, sleds…it’s all rather dizzying.

By comparison, basic warm weather needs seem pretty simple: sneakers, a fishing pole and tackle, sunscreen and a hat. Done. Well, sort of done. As long as you don’t want a boat to go with that fishing pole, your kid doesn’t need a new bike and the helmet from last year still fits. And as long as you don’t want to go camping and therefore don’t have to worry about campers, tents, sleeping bags, camp stoves, camping fees, etc. If you don’t need any of that stuff, you’re fine.

Sadly, I need that stuff.

Over the years, I’ve developed a few strategies for finding cheap outdoor gear without sacrificing quality. It just takes patience, creativity, and following a few rules. Here are the ones that I’ve come to rely on:

Figure out your priorities

Obvious, I know, but still true. I am not a downhill skier due mostly to limitations around coordination and tolerance for risk (translation: I’m a wimpy klutz) but also because of cost. It’s expensive to ski. It’s unbelievably expensive to ski. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. If you love it, and you want your kids to love it, then you prioritize that above other outdoor activities. I don’t love it, and I don’t care if my kids love it, but I care a whole lot about building their general comfort in and knowledge of the outdoors. So I save my cash and time for things like camping in the summer or ensuring we have enough snowshoes for the whole family to tramp through the woods.

What’s important is being deliberate about your choices and letting your spending follow those choices.

Get out of the catalog mindset

You don’t have to look stunning going down the trail. My kids are forever outside in mismatched mittens, weird hand-me-down combinations, and bikes that are a little rusty but still function perfectly fine. Take, for example, this picture of my daughter from a few years ago.

cheap outdoor gear

That hat was knit by my mother, the fleece was a hand-me-down from a cousin, I’m pretty sure those are my mittens, and those snowpants–while new to her–were worn by my son last year. In fact, I just handed them off to a third kid yesterday.

Since I have kids of both genders, whenever possible I buy gear in unisex colors to ensure maximum use. A special trick I’ve learned: shop the clearance section of the opposite gender for the less popular colors. I once bought my son a “girl’s” navy blue parka for half the price of what they were charging on the boy’s section of the website. People other than me apparently have strong opinions about what colors are appropriate for boys and girls. Fine for them, better for me.

Explore community options for cheap outdoor gear

This story about Four Seasons Lodge in Madawaska made me faint with wishing. $50 for a season of ski rentals? Glorious! The Waterville area has Quarry Road Recreation Area. Calais has WCCC’s Outdoor Adventure Center. These all offer cheap or free access and equipment. Land trusts across the state have free trails open to public use and many have cheap outdoor gear options. My kid’s school has child-sized snowshoes that they will lend out over winter breaks. Take some time to explore your area and I bet you’ll find a treasure trove of options.

Beg, borrow, and buy used

The bad thing about kid gear is that, for the most part, it’s good for one year–if that. (Who has had to scramble to find a post-growth spurt pair of snowboots in late February? I know I’m raising my hand.) The good thing about kid gear is that they grow out of it so fast, there is likely a plethora of outgrown goods in your neighborhood. Start working your parent network–Facebook is great for this, either through your personal friends or on swap boards–and see if you can score yourself some equipment free or cheap. Don’t just look, ask for what you need. You never know what might be gathering dust in someone else’s basement–I myself have a stash of ice skates I just haven’t gotten around to listing yet. Put out a call and see who answers.

Look into renting for larger equipment. When I take my kid’s cross-country skiing, I rent skis from a local sporting goods store. It is such a bargain, I will likely never buy a pair. We’d have to use them weekly to equal out the purchase price, and this way I don’t have to maintain or store skis in my small house.

Make regular stops at Goodwill and other thrift stores to benefit from other people’s outgrown goods. The shoulder seasons are the best time to look, since that’s when most folks are cleaning out the old to make way for the new. And, please, don’t forget to donate or sell your old stuff to keep the cycle going.

After all, we’re all on this together.

Cherie Galyean

About Cherie Galyean

In a perfect world, Cherie Galyean would spend hours every day chasing her kids up hiking trails, pretending to garden, and baking things. Instead, she works full-time in the non-profit sector and fits those other things in-between loads of laundry in her free time. A Maine native with multiple hometowns, she currently lives on Mount Desert Island with her husband, seven-year-old daughter, five-year-old son, and the best shelter mutt in the world.