AMC Outdoors, July/August 2001
Reaching the landmark age of 40 this spring impressed two lessons upon me: that certain old things stand the test of time, and that some things, sadly, just don’t work as well as the years roll by. What is true of human anatomy is also true of outdoor gear. Just as my old knees and ankles suffer “overuse injuries,” my gear wears out.
Sure, a pack, tent, or stove, with proper care, might last you a lifetime of backcountry travels — but not many of us take a horse and buggy to work. I get to try out a lot of new gear every year, and while I couldn’t recommend all of it, I constantly find new gear that outperforms everything that came before it.
There are a lot of good reasons to hang onto the gear you love, but there comes a time when you need to replace it. Gear that doesn’t wear out or break will probably become obsolete. Or you might replace it for good reasons besides wear: safety, comfort, or simply to upgrade for better performance. Deciding whether something is past its prime is more subjective and difficult while it’s still functional, but consider the demands you’ll place on it, and whether the improved performance — or comfort and safety — justifies the expense. (Learn how to treat your gear right so it lasts as long as possible.)
Following are some tips on how to recognize when “old” is “too old” — but only regarding gear. Meanwhile, if someone figures out how to resole a lower back, I’m hopping in line with a blank check.
I’ll start with the most important piece of gear for everyone from cyclists and climbers to whitewater paddlers, in-line skaters, and spelunkers: the helmet. Retire it after any major impact — like contact with pavement in a fall, or being struck hard enough by a rock to ring your bell — even if it shows no visible damage. Barring that, ultraviolet (UV) rays and little dings from being dropped add up. Check your manufacturer’s recommendations; many suggest replacing a brain bucket every five years.
A good pack should last many years, depending on use. Many pack makers will repair blown seams, worn hipbelts, shoulder straps, and other wear and tear, and some parts have a lifetime warranty, meaning you pay only for shipping. Basically, only the molded foam used in the lumbar pad of newer models cannot be replaced. While UV rays can weaken foam padding and all that nylon, most people retire a pack simply to replace it with a nicer, newer model.
A tent will suffer blown seams and zippers or broken poles, and rainfly nylon eventually degrades under UV exposure, becoming brittle. Making minor repairs and replacing poles or even a rainfly, when possible, are less expensive than buying a new tent. Aside from your shelter dying abruptly in a storm, replacing it is most often prompted by the desire for a model that’s bigger, more lightweight, or more functional.
Many backcountry campers appear to believe a stove ought to last as long as teeth — with the demise of the latter negating any need for the former, I suppose. With proper care and perhaps occasional repairs, unless you upgrade for lighter weight or better functionality, you’ll likely replace a stove only if a delicate part like a flame-control knob breaks off or a plastic part melts.
Cookware comes in two basic types: Stainless steel will usually last until you’ve burnt enough food to the bottom that you want to replace it. Non-stick pots work great — until the non-stick surface gets so scratched up that it’s useless (use only plastic utensils).
Boots go to the great trail in the sky when the soles wear thin, the midsoles lose cushion and support, or the upper delaminates or gets some weird fold or kink that irritates your foot. Bottom line: Don’t wear shoes or boots so worn that they cause foot pain. Resoling leather boots has to be done before the uppers suffer damage, but is relatively inexpensive.
Even with proper care, sleeping bag insulation, or fill, will lose its loft and ability to trap body heat. Synthetic fills should last at least five years of moderate use, and down may survive twice as long. You’ll know it’s time for a new bag when the old one doesn’t look as fat as it used to, has flat spots, or no longer keeps you warm. Improper laundering can ruin a bag’s fill; follow manufacturer instructions.
Kayaks made of tough polyethylene plastic can endure years of moderate use, but eventually suffer wear and tear from sliding on rocks, getting sand inside the hull, and being exposed to UV rays, which fade color and weaken the hull. Many paddlers actually replace their boats every few years, before they wear out, simply because designs keep improving.
Canoes made of Royalex usually enjoy a long life, while Kevlar or fiberglass composites are more susceptible to damage from rocks and UV rays and generally last five to 10 years. The telltale sign that a canoe is aging rapidly is when the exterior vinyl wears through or begins to delaminate from the canoe’s middle layer. Check any boat for cracks.
Kayakers and canoeists who don’t lose their paddle during an unplanned swim will find it lasting about five years, though the blades can wear down sooner with regular use or break when pinned in rocks under heavy water pressure. Check them regularly for cracks that can lead to breaking under stress.
A PFD — personal flotation device — may last five years or more. Exposing it to UV rays, using it as a kneeling cushion, and storing it in hot places like car trunks and interiors all hasten breakdown of the closed-cell foam. Replace a PFD when its foam starts compressing.
Kayaking accessories like spray skirts, booties, wetsuits, and drysuits also degrade under UV exposure, and seals at the neck, wrist, or leg break. You’ll do well to get more than five years out of them. Buying a new boat often requires buying a spray skirt that fits it.
Inspect your throw rope regularly for visible damage like severe abrasions, tears, or flat spots. Retire it if you find damage or after an episode of hard use like a rescue, getting wrapped around a rock, or enduring a high shock load.
Replace a climbing harness when: it shows visible wear or fraying, especially at the belay loop or around the tie-in area; you no longer have at least two inches of belt leftover after buckling it; the waist-belt padding becomes uncomfortable; or it’s five years old.
A climbing rope should also be replaced after about five years of moderate use, because UV rays weaken it. Otherwise, it’s ready for garage duty when its sheath is damaged (more than a little fuzziness) or the white core is visible, it has flat or soft spots (indicating core damage), or after a fall that inflicted an unusually high shock load.
Climbing shoes’ sticky rubber wears quickly. Once they’ve lost about three-fourths of their sole, you can have them resoled for as little as $30. Board-lasted shoes hold up best to repeated resoling.
Nylon climbing slings wear fast. If you climb frequently, replace sewn slings every year. Check for the faded color and stiffness indicative of excessive UV exposure, whether it’s on your rack or at a rappel station, and don’t hesitate to replace it.
Metal climbing hardware should be replaced when a hard fall causes visible damage, or when dropped from up high — the metal’s strength may be compromised even when there’s no visible damage. Otherwise, send any gear that carries its own nylon sling to a manufacturer-recommended vendor to have new slings sewn on every few years.
—Michael Lanza is author of The Ultimate Guide to Backcountry Travel, from AMC Books.