How to make your outdoor gear last longer

You don't have to throw it out if you know how to fix it yourself.

woman camping in the forest
That's the self-satisfied look of someone who just repaired a whole bunch of stuff.Pixabay

When it comes to quality outdoor gear, every piece is an investment. You pay for shiny new items you hope will last for years, but sometimes, parts and pieces get worn out. So what’s one to do when an otherwise functional piece of equipment has a malfunctioning feature? It’s not always necessary to trash it and drop a bunch of cash on a new model just because one small part has worn out. Often, breathing new life into well-used gear is simply a matter of repairing it yourself.

The outdoors industry is starting to see a lot more people doing exactly that, says Ron Simonds, owner of Boulder Mountain Repair in Boulder, Colorado. That’s good news for everyone involved. It keeps usable equipment out of landfills and cash in your wallet, for starters, but it also benefits the brands that make the gear.

Manufacturers including Patagonia, Osprey, Chaco, and Klymit offer warrantied repairs on worn gear—many have been doing so for decades—in an effort to keep customers happy with their equipment and more likely to return to the brands they trust when it’s time to update their kit. If you’ve purchased something from a company that offers this service, just send them whatever’s broken and they’ll patch or repair it, often for free, then return it to your doorstep in a matter of days or weeks.

But sometimes you need a fix right away. Whether it’s a broken tent pole at the campsite, a rain jacket that’s lost its waterproofing, or a peeling sole, you’ll occasionally need to perform your own repairs at home or in the field. And it’s not as difficult as most people think. It just takes a little know-how, the right tools, and a willingness to make it work.

Make it last

The No. 1 thing Simonds recommends for keeping gear in good working order is regular scrubbing. “Washing, washing, washing,” Simonds says adamantly. “I can’t stress enough how important keeping your gear clean is going to increase its performance and longevity.”

That goes for sleeping bags, jackets, and even tents. Frequent use often means sweat, and perspiration is the archnemesis of outdoor gear. It dissolves protective coating on fabrics, dries out down and causes it to lose its fluff and warmth, and eats away at waterproof coatings. But don’t just toss everything into the washing machine; special gear requires special care.

Down jackets and sleeping bags should be washed every 50 uses, or at least once a year. When you do, forgo regular detergent that can dry out and damage insulation. Instead, use a product specially made for cleaning down, like Nikwax Down Wash. If your jacket came with a waterproof coating that's no longer keeping out the rain, wash it the same way you would a down bag and then coat it with a spray-on or wash-in waterproofing product.

Tents should be treated to a thorough cleaning every now and then, too. Especially when camping in dusty or sandy conditions, fine particles make their way into the zipper and damage that part every time you zip and unzip it. The solution: wash with cold water and a non-detergent liquid soap, then hang to dry. Next, hit the fabric with a waterproofing spray to add longevity.

When it’s time to store your gear after a trip, air out your tent, keep down jackets and sleeping bags in a breathable sack to encourage air movement, and don’t leave anything—including boots—in your car. The heat inside a locked vehicle can loosen the laminate and adhesives in new and repaired gear and cause them to peel. Store all your equipment in a cool, dry space to prevent mold, because once mold gets in your tent, it doesn’t come out, Simonds says.

Pack a repair kit

grumpy man outdoors
This guy didn't pack a repair kit and he tripped and fell on his tent. No good.Deposit Photos

No matter how well you maintain your gear and check for damage before you leave, equipment malfunctions will still happen when you’re away from home and without a slew of tools. And it’s there, in the great outdoors, that you’ll often need to perform emergency repairs. So you’ll need to travel prepared.

“It’s pretty tough to fix things on the trail without the parts, so having a repair kit is really helpful,” Simonds says.

It doesn't have to be extensive, but he suggests keeping on hand a needle and thread, patch kits to seal holes, tent seam grip tape, and one of his favorite items: split-bar buckles that allow you to replace broken buckles without having to cut and sew straps. Shoe glue offers a way to re-adhere peeling soles, rubbing alcohol cleans dirt for better repairs (while doing double-duty sanitizing cuts and scrapes), and duct tape or gaffers tape can serve as a solution for a wide array of problems. But make sure to remove tape from your gear as soon as you get home—the sticky residue is hard to get off if left on for more than a few days.

A repair kit will only provide temporary respite, but that’s often enough when you're in the wild.

Learn how to make simple repairs

The most common fixes Simonds and his team perform involve zippers. Whether it’s a broken pull tab or a full zipper that needs to be replaced, it’s a tough task to take on yourself, especially on the trail. But there are a few things you can do to make things run a little smoother.

For a sticky zipper that doesn’t want to slide, try cleaning its teeth with a small brush and mild detergent first, if you have it. That will loosen any grit or grime. If that doesn’t work, rubbing candle wax along the full length of the zipper may work as a temporary lubrication fix. If none of that seems to help, it may be time to replace the whole thing. If just the pull has gone missing, you can use a safety pin or paper clip as a stand-in until you can get a replacement.

Broken tent poles are another easy—albeit temporary—fix you can perform on the go. Carry a tent pole sleeve (a metal tube just big enough for your tent poles to slide through), which can act as a splint if a pole has cracked or snapped. If you don’t have a sleeve, you can use a tent stake. Tape whatever you’re using as a brace over the broken section to keep your tent upright.

Punctures in inflatable sleeping pads, though often tough to locate, are usually easy to fix. Many even come with self-adhesive patches to seal small holes. If you’re having trouble finding the leak, you can sponge soapy water onto the inflated pad and look for bubbles caused by escaping air. Put pressure on the pad if bubbles aren’t immediately evident. Mark the area, dry it, clean it with alcohol, and apply a patch. Likewise, you can use a mesh patch kit or repair tape to patch small holes or tears in tents, too.

For rips in clothing, along tent seams, or in jackets or sleeping bags, use ultra-strong repair tape in much the same way you would patch a sleep pad—one of the most popular types is Gear Aid Tenacious Tape. If sewing is required, like with ripped seams and stitches, use a needle and thread made of a material similar to that of the gear you're repairing. With a peeling tent seam, clean it, then paint seam sealer (there are multiple kinds based on the material of your tent) over the area and let it dry.

Replacement is sometimes necessary

But as responsible as it may be to repair gear instead of ditching it for something new, there are times it might be worth throwing it out. First, consider your needs and preferences. Would the item still work if the issue or damage were repaired? Is there a sentimental aspect to the equipment in question? Is there still plenty of life left in the fabric of your tent but the zippers just need to be replaced? Were you interested in updating your gear closet anyway? Do you have the budget for new stuff or would repairing what you already own save you some cash? Asking these questions can help you decide which route to take.

And if you decide to repair your gear, you can learn all kinds of tips and tricks online or at a local outdoor retailer. REI, for example, offers educational resources on their blog, and AIM Adventure U hosts an online gear maintenance and repair course. Because a little education (and regular maintenance) goes a long way toward making your equipment last.