You had a great trip: 3, 4, 10 days out and about getting wet, muddy, wet again, dry with caked mud or dust – normal life on the trail. All that use and abuse (which is exactly what gear is made for) comes with a price tag: it can really ruin your gear. Taking care of your gear properly will make sure it lasts longer and works better, so make sure that you devote time after coming home to doing just that: taking care of your gear.
Personally, I have a few stages of gear care when back home, depending on the trip, the conditions and the weather. Another big factor are obligations when you are back; maybe you have a child (or several) or a dog (or several) that demand your attention no matter what, so taking care of your gear needs to wait. Either way, there are some things that must happen sooner rather than later, and some things that can wait a day or two.
Why it is so important to take care of your gear
I’m sure you have an inclination as to why taking care of your gear is important, but let’s put it into words (and bullet points):
- Keeping gear for longer – this is the most obvious reason for taking care of your gear: it will last longer. It is true that washing garments often can create abrasions in the fabric and ruin it over time, but if your gear is filthy, muddy or oily, it will not work full stop.
- Better performance – clean, well-maintained gear (oiled/sharpened/etc) will retain more of functionality, keeping that brand-new level of performance while softening up and becoming better suited to you.
- Keeping the house in order – Outdoors gear, especially the dirty kind, can be a real mess, on the verge of a bio-hazard, so it helps to keep your living environment clean and tidy by taking care of your gear.
How should you be taking care of your gear
The “how” is the core of this whole post, but it is also very confusing. Each piece of kit is taken care of differently, we all have different time frames and we probably do several different activities outdoors. So to make it simple, here are my premises for the “how”:
- I’m talking about multi-day backpacking trip that includes sleeping in a tent and cooking food outdoors
- This covers 3 seasons only for now, as I rarely take ice axes and crampons
- You have very little time to deal with taking care of your gear due to work, family and the need for food and beer after your trip
- The trip has been in a potentially wet and muddy place (NW USA/UK/New Zealand/etc)
- You care about your gear and got good stuff in the first place
With that, we can dig into the actual how. I want to put it in a time frame rather than a per item process; this is how I behave when coming home and I find that going through this in a methodical, timely way works better than trying to care for each item on a standalone basis.
In each step, I will also give you my recommendations on the actual thing to do, i.e: what temperature to wash your Merino garments vs your synthetic ones. This means that it can be a bit cumbersome, but you can find the specific kit you want to care for by looking for it (in bold):
Straight back from the trail
- You – Take your gear off and say hello to your family, grab a bite and have a shower. After those basic things, you will feel better and ready to tackle a few more things before delving into a healthy dinner and some beer.
- Unpack – I try and keep the mess to a minimum so I do this next to the front door; I just pile up all my stuff and make sure the backpack is empty.
Clothing – grab all the clothes you wore, except insulation and shells, and do laundry. This should include: shirts, trousers, socks, liners of any kind (sleeping bag/gloves/socks), neck gaiters, trail gaiters (not w/p gaiters) and other single fabric items. Laundry is not that simple, so let's break it down based on fabric:
- Synthetic – your basic polypro/polyester/nylon garment should be washed with soap flakes, non-bio detergent or dedicated soap. Run a sports or delicate wash at 85-105° and air dry.
- Merino wool – delicate wash with non-bio detergent, wool specific soap or dedicated soap.
- Cotton – you shouldn’t use it, so no washing here!
- Fleece – fleece is tricky, especially as you don’t want it to pile. Use a hand wash cycle (or do the real thing with your hands) on a cold wash at 85° and no spin, as it will stretch the fibers. Air dry only.
- Silk and Bamboo – same as Merino wool but use the synthetic dedicated soap. Air dry or very low heat tumble dry.
Sleeping bag – Take it out, no matter if it is down or synthetic, to start airing and dry out. If it seems clean and doesn’t smell too funky, just air for 12-24 hours on a dry rack or on a bed. If it is soiled or very stinky, care depends on the bag:
- Synthetic: machine wash with pure soap or dedicated soap only. Run on a hand wash cycle or wash in the bath and air dry for a couple of days laid flat; every few hours “fluff” the filling by hand.
- Down: if the bag is lightly soiled, clean the fabric with a damp cloth and leave to air for a while. If the bag seems that it could use a good clean, just send it to a specialist; it might be pricey but it will ensure you don’t ruin your bag. I have yet to see any down product that survived a washing machine well.
- Insulation garments – treat the same as sleeping bags
- Have a good dinner, some beer and sleep
Ideally, you will be doing this first thing in the morning, but more likely most of this will happen in the evening, after work and when the kids are asleep. Get the rest of the gear that is in the pile and start sorting, mainly getting dry things back to place.
- Shelter – take out and hang to dry, flat. If your shelter is filthy, leave it for now and give it a good wash the following morning. Otherwise, just leave to dry overnight as spread as you can. Take the pegs out, clean them and straighten any twisted ones. Get the poles out of the bag and let those dry too.
- Cooking gear – take out and pile in the sink: you can clean it in the morning or on the spot if you are enthusiastic. Separate canisters and make sure everything is clean before storing including your alcohol bottle, gas canisters and the actual stove.
- Food – pack away whatever wasn’t touched but if it is even slightly used or repacked, just bin it.
- Shells – the real challenge. If the shell is new, just hang to dry and put it back in the cupboard. If it is muddy or lightly soiled, give it a quick clean by hand in the bath, which is the best way to keep it safe. If the shell needs a good clean, put it in the washing machine on a hand wash or delicate cycle using pure soap or dedicated soap on 30-40°c. Under no circumstances should you use detergent, those will turn your hydrophobic (water repellent) garments into hydrophilic (water absorbent) and forever ruined. When soaping a shell, make sure you rinse twice to really clean it. If you think the DWR is in need of some help, use a dedicated material and follow instructions.
- Gear from the day before – put away where it belongs, carefully folded and stored; sleeping bags not compressed.
Footwear – clean with plain water in the sink using a plain cloth to rub mud off. If the mud is persistent, a bit of pure or dedicated soap should be used. Do not throw your hiking shoes into the washing machine, it increases abrasion; just give them some love with a hand wash: they have earned it. After the clean, treatment depends on what is involved:
- Leather – let the leather dry a little and then use your fingers to apply a bit of oil-based care. You can use a dedicated leather care product but hand lotion will do the trick just fine. Not only it will keep the leather from breaking, it is also increasing hydrophobic ability and softens the leather.
- Suede and Nubuck – use dedicated treatment or be like me and accept it is a poor choice by the manufacturer and rub it with leather treatment to make it more “leathery”.
- Textile (all) – spray with a DWR-restoring compound to help protect the fabric.
- Call it a day, you have done well
Next couple of days
At this point all the urgent things are done, it is just about taking care of all the loose ends. But first there are a couple of things you need to finish:
- Cookware – no way to avoid it, wash those first thing in the morning and let thoroughly dry. Most cookware today can go into the dishwasher so feel free to use it.
- Shelter – if you have left your dirty shelter to be cleaned, first thing in the morning is the best time to do it. If you have space outside, set up the tent and give it a good clean with water, using pure soapy water with a cloth to clean any persistent spots. Don’t give your shelter a full soapy clean – there is no need and it will reduce its UV effectiveness quicker. Make sure you clean the groundsheet, inside floor and the tub’s underside. After all is clean, spread out as much as possible and let to air dry until fully dry.
Next, it is all about putting things away, making sure everything is dry and clean before doing it. Last few things to remember:
- Backpack – make sure it is clean and dry before storing, there shouldn’t really be a need to clean much but if there is, hand wash with pure soap and double rinse.
- Electronics – charge and cancel any specialized services (like insurance or PLB service)
- Trekking poles – Open or dismantle to allow to fully dry. Clean muddy parts separately and let fully air dry, especially internal lock poles.
- First aid and hygiene – clean everything, replenish what was used and put back in place so next time it is an easy grab and go.
That is it, you should have gone through everything by now, it should be taken care of and put back where it belongs, making sure your partner is happy that all this “mess” is no longer polluting the house.
Don’t be lazy!
It is all too easy to say: “I’m off again in a couple of days anyway” but in reality, this is an even bigger reason to maintain your gear well. Taking care of your gear is hard work but if you put in the time to make money to buy the gear, or the time and effort to make it, you want it to last. Good gear care practices are really valuable and will enhance your experience every time you go backpacking: everything will feel and smell great, work as expected and will feel very welcoming when you use it.
Don’t be lazy, make sure you care for your gear!