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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Prof. Hike: Make Your Gear Last Longer

Transform your gear closet with 11 money-saving tips.

by: Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

 Use stackable plastic tubs and closet rods to store gear in tight spaces. (Jason Stevenson)
Use stackable plastic tubs and closet rods to store gear in tight spaces. (Jason Stevenson)

How much does a new backpacking stove cost? Try $90 to $150. What about replacing your leather hiking boots? Plan to spend at least $130. Want to find a good rain shell for under $100? Good luck.

Triple-digit prices are the norm for outdoor gear—even for soft shells and rain paints. You can easily plunk down $400 while shopping at a local outdoor store, or filling an online shopping cart at REI.com. So what can a thrifty hiker do?

First, you might notice that Walmart sells a four-person Ozark Trail backpacking tent for $33. But before you buy it,  you should read the online review that describes how the tent collapsed in the middle of the night during a minor rainstorm. Is cost more important than safety? Walmart can sell me stove fuel and bacon, but not much else.

Second, you can reminisce about the good ‘ol days when external frame packs ruled the trail, polyester ruled the disco floor, and camping gear cost pennies. But inflation makes those low prices as illusory as Walmart’s quality. Back in in 1973 (the year Backpacker magazine debuted), the average nation wage index was $7,580, compared to $40,711 in 2009. By the same ratio, the $300 you spent to buy a backpack today would be worth the same as $55 in 1973. That seventies-era backpack might seem cheap compared to today’s prices, but it wasn’t for your seventies-era hiker.

Third, you can purchase expensive but well-made outdoor gear, and then devote the time and energy to make it last as long as possible. Compared to cutting corners on safety by shopping at big-box stores, or wishing for the return of the gold standard, I think this third option makes the most sense. Plus, the process of cleaning and maintaining your gear will make you a more skilled hiker.

Below are 11 steps you can take to prolong the lifespan of your valuable outdoor gear. Don’t wait until your next trip to make these changes—grab this list and go to your gear closet now.

Do this: Store uncompressed sleeping bags in breathable cotton, mesh, or canvas stuff sacks placed on shelves or hung from a towel rod.
Why: Compressing bags crushes down feathers and breaks synthetic fibers, reducing their ability to trap air, maintain loft, and keep you warmer on cold nights.

Do this: Keep compressed sleeping bags away from hot and/or humid spaces—like an attic or the trunk of a car.
Why: Prolonged compression combined with heat and humidity will reduce the lifespan of a bag even faster than each alone.

Do this: Hang sleeping bags and tents to dry inside-out after every trip.
Why: Eliminating interior moisture will reduce the growth of mildew during storage.

Do this: Uncap water bottles and hydration bladders when not in use.
Why: Continuous air flow prevents moisture from being trapped inside.

Do this: Store hydration bladders and tubes in your refrigerator.
Why: Frigid air slows down the mold that naturally grows in hard-to-clean spaces of the bladders and tubes.

Do this: Wash hiking shoes and boots with lukewarm water and a vegetable brush to remove mud and organics after each trip. Let them dry completely before storing in a closet.
Why: Mud and plants contain acids and alkalines that can damage leather, rubber, and fabric after prolonged exposure.

Do this: Store battery-powered devices and extra batteries in cool, dry locations
Why: Excessive heat (more than cold) drains unused batteries.

Do this: Wipe-down gas stoves to remove carbon deposits and food stains with a sponge soaked in lukewarm water and dish soap after each trip.
Why: Not only to carbon stains look bad, but they can eventually clog the fuel lines and burner pores, causing a stove to sputter.

Do this: Store stove fuel and pressurized canisters in a garage, basement, or shed separate from the rest of you gear.
Why: Reduce the risk of leakage, fire, and explosion.

Do this: Double-plastic bag insect repellants, especially DEET-based products, to prevent leakage
Why: DEET eats through nylon, polyester, and waterproof linings like a hungry grizzly clawing through a beehive.

Do this: Apply durable water repellant (DWR) treatments to waterproof apparel at the start of each hiking season. Try Nikwax TX.Direct spray-on or wash-in.
Why: DWR coatings naturally degrade in sunlight and after frequent use. Signs of reduced DWR performance include condensation build-up, reduced beading of water droplets, and fabric saturation after light rains.

How do you increase the lifespan of your favorite gear? Or, what item have you kept functional for years or even decades? Post a comment or send an email to profhike@backpacker.com.

—Jason Stevenson




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READERS COMMENTS

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Caveman
Oct 10, 2011

It is just money, get over it. Backpacking is nearly free besides buying gear. Spend your extra money on cable TV and a 12 pound cotton sleeping bag.

Matt
Oct 09, 2011

My dad has a tent that is about 30 years old, in good condition, and wasn't one of those $200 or $300. Cheap gear isn't always bad quality.

Chris
Sep 23, 2011

Who doesn't love a great deal on that "perfect" piece of equipment? They are out there! Be it the right sale price paired with a coupon OR hitting the clearance rack at the right time so there's one left in your size OR a superior-performing, lower tier, value priced piece that was made just for you. Just finding such a deal is rewarding in and of itself. I've found several of these, like the half foam/half inflatable mini pillow I found at target. Also my first headlamp was either a prototype or a foreign knockoff of an early petzl tikka that was a steal on ebay.

However, I have purchased a couple of key items at higher prices than I would have liked to pay at the time, but more often than not, you do get what you pay for. The Quality of these 1 pound, 900+ down bags is ridiculously fantastic! The attention to detail is second to none. The higher price comes from the R&D that goes into the gear, so specialty items cost more. Said 900+ down bags aren't really for the masses anyway, thus not sold at walmart. Not everyone needs that kind of super-packable night time insulation. But my trekking poles (which become tarp poles) were purchased at walmart and I've had them for years. Still performing like the day I got them and I've never cleaned them. I just expected to buy a newer pair at some point, but I stopped waiting. That super down bag really lightened my wallet, but the benefits are totally worth it. Lighter, warmer, more comfortable, quality craftsmanship, and durability all add up to stacking the deck in my favor for a great outdoor experience before I even leave the house. Lighter pack, better hiking. Better sleeping bag, better camping.

Plus, let me give a shout out to hammock camping. Get up off the ground!

Jenny
Sep 18, 2011

@Lostfalls, I'm sorry you are quite defensive about your gear. That's fine. I was trying to agree with both sides. I was saying that I don't subscribe to either your camp or the side that says you have to have all expensive ultralight gear. I have a mix. Where it makes sense to have expensive gear, I do. Where it doesn't, I don't. In fact, I'm going backpacking this weekend with a 3 lb. synthetic fill Marmot sleeping bag that I got on sale for $50. (Trestles 30 - Great buy even at full price! Full price was $75 when I bought it several years ago, now its about $90.) What I was saying in my last post that you took great offense at, was that a magazine called "Backpacker" is not going to recommend people buy a $61 tent from Walmart (that you even admitted was weak). I hope you can appreciate that.

Jenny
Sep 18, 2011

@Lostfalls, I'm sorry you are quite defensive about your gear. That's fine. I was trying to agree with both sides. I was saying that I don't subscribe to either your camp or the side that says you have to have all expensive ultralight gear. I have a mix. Where it makes sense to have expensive gear, I do. Where it doesn't, I don't. In fact, I'm going backpacking this weekend with a 3 lb. synthetic fill Marmot sleeping bag that I got on sale for $50. (Trestles 30 - Great buy even at full price! Full price was $75 when I bought it several years ago, now its about $90.) What I was saying in my last post that you took great offense at, was that a magazine called "Backpacker" is not going to recommend people buy a $61 tent from Walmart (that you even admitted was weak). I hope you can appreciate that.

Claire
Sep 18, 2011

I have a down vest from North Face that is about 30 years old. I wear it summer hiking and winter snowhsoeing. It has snaps so a zipper won't break. I wash it about twice a year in woolite or special down soap, and air dry it in the dryer. Always fluffs up nice, and people just think it's "retro" not old.

Randy L.
Sep 16, 2011

TREKKING POLES - These are a sore spot with me. The prices typically range from rip-off to robbery. I personally won't do it! I get Outdoor Products brand trekking poles from Walmart. The part that typically wears out on cheap poles is the locking mechanism. However, when was the last time you used anything other than the standard length you always set them at? So, stop breaking them down after each hike. Buy them, set the length, and leave them there! They will last a lot longer!

Randy L.
Sep 16, 2011

TREKKING POLES - These are a sore spot with me. The prices typically range from rip-off to robbery. I personally won't do it! I get Outdoor Products brand trekking poles from Walmart. The part that typically wears out on cheap poles is the locking mechanism. However, when was the last time you used anything other than the standard length you always set them at? So, stop breaking them down after each hike. Buy them, set the length, and leave them there! They will last a lot longer!

Lostfalls
Sep 16, 2011

@Jenny, OHHHH that's right, REAL "backpacking" equipment is expensive right? So if I am buying that cheap stuff, then for sure I am "car camping" - is that it? (eye roll) There's just no way that someone could put a non-down sleeping bag that weighs a whole 3lbs in their pack they bought from Costco and go hiking for with it for 3 days! Right? And cook with a stove they bought from Walmart - what silly talk!! Look, folks it's that exact attitude that keeps Backpacker from doing gear articles for normal people with shallow pockets. You have reach outside the box - use equipment that (yes) may be designed for a different purpose. If it works, and it lasts, you can afford it, and it gets you out enjoying what you love, then, why the hell not? I would've given up backpacking years ago if I let people who judge me by my equipment, like Jenny just did (thanks on one) bother me one bit.

Jenny
Sep 15, 2011

I agree with a lot of you that you don't need to spend retail prices on gear, but I think you missed the point of the article. It is not an article about spending money on expensive gear or telling you to do so. It is saying, "yes, a lot of nice gear is expensive. Here is how you take care of it to make it last." I personally don't have all expensive stuff, nor do I have all cheap stuff. I have a mix, like, I'm sure a lot of smart campers and backpackers do. Will I buy a walking stick for $200? No, thanks. But I do have a nice tent that has performed very well for 15 years in all kinds of weather. LOSTFALLS, I agree with your ideas, but this is not "Car Camping" magazine, it is "Backpacker." And no magazine talks about deals as if they are a sure thing and you can always find gear for that price. The prices in magazines are always retail prices. Does that mean you shouldn't look for sales and discount websites? Of course not! I agree it would be an interesting experiment to gear-up for a trip with the bare minimum in prices as a contraint.

JAMES R
Sep 15, 2011

Backpacker Magazine didn't drop the ball on this one, but they are leaning towards the advertisers more than the backpackers with this article. I know for a fact, just like many of you do, that there IS good equiptment out there for under $80.00 IF, if you search hard enough for it.
When it comes to making it last longer, it all boils down to taking care of it....wash what can be washed, fix what got broke or buy new to replace....it's just like your feet, if you take care of them, they will take care of you.

Josh
Sep 14, 2011

Absolutely agree with everyone here about getting good gear on the cheap. Backpacker magazine should rethink it's articles in this economy. Thanks for the off-brand tips I've read here in the comment section. Here's some of the places I've gotten good deals and sometimes coupons. Craigslist (crazedlist), steepandcheap, geartrade, backcountry, woot community deals. Just to name a few. You've got to put a little time into searching, and sometimes a little patience if you're looking for a particular item/brand, but overall I save on average over 50% from retail. And all the stuff I get is new.

Mark (via email)
Sep 14, 2011

After every hike, and I mean every (even day hikes), I clean and oil my leather boots. I take the laces out to do a thorough job. I have an
old pair of Timberlands that not only took me to the top of Half Dome many years ago, they also just carried me 40 miles in 5 days around the High Sierra Camp loop at Yosemite. When I was done I thought it was time to retire the boots but out of habit, I cleaned them up and they're ready to go again!

Liz Case
Sep 14, 2011

I'd like to see a series of articles on the absolute least you can get gear for -- meaning, most of the items will be made at home and jury-rigged, but durable and actually work. My hiking pole is a broomstick with a rubber tip, and the biggest problem I have encountered with it is the gales of laughter from hi-tech hikers -- egad!

cw
Sep 13, 2011

Also put on your hiking boots and wear them between hikes, especially if it is awhile. I had a few boot sole rubber crumble from being stored too long in an air-conditioned apartment in Lousiana. May have been a quality issue, but it happened to three different pairs of boots by three different brands. One website called it hydrolysis.

Lostfalls
Sep 13, 2011

I have an idea - why doesn't Backpacker Magazine do series of articles on AFFORDABLE gear. Test it out review (for real guys, not for advertising) and report. CHALLENGE yourselves, I know its hard, but set a price limit for the items. UNDER $100 for each item - and not just $99.99 either you pansies - really make an effort. Who's to say Coleman or Ozark wouldn't buy some ads for a series like that?? It might pay for itself. I too am sick of reading about all this gear I can only ever afford pick up second hand. I have to do all the research on the cheap stuff myself cause you guys ignore it, you know what would be nice? If you guys did some honest work with some cheaper gear and wrote about it. Not being all suck up about either. I've used this cheaper gear, I know how it really performs and more people than me would see right through "brand name" "non-ad buying" attitude, a real non-bias in depth cheap gear article, now THAT would be helpful, THAT would be worth a subscription.

Lostfalls
Sep 13, 2011

OK good tips - but...

I COMPLETELY disagree about the cost of outdoor gear. I never hesitate to try cheap gear out from places with good return policies, keep receipts, and test it out before I take it on a trip. If it doesn't perform I promptly return it.

You CAN too get quality NEW outdoor gear without triple digit prices. Backpacking tent big enough for two adults AND 3 dogs. Kelty Getaway 4 - on sale clearance Cabelas (gasp! I know!) plus 10% off for $61.00. Get it home water proof it, seal it, when trekking split between two people to share weight, always use a ground cloth as the floor is a tad weak. Minor compromise to make. Has withstood, rain, 50 MPH + wind, light snow and cold.

Eureka Womens Casper 15˚ synthetic bag tall - $53.00 (including shipping, "wink") with combined deals at Campmor. Worked perfectly for E Washington spring trips, Montana trips, and a fall Yellowstone trip. Keeps you comfortable and has neat pockets for extra gear. Is it down? Gasp! No. Is it heavy? At 3lbs? Hardly. Packs down nice a small. Am I suffering from down envy? Not AT ALL. I use it 3 season bag and it works perfectly for that.

Coleman Mini Max Stove at the "before mocked" Walmart for $20 plus $5 per canister for fuel. I have used this propane/butane mix stove all summer and have been completely happy with it. Cooks fast, easy to assemble, easy to light, works with my existing cookware set and small enough to carry. Is it a fancy Jet Boil? Nope. Am I having a lesser outdoor experience cause I don't have brand name gear? Not ONE BIT.

Soft shell Black Diamond jack WITH hood - $26 - Costco. Tested and tried. I LOVE this jacket. Keeps me warm and dry.

ALPS Summit Sleeping Pad - 2 lbs 9oz - Sierra Trading Post with combined discounts $25.00 (this pad is also very well reviewed).

Cabela's Women's 750-Fill-Power Down Coat on season end clearance with an additional discount - $79 (I also picked up the lighter 550 version for less than that... I believe that BPM even rated these coats as a good quality buy.

I have picked up not one but two Backpacks from Costco. BOTH exceedingly well reviewed I might add. A 65L Kelty Ridgeway Alpine and a smaller 50L High Sierra pack - both lightweight, with sleeping bag compartments, includes hydration bladders, a detachable top, and rain covers (but if you hike in the PNW you encase everything in your pack in a plastic bag anyways) for....are you ready for this? UNDER $80. Are the fanciest things on the market? No. Do they fit me? Yes,even at 5'9". Are they the lightest packs on the market? No, but they are competitive.

Oh yeah. And my trekking poles? $12 each at Walmart. Light and easy to operate, have lasted 3 years now, on countless miles and mostly mountain terrain, though I do also use them snowshoeing. You couldn't PAY ME to replace them with the name brand trekking poles for over $100.

Am I a spoiled city trail hiker who can't handle a few extra pounds and being seen in with some off brand gear? Nope - sorry. When I'm hiking I am busy enjoying the outdoors and some peace and quiet, not worrying about my gear.

Besides what you can do buying new cheaper off brand gear - if you're that hung up on name brand stuff, try craigslist. I have seen nice, nice name brand gear on craigslist. Some slightly used some not used at all. From clothes to tents, to stoves to backpacks. Do not let someone tell you there is no way around dropping big bucks on outdoor gear.

Steve Cash
Sep 13, 2011

Switching my gear to clear plastic bins from non-see-through bins and boxes has revolutionized my prep time before trips. Now I can see what's in the bin and I no long dig thru dark boxes to find "that missing item." This one little thing has also affected the way I store my gear. I have now started a "Go Box" for each family member with the main basics. After each trip or when used around the house, the go box items go back into the go box. That way, they are ready to go the next time they are needed. This has reduced pre-trip 'looking for gear' time exponentially. This equates to not staying up all night looking for stuff and starting out a trip tired. Also, having a clear go box with just the basics has helped me avoid packing extra stuff on trips.

John
Sep 13, 2011

Prices are ridiculous - the reason I cancelled my subscription was it seemed you only talked about top of the line gear. You need to find a middle-aged guy with two or three kids in college to write about gear - there's a guy who knows how to find the bargains and camp for less.

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