Thursday, October 17, 2013

Making Gear Repairs in the Backcountry

Wet blowdown near unnamed pondExploring the Adirondack backcountry is an arduous activity, demanding as much from the participant as from their equipment. Although this remains true for traditional trail hiking, it is even more so for its less conventional sibling of bushwhacking. Regardless, even the most durable gear can break, fall apart, pop, unravel or disintegrate at the most inappropriate moment, requiring some type of repair job that at the very least allows for a humbling exit from the backcountry.

The best offense is a good defense when it comes to any backcountry gear. Purchasing high quality gear, well made with durable materials, is crucial for reducing the possibility of failure in the field. Simple, yet functional equipment, with as few bells and whistles as possible, further diminishes any chance of catastrophic failure. Less stitching to unravel, less seams to become unsealed and less parts to go kerflooey at an inopportune time are a good thing.

For those on a limited income, quality of some outdoor equipment is more important than others. Sleeping bag, shelter, hiking boots and clothing are examples of essential gear where quality is crucial, and failures can quality become more than an inconvenience. High quality clothing and footwear is well worth the investment, reducing the probability of a wardrobe malfunction, a la Janet Jackson, that may not result in a couple hundred of thousands dollar fine but can avoid some discomfort and embarrassment.

Despite the durability of the equipment, time and use in the backcountry will wear it down, and eventually failure is likely to occur. The only way to avoid such a failure is to purchase new stuff on a regular basis, but that strategy can be costly. A less costly strategy over the long term requires using gear to a point near failure before replacement, just be prepared to go without the newest technology and for the occasional name-calling from any companions. Regardless of the strategy, carrying a comprehensive repair kit for those times when the gear does not quite make it home is a necessity.

Although specific contents of a backcountry repair kit will be highly specialized depending on trip length, gear used and materials involved, the basic principles remain universal. A repair kit needs to deal with any of the typical emergencies in the backcountry, such as tears, undone stitching and punctures. Regardless of the comprehensiveness of any repair kit, be prepared for some catastrophic breakages, where repair is impossible in the backcountry, or perhaps anywhere else.

The first line of defense within any repair kit is possibly humankind’s greatest achievement. This is not the International Space Station, an electron microscope or even the iPhone; it is duct tape. Duct tape has so many different uses in the backcountry it deserves its very own article. Although duct tape has a multitude of uses, it has its limitations (just try fixing disassembling hiking boots with it), and thus a repair kit needs quite a few other things in it.

Another essential element in any backcountry repair kit is a barebones sewing kit. Such a kit should include enough to complete any necessary backcountry repairs involving stitching on clothing or other gear. My basic sewing kit contains a couple sewing needles, a spool of nylon thread (of some neutral color), a plastic thimble and a cheap, lightweight needle threader. The entire kit fits into a black and anachronistic film canister.

Silicone-impregnated nylon, or silnylon, rivals duct tape as humanity’s greatest invention. Many outdoor products are made of this fabric, due to its strength for its weight and its highly waterproof nature. Since silnylon is a main component of my shelter, as well as many of my stuff sacks, I always carry a Sil-Fix Silnylon Repair Kit by Gear Aid. It includes a ¼ oz. tube of silicon adhesive, a silnylon repair swatch, an adhesive patch, an application brush and an expert repair guide, packaged in a small lightweight plastic tube with a screw-on top.

Rounding out my repair kit is a resealable plastic bag with assorted safety pins, rubber bands, paper clips, twist ties and different lengths of nylon cord. These miscellaneous items are useful in a pinch to make many simple repairs, at least temporarily, buying enough time to get out of the backcountry and back home, where a more permanent solution can be applied.

Broken hiking pole

My own instances of equipment failure are too many to list completely here. However, the following examples are illustrative of the usefulness of carrying a repair kit, as well as its limitations. One details a single catastrophic event, where the other describes an apocalypse of failures within a single bushwhacking trip through a remote area of the Adirondacks.

My most extreme instance of equipment failure happened several years ago within the Pepperbox Wilderness, while participating in the Audubon Society’s Birdathon. While descending a ridge, I slipped and fell between my carbon fiber hiking poles, which were well embedded in the ground. With a loud snap, which sounded uncomfortably like a bone breaking, one hiking pole broke in half. It was beyond repair, with the bottom piece dangling by a few threads; no amount of duct tape was going to fix it. The rest of the trip required using a single pole, the broken one sticking out from the top of my backpack, catching every possible tree limb as I went. Luckily, my friend, the manufacturer of the poles, was willing to make me a replacement set.

This past summer, on a single trip within a remote part of the Five Ponds Wilderness, three pieces of equipment failed in drastically different ways. One resulted in me leaving more than carbon dioxide and footprints in the backcountry, while another required a replacement after a failed repair attempt in the field. The third was the least worrisome, as it was completely, if not eloquently, repairable once I made it safely home.

My gaiters are a perfect example of the ideal bushwhacking equipment; they are durable, functional and simple in their design. They consist of a single piece of fabric without many fasteners, requiring me to take my boots off in order to put them on or take them off. Typically, I keep them on all day long, where they keep my feet dry and clear of forest litter and duff. Unfortunately, the gaiters only flaw is the instep strap, which is just a short piece of elastic nylon cord. After getting caught on blowdowns and other forest debris, one side of the cord or another comes untied, frustrating me on many a bushwhacking trip.

While bushwhacking between Crooked Lake and Sitz Pond, fighting through a stretch of moderate blowdown, both ends of the instep cord became untied simultaneously, thus making me another litterer of the backcountry. This incident was more my failing than the gaiters, if I just knew my knots better, it might have been avoided. Completing the trip, I replaced the cord with one from a retired pair that I kept for dayhiking purposes.

By the way, if anyone happens to find the old strap hanging from a downed branch, please return it to me, I would greatly appreciate it.

The second incident on the same trip included a complete equipment failure. Typically, I carry a homemade alcohol stove, made out two aluminum cans, during my summer sojourns. For years, I used a 0.5L Platypus collapsible bottle to contain the fuel, and it worked well. That is, until this past summer.

After testing the bottle for leaks, and finding none on my first day of the trip, I smelled alcohol on the second day and found a portion of my backpack soaked in the flammable liquid. Apparently, there was a hole in a seam on the top of the bottle, possibly caused because I failed to bleed out the excess air. After unsuccessfully trying to fix the issue with duct tape, I concluded there was no choice other than replacing the bottle during the off-season.

The final incident involved the stitching coming undone on my backpack around the drawstring. This started before the current trip, brought on by repeated use over many arduous bushwhacking trips and potentially some abrasion. The stitching became increasingly unraveled during the five-day trip, with the grommet-containing piece of material becoming unattached from the remainder of the backpack. Although this repair was possible in the field using my sewing kit (and lightweight reading glasses), I waited until returning home, so I could complete the half-assed hand sewing repair in the comfort of my own home (using my normal and much more comfortable reading glasses).

Please share any of your own experiences with gear failures in the field and any interesting events that ensued as a result. Do not be shy sharing any specific items you include in your own backcountry repair kit, as they could benefit others in their own backcountry experiences.

When journeying into the remote backcountry, it is important to carry durable and well-made gear. For those infrequent incidents where the gear fails due to wear and tear, carrying a comprehensive repair kit can make the difference between an inconvenience and a premature end to a wilderness experience.

Photos: Blowdown near an unnamed pond between Crooked Lake and Sitz Pond in the Five Ponds Wilderness and broken homemade hiking pole by Dan Crane.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

4 Responses

  1. Bob Meyer says:

    Thanks Dan. your repair kit advice is great.. Some i have & some i need to get (silnylon repair kit).
    Love your posts.

  2. Pete Biesemeyer says:

    Zip-ties! They rival duct tape. Not for patching holes, but almost anything that comes loose or falls apart can be made fast with zip ties. They’re cheap, weigh next to nothing, take up no room in your pack, you don’t need reading glasses to use them, they stay flexible in cold weather, can be fastened end-to-end to make as long as needed, won’t come undone, and, like today’s duct tape, even come in flashy colors!

  3. Beth says:

    EVA foam midsoles in hiking boots. I’ve had one toe split from the upper on a day hike, it was flapping around but got me back to the car. But just last week my son and I went on a backpack with his 9 year old Asolo boots, well used, but looking fine, no splitting, not seam problems, and after 2 miles the entire sole of both boots delaminated from the midsole because the midsole was EVA foam and entirely crumbled to dust in the space of 10 minutes while hiking. Duct tape was useless. He went back and got his cheap sneakers from the car and we did the backpack. Catastrophic failure is bad. A boot that looks fine should not do that. Apparently this is common. One person I have talked to since said it happened to her boots in the Brooks Range in Alaska! I don’t think there is any such thing as durable hiking boots anymore.

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