Beware the Failing Zipper
I periodically have closure issues. Not of the type where you’re trying to resolve an ambiguous situation, I’m talking about the very unambiguous need to reliably zip up my tent or backpacking jacket.
Things that Wear Out
If you hike enough miles, eventually your equipment and clothing will show some wear & tear. It’s my feeling the folks usually worry too much about this when making purchase decisions: with about 12,000 miles of backpacking to date, I’ve certainly experienced wear, but most things last surprisingly well with reasonable care. Shoes wear out — or I just replace them to maintain some cushion for my feet. Socks of course eventually wear out, but usually not all that fast. The more ultralight type of packs will show significant wear after a couple thousand miles or so.
An important factor here isn’t just “what wears out”, but also “how easy is it to repair in the field?”. Duct tape and a needle & thread will be enough to deal with most issues.
Particular Issue: Zippers
But I find that I have a particular issue with zippers, and I just wanted this warning ‘out there’ so that you too can take a little extra care in this regard.
If you don’t go in for the whole ultralight movement, and in particular if all of the zippers on your gear are of the larger, beefier variety, then — never mind. Stop reading now.
For so many of us, however, buying gear always involves a trade-off between various factors, certainly to include durability, but also of cost and weight. To keep the weight down, manufacturers often opt for lightweight zippers. And these just don’t wear as well. In my opinion, they don’t wear nearly as well as the traditional larger, heavy duty type of zippers.
Jackets and Tents
To date I’ve had zipper issues with a light down jacket, a light synthetic (warmth layer) jacket, a synthetic vest, a rain jacket, and the mesh door zippers on two different tents. I’ve had zippers fail on me where the results are very uncomfortable: for example, on the CDT I can recall using duct tape for several days to hold my rain jacket closed in bitter wind.
A Gear Selection Criteria
The first line of defense is to be aware of this when purchasing gear. Sleeping bags have zippers, but I’ve only encountered the larger, trouble-free type of zippers on sleeping bags. Based on my experience, I’d pay particular attention to zippers for tents and jackets.
This is easier said than done, however. Unless you’re sewing your own gear or are in that rare situation where you’re truly custom ordering a piece, you likely can’t specify the kind of zipper that you want. But at least you can be aware of it as a potential failure point. If you’re not planning on using your gear a lot, then I wouldn’t pay too much attention. With reasonable care, most backpackers will do just fine with the light lower-durability zippers that are common in light/ultralight gear.
Step Two: Take Care!
Which brings us to the second line of defense — being careful with your gear. For zippers, that means not using a lot of force; if the zipper doesn’t work reasonably easy, stop and figure out what’s wrong. You might also consider whether the zipper teeth are clean: an old toothbrush or similar brush can get out grit. Some people feel that Teflon spray or paraffin applied to zippers is a good idea; if you do use a lubricant, take care not to use something that will attract and collect grit! For jackets, it’s sometimes the case that you have to be extra careful to properly seat the zipper end.
There’s a lot of information “out there” about zipper maintenance, beyond the scope of this article — just search for it online if you’re interested. The biggest takeaways are (1) be reasonably gentle: don’t force a stuck zipper, and (2) keep zippers clean.
When Problems Arise
When problems do arise, then again — don’t force anything. Figure out the problem. As with maintenance, there’s a lot of information available via online search on the topic of zipper repair, so I just want to hit a couple of high points here. First, in the (vast?) majority of cases, when there’s a zipper problem — and particularly so for lightweight zippers — it’s almost always an issue with the zipper slider (the thing that you pull along to seal the zipper), and not the zipper teeth. This is very good news, as it’s relatively cheap and easy to replace just the slider, whereas replacing the entire zipper can be expensive. Or a whole lot of work if you do it yourself.
Careful with those Pliers
If your lightweight zipper doesn’t reliably zip your tent or garment closed, and particularly, if it sometimes just comes open again right behind the slider, then maybe the “pliers trick” will help you out. With care, you crimp the edges of the zipper slider a little tighter, so that it has just a little more resistance and less ‘play’ as it interlocks the two zipper tracks. The trick is to apply the right amount of force to just slightly tighten things up. Crimp those zipper slider edges too hard and the zipper becomes very hard to pull and causes a lot of wear. Or you might even not be able to pull the zipper at all. So if you try this trick, do be careful. Here’s a better description of how to do it.
The thing about the pliers trick with lightweight zippers is that, if you have to do it once, you’ll likely have to do it again at some point, and maybe not so very long in the future.
Last Resort: Call in an Expert
One of the reasons I like to buy gear from reliable companies that support their gear is for this specific reason: so that I can get the zipper repaired by the folks that sold me the item. Recently I sent my Lightheart Gear tent back to get the mesh door zippers repaired, and replacing the sliders just cost me shipping — the actual repair was free. I’ve had two different Montbell brand of warmth layer jackets where the zippers were actually replaced with somewhat heavier duty zippers by the manufacturer — also for free. And Outdoor Research actually just replaced my OR Helium rain jacket (for free); the way the zipper is attached doesn’t lend itself to repair, other than zipper slider replacement. I should point out that these were all extended-use “wear and tear” issues, not cases where I had damaged the jackets or tents.
If for whatever reason you can’t get a zipper fixed by the manufacturer, then you might well be able to find someone local with both the skill and the tools to effect a repair.
My feeling is that if you know that your zipper is flakey, then see to it before you take the gear out on another trip. The alternate approach is to carry something like a leatherman tool (pliers), and/or a field replaceable zipper slider. For this latter, you could consider a product named “FixnZip”, which advertises itself as requiring no tools or sewing — it uses a screw-on clamp system to replace the zipper slider. The catch with this latter is that you need to bring the proper size of slider replacement; fine if it’s just for your own gear, a little trickier if it’s part of a sort of “shared resource” repair kit.
If you have a zipper problem, resist the urge to just force it open (or shut). Learn the most basic zipper maintenance and repair options, but first and foremost: just be aware of the issue. If you’re at all concerned about the durability of your gear, lightweight zippers could be your biggest vulnerability.
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Interesting topic that I have to admit I have never given much thought to. However I will pay more attention to the closures on my hammocks and clothing going forward. Thanks for posting.