Gear Repair 101

Save money, avoid disaster, and get more out of your technical outdoor goods and equipment with these essential repair tips.

Being a gear nerd means thinking about gear in two ways: loving shiny new stuff, but also considering it a crime to throw away old gear that could be repaired or restored instead. That’s because every time you chuck a repairable item in the trash, you’re dealing a one-two punch to the environment. The old item takes up space in a landfill, and the new item takes a ton of water, chemicals, and fossil fuels to produce.

Then, of course, there’s the financial impact. You can save hundreds of dollars by repairing your gear instead of buying new. Most gear is sturdy enough to withstand repeated repairs, so there’s not much sense in buying new gear unless your old item is literally falling apart. You wouldn’t toss your car in a landfill just because it needed new brakes, would you? Likewise, throwing away a rain jacket instead of getting it re-waterproofed, or tossing your tent because of a small hole, is a huge waste when the rest of the item is structurally sound.  

Here’s how to address some of the most common ailments that might befall your hiking and camping gear, including the following advice:  

  • What to include in your field repair kit
  • How to restore waterproofing
  • How to restore loft
  • How to patch torn sleeping bags, tents, packs, and jackets
  • How to repair a broken tent pole
  • How to fix a broken buckle or zipper
  • When to repair a punctured sleeping pad

What to include in your field repair kit

At home, you can get a lot done with a sewing machine, various chemical treatments, and a zipper-cleaning kit. But in the field, you’ve got way fewer tools at your disposal—and a critical gear failure could totally derail your trip if you’re not prepared. Here are a few things you should always carry with you in case of emergency.

  • Rubbing alcohol pads
  • Tenacious Tape
  • 3-4 safety pins
  • Sleeping-pad patch kit
  • Replacement hip-belt buckle
  • 2-3 industrial-strength zip-ties
  • 5-10 feet of duct-tape (tip: wrap the strips around a Nalgene or trekking pole to store)
  • Multi-tool (with a knife blade, scissors, and pliers)
  • Heavy-duty sewing needle
  • Fishing line or gear thread (floss will do in a pinch)
  • Tent pole splint

Restore waterproofing

Spend a lot of time hiking, and one of the biggest gear complaints you’ll hear is about rain shells “wetting out.” This means that the fabric of the jacket—the colorful outer layer that protects the waterproof membrane within—has started to absorb water. Some people interpret this phenomenon as a sign that their jacket has worn out and needs to be replaced. Most of the time, though, it just means that (A) the jacket is dirty, and the dirt on the outside is absorbing water, or (B) the jacket’s external waterproofing—a topical chemical treatment—has worn off.

In sum: Your rain shell might feel clammy, but that’s just because the outer fabric is wet and cool to the touch, not because it’s actually letting in water. To restore your jacket’s waterproofing:

  1. Clean out all your pockets, zip all zippers, and wash your rain shell according to the instructions on the tag.
  2. Let your shell air-dry.
  3. Lay it out on a flat surface. Apply a waterproofing spray according to the package directions. This may involve tumble-drying or ironing (on a low setting and/or with an insulating barrier in place) to more evenly spread the waterproof treatment through the fabric’s fibers.   

Restore loft

After a few years, you might notice that your insulated jacket or sleeping bag isn’t as warm as it once was. Maybe there are cold spots, or maybe it just seems scrawny. You hold it up to the light and—sure enough—the insulation seems to have wilted. What’s the deal?

The deal, most likely, is that the down or synthetic insulation has gotten squashed together, either because you’ve left it stuffed in its compression sack for too long, or because it’s bogged down with skin oils, dirt, sunscreen, or other buildup. To restore loft, and therefore warmth:

  1. Clean out all pockets, zip up all zippers, and wash according to the instructions on the tag. (Usually this means washing the item by itself in cold water, in a front-loading washing machine.)
  2. Let the item tumble-dry on the lowest setting, or on an “Air Dry” setting if possible. Add a few tennis balls to help break up clumps.
  3. Dry until all clumps have dispersed.
  4. When fully dry, treat the outside with a waterproofing spray if its water repellency needs to be restored (see above).
A woman blows up her sleeping pad in a tent

Patch torn sleeping bags, tents, packs, and jackets

Sometimes your dog gets into your tent. Sometimes you just don’t duck low enough under those tree branches. Rips and tears are common, and you’ll likely incur a few in your outdoor gear from time to time. As such, patching is one of the easiest and most useful gear repair skills you can learn.

  1. If the item was insulated, poke any insulation back through the hole. If it’s a pack, empty it. If a jacket, take it off.
  2. Position the tear over a flat, hard surface.
  3. Use the scissors on your multi-tool to trim any frayed threads.
  4. Clean the area around the hole with an alcohol wipe. Let dry.
  5. Cut a Tenacious Tape patch that overlaps the hole by at least a quarter-inch in every direction. Try to cut a circle or oval shape if possible (corners tend to catch on things, causing the patch to peel upward over time).
  6. Press the patch over the hole, starting from the center and smoothing it outward in every direction.
  7. For large holes, you may need to peel off the patch when you get home to do a more extensive sewing repair. For small holes, a Tenacious Tape patch will often last for years.

Repair a broken tent pole

A broken tent pole can easily ruin a trip if you don’t know how to fix it. Especially common among ultralight tents, pole breaks can be the result of over-tensioning, general abuse, or high winds. Because they have to withstand so much lateral force, poles are almost impossible to fix without a pole splint. To use one:

  1. Find your pole splint. (It’s a narrow metal tube, a staple of all tent repair kits and included with most tents.)
  2. Position the splint so that the cracked or broken section of pole is centered within it.
  3. Duct-tape the splint into place.
  4. Set up your tent as usual. As soon as you get home, order a new section of pole from the manufacturer and use it to replace the broken one.   

If your tent pole isn’t snapped or cracked but is instead lacking tension because the elastic is stretched out, that’s an easy fix, too:

  1. Find the end of the tent pole. Pop out or unscrew the pointed bit at the very end. This is where the elastic string is attached.
  2. Untie the elastic, take in excess slack, and retie the knot.
  3. Snap the tent pole together. Make sure it has the right balance between slack and tension. Adjust the knot as needed.
  4. Trim the excess elastic, leaving about an inch of tail behind the knot. Then screw or pop the tip of the pole back into place. 

Fix a broken buckle or zipper

If your zipper gets stuck, a little zipper lube can do wonders. If the slider pull comes off, use a safety pin, zip-tie, or a loop of string or wire to replace it until you can order a new slider. If the slider is loose, you can pinch it back into place with a pair of pliers, or replace it yourself. 

But if your zipper completely stops working? You’ll have to get it replaced; contact the manufacturer to ask about warranties, or take it to your local Public Lands or specialty gear repair shop.

As for buckles: most of a backpacking pack’s plastic buckles aren’t essential to its function, but the hip-belt buckle is. If you step on it or shut it in a car door, you could be looking at miles of achy shoulders. Fortunately, there are a variety of emergency buckles out there that can be attached in the field. Before your trip, bring your pack to your local gear shop to find a field-repair buckle that’s the right size. Make sure you understand how it works before adding it to your kit. 

Repair a punctured sleeping pad

Inflatable sleeping pads are great for their packability, light weight, and comfort, but they have one Achilles’ heel: Sleep with a sharp rock under your bed, and you could wake up on the ground. If that happens, you can sometimes repair it in the field with these tips.

  1. If the source of the leak isn’t obvious, fill the pad with air. Listen for the whistle of escaping air. If that doesn’t work, run the back of your hand across the pad until you feel airflow. No dice? Hold the pad close to your lips as you scan (lips have more nerve endings, and can often detect smaller streams of air).
  2. If you still can’t find the leak, try filling the pad with air and submerging it in still water. This works best in a bathtub at home, but you can sometimes get away with it in a creek or swimming hole.
  3. If you have a busted seam, the leak will be next to impossible to repair. If you have a garden-variety puncture, you’re in luck. First, clean the area around the hole with an alcohol pad.
  4. When the pad’s surface is fully dry, apply your sleeping pad patch according to the package instructions.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.