If you really want to learn about free or cheap gear talk to a homeless person. They are the real experts on how to get by with very little. Now I am not talking about many of the beggars that you see on the street corner, far too many of them have their housing paid for by some government agency. I am talking about the hard-core homeless who are living in a homeless camp.
There are a few things that I have noticed that are common in every camp that I see. Keep in mind I am not in an area that gets heavy snowfall. One, regardless of the quality or type of tent they have they always cover it with something else. This may consist of a second tent or a tarp or both. When the weather is bad, they want as many layers as they can get. This is probably for two reasons, rain and cold.
Now if you live in an area with heavy snow you may see that they need to build a shelter over the tents to help carry the snow load. In the Sierras where snowfall is quite heavy they use scrap lumber, downed trees or whatever else they can get. Probably the best camp that I have seen was a tepee. They seemed to get along quite well in this regardless of the weather.
But remember they all had as much extra gear as they could get their hands on. This is a good example of why you need good gear and lots of backup. Regardless of how fancy your gear is, it will deteriorate with age and tents do fail.
A while back, we were camping on the coast and had three tents with us. A cheap one I bought wholesale for $4.50, a Walmart tent and a fancy REI tent that cost $400.00. During the night, it rained hard. One tent leaked, you guessed it, the expensive one. It was new and had a bad seam. This is why you need to be sure and use your equipment and become familiar with it.
Another thing about the homeless, you will notice that even though they do not have top of the line clothing, by dressing in layers they are able to survive in bad weather. They get most of their gear at the thrifty shops or from hand me downs.
Now the one place that I have noticed that they fall down on is food. Because of all the shelters, charities and food stamps around here, most of them have become dependent on the system for food like most people.
Next time you see a homeless person take a look at what they are carrying. If they are receptive spent a few minutes talking to them you may be surprised at what you learn.