I finally made it to one of the local thrift stores to see what cheap gear might be found, expecting that clothing was the most likely to be found in this particular shop, a goodwill store. Secondhand stores, vintage shops, and even the occasional “true” antique store — those offering items more than 100 years old — are a staple of upstate New York. The Goodwill in Herkimer, NY tends to be filled with the more common household items such as clothing, knick-knacks, kitchen items, books, records, and typically even a few pieces of furniture. Specialty items such as camping gear likely pass through from time to time, when the right person happens to be doing spring cleaning, but for the most part I was looking for one thing: polyester.
While I take many a day hike, or stroll into town, wearing flannel- or fleece-lined jeans, something I have come to love since living in such cold weather, any seasoned hiker knows that cotton is a very bad idea for longer hikes, and it doesn’t get much longer than the Appalachian Trail. Particularly in the rain, cotton takes a very long time to dry and breaths very poorly. Polyester and wool are often preferred, polyester tending to be more comfortable and light. While any polyester shirt will do better than cotton — I have walked through many rain storms in a polyester golf shirt only to have it dry within minutes of dryer weather — there are now many performance shirts specifically designed for hiking and other outdoor activities.
The class of materials most commonly used by hikers are known as “moisture-wicking fabrics.” These fabrics dry quickly, stretch easily, and bring sweat and moisture from the body to the outside of the fabric to evaporate. Some of the first key developments in this area came from a group of former Dupont scientists who formed drirelease, an advanced textile company that patented many of the blends found in popular sportswear today. Many of these shirts and other apparel are referred to as dri-tech.
It was dri-tech sportswear that I had the most luck in finding. They’re easy to spot in long rows of shirts, and both short- and long-sleeve varieties from brand name manufacturers were available from about $5 – $7. Given that these shirts often retail for $30 or more, even on online discount sites, this is an incredibly cheap way to go.
I also took a quick look through lightweight jackets in search of 100% polyester. Here, one is more likely to find a cotton/polyester blend where the outer polyester provides rain protection and the inner cotton provides comfort. When you’re walking through a torrential downpour five miles away from the next shelter, however, that internal cotton is going to get soaked. There were a few 100% polyester jackets. While none appealed to me in particular, many probably could have worked, and at about $12-15 this is a good way to cheaply test out a few different options before the long walk.
It’s important to remember, expensive is not always better. One of the best pieces of rain gear I ever owned came from a beach shop in Virginia Beach decades ago for $15. It was a paper-thin pullover, lighter than anything I’ve owned since, and kept the rain out. Being so lightweight and thin made layering easy.
I didn’t look beyond clothing this trip, but thrift stores can be great for a variety of items you’ll need on the trail. There’s always likely to be cheap supplies for your camp kitchen, from water bottles to cheap silverware (both of which are often just as light and effective as expensive kitchen tools sold by outfitters).
As far as the more specialized camping equipment, such as tents, sleeping bags, or hiking boots on a budget, these can be found on occasion in second-hand or army-surplus stores, but I have another suggestion that I’ll share in my post about budget-friendly gear shopping on the ultimate thrift store: the world wide web!