Backpacking gear can be a huge expense. With such an investment in your outdoor endeavors, not only do you want your gear to work but also to last. Depending on the frequency and duration of your adventures, you could keep your gear like-new for years.
This article’s purpose is to inform you on ways to keep your gear functional for longer. If you intend to embark on a thru-hike, take all these tips seriously but don’t expect every piece of your gear to make it to the end. Gear replacements are common for a thru-hike. I went through three pairs of shoes, two backpacks, and two water bladders. However, I was replacing a lot less than many of my hiking counterparts. The tips below will preserve your gear but don’t expect a miracle if you intend to use your equipment on a daily basis for months on end.
Keeping your gear in excellent condition will save you money and frustration. Too many times, we throw away perfectly good gear just from the slightest imperfection, be it a hole in your sleeping pad or a small rip in your tent. Do-it-yourself gear repairs and maintenance can truly save your gear. If your gear lasts a decade or more, that’s awesome. However, it’s also important to admit when it is time for an upgrade. If you backpack / hike often enough, upgrading your getup is inevitable. Gear techs are constantly improving our sport. Also, upgrading will most likely lighten your load and improve the duration of other gear. For example, upgrading to a lighter sleeping bag will have less stress on your pack’s straps and preserve it’s overall condition. Maintaining your gear is great but don’t be afraid to know when to let it go.
Now, to keep your gear performing like new- there are preventive measures before you embark as well as tips to keep in mind while you use your gear. These six steps will ensure an extended life on your most important (and most expensive) hiking and backpacking equipment.
1) Buy a Good Brand (With a Great Warranty)
Your gear will function properly, likely exceeding your expectations, when you invest in a good brand. Quality, value, and a great warranty are three characteristics I recommend when looking to purchase your outdoor items. One example: Darn Tough offers a lifetime warranty on any of their socks.
2) Don’t Be (Too) Reckless
Ok, hikers are reckless. We summit crazy mountains and handle intense weather. We refuse to have a home for days/weeks/months. We are nomads. However, being just a bit less reckless can still do wonders for your gear’s lifespan.
When it comes to foot placement (especially in rocky Pennsylvania or rooty Maine), take mindful steps and avoid as many sharp rocks, roots, etc., whenever possible. My boyfriend A-O went through two more pairs of shoes than I did on our thru-hike because he was not one for careful stepping. Being mindful of your step will also reduce foot pain at the end of the day.
Don’t push your gear’s limits
Rock-scramble carefully. Ever gotten stuck in a tricky rock scramble and had to slide down on your pack or your butt? Sure, you made it down but your backpack is scratched from your decision to take a harder or more direct route. Evaluate your bouldering routes to be fun, yes, but also safe for you and your gear.
Pamper your gear
Don’t mindlessly throw your pack around. Check the ground before you set your tent down. Don’t go through a thicket of thorny brush with your down jacket on. Pamper your gear like the expensive piece of amazingness it is.
3) Regularly Treat and/or Repair Your Gear
Regular maintenance on your outdoor gear can be daunting but it will keep your gear performing to its fullest capabilities. If you’ve had your gear for a while, maintenance should be performed before you head out on the trail. Don’t be intimidated by repairing your gear’s small imperfections yourself. When repaired properly, gear with imperfections can still last and function perfectly. Here are a few products / tips that we recommend.
Seam Grip is akin to super glue. It can be used on a variety of your gear for repairs and maintenance, including pinhole punctures in a bladder or sleeping pad, small holes in down garments, seam enforcement for a leaky tent or pack, and repairing small holes or rips in your tent. It’s also extremely light, a plus for UL backpackers.
If your boots/shoes are your primary concern, check out Shoe Goo. This sealant is intended for shoes.
Waterproofed gear does lose its ability to repel water over time and after multiple washes. To keep this type of gear working like it should, I recommend treating it with a waterproof spray or sealant. Think about treating your shoes/boots, tent, rain jacket, stuff sacks, backpack, etc.
Rain gear is most commonly treated with DWR (Durable Waterproof Repellent). DWR prevents water from saturating the garment’s exterior. DWR does wear off due to abrasion, dirt, body oils, smoke, and multiple washings. Smoke will degrade your DWR, so stay away from the campfire if you are wearing your waterproof garments. DWR will eventually need to be reapplied to keep your rain gear (and other waterproof products) functioning normally. Sometimes a good clean will restore your DWR. If water still beads off your garment, then you are good to go. If not, you might want to treat it with a spray or wash-in product.
Nikwax, among other brands, provides a variety of waterproofing and solarproofing products for outdoor gear (even leather!) including sprays, waxes, and wash treatments.
Other Repair Tactics On and Off the Trail
Carry a minimalist repair kit: If there is any possibility that your gear might not hold up the entire length of your adventure, look into carrying a minimalist repair kit. Cater your kit to your gear’s needs.
Duct tape: Of course! Use duct tape for a variety of things from mending a rip in your jacket to fashioning a fully functional zipper pull.
Needle and dental floss/thread or safety pin: Carry a needle and thread or dental floss for sewing on the go. Even easier, pack a safety pin for an even quicker make-shift fix.
Use patches. Patches are the easiest and most cost effective way to mend your most treasured gear.
- Sleeping pad patches
- Tent repair/rain gear/tarp patches
- Mosquito net replacement patch – Particularly helpful with tent net rips. If a rip on your tent is too large for a patch, you can sew it together with some nylon thread.
4) Wash Gear Properly
Yes, your muddy, dirty boots should be cleaned. You should wash your stinky, reeky backpack and sleeping pad. For the love of a trail god, please don’t forget to clean out your water bladder. I know this might be a pain but cleaning your gear will make it last. Using an old toothbrush to gently scrub your gear will help remove dirt in the smallest crevices.
Down is a crucial component for many hikers. Since down jackets, pants, and sleeping bags cost a pretty penny, you’ll to pay it extra care to truly get your money’s worth. Down can and should be washed. Washing your down feathered gear will increase its longevity. Outdoor Research recommends washing your down jacket as often as once per month.
Don’t be afraid to wash your down pieces yourself, just make sure you use a front loading washer and either down cleaner or some mild, gentle detergent. Using harsh chemical-filled soaps on your down garment will break down the natural oils on the down feathers, affecting your down’s loft (i.e fluffiness) and warmth. Use cold water and make sure your garment is rinsed well. Dry your down on a low or no-heat cycle. Add a couple tennis balls to the drying process to restore fluff.
- DO NOT: use bleach, use fabric softeners, or iron your down.
- Feather coming out of your down? Poke it back in. Pulling it out will make the hole in the fabric larger.
Scrub your backpack gently with mild detergent. Wash in the tub or outside with a hose. Hang to dry. Do this about once a season.
Scrub your shoes of any excess dirt, especially the soles. Resist the urge to use detergent/soap on your boots and shoes. Soap can clog breathable fabric’s membranes. Air dry and then treat the seams with Shoe Goo or Seam Grip. Take out your insoles and air dry them. Dirty and moist insoles could cause mildew to build in your boots/shoes.
You should clean your sleeping pad. If your pad has a valve, make sure to close the valve before you start washing. Use a mild detergent with warm water in a tub or outside with a hose. Scrub, rinse, air dry.
Follow the instructions about washing down above. If you have a synthetic bag, use the same instructions as a down bag.
You should clean your water filtration system to keep this piece of gear working for you. Follow the exact manufacturer’s instructions. In addition to that, take preventive measures while out in the field by only using the cleanest water you can find.
Clean your water bladder with soap and water. Hang upside down to dry. If your bladder or bottle has developed mildew, use a diluted bleach solution to remove this stinky pest. You can store bladders in the freezer to further reduce mildew.
There is also a variety of cleaning products and tablets on the market especially for bladders. Check the merchandise out here.
Clean your tent by setting it up first. Shake out any dirt if necessary. Wipe everything with warm water. Soap should not be used because it can degrade the tent’s waterproof coatings. Air dry your tent before storage to reduce the risk of mold and mildew.
- Zippers: After awhile, you might find your tent’s zippers to become stuck or snagged. Clean your tent’s zippers with a toothbrush and water. Resist the urge to use zipper lubricant; this will just attract more grime and dirt.
- Stakes: Before you store your tent stakes, clean off dirt and store in a waterproof sack.
For a parachute nylon hammock, clean alone in a washing machine with cold water and a spot of mild detergent. Dry on a line.
5) Store Gear Properly
When you aren’t out frolicking in the woods, your gear should be stored correctly. This will keep your gear performing like it should the next time you embark on a backpacking trip. Ideally, you should prep your gear for storage right when you come home.
WET gear should be dried before storing. Hang dry your moist gear. If you pack away wet gear, mildew and mold will ruin your outdoor items. Air it out, it’s that easy. Mold can easily happen to your tent if it isn’t properly dried before stuffing into a stuff sack. Actually, my tent started getting mold while on the trail. Surprise, it’s rainy there. But, there were many times I could have dried my tent that I didn’t. Preventive measures on the trail and off will save your items from mold.
Do not store your sleeping bag in a compression sack. Hang your clean sleeping bag in your closet or keep in a large laundry bag.
Resist the urge to store your sleeping pad rolled up in a stuff sack. The life of your pad will last longer if you leave it rolled out (easily underneath a bed) and leave the valve open (if it’s a blow up). This will reduce the risk of mold from any moisture that might be still in your pad.
Fold instead of stuff. This is serious news to me. SERIOUS. Do NOT stuff your tent in its stuff sack but fold it. The product manager of Mountain Hardwear claims that “stuffing is bad practice. Repeatedly cramming a tent into a stuff sack creates a lot of small radius bends in the fabric. These small edges end up being subjected to far more abrasion and moisture than the coating would be if the tent were folded.” There is an argument that disagrees with this theory because permanent fold creases will weaken the fabric. The best thing to do is fold it slightly differently every time.
Avoid the garage
Store your gear in a cool, dry place like a closet.
Store in opaque bins
Opaque bins will not only keep your gear organized but also protect your valuables from UV light, dust, and water damage. (UV light is known to degrade urethane coatings, which are common on waterproof items)
When not in use, uncap your bladders and bottles to maintain air flow.
Don’t lose your gear!
It may seem obvious, but I felt compelled to add this extra little snippet of advice. If you are reading this, clearly you care about your gear. Over the course of a long distance backpacking trip, a hiker is presented with several opportunities to misplace gear, whether it’s on the trail or in town. I lost a lot of gear on the AT. Anyone happen to pick up two headlamps, a beanie, an iPod, a waterproof stuff sack, two pairs of socks, and three pairs of sunglasses anywhere from Georgia to Maine? Yeah, losing stuff sucks. Remember to ALWAYS check camp, a rest spot, or privy before you leave.
Don’t dry gear by the fire
Oh yes. Fire has and will continue melting soles and burning holes for overzealous hikers. Don’t do it; don’t dry your gear by a fire or heat. Shoutout to Paul Thomas for this perhaps-obvious-for-some-but-not-for-others tip.
Purchase complimentary gear to expand the life of your other gear
Tent: Save the life of your tent by using a footprint. A footprint keeps the tent safe from abrasive litter and retains the tent’s waterproofing.
Sleeping bag: Retain the fluffiness of your down sleeping bag by purchasing a polypro or silk liner. The liner protects the bag from your moisture and body oils.
Don’t lend out your gear
And last but definitely not least is this wonderful tip from Jen Marie. Lending gear to people is a nice gesture. However, in most cases, these people do not have gear of their own because they are new to backpacking. Unless you are okay with receiving a depreciated version of your gear at the conclusion of your friend’s trip, may I consider pointing them toward REI’s gear rentals– they use less than the highest quality gear, presumably for this reason. If you are going to loan your gear, have them at least read this article first 🙂
Gear makes our outdoor lives possible. By keeping our gear functioning longer, we can spend precious time and money on adventures instead of expensive replacements. Hopefully, these tips will extend the life of your most cherished backpacking possessions.
Did we miss anything? How do you keep your gear functioning like new? Please share your wisdom in the comments below.
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