Tips for getting outdoor gear on a budget

The other day I saw this preprint ( on my Twitter that highlights the extreme financial barriers to being a field geoscientist. This paper and the various Twitter threads from the authors made me recall my own experience. I am a geologist. I have a B.S. from Texas A&M University and am currently a PhD Candidate. Going to the field is now kinda part of my job. I have a kit, a bag that’s never fully unpacked, and a closet full of gear that I’ve accumulated over the years. When it’s time to go, I pack it up and leave. But how did it get there? 

I grew up loving the outdoors. I went fishing on the weekend with my family at the local pond and on special occasions (Spring Break!), we would go camping. Over the years I had been given cool outdoor items like a flashlight, a lantern, water shoes, and hats. So, when I got to campus as a Freshman and heard about field camp, a 6-week capstone mapping trip across the Western US that involved camping and lots of hiking, I thought ‘Oh this will be so so fun’. For me, it was fun (and physically and emotionally exhausting), but it was also EXPENSIVE. When you become a geologist, you find out all of the extra things you need that will allow you to i) endure such long and taxing trips and ii) conduct field work. As previously found, when you start to add up all of these individual costs, it becomes daunting, so I am here to give you a few tips on how to get outdoor gear on a budget. This tip largely involves resourcefulness, so I think it’s only fair to share where I received this important life skill… my mom.

A picture of me in the field. In this picture, my gear includes: a rain jacket, rain pants, a fleece jacket, a whistle and hand lens, a hammer, a hat, a Buff, a hardhat, a belt, a pencil pack, pencils, pens, a C-thru ruler, a notebook, and water bottles.

If there’s one thing you should know, it’s that my mom is a very skilled second-hand shopper. She moves through each store with extreme tact as her eyes dart from one aisle to the next, checking if there is anything interesting while keeping her focus on the main objective of the day. I can tell you, that if I ask her for a specific thing, a jacket or an outdoor shirt, she will have found it within 1 month. When I became a geologist, my mom’s objective changed and became a bit more pointed. When I needed a jacket, I sent my mom a bunch of pictures of screenshots from REI. That Christmas, I opened a secondhand Arcteryx Atom jacket, which was ‘the most expensive thing I’ve (my mom) ever bought at Goodwill for $12!!!’ Over the years, my gear has accumulated and most of it is second-hand. So, the tips I will share with you are largely guided by this experience and most of it is informed by my mom. Also, this blog is completely informed from an able-bodied perspective, as someone who was not structurally kept out of Geology by field camp’s ableist expectations of who is capable of being a Geologist. Read more about this issue and how to create inclusive field experiences here ( 

  1. Prepare as far in advance as possible. As a geoscience student, one of the first questions you should ask your new peers and mentors should be about the expectations for field trips. For example, a few questions could be: What kind of trips will I go on? How often do I have field trips? Where will we go? Is gear provided? If so, is there any gear I would have to bring? Will I be reimbursed if I purchase gear? These questions will help you identify how much you need, what you need, and when you will need it. When I was an undergraduate student, I took an upper level Geology class as a Freshman, and in this class my new (Junior and Senior) friends gave me lists of the things I would need for field camp. I knew then that these lists represented large expenses for me, so I began planning. I identified big ticket items like a tent, sleeping bag, backpack, and boots. Then, I started writing down little things that they mentioned they were purchasing and things I thought I would like given my previous camping experience like flashlight/lanterns, feminine products, a thermos, water bottles, and utensils. I listened to my senior classmates every time they talked about preparing for field camp and I noted anything that I had missed. Soon, my list was getting long and overwhelming, but I was 3 years ahead of time. This was going to be a long term endeavor. 
  1. Make your list and share with family and loved ones. Some of the big ticket items, like a tent or a sleeping bag, are very difficult to buy all at once and some of these items might be worth purchasing new. I found that the more I talked about preparing for my trip, the more my family wanted to help. They bought me a sleeping bag for my Christmas and a hammer for my birthday. This may not be possible, but it’s good to reach out to loved ones and tell them about your goals because you never know what they will come across. For example, my friends knew I was looking for a tent and one day texted me saying ‘the two person tent at REI is on sale for $100 off!’. I got in the car and went straight there to buy it as I had been saving up and knew this was my only chance to get such a great tent. I still use that tent to this day.
  1. Look online or go to a retail store to see the products you will need. I say this not to torture you or make you feel bad because you can’t afford it, but for you to become familiar with the products you will be searching for. If you need a rain jacket, it will be great for you to become familiar with typical brands (you might find an older version of that brand somewhere!) and typical features. For example, when I knew how to look for rain jackets by checking the seams and zippers, the whole jacket section at my local Salvation Army was a breeze to run through. If it didn’t have a sealed seam (for rain protection), I was on to the next. 

How to find second-hand stores:

Ask friends/locals

Search online for local stores (Goodwill, Salvation Army, consignment stores, pawn shops)

Search online for online stores (Poshmark, Mercari, REI used gear , Craigslist)

Keep your eyes open for smaller shops/garage sales while you are going around town.

  1. Make a point to shop at secondhand stores frequently. This is my biggest point and I will go into more detail because there is an art to finding quality second-hand items.
  • Don’t stick to the same store. You might find that one store has great options for clothes but a different store has great recreational equipment. Try to make frequent stops at a range of stores (online and instore). Maybe make it a part of your errands. Get your groceries, walk the dog, and go to a secondhand store every other Saturday. 
  • Don’t get discouraged if you don’t find anything. Remember, this is a long term game. You’ve given yourself ample time to plan and prepare, so don’t feel bad if you strike out a few times.
  • Stay open minded. Shopping second-hand is a bit of a creativity exercise. You didn’t find a Columbia SPF shirt, BUT you did find a long sleeve, 80’s style Eddie Bauer mens shirt that is a size bigger than you would prefer. Great, this could be a layered piece for added sun protection!
  • Go through each and every piece in the aisles you are looking through. One of the biggest mistakes I see from first time second hand shoppers is that they go to an aisle and look at it, don’t see anything, and walk away. DON’T DO THIS! YOU COULD MISS SOMETHING GREAT! When you go shopping, commit to looking at each and every piece. Go through that aisle with a fine toothed comb. You never know… you might find a gem hidden between two large (and sometimes purposely out of place!) items.
  • Try things on/out. For clothing, pull everything out that you think might work and try it on! Does it take time? Yes. Will you put maybe 80% back? Yes. Could you possibly find the exact thing you need and love? MAYBE! If you find a recreational piece, like a flashlight or a headlamp, don’t be afraid to try it out! Bring batteries with you and put them in! Then you’ll know if it works or doesn’t. Did you find a cool backpack? Put it on. Walk around the store with it! A tent? Ask if you can set it up. Most of the time, the workers are happy to let you try something out if it means you are likely to buy it! 

‘Stores are like fishing holes, your favorites are hard to share’

– My mom

While these tips are meant to help you (the new geoscientist) grapple with such a cost prohibitive endeavour, there are ways that universities and geoscience departments can lower this financial barrier. For example, PI’s can accommodate such costs in their research grants that will help lower the overall burden on students (Abeyta, preprint). At Texas A&M University, where the capstone field camp is required to receive a B.S. in Geology, the Geology and Geophysics Department offers both traveling and stationary field camp opportunities. Previously this was a major cost (I spent c. $3,000 on field camp as an undergraduate student), but with a recent endowment, students are now able to travel to and participate in Field Camp expense-free. While this may seem unattainable to some departments (endowments are HUGE but hard to get!), it may encourage institutions to seek and set up similar funding opportunities for their students. 

There are also scholarships available to students pursuing field work, and departments can encourage and mentor students to write applications for these awards. For example, as an undergraduate I was encouraged to apply for and awarded the Field Camp Scholar award from GSA and Exxon Mobil. Now as a mentor, I encourage all of my mentees to apply for the same award (and one of them got it!!!). If we are to build a more diverse, equitable and inclusive field, we must identify the current barriers that exist. In geoscience programs, field work is often presented as a requirement, yet this recent preprint echoes so many in their call for equitable opportunities to conduct field work. My recommendations are thus tips on how to bear with the current status quo, but hopefully as we work together to ensure this cost barrier is obsolete, this blog, too, will become obsolete.

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