This guide will get into the where and what of getting your gear, I’ll get into more detail on how to choose the big-ticket items (boots, backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and stove) and head out on the trail in the next few posts.
The solitude and fresh air of the great outdoors are much better when you’re prepared. So, in advance of the write-up of our first outing to Harriman State Park, I’m pulling together the collected knowledge of my formative years as a Boy Scout and presenting it here.
Camping is fun, inexpensive, and way easier to prepare for than the typical National Geographic article or outdoors magazine would have you believe. In the case of Harriman, the trailhead is within reach of public transit, so you don’t even need a car! However, a minimum of preparation is needed – like the Scouts say, Be Prepared – so feel free to follow this collected advice:
Where to Buy Gear
Most of my gear dates back to those Boy Scout years, as camping equipment tends to last a generation or more with infrequent use and proper care. Mainly just don’t put anything away wet. Since we’re married there are two of us now, so we had to update our repertoire with doubles of many items. Your biggest purchases will probably be boots, backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and backpacking stove, the tips below will help you shop around.
If you’re looking to browse in person in NYC or buy either really big and heavy or really small things, REI on Lafayette Street in SoHo has the best selection in the city. I’ve done extensive research, and while their prices seem high, they’re generally the cheapest published prices you’ll find on the items in question. If you join as a member, you receive a 10% rebate each year and are sent periodic 20% off coupons, which can really help with the price of a big-ticket item. Additionally, they offer a no-questions-asked one-year guarantee (similar to L.L. Bean’s Lifetime Guarantee, only shorter) on any purchases, so you know they only sell quality.
Eastern Mountain Sports has a similar yet smaller selection than REI and also has a store in SoHo. I haven’t been to this particular location, but we own two EMS-brand down jackets that have stood the test of time.
Tip: When buying backpacks and boots in particular, in-person professional advice from a place like REI or EMS can really help you get the best fit. They both also tend to give good advice on outings and carry the local trail maps and guides.
Campmor is in the NYC area, in Paramus, NJ on Rte. 17. They’re famous for their long-running discount catalog mailing and they ship across the county. You’ll find some of the best prices on gear of any website. If you’re on their email list, they constantly have a 20% off one item coupon or some other great sale, plus they give 4 points per dollar at the Amtrak Guest Rewards shopping portal (worth an additional 12% back), which you can later cash in for train travel (more on this travel tip in a later post).
Dick’s Sporting Goods doesn’t have any locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Queens, though there is one in Staten Island, Westchester, and there are dozens around the country. Their online store is well-stocked and they ship quickly and for free (hint, it’s not dicks.com). I bought a two-person Marmot tent here this summer for an unbeatable price and both my current Kelty backpacks were purchased at their Syracuse store 15-20 years ago (and going strong). If you sign up for their email list, they constantly sent out coupons for $20 off a $50 purchase. Their prices tend to be slightly lower than the competition, though the gear is not all high-end like the other retailers listed above.
Amazon.com is very useful for assorted items, though stick to comparison shopping on known brands and products, since there is a lot of off-brand junk mixed in with the good stuff, with inflated prices to cover 2-day shipping. We used Amazon to get our Thermarest pad, PolarPure water purification, parachute cord for the bear bag (more on that later) and compass, though could’ve purchased most of these items in-person if we wanted.
Lastly, Craigslist is a good option if you don’t mind lightly worn-in gear. Quality backpacks in particular can be found regularly at a steep discount over buying new (e.g. $30-50 for a $150 external frame pack). We have both our backpacks already, but we did find a lightly used EMS down sleeping bag for $30 (normally $120 or more).
Everything else you can probably get at Kmart or the local hardware or dollar store.
Take a quick look at this camping checklist from REI before I explain how you don’t need most of that stuff in the following posts: