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It’s happened to many outdoor enthusiasts. As soon as spring peeks its sunny face, you pack up and head to the nearest campsite, only to find you’ve made a big mistake. The gear you put away only three months ago is exactly the way you left it—or worse. Your fuel canisters are empty, your rain fly is nowhere to be found and, in what seems a cruel joke, your inflatable sleeping pad has managed to get a leak over hibernation.
Unless you have an equipment shop or camp store nearby, your options will not be many. At best, you could be moderately uncomfortable or inconvenienced. But at worst, you could be looking at a trip back home, or putting yourself in a life-threatening situation.
This is easily avoidable, though—nothing that a little spring cleaning won’t do.
Take stock of your camping gear
Before your first camping trip of the season, pull out all of your implements from storage and get a good idea of what is there and what might be missing. This is when you count all your tent poles and stakes, and you open your sleeping bag’s stuff sack to ensure you’re not going away with a three-month-old laundry bag.
Check all the big items like sleeping pads and shelter, and don’t forget about the smaller but critical ones, such as matches and your mess kit—you don’t want to start cooking in the backcountry and realize your spork is MIA.
[Related: Survival cooking: how to cook with sticks]
Inspect your first aid kit, too. You may have used bandages, antibiotic ointment or pain killers last season, and forgotten to replace them. See what might be missing and restock as necessary.
The same goes for your gear repair kit. Make sure you have the patches, sealant, or tape you might need for emergency fixes in the wilderness. Skip this step and you may not be a happy camper when a rock pokes a hole in your tent.
Finally, confirm how much fuel you have for your camp stove—not just how many canisters, but how much fuel is in them. You’ll be eating a lot of crackers and peanut butter if once you’re there you realize you can’t prepare a hot meal after a night or two.
Clean up your outdoors equipment
Once you make sure all your gear is present and accounted for, confirm that it’s clean and ready to go.
Hannah Singleton, who’s been guiding backpacking trips for Wildland Trekking since 2014, and is in charge of prepping gear for entire groups, recommends giving textiles such as sleeping bags and tents a good cleaning before you store them for the winter. But if you forgot, spring is as good a time as any.
If you don’t want to ruin your equipment, the safest bet is to read and follow each item’s manufacturer’s instructions carefully. But if that tag is too worn to read, follow the general principles. Use a detergent designed for the appropriate type of gear and material—down and synthetic bags require different cleaning products, for example. Also, washing machines are not appropriate for most tents, and you should keep items, such as rain jackets and tent flys, away from the dryer as heat can damage them.
[Related: How to make your outdoor gear last longer]
Spring can be muddy and wet, so now is also a good time to re-waterproof rain gear and hiking boots with wash-in or spray-on repellents. Just like with your other camping implements, make sure you’re using a product with a formula designed for the equipment you own.
Don’t forget to wash small tools and items, too, like hydration bladders and dinnerware—a lot of yucky stuff can grow in three months of darkness.
Test, inspect and repair all of your implements
Finally, test out your camping gear and inspect it carefully. Pitch your tent and unroll your sleeping bag in your living room or backyard to repair any holes, tears, or zippers that have seen better days.
If you have an inflatable sleeping pad, pump it up with air to check for leaks or damaged valves. If you find any, patch or seal them. Test your stove, too, and make sure it lights and functions properly.
Once you’ve gone through the big items, move on to smaller articles. Start by putting new batteries in items like headlamps, satellite phones or GPS units to ensure they work and have enough juice for your trip. Make sure to replace those items that fail the test.
Give yourself enough time
Whatever you do, don’t wait until the day before your trip to check everything is in order. Singleton recommends starting the process at least a week before your scheduled trip to give yourself plenty of time to prep or replace your equipment.
“We rely on our gear for safety and comfort in the outdoors. If you rely on it too heavily and it fails you, then you’re in a bad position,” she says.
Be proactive before you head out for the season. That way you’ll have memories of an unforgettable trip, instead of a lesson from an annoying teachable moment.