As a gear shop along the Appalachian Trail, we have folks pop in all the time to ask about a failed piece of gear. “Can it be fixed? If it can’t, what can I get that will be more reliable this time?” We always do our best (and a few of us are actually really decent at and enjoy trying) to fix whatever may land in front of us. Trekking poles are common and typically are straight forward. They are either broken for good or most likely just need a deep cleaning to function properly. Packs are common as well and the culprit is usually a faulty buckle or strap. We do our best to come up with a mate for it and have even gone as far as to sew it on for folks.
But if we are realistic, we hate seeing these failures. Sometimes it is the result of overly loved items that are coming by their failure due to honest use. Every now and then the failure is due to misuse of the item, like putting far too much weight into a pack, causing strain and stress on key structural points. Other times it is a result of plain, old, cheap gear. This is the most upsetting sort of gear failure because the owner feels as if they did not get the expected life of the product out of it before it left them hanging out to dry somewhere along the trail.
Thankfully for avid backpackers everywhere, there are a few ways to easily avoid gear failure. There is nothing worse than when you are days away from your next town stop and a majorly important piece of gear like a pack or tent fails on you. When backpacking, you are so reliant on the gear you carry. Not to mention that fixing items with just what you have in your pack can sometimes be difficult. Here are a few ways to avoid gear failure and be prepared for it if it does arise.
1. Buy High Quality Gear
The easiest way to avoid unwarranted gear failure is to buy a good product to begin with. The backpacking gear world is full of small businesses creating gear for the love of living an outdoor lifestyle, not for a quick buck. Some of these companies have become mammoths in the eyes of thru hikers and avid backpackers because they make a such good product. Think Big Agnes, the most popular tent on all of the AT; ULA, the second most popular pack on all of the AT, every pack of which is hand sewn in America! (No wonder they hold up so well!) But no one or nothing is absolutely perfect. When one of these companies does have a reported failure, they stand behind that product and act in a timely manner to help out the customer. Working in the outdoor industry and being big time backpackers ourselves, we hear the occasional stories of broken packs and tents or parts from these companies (and several others) where hikers have been mailed replacement parts or replacement gear while on trail! So be smart and help set yourself up for success by investing smartly in your gear. The old adage “You Get What You Pay For!” has never been so true as in a sport where you consistently execute major wear and tear on your gear everyday.
2. Treat Your Gear Well
Once you have saved your money, done your research and purchased that high quality piece of gear that will become the basis of your survival on trail, you must commit to treating it well. If the fabric of your sleeping bag gets stuck in the zipper, don’t yank it out, gingerly extract it. When setting up your tent, be sure to pick a good area, not a patch of rocky land or a cluster of thistle and briars. Make sure you are aware of the recommended base weight for your backpack and the max load it is meant to carry. Going over this rating becomes more of a recipe for disaster as time passes. Check the floor of a shelter for protruding nails or other sharp debris before placing an inflatable sleeping pad down. Generally speaking, be responsible and think about your gear and what is best for it! Just a little bit of forethought can save you so much grief on trail.
3. Use Preventative Measures
Over a 6 month, 2,000+ mile trail, things will definitely begin to breakdown a little bit. Replacing or fixing gear is just a part of thru hiking. You will probably go through several pairs of shoes and multiple shirts but you should’t have to go through several packs or tents or pads. These are items that should last you throughout the hike and they will if you take care of them and give them just a little TLC. Carrying a small amount of thread or floss with a few needles means you can reinforce an area of your pack if it begins to show signs of stress or excess strain. Carrying a small amount of Tenacious Tape will assist you in fixing holes in a sleeping bag, down jacket or tent. Some people carry the patch kit to their sleeping pad in hopes of being able to find the hole while on trail to fix the pad. Waterproofing your rain jacket and tarp/rain fly with Seam Sealer before setting out on trail also helps insure their ability to keep you dry. Being able to stop small problems from becoming big problems is the key to keeping your gear functional for longer and extending its life to match the length of your thru hike.
NOTE: If you have a piece of gear fail on you, be sure to truthfully note why. Was it something you did? Was it a mistake or misuse of the item? If you are going to ask a gear manufacturer to replace a piece of gear for you, be sure that you are coming by that new gear honestly. Trail Karma is real!