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Have you ever stopped by your favorite outdoor gear retailer on your way out of town for a trip to pick up “a few small things” and find yourself staring at the cash register in disbelief when the total is almost $100? Outdoor pursuits can be expensive, way more expensive than buying a case of Busch Light and holding down a La-Z-Boy in front of the television all weekend. But camping doesn’t have to be cost-prohibitive. Here are 10 smart ways to trim the costs of camping, whether you’re a committed dirtbag or you just forgot something and need to replace it on your way to the wilderness.

1. Backpack Cover
Expensive: $30 pack cover for outside of pack
Dirtbag substitute: 44-cent Trash Bag on inside of pack
Savings: $29.56

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I actually never use a pack cover, but I always use trash bags. Yes, the outside of your pack will get wet, but your stuff will not. The opulent 44-cent price reflects a purchase of good trash bags, the 3-mil contractor type that pretty much won’t rip on anything. Yes, you’ll have to buy a whole box of them, but then you have 49 more to use in the future.

2. Water Bottle
Expensive: $10 to $35 water bottle
Dirtbag substitute: $1.25 soda bottle
Savings: $8.75

Whoa, a $35 water bottle, you ask? Yes. You probably know someone who owns one. They’re nice. So are the ones in the $10 to 15 range. But let’s face it, all you need is a container that doesn’t leak. Soda bottles do a pretty good job of that. That’s why long-distance thru-hikers use them: They’re stupid light and do the job, albeit for a short period of time. You don’t drink soda? No worries, just pour it down the drain. It’s still the cheapest water bottle you can buy.

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3. Utensils
Expensive: $9 spork
Dirtbag substitute: Plastic fork and spoon from fast-food restaurant
Savings: $9

Has it been a while since Taco Bell saved you? Right, college, 1 a.m. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Maybe you blacked it out. Maybe you haven’t eaten there since. That’s fine. Taco Bell can still help you out when you’re desperate. Don’t feel like you have to purchase a 7-Layer Burrito in order to earn a free fork and spoon – you’ve paid your Taco Bell dues at some time in the past.

4. Shower
Expensive: $25 Solar shower
Dirtbag substitute: $1.50 water jug poured over head and refilled with tap water multiple times
Savings: $23.50

Pretty self-explanatory. Cheaper fix: Not showering. Grab some free handi-wipes from KFC, a la Denzel in The Book of Eli, and use them every couple days. How long is this trip you’re on, anyway?

5. Waterproof Jacket
Expensive: $100 to $500 three-layer laminated shell
Dirtbag substitute: $8 Coleman emergency poncho
Savings: $92 to $492

How many times have you gotten soaked because you looked at the weather forecast and decided against bringing a shell? Right. You are holding up two hands right now counting on your fingers. This poncho weighs three ounces in the package. The downside is that, well, it’s a poncho, which is not flattering on anyone. If you’re an alpha dirtbag and eight bucks is just a little too rich for your blood, see item #1, the trash bag. Grab one out of your stash, cut holes for your head and arms, and voila, you have yourself a 44-cent rain jacket. Let’s be honest, though: When you wear the trash bag rain jacket out on the trail, no one is going to ask you out.

6. GPS
Expensive: $100-$650 GPS unit
Dirtbag substitute: $6 topo map + $15 compass
Savings: $79 to $629

Fact #1: GPS units are pretty cool. Fun. Techy. Fact #2: You can buy almost 10 six-packs of decent beer for the price of the lowest of the low-end GPS units. Fact #3: Many of us have survived hundreds of miles in the backcountry without ever carrying a GPS. If you are unfamiliar with the place you’re going, you can purchase a USGS quad map and compass and discover it the old-fashioned way. Another great bonus with paper maps: If you find you’re just not that good at navigating after all and you get hopelessly lost, you can start a fire with it.

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7. Water Purifier
Expensive: $70 ultraviolet water purifier
Dirtbag substitute: $7 iodine tablets
Savings: $63

There are many great things about UV water purifiers – they’re small, they purify water everywhere, and they’re not really that expensive in the long run. But sometimes, come payday, most of your paycheck has already gone to alimony and/or gambling debt and you need a cheap, reliable, tried-and-true substitute for a trip.

8. Camp Chair
Expensive: $100 camp chair
Dirtbag substitute: Tree stump/rock/$15 camp chair from Target
Savings: $85 to $100

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Sure, maybe that rock or tree stump you’re sitting on doesn’t have a sweet cupholder for your beer. But you know what? That rock over there, moved over here, is a sweet cupholder.

9. Shelter
Expensive: $200-$500 tent
Dirtbag substitute: $20 tarp from Home Depot + $5 worth of parachute cord
Savings: $175 to $475

If you are putting together an awesome base camp somewhere, you can spend up to $500 on a freestanding waterproof shelter with no walls to keep your kitchen dry. But if you don’t want to spend $200 to $500 on that, you can stop by Home Depot when you’re picking up your supply of trash bags (See #1 and #5) and grab yourself a tarp and some cord to tie it to trees. Takes a little more time and ingenuity, but so does making a campfire out of real wood instead of Duraflame logs, doesn’t it?

10. Knife
Expensive: $130 knife
Dirtbag substitute: $12 knife from truck stop
Savings: $118

Maybe you really need a beautiful $100 knife to do things like delicately dice heirloom tomatoes for whatever it is you’re making for dinner on your camp stove. I do not. Maybe you’re going to throw a fit when the TSA finds your expensive-ass knife in your carry-on because you forgot to put it in your checked bag, and there’s no way you’re going to get it back. I am not. I will purchase a new crappy knife at a Flying J and use it for cutting things like cheese and cordelette, and then when I lose it at airport security, I will shrug and move on.


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Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. Follow him at his blog, Semi-Rad.