Far-flung expeditions have a reputation for being extremely expensive. Here, Robert Twigger explains how to break new ground without breaking the bank

I tell people about my expedition crossing Canada in a traditional birchbark canoe, and the first thing they say is, "isn't that expensive'', or, "did you have sponsorship''? It's as if the real hardships - rapids, portages, impenetrable bush and angry bears - are nothing compared to the difficulties of raising money. It is the triumph of the capitalist model, where all enterprises are only significant in a financial sense. Even the Native Americans have imbibed this culture. When we paddled through Little Red River reserve last year, people asked several times: "Are you being paid for this or what?''. Well, no, not really. And to answer the first question, the money is not the problem - it's the rapids, expedition members and bears that cause the biggest headaches. Expeditions can be cheap, and if you do them my way they can be the cheapest holiday you can have.

I tell people about my expedition crossing Canada in a traditional birchbark canoe, and the first thing they say is, "isn't that expensive'', or, "did you have sponsorship''? It's as if the real hardships - rapids, portages, impenetrable bush and angry bears - are nothing compared to the difficulties of raising money. It is the triumph of the capitalist model, where all enterprises are only significant in a financial sense. Even the Native Americans have imbibed this culture. When we paddled through Little Red River reserve last year, people asked several times: "Are you being paid for this or what?''. Well, no, not really. And to answer the first question, the money is not the problem - it's the rapids, expedition members and bears that cause the biggest headaches. Expeditions can be cheap, and if you do them my way they can be the cheapest holiday you can have.

First, there's no accommodation bill - you'll be camping. But not in a hi-tech mountain tent designed for pitching on the summit of K2 - a mid-range dome tent picked up for £50 or less through Loot, or any other free-ads magazine, is perfectly adequate for all but the most extreme conditions. These publications are the key to cut-price exploring. Travel writer Tahir Shah, who recently went on an expedition to find the lost city of Paititi in Peru, used second-hand boats, outboard motors and tents all bought through Loot for a fraction of their original cost.

The newest outdoor kit (ie the latest development in the field) is often no good. Everything from cagoules to boots is influenced by a few guys who like to spend time in unusually high places. For those closer to earth, this gear is a waste of time. Take the great breathable confidence trick - hundreds of pounds for a raincoat that used to cost (and still does from army surplus stores) about £20. Being sweaty isn't nice but it is not an important issue unless you are somewhere very cold. But being dry is important, and most breathable gear lets in rain. I've tested several coats and none is as waterproof as my Federal German Army raincoat (cost £15). Then there's my fleece, which cost £4.95 from Cancer Research, my Kangol cap (£1.50 from Scope), my pure wool sweater (£3.25) and my fleece vest (C$5 from a Canadian thrift store). My main hiking rucksack (a classic Karrimor Anapurna II) I got from the Red Cross for a fiver. It's an unfashionable frame sack, but its stronger and a better load carrier than most backpacks you can buy today for hundreds of pounds.

Once you realise the bargains out there you become averse to spending almost any money. John Blashford Snell, arguably our most experienced jungle explorer, takes Pot Noodles instead of expensive freeze-dried food on his expeditions - it's the same stuff and the pot can be used as an extra trade item in remote villages. Dried food, textured soya protein, pasta and rice are all available at big supermarkets, often in "value range'' packs. On an expedition, as the great British mountain explorer Bill Tilman put it, any food is welcome. Value range oats are especially good - it seems that price has less impact on oat quality than that of other products.

In the past, expedition costs were always high because it was expensive to get to remote places. This is not the case today, even with BA fuel surcharges. Flights are cheap and new low-cost carriers like Zoom (0870 240 0055; www.flyzoom.com) are springing up with flights to places with wilderness areas such as Canada.

One rule of thumb is that you can get everything you need in the last town. Tahir Shah managed to equip himself fully in Iquitos after his waterproof kitbag was stolen while he was waiting for a taxi in Brick Lane, east London. He found tough plastic rubble sacks (B&Q or Homebase for the British version) just as good as expensive vinyl waterproof versions. DIY stores are a good source for low-cost gear. I've worn my rubberised gloves (designed for handling hazardous chemicals) in sub-zero conditions, and they cost me £2.

When you're faced by a persistent sales assistant insisting that you need the latest Lowe Alpine system, remember that the 1933 Everest expedition climbed to over 27,000ft in tweed jackets (very cheap in charity shops) and nailed boots. For warmth and general utility, the survival expert Ray Mears advocates using wool rather than fleece, and I must concur. When it's wet, a wool jumper will still preserve body heat while a fleece turns into a soggy mess. All charity shops are an excellent source of jumpers knitted by people's grannies and then washing-machine shrunk - excellent for expedition wear and the principle behind the world-famous Dachstein mitt. When you start looking around you see cut-price kit everywhere EXCEPT in the camping store.

Last week I bought two steel vacuum flasks from a cheapo hardware chain for £5. The very same item costs three times as much in a shop with tents hanging from the ceiling and racks of boots all priced at over £100. When my pair of expensive Scarpa boots started killing my achilles tendon during a 700km walk along the Pyrenees high route, I completed the last 500km in a cheap nylon-and-suede pair that cost £20. Millets are a good source for those cheap, one-piece leather walking boots that are fine for most conditions. For jungles, breathable footwear is useless, even dangerous, as it keeps your feet wet. Much better are second-hand US army jungle boots, available from the excellent Nomad store in north London (020-8889 7014; www.nomadtravel.co.uk) for about £30.

The only piece of expensive kit you might want to get is a thermarest sleeping mat. For kipping down on a glacier they are unparalleled, though they cost twice as much as the old foam karrimat. My cut-price version is the cheaper three-quarter length with the last quarter made up from a square of foam mat -- which then doubles as a handy seat.

Knives and other gadgets are another potential drain on resources. The best pocket knife is the Opinel No7 which you can get in any French tobacconist for £5 - here they cost about £10. For a sheath knife the Frost utility carbon steel blade is perfectly good, and it comes in a plastic sheath which won't rot in the wet. For eating, use one Chinese-made mess tin per man - for the four men on our canoe expedition we use a set costing £5.

On earlier trips, for example my Indonesian expedition in search of the world's longest snake (filmed as Big Snake by National Geographic), I was still learning what cheap gear worked and what didn't. It was on this trip that my breathable coat started leaking after four hours of continuous rain. Luckily I also had a British army poncho, a great piece of kit that I've also used to repair a tent that was chewed through by a Siberian husky.

Expensive hi-tech equipment has another serious drawback in that it isn't flexible. Take the humble foam karrimat. I've cut them up to make flip flops, shoulder pads and even a leg bandage. You can't do that with a state-of-the-art inflatable mattress. Old-style frame rucksacks can be used as seats, tent poles and pack frames to carry really big loads. Mess tins can be used as cooking pots, whereas plastic cookware simply melts.

This lack of flexibility is apparent even in vehicle-supported exploration. Saharan overland expert Chris Scott favours a Toyota HJ61 Land cruiser, which went out of production in 1987. Why? Because the only electrical thing on it is the clock. When the going gets tough in a boiling sandstorm, the last thing you want to have to fix is an ignition system controlled by a microprocessor.

I made a definite decision to travel across Canada using a boat made from free materials: birch bark, spruce root and pine resin. The only recent expedition to follow the same route used plastic boats, and one broke up and couldn't be repaired. With bark and wood and resin, the repair materials are all around you and the only cost is time. It seems that as soon as you try to escape the consumer world by going into the wild you are faced with a whole lot of shopping decisions that involve spending lots of money, when what you were trying to do was escape in the first place. The only solution is to stick two fingers up to the outdoor shops and their lackeys the outdoor mags (who promote gear they themselves get for free) and to buy second-hand, homemade or oddly sourced gear. Then you can really be in tune with the wilderness.

'Crossing the Rocky Mountains in a Birchbark Canoe' by Robert Twigger will be published next year by Weidenfeld and Nicholson

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