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Hiking Gear Malfunction:
Don't Ditch It, Fix It!

By Diane Spicer

Hiking gear malfunction can be:

Sooner or later, some piece of gear will break or malfunction on a hiking trip.

What will you do with a gear failure?

Why not think it through right now!

Your basic dilemma

Option A: Soldier onward as best you can, and toss that *!?# broken piece of outdoor gear aside once you get home.

Option B: Use field or home repairs to fix broken outdoor gear or ripped hiking clothing.

And while you're pondering dilemmas, consider this one.

Quality gear versus cheap prices

Should you buy inexpensive gear?

The answer might be yes if you are:

  • a beginner hiker who is unsure how much time you're going to invest in the wonderful sport of hiking;
  • a hiker with a limited income whose money is committed to off the trail necessities like shelter and food;
  • someone who doesn't mind watching gear break after only a few uses;
  • a hiker who is into ultra lightweight hiking and doesn't need durable, only feather light gear that is expected to wear out quickly.

All other hikers should take gear maintenance seriously, once a chunk of money is invested into it.

Quality gear costs not only your hard earned cash, but also a yearly commitment to inspect and maintain it.

  • And also a commitment to take the time to become familiar with it.

I've seen way too many folks on the trail who don't know how to set up their tent quickly when the weather turns.

Or turn on their stove for the first time.

  • The time to learn about gear is not the first time you use it on a hiking trip!

How to avoid trouble:
know your gear

One of the best ways to avoid trouble on the trail is to be intimately familiar with your hiking gear at home.

Here are a few examples of what I mean:

Try lighting your stove at home in the back yard on a windy and dark night.

Dark night?? Yes, a moonless cloudy night.

  • You'd be pleasantly surprised how much illumination the full moon can give, when you're in the middle of nowhere. So pick a non-full moon type of night for your trial run.

Attempt to set up your tent using whatever sticks or branches happen to be available, BEFORE you use those lovely lightweight poles that came with your backpacking tent.

  • Poles can snap in the wind, get lost ("misplaced", your trail buddy might call it), or forgotten at home, so it's best to be prepared.
  • If you use trekking poles, see if they can stand up to a load such as wind or snow by stressing them a bit.

Carry a heavy duty needle and strong thread in your emergency kit so you can sew up rips in the tent, your pack, your gaiters, or your pants(!)

Female hiker hunched over a gear repair next to her red and white tentOne of the worst hiking gear malfunctions: a strap ripped away from the backpack. Time for a little sewing!

More hiking gear
malfunction ideas

Of course, there's always duct tape if you're not the seamstress type.

You do carry duct tape, don't you?

  • Mine is wound around my metal water bottle. I highly recommend that you carry some, and a water bottle or trekking pole is a convenient location for fast access.

Another idea: read gear reviews not only before you purchase an item, but afterwards.

You might get a "heads up" on a particular product which fails in a particular way for more than one hiker.

  • That's important information, because you can be on the look out for potential failure clues, and either replace the item before it fails, or have a contingency plan ready (see duct tape above).

Are you nodding your head in agreement with my examples?

I hope so!

By really knowing your gear, you'll be able to spot trouble right away and have a back up plan in your mind to deal with it.

Don't waste one second on despair!

Instead, repair.

Although, to be realistic, a hiking gear malfunction might be due to a failure or broken component that is just not repairable.

You'll know one when you see one:

  • a hiking pole that snaps into jagged pieces
  • a huge hole in your tent along a seam
  • a broken zipper
  • or worse

Make an annual gear inspection
part of your hiking routine

When you're in the middle of a hike or a backpacking trip, you're left to your own resources.

Which includes dealing with hiking gear malfunctions.

So it makes sense to know your gear, inside and out, as outlined above.

It also makes sense to track how old your gear is, and how worn, frayed, or close to the breaking point it has become through seasons of hard use.

That's why Hiking For Her recommends a routine gear inspection at the beginning of every hiking season.

It's a prevention strategy for hiking gear malfunction that costs you nothing but a bit of time.

  • For casual dayhikers, sit down and inspect your hiking gear when the mud dries up and the sun breaks out of the clouds. Then hit the trail with full gear confidence.
  • For backpackers who enjoy shoulder seasons, that's early spring if you're a last minute type, or late fall if you're getting a jump on the next hiking season. Tip: Putting your gear away for the winter in clean, repaired condition is a little gift to yourself.
  • For snowshoers who love to extend the hiking season into winter months, looking at your snowshoeing gear is an additional gear inspection, but well worth it.

Any hiker who relies on gear to get them through rugged terrain, unpredictable or difficult weather, and other realities of the trail needs to do regular gear inspections.

Tip: In my experience, zippers are highly vulnerable to breakage and wearing out, so take a really close look at all of yours: packs, jackets, tents, etc.

It's also important to know when your seams are sealed, and when it's time to reinforce them to keep water and grit out.

I have cursed myself for overlooking tent seam sealing duties, and you will as well if you're trapped in a leaky tent.

Scrutinize and inspect

No way around it!

So spread your gear out on the garage floor or another suitable surface, and inspect the seams, buckles, zippers, clips, and other points of failure.

You're looking for pulled stitches, thinning fabric or heavily worn boot materials, frayed seams, chipped or cracked clips and buckles, missing teeth on zippers, twisted or bent poles, or anything that looks weakened or odd.

  • If you have a lot of gear (congratulations, you're a hard core hiker!), this will take some time.
  • Keep a pad of paper or your trail journal handy to make notes on what needs your attention.
  • The hard part is to find time to go back and make the repairs!
  • But if you're into this hiking thing, you'll find the time to do it before a backpacking trip or a tough day hike.

Repair hiking gear yourself

To get started on gear repair, try this resource.

  • Good advice on how to fix rips, tears, broken buckles, busted boots and more will get you thinking about how to save your hiking gear from the garbage pile.

The specific type of hiking gear malfunction will dictate whether you can find a replacement part, cannibalize it from gear you already have, glue or sew it back together, or give up.

What you need

Here's a short list of the supplies I have on hand to deal with hiking gear repairs:

None of these items are expensive or heavy, but they can save you hours of frustration and possible endangerment when you're dealing with a gear failure.

  • Spare parts and replacements for broken hiking gear can be acquired here.
  • Or go whole hog and build yourself a gear repair kit with these tips.

Hiking gear malfunction:
a learning opportunity

When your gear breaks in the middle of a hike, you'll learn a lot about yourself.

  • Your storehouse of swear words, for example.
  • Your capacity for patience and for modifying your hiking plans.

If a piece of gear fails "catastrophically", that's one thing. Be sure to get in touch with the gear manufacturer and see about a replacement product if it's brand new.

But with older gear, expect failures and breaks to occur.

Your routine inspection, ability to make field repairs and patches, and your repair kit will help you decide whether to fix it, or ditch it.

You have my sympathies as you deal with hiking gear malfunctions.

It takes away your enjoyment of the trail.

But if you look at it as a learning opportunity, it just might make your trail time a deeper experience.

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Hiking Gear Malfunction