Field Gear Repair

April 28, 2009

Outdoor gear has a rough life. Thrown in the dirt. Tossed on the rocks. Snagged by branches. Nicked by knives, crampons, and other unfriendly objects. The rigors of the trail inevitably take a toll on your equipment, leading to minor rips, gaping tears, and the occasional calamity. Don’t let a gear problem slow you down or wreck your trip. Instead, carry a few simple, lightweight items for emergency repairs.

Duct tape was developed during World War II as an all purpose tape for keeping ammunition cases dry.

A STICKY SUBJECT  If you carry only one thing for repairs, it better be the silver bullet: duct tape. There are few things that can’t be fixed or temporarily jury-rigged with a little imagination and enough of this magic stuff. But most people don’t realize that the quality of duct tape varies widely. There are three dis­tinct layers in duct tape: cloth mesh, an adhesive coating, and a waterproof polyethylene film on top. The cloth mesh provides strength—the more threads, the more tear-resistance—but the adhesive layer is most important for a quality fix and long-term stick. It’s also the most costly element to produce, which means that cheap duct tape will have a thinner coating and less sticking power than a more expensive or “contractor-grade” version. Go for the good stuff. The difference is usually only a few dollars. Carrying a giant roll of duct tape in your pack is problematic, however, and adds unnecessary weight. Instead, peel off several feet and re-wrap it around some commonly carried item: a pen or pencil, the shaft of a trekking pole, etc. Avoid sticking tape to your water bottle, which makes it more difficult to slip in and out of side pockets.  

PATCH THINGS UP  Duct tape works great, but it’s not the lightest or most attractive material for patching up clothing or tents. To supplement, consider carrying a small roll of nylon re­pair tape for general use ($3 per roll) or adhesive Gore-Tex patches for mending outerwear ($7 for two patches). Regardless of what you apply, use the following techniques to ensure a long-lasting patch. First, clean and dry the repair area as thoroughly as pos­sible; dirt, grime, and moisture all impede adhesion. An alcohol swab from your first-aid kit can help provide a more thorough cleansing. Using scissors or the blade from your pocketknife, round off the edges of your patch in order to eliminate any sharp corners that might catch and slowly unpeel. Lay the fabric on a level surface (like the bottom of a cook pot), apply the patch, and rub it flat with a pen or other smooth object.

BEAT THE BREAKERS  A few gear issues can all but ruin a multi-day trip. A broken waistbelt buckle on your pack is a prime example. One errant step—craaack!—and you’re humping the entire load on your shoulders. Consider carrying a replacement clip; most backpacks use a 2-inch wide version ($1.50). A snapped tent pole can make for a long night and a shortened trip. Always carry a pole splint, a small metal sleeve that can be threaded over a broken pole section and duct taped into position; most tent manufacturers include one with their tents or you can purchase one separately ($1). A leak in your in­flatable sleeping pad usually leads to a rough night’s sleep. Duct tape may tem­porarily fix the problem, but won’t hold up to the air pressure over time; bring a glue-based patch kit specifically designed for sleeping pads ($5-$10).

OTHER GOOD STUFF  Large safety pins can help close gap­ing tears. A length of thin nylon cord (a.k.a. parachute cord or “p-cord”) has thousands of uses, including shoelace and strap re­placement. A small multi-tool with pliers can be invaluable for serious fix-it projects. McNett Aquaseal is a powerful glue when you need ultimate adhesion. A needle and thread allows you to patch holes with something other than duct tape; fishing line can be used as emergency thread. Or you can forego all these ex­tra ounces and just stick with duct tape. It’s well-tested, versatile, and has been an all-in-one repair kit for countless backcountry trekkers.

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.