Guide / Tutorial 

The Vagabond's Guide to Buying Shit Online

So, before anyone gets on my case for writing about how to shop online, I want to make it clear that this article addresses something we've all had to do at some point in our lives, it's simply the reality of our generation. I am not advocating for consumer culture; in fact I am discouraging the ridiculous cycle of people buying 'new' shit all the time by encouraging people to buy used or recycled items.

When looking for travel gear, I tend to do most of my shopping online. This is because you can almost always find what you’re looking for at a fraction of what you would pay in a retail store. Even if you’re buying something that isn’t used, online outlets are almost always cheaper than brick and mortar stores since they don’t have the same overhead costs of maintaining those stores, the employees, etc.

Go to the Store (if necessary)

Backpacks are something you usually want to try on in person before shelling out your hard earned cash, so in these situations I generally tell people to actually go to a physical store like REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated). REI is probably one of the most well known outlets for camping and sporting goods gear in the United States. There are a lot more of course, like Cabela’s, Eastern Mountain Sports, Dicks Sporting Goods, and many others. For gear that you want to try out for yourself, visit one of these stores, find something you like, and then go home and search for that product online. I recently found a backpack I liked at REI and when I checked the price on my cell phone it was almost eighty dollars cheaper (1/3 less) on Amazon.

Buy it Once, Buy it Forever (well, almost)

If you’re reading this guide I’m assuming that you’re just about as poor as I am. You really can’t afford to buy a particular piece of gear more than once, so it’s got to be the right gear, the first time, and has to last as long as possible. Doing the requisite research before buying an item online will save you a lot of buyer’s remorse. Read reviews of the product on Amazon and blogs that specialize in reviewing the kind of things you’re looking for. A simple Google search of “[item name] review” will give you more info than you’ve ever wanted to know. If possible, seek out the negative reviews over positive ones. Most of the time positive reviews are short and don’t have much thought put into them, while negative reviews will let you know about little known flaws in the product, or horrible customer service when it comes to returns. Pay attention to both positive and negative reviews that are long and detailed, as these will give you the best idea of what you’ll be receiving when you open that box.

Doing Your Research

When researching products, one of my favorite techniques is to search for reviews of products that are 3-5 years old. Especially useful are doing searches for “best [product] of [year]” or “best [product] reviews [year]”. So, if you’re searching for the best tent you can afford, searching for “best ultralight tent of 2010” (I.e. five years ago) will return reviews for tents that were top of the line (and expensive) that year; but thanks to the consumerist culture of always having to have the ‘newest’ thing, the prices on these older tents will have come down significantly. There’s no rule saying the newest gear is the only gear worth having.

Buying Refurbished Gear

Also, don’t be afraid of buying certain things marked ‘refurbished’, especially when it comes to technology. For the unfamiliar, a refurbished item is something that was broken at one point, sent back to the manufacturer, they fixed it, and are now re-selling it. Consumers have an unhealthy obsession with buying only things that are new, and there’s definitely a stigma with consumers when it comes to buying something used or previously broken. This reputation is largely undeserved. As long as the item is manufacturer refurbished, (not ‘seller refurbished’) the item is going to be in almost new condition.

In order to avoid sullying a corporation’s brand name, any product resold by that manufacturer is going to be scrutinized much harder than anything coming off their assembly line. Most of the time the product you’re getting is going to be just as good if not in better condition than what you would buy off the shelf. Better yet, most refurbished items still come with the manufacturer’s warranty, which is something you won’t get from a used item. Best of all, because of the general consumer stigma surrounding the word ‘refurbished’, these items are generally going to be deeply discounted from their retail store counterparts. Basically, you’re getting a brand new item (with warranty) for around 30-50% or more off the retail price.

Buying Used Shit

Buying used gear can pay off in spades. Craigslist is the best place to buy used gear, since you’re dealing with actual people (not corporations) that are willing to take a larger margin of loss on something if they feel it’s worth it. Typical discounts can be as high as 80-90% of when looking for used camping gear, since 90% of consumers want to buy these things new from a store. The savings are not as high on tech gear, but still better than most stores (online or off) so it’s always worth taking a look. If you're willing to outside your immediate area, you can use websites like Search Tempest to search through dozens of local Craigslist sites at once (especially useful if you're looking for an automobile to live and travel in). Although thrift stores are less likely to have the kinds of travel gear you're looking for, they're usually very cheap, and may have online stores in addition to the physical ones in your city.

Two other alternatives are Amazon and eBay. Amazon has a huge third party seller market, and when these sellers put their goods up for sale, Amazon is very strict on their requirements for these sellers. Anything sold by a third party on Amazon has to be in almost the same condition as the new version of the item. Unlike eBay, Amazon will not let third party sellers sell items that are broken, or missing parts that would usually come with a brand new item. The advantage here is that you know you’re getting the same item at a used price, with a basic guarantee that it will be almost the same as a new item (possibly minus a little wear and tear). Amazon also has a lot of ‘open box’ items, where the packaging has been damaged, or opened for display or some other reason. Any damage to the item itself is always mentioned (generally there’s none) and it’s usually a new item being sold at a ‘used’ item’s price. Also worth mentioning is that anything listed as “fulfillment by amazon” in the used item listings is going to be shipped by Amazon, so their (very good) return policy applies. If the item shows up and isn’t what you expected, you can generally return it with no questions asked and at no cost to you.

eBay Blows (but check it anyways)

eBay is basically what Craigslist would look like if it was run by multinational corporations. It should be your absolute last resort when it comes to shopping for something online. It’s become a wasteland for every kind of cheap knock off, plastic accessory, and broken item you can imagine, but without the quality control you’d come to expect in your average dollar store. Sure, you can find the occasional deal, but only if you learn to use ridiculous search schemes like “Nexus 7 2013 32gb -broken -parts -as-is -not -working” and limit your search to ‘buy it now’ (non-auction) items listed by lowest price first, and filtering out anything under $50 (to remove said 1000’s of plastic accessories). As for auctions? Don’t even bother. I’ve never won an auction in Ebay’s 20 year existence. Unless you enjoy waiting a week to be disappointed, just stick to items listed in the ‘buy it now’ category. Besides, auctions are for people with money to burn, and we’re not one of those people.

Last but not least, patience is key. The longer you wait to buy something, the older it gets, the lower the price goes. So think long and hard about how badly you need the item you’re looking for, and whether you can wait a few months for the price to take a nose dive. With a few rare exceptions, it will always get cheaper, so the wait could be worth it.

But I don't have a credit card!

If you're looking at your local Craigslist this really isn't a problem, but I know a lot of travelers don't even try to look online for deals for the simple fact that they don't have a credit card. This can be remedied fairly easily buy purchasing a pre-paid debit card. These are readily available in just about every convenience and outlet store, including CVS, Wallgreens, Walmart, etc. The cards usually cost about three to five dollars to put money onto, but once you do that, it's good for making purchases anywhere that takes credit cards. You'll have to register it online with your address and social security number (to prevent 'money laundering' and other things) but you can literally put in whatever address, name, and SSN you want as long as that number is valid (google search). After you're finished using it you can just toss it or reuse it later (most have a $5/month 'maintenance' fee). If you're the type of person that only needs to use one of these cards very occasionally it's a great way to avoid having a real credit/debit card. You can also use these cards to avoid having a bank account entirely.

Help, I don't have an address to mail things to!

In 90% of cases it's probably easiest to just have your items sent to a friend's house since you can change your shipping address before finalizing your purchase (don't forget to change your billing address on the card if the business requires them to match). If you're caught in a weird situation where a friend's house isn't available, there are a few alternatives.

First, if the business you're ordering from ships via the United States Postal Service (USPS) you can get the item mailed to you via 'general delivery'. This service is available at almost every (call to make sure) United States post office, and the way it works is that any package addressed like so:

Your Name
General Delivery
Post Office Address
City, State, Zip Code

Will be held for you at that post office for up to thirty days; at that time it will be returned to the sender. Keep in mind you’ll need a valid ID to retrieve your package, and this service is only offered by USPS and they will not accept packages from other carriers.

The United Postal Service (UPS) has physical locations in most cities and will accept packages on your behalf for a fee of five dollars per package. This works the same as sending general delivery to USPS, but you have to call the store in advance so they know your package is coming. They'll even accept packages from other carriers like FedEx (something USPS will definitely not do).

A very new service (and only offered in a few major cities at the moment) is Amazon Lockers. These are storage lockers that you can have items delivered to that you’ve ordered from Amazon’s website. Once the package has been delivered, you’ll get a notification email with a six digit code that you can punch into the locker to retrieve your package.

There are a lot of other delivery options that fall slightly outside of the scope of this piece, so for more information, check out my article on getting things shipped to you while traveling (link coming soon). For now, that should cover most things you should know about buying stuff online, although if you have any suggestions or tips that you think should be added to this article, let me know in the discussion thread!


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Hey, I'm Matt Derrick, the founder of Squat the Planet. If you're reading this, you obviously want to know more about me, so here we go: So if you haven't guessed from seeing this website, I'm a big computer geek / gamer, but I like to do other...
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May 30, 2012
Bristol, United Kingdom
Ive been super lucky to always have shit passed down to me or found. Since I started traveling I've paid for only one pair of boots (us army jungle boots fucking bangin shoes!!!) Nd the rest (DMS, Brit police boots, regulars) all passed on to me same with backpacks. Keep ya ears out for trading stuff with other travellers also a lot of charity shops will give ya stuff free if you can word it right
Click here to buy the Anarchist's Guide to Travel!

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I deleted myself
Walmart and academy have a policy where they will take boots no matter how fucked they are and give you new ones as long as they carry that brand. I'll talk to my co workers who do it consistently for more details, but I guarantee it works. You don't need a reseat or warranty, it sounds ass backwards but I've seen it, it works.

Give me a few days to find out, I'll get back to this.


Jan 7, 2017
last chance colorado
As for auctions? Don’t even bother. I’ve never won an auction in Ebay’s 20 year existence. Unless you enjoy waiting a week to be disappointed, just stick to items listed in the ‘buy it now’ category. Besides, auctions are for people with money to burn, and we’re not one of those people.
I disagree. I won my first auction last summer for a great new Osprey pack that ended up being half price including shipping. And I'm not even experienced.

Also. search tempest is great for searching through the entirety of craigslist, not just the local pages.


Aug 6, 2014
Cheyenne WY
I look at surplus sites a lot for my travel gear.Just scored a pair of Volk combat boots for a good price.under 50 with shipping.Amazon open and returned can be a good source too.Just my 2 cents.

deleted user

I deleted myself
Yea it's academy that does it, the dude has gone threw like 7 pairs of boots. He's even gotten money when he returned boots that where more expensive than the ones he was gonna get.
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