How’s your budget for riding gear and camping gear? If you’re skint, the latest big-dollar stuff might be out of reach. Or maybe you just want to save your pennies for paying off your student loan, or your new bike, or that trip around the world. If that’s the case, maybe it’s time to head down to your local army surplus store for some savings. Here’s some gear that’s worked for me over the years.
These aren’t as slick as proper saddlebags, but in my early days of touring around Atlantic Canada, I picked up a rubberized Swiss military surplus backpack for moto luggage.
These things would be awful, if you were a serious hiker. They’re low on special features, the straps aren’t great, and they’re heavy. But, they’re excellent for strapping down to a motorcycle’s rack or pillion seat. The rugged material isn’t at constant risk of tearing, like a cheap drybag. There are different versions of this pack; some are expandable to a lot more volume. However, they’re all fairly weatherproof, and if you want to hike a distance after you park the bike, well you can bring your gear along easily. In the picture above, note the strap holders on the side of the bag, These are great for attaching the backpacks by a cambuckle strap (BMW straps ftw) or a ROK strap.
I’ve purchased a couple of these; I think I paid $40 CAD for the first one, locally, and the second one was about $60 USD online. Now, they’re more expensive and harder to find, but if you see an affordable pack at a local shop, it’s a bombproof bag that will last a lifetime.They come in different sizes; the smaller one will hold a weekend’s clothes and riding gear. The larger one will carry some minimalist camping gear as well.
Belgian rain jacket
Modern technical rain gear is excellent. It’s nice to have proper kit that isn’t flapping in the wind while you’re on the trail or rolling down the highway. But once you shred an expensive rainsuit, you might start wondering if there are more affordable options. Turns out NATO countries have been issuing breathable raingear for years, often made of Sympatex. This might not be as fine as the latest/greatest Gore-Tex technical material, but it’s weatherproof and still breathable, and tough. If you see a lower-priced motorcycle rainsuit come apart at the seams, you’ll understand why having rugged construction is a good idea, especially when you’re far from home.
I’ve been using a Belgian-issue rain jacket for a while now, and because I bought one that was made for an oversized Walloon, it nicely fits over my riding jacket. And that’s a good point about army surplus gear—the extra-large stuff is often the last that’s left over, and you can get a good deal on it.
I haven’t managed to even put any visible wear on this jacket, despite riding all over Atlantic Canada with it. I think I paid around $50 for it, but like a lot of surplus, availability comes and goes, and I think the Belgian jacket is harder to find now. No big deal! Get a British version, in desert camo (desert camo rainsuit? Wot? Or a German police version. Tough surplus rain gear from Euro military or police, or even other government agencies (postal service?) is readily available at different online sellers, and will last forever.
If you want a compact cutlery set, this is top kit. It’s wayyyyyy heavier than a plastic or aluminum spork, and if you’re really broke, the cutlery in your silverware drawer is free. But if you want an affordable camp cutlery set, including a pretty rugged can opener, this is the ticket. Much beefier than those cheap Coghlan sets that appear to be thinly plated Chinesium, which will rust in a few months. This stainless steel German-made set could be used to kill a threatening grizzly, in a pinch. Or at least, a gristly steak.
Now, I don’t pretend these are a substitute for proper offroad boots. However, I’ve used a set of Canadian army boots for street riding for years now, as well as general-use footwear from September through April, or so. They’re Gore-Tex lined, and will hold up to light rain, especially if I periodically put mink oil or a similar product on the leather. Not bad, for a set of boots I bought for $20 at my local army surplus store. One of the guys I ride with has a pair of identical boots, and they’ve been his go-to street riding footwear for forever. They’re still waterproof.
Again—even the cheapest moto boots offer many advantages for offroad riding, but these are far better than riding around in a pair of sneakers, or Blundstones.
Canadian surplus boots might not be available where you are, but you can usually find something equivalent. German surplus boots pop up online from time-to-time, in unissued condition. That’s much better than buying a squaddie’s smelly used boots.
Serbian cook kit
If you’re camping on the bike, you want to bring water, and you usually want to bring some sort of cook pot, and maybe a cup and a dish to eat from. This kit from Serbia keeps all that equipment in a nice, tidy bundle. It’s cheap, too. Even cheaper for me—a disgruntled surplus store cashier gave me mine for free, when the floor staff couldn’t be bothered to put a price tag on it. See the photo above for a breakdown of the four-piece kit; there’s another photo of the kit earlier in the story, stowed for travel. These cook kits do not make good canteens for taking a drink mid-ride, as it takes too long to get at the canteen.
I’ve bought these at army surplus stores in the US and Canada, always for around $5. Much cheaper than a Nalgene bottle. And you know how you can buy those metal cups that fit around the bottom of the Nalgene bottles, to keep things compact? Shop around, and you can find USGI surplus canteens that have similar metal cups included. I’ve never broken one of these water bottles over the years, and if I do, hey, it’s only $5.
Cheap sleeping bag liner. An improvised sleeping bag for couch surfing. An easy DIY hammock underquilt. A blanket that won’t get grungy if you throw it on the ground. The woobie blanket, which is actually a US-issued poncho liner, is legendary among US troops for its versatility. It’s got just as many uses for civilians out for a bike trip.
Where to buy?
Your local army surplus store is the best place to start, because then you can make sure your gear fits right, and it’s in good condition. However, you’ll find much better selection if you shop online. If you order stuff in unissued condition, it should arrive in serviceable shape. If the sizing and description is correct, then you’re good to go.
I’ve bought a decent amount of gear through Sportsman’s Guide over the years, but after an issue with a wildly incorrect description, I’m not as keen on them now. I will say there was no issue with the refund that time—they made it good. But, they didn’t update the description either. Otherwise, there are many smaller outfits selling surplus online throughout Canada and the US.
Lately, I’ve started dealing with Finnish army surplus retailer Varusteleeka. Not only do these guys have amusingly wacky marketing, they also seem to put an emphasis on quality. Their shipping to Canada is affordable and timely. If you can’t find what you want locally, that might be a good place to start, as long as the shipping cost doesn’t mean it’s no longer a frugal buy.