If you don’t properly care for and maintain your gear, even expensive gear won’t serve you well for long.
Tips on caring for your gear
For any piece of gear you buy, read—and save—the manufacturer’s instructions on how to care for it. It’s frustrating to waste money by damaging gear through improper care, but even worse, improperly functioning gear could put you at risk.
For example, leather hiking boots should be occasionally cleaned and conditioned. Camping equipment stores sell footwear-cleaning gel and leather conditioner.
For soft goods—such as sleeping bags, rain gear, tarps, tents, and backpacks—the most important consideration is making sure they’re stored properly. The fabric needs to be clean and completely dry before being stored away.
When you come home from a trip, it’s tempting to just pull your tent out of your backpack and toss it, still in its storage bag, into the basement. But, if it’s at all damp or if it’s very dirty, it might start to mildew, or the waterproof coatings might get damaged.
Usually, this is as simple as brushing off any dirt, using a damp cloth to wipe off any mud, removing any tree sap with rubbing alcohol, and then draping the material over a drying line.
The next morning, flip the material over to make sure both sides have a chance to dry fully. Or, if you have a large space, such as a garage or a basement, you could even set up the tent inside to dry overnight. Then, store it somewhere dry and out of the sun, ideally loosely stuffed inside a breathable storage bag.
If the item has more dirt on it than you can take care of with some brushing or spot-wiping, you can fill a bathtub or utility sink with freshwater, dunk the item, and give it some vigorous swirling. That will take care of most normal levels of dirt.
If you feel you need to add soap, visit a camping store to buy soap that is formulated for the type of gear, you want to clean. There are specific soaps for tents, synthetic and down insulation, waterproof-breathable fabrics, and wet suits.
Carefully follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the amount of soap as well as the method of washing and rinsing and, if applicable, drying.
You might find that your waterproof-breathable rain gear recovered much of the waterproofness it had when it was new just by being properly cleaned and dried at the appropriate heat setting.
Sometimes, even after washing with soap, your item might still be stinky. This is common with wet suits, synthetic long underwear, and even tents that have been stored too long while damp.
If that’s the case, visit a camping store to buy Revivex Odor Eliminator, formerly called MiraZyme, which is a blend of water-activated microbes that removes the bacteria that is causing the odor.
What to do about gear that’s wearing out?
Making sure your soft goods are clean and dry before storing them is the most important part of maintenance, but occasionally you have to go a step further.
When waterproof fabrics start to lose their waterproofness, you can give them a bit more life through spray-on treatments. These are available for tent flies and rain gear and are called durable water repellent (DWR) finishes.
When seams on tent flies or tent floors start to leak, you can coat the seams with seam sealer, a glue-like substance that you squeeze from a tube and then spread along the seam with a small brush after prepping the seam with rubbing alcohol.
There are different kinds of seam sealer for silicone-impregnated nylon and for urethane-coated nylon, so make sure you get the correct kind. And give the seam seal plenty of time to cure before packing the tent away.
Sometimes, on an old tent, the waterproof coating on the floor or fly might start to flake off. To squeeze a bit more life out of the tent, you can reseal the areas that are flaking. Use rubbing alcohol and a green scrubby to remove the flaky parts. Then, reapply a thin coat of liquid tent sealer and let it dry for a day or so.
Zippers are another area where soft goods start to wear out. If zippers are sticking, you can apply a zipper lubricant; plastic zippers and metal zippers need different types of lubricant, so make sure you buy the right kind.
If the zipper teeth keep pulling apart in the middle, the problem can often be solved, at least for a while, by using pliers to gently squeeze the front and back of the slider closer together.
If the problem persists, you can replace the slider by removing the end stopper, pulling the slider all the way off, working a new slider onto the zipper, and then squeezing a new end stopper through the fabric using pliers. Check the back of the old slider to see what size slider to buy, and make sure it’s a slider for the correct kind of zipper—metal, plastic, or waterproof.
Rips in nylon are one of the easiest things to repair. Just prep the area with rubbing alcohol and cut a rounded patch out of a sheet of repair tape—nylon fabric with a sticky backing. You can find repair tape in regular, rip-stop, or even waterproof-breathable versions. Or you can get clear repair tape that is made of polyurethane plastic.
The adhesive on repair tape is amazingly strong, and it’s likely your patch will last for the life of the item. If the patch is under high tension, you can make it even stronger by patching both sides of the rip.
Repair patches also exist for bug mesh—no sewing skills are needed!
Small holes can be fixed even without repair tape by using a small dab of seam seal. You can patch numerous small holes in dry bags, bivy sacks, tent flies, and drysuits by putting a temporary piece of tape on the back of the hole to provide a backing for the seam seal and then just dabbing the seam seal on top and letting it dry overnight. This repair isn’t as pretty as a nice patch, but it’s easy to do in the field.
If the amount of repairing your soft goods need is beyond your skill level, look for a local business that specializes in repairing outdoor gear. Some outdoor stores have a gear-repair service, and some shoe-repair shops will also agree to work on outdoor gear. Also, many manufacturers of outdoor gear will repair their own gear, even years after its sale.
Thoroughly checking your gear before you head for the woods
Before you head out into the field, give all your gear a thorough check. Even if it was fine when you put it away, it’s worth checking one more time before heading out, especially if you’re going out for more than a day trip.
Not only is it more comfortable to be cleaning and repairing gear indoors, but you’ll have better access to tools, spare parts, instruction books, repair videos, and advice.
- Pump some water through your water filter. If it is starting to get clogged, you’re going to be much happier cleaning it in your kitchen sink than you will be crouched on the side of a creek.
- Test-fire your stove. If it doesn’t have a clean, blue flame, you’re going to be glad you’re not trying to clean it in the dark with freezing hands.
- Set up your tent. It might save you from not realizing until you arrive at camp that you stored the tent poles in a different spot and forgot to grab them or that you accidentally grabbed the poles for the other tent.
Gear does get old and, even when cared for well, can start to be unreliable. This type of subtle wear can be tricky to notice.
For example, silicone-impregnated nylon, even if kept out of the sun, can start to become porous after seven or more years. And synthetic insulation, even if stored properly, will start to lose its loft after as little as three or four years. You might not notice the degradation until the weather turns bad.
If you have gear that is getting toward the end of its life expectancy and are planning on going out for more than just overnight, or if you’re going out in inclement weather, it would be worth doing a trial run with the gear.
You could set up your tent in the backyard and let the sprinkler run on it for a while or spend one night in your sleeping bag in your backyard—or even make a one-night “shakedown” trip before heading out on the longer trip.
Basic repairs in the filed
No matter how well you maintain your gear, you’ll want to be able to perform some basic repairs in the field.
For many repairs, duct tape will at least solve the problem long enough for you to get out of the backcountry and do a longer-lasting repair. So that you reliably have the duct tape with you when you need it, you can store it wrapped around a water bottle.
Add to your repair arsenal some parachute cord (p-cord) and a multitool, and you can jury-rig an astounding number of field fixes. Good nylon p-cord has a breaking strength of 500 pounds, and a multitool with an awl can drill holes in almost anything. With just those two items, you can field-fix most of what you can’t fix with duct tape.
If you’re headed out for more than an overnight, it’s a good idea to bring a more substantial repair kit with you.
In addition to the duct tape, p-cord, and multitool, a basic repair kit should include:
- a few safety pins,
- an extra buckle for the hip belt of your backpack,
- a few feet of sturdy metal wire,
- a small sewing kit,
- a tube of seam seal,
- a sheet of repair tape,
- a splinting sleeve for a broken tent pole,
- a repair kit for your stove.
If you’re canoeing, add extra nuts and bolts for your canoe seats and thwarts.
Suppose you want to be prepared for slightly more potential repairs. In that case, you could also throw in scraps of different kinds of material—rip-stop nylon, rain gear material, tent fly material, bug screen, heavy-duty canvas, and a few feet of two-foot-wide flat webbing.
Also, consider a Speedy Stitcher, which is a sewing awl that will allow you to sew through multiple layers of thick fabric or even leather.
With a well-stocked repair kit and some ingenuity, you should be able to figure out almost any gear-related setback.
The most valuable resource you have for gear repair in the field is your resourcefulness. When you’re trying to figure out how to fix something, be expansive in your thinking about what you have at your disposal.
It’s not just what’s inside your designated repair kit; consider using your dental floss, the drawstring on your pajama pants, the thin plastic sheet you’ve been using for a cutting board, or even the empty plastic bag leftover from dinner.
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