Knowing When to Retire Old Backpacking Gear
Buying new gear is great – it is exciting, there is an underlying promise of better adventures and it often becomes an obsession; but with the new movement that encourages repairing old gear, the question becomes: when should you retire old gear?
Your backpacking and hiking (or any outdoor) gear is meant to go on adventures with you, gain experience and feel comfortable, it is not meant to be disposable and cheap. As lighter materials, ultralight construction methods and aggressive marketing become more prevalent, it feels almost "right" that gear should be ultralight and disposable, but this shouldn't be the case. Fixing gear has been a big part of outdoor adventure since, well, ever. The trick is to buy gear that will do the trick, balancing weight and durability and being proactive in fixing, treating, cleaning and caring for your gear. If you feel that fixing is a bit too much for you, you can always check local places to fix your gear like the Renewal Workshop.
So to keep you from going to buy new stuff at the first tear, break or split, here are some tips about when to retire old gear and when to fix it:
Footwear is tricky for us hikers and backpackers as we rely on the health of our feet to actually enjoy being outdoors. With lighter gear offering better comfort and increased mobility we do suffer from quick wear outs, but when is it time to say goodbye? Can you fix/update/recycle before you retire your shoes? Well, it depends on which part:
- Sole – the easiest to fix and the last reason to retire – many companies will replace the sole of the shoes for a fee, from the shoe brand to third party companies, you can even get Vibram soles for any pair of shoes. If the soles are worn out just contact the brand, they are easy to replace and you won’t need to soften up a new pair of shoes.
- Midsole- tricky to replace as now there are a couple of contact and connection points involved. Some boot manufacturers will replace these but it is very expensive and sadly, with ruined midsoles, you should replace the shoes. REI have a good quick guide about this as midsoles are vital for knee health when carrying a load unless you have already transitioned to minimalist footwear.
- Upper – Either mesh or leather, this is the part that holds the foot in place and what will cause blisters when not in good condition: rubbing or pressure points form as the upper starts to break. Uppers tend to break the fastest, especially in mesh shoes (like trail shoes) so fixing them is useful – using mesh fabrics and stitching them into the shoes to replace worn mesh is very easy, but if you get foot issues from over-worn uppers the shoes should be retired.
- Liner – the very presence of waterproof liners in shoes is very controversial, but if you have chosen to have them and they leak, start with a good clean; that tends to do the trick (use pure soap and lots of washing after). If the leak persists and the shoes/boots are fine, take the liner out and make them nonwaterproof, no need to bin the shoes. If you really want them to be waterproof, consider waterproof socks instead and keep the shoes going.
If you have a rip in waterproof clothing – fix it, don’t be lazy: use a dedicated repair patch or even some duct tape and you are done. For wetted out items, clean and treat them to restore the DWR. The only time to retire a waterproof garment is if it is “delaminated” – the layers of laminated fabric are falling apart and the fabric becomes pretty useless. If it is a major brand and a relatively new item is delaminated (5 years or so), get in touch with the brand to see if they cover the replacement.
The only reason to retire an insulating garment or item (jacket, hat, sleeping bag etc) is if you have really lost all the insulation – and even then you can buy some more and stuff it in. Fabrics can be easily fixed and insulation bought separately and added in to replace down or synthetic insulation; you can even over stuff items to increase structural integrity in a garment.
Any other clothing item (or just fabric)
Fix it. Really, there is no need to retire old outdoor clothing until the fabric is disintegrating due to old age or extreme wear – all else can be fixed. You can even fix zippers, Velcros or buttons, no great skill is needed and looking crooked is part of the charm.
Another point about clothing is that you might change (gotten fatter, thinner, pregnant or post pregnancy etc). In that case, don’t retire your old gear, donate it if you want or better, sell second hand on eBay or Craigslist. When someone else pays some money for your old item, it usually means they want to use it and they will.
Tents, backpacks, hammocks and anything else with fabric can be fixed unless it is a broken frame or pole, but those can be replaced. If there is a problem with broken plastic or metal, most companies will have after sale service and will provide parts for you to fix it yourself.
Broken stitches are usually covered by warranty and most brands will be able to stitch it in their facilities to ensure it is of high quality and can hold the stresses the item is meant to. Ripped fabrics should be patched up rather than just stitched to ensure they can hold stress.
Broken buckles are not a reason to replace a bag, but a broken stud or a nut in the suspension system is, so make sure not to break your backpack in the airport!
The only real reason to retire old hardware is the need to upgrade, which is a very valid reason, just make sure your old retired gear gets a new loving home to keep on being used and to stop someone else buy more stuff.
The biggest pain of them all: self-inflating and air mats. I have had my share of arguments with air mats that deflated on me in the middle of the trip (or the middle of the night!), but those usually can be fixed. It is not easy to fix a mat but once you have done it a couple of times it gets easier unless of course, you can’t find the problem. Some companies will offer a repair service a, but most of the time, if you can’t find the hole it is time for a new mat. An air mat that won’t hold air is pretty useless.
Dented utensils and pots can and should be used until the end of time, and they add to your outdoors “look”, but stoves need to be treated with care. A stove that leaks fuel is a real danger and the first sign of such a problem is an accident waiting to happen; a leaking stove should be retired straight away.
Emergency and first aid gear
As items that are rarely used it is temping to just keep taking them as is on many trips, but this gear is the most important and should be retired often. Your first aid should contain items that are not expired, are fully intact and sealed when needed. After every trip, check the first aid, restock and replace anything old or broken, this is a must!
Emergency gear like a whistle, signaling mirror, water purification tabs etc also should be checked after each trip and replaced and retired accordingly. You don’t want to be the one who broke a leg in the middle of nowhere and had that broken whistle.
When it comes to trekking poles, as long as they can be held at full length they are usable, but we want more from our poles so it might not be so simple. Trekking poles today are made of carbon fiber or aluminum; each has different issues and advantages, but as a rule, carbon poles will break (not bend) and so will need replacing when that happens, and aluminum poles bend under stress and can be used even then.
The main accessory I use and abuse are dry bags and most of mine will have so many patches and glue that they become almost a sieve. When my dry bags have too long of a cut or I fill them with water and they can’t hold it anymore (a good test to do sometimes), the bag is being retired.
Water containers and hydration bladders are pretty disposable and when a leak occurs it is usually the time to retire or replace the water container, no point of fighting it.
I am not a very tech savvy guy and not an engineer, so when my electronics stop working I contact the company that made them and see if it can be repaired and if not, it joins the retired pile.
When to Retire Old Backpacking Gear
As a rule, unless it is a safety issue (fuel, first aid, climbing gear) it should be repaired and kept for many years, becoming wonderfully comfortable and familiar, gathering scars and memories of long-ago trips. Despite the temptation thrown all around us to buy better, newer and lighter, it means we need to work more to buy things rather than work less and be outdoors – kind of missing the point. On the other hand, I’m not sure I can go with only old and abused gear, sometimes I do need to replace or upgrade as conditions change and gear is used. It is, like all things, about finding the happy middle: retiring old gear when needed but keeping and maintaining our gear to last.
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