Tips for keeping your shelter going as long as you do

It’s true. I have a work tent. In fact, I have several, but this Sierra Designs Omega CD has been the star of my tent show for the past thirteen years, since a summer I spent in the searing UV light at 11,000 feet in Kings Canyon NP, doing frog and fish surveys.  It’s been my go-to work tent all through Montana, from the northern prairies to the eastern plains to the cedar forests of the northwest.   As far as I can tell, it’s bombproof. It’s been snowed on, hailed on, whipped by gale-force winds, pounded by torrential rains, chewed by varmints, rubbed by cattle, and God knows what else when I was too sound asleep or too far away to know about it.  It fits me, a supersize thermarest, a gear explosion, drying laundry, my empty pack, and even, I discovered a couple of weeks ago, the big black dog I borrowed when I was doing surveys in an area lousy with grizzly bears.  It’s traveled by truck and car, by horse and mule, and  a couple of times, in a helicopter.  But I just finished my last field trip of the season –of my career, most likely—and so it’s officially retired from work duty, and from backcountry use in general, because I damn sure won’t carry a 7 pound, 4 ounce tent on my back any time soon.

But this begs the point. My work tent has lasted as long as it has because I take good care of it. Here are a few tips you can follow to extend the life of your (hopefully lighter) tent:

  • Dry it. When it’s pouring rain and you’re on a through-hike, you don’t have a lot of choice. You have to pack it up wet and keep going.  But you can do wonders with a microfiber towel. I bought a half-dozen, and always have two in my pack. These are the super-absorbent, light-as-air towels serious car fanatics use to dry their cars to avoid spots after washing (look for them in the auto parts section of Wally World, or online).  Even if it’s still raining, you can use one to suck the water from the surface of your tent.  That way, if you get a break in the rain at some point in the day, you can unpack your tent and air or sun-dry it. Plus it will weight a lot less.  Oh, and on that note? If you get a window of sunshine, don’t assume it will still be nice and dry later, and you can just wait.  That rarely works out.
  • Clean it. It’s a pain in the ass to sweep out or empty out all the twigs, stones, pine cones etc every day, but packing them causes abrasion.  Just do it.
  • Use a groundcloth. I have one word here: Tyvek. Worth the money to keep you dry and preserve your tent.
  • Be careful with your zippers. Your very best bet is to buy a couple of spare zipper sliders before you leave on a long hike, and keep them in your first aid kit. It’s the slider that’s typically the problem with the zipper that won’t seal. It’s a quick repair, and the spare will save you from many insect bites if it fails on a through hike. But you can protect the slider by keeping the zipper clean. When you open the tent door, don’t push it outward into the dirt. Pull it in to the tent.  If you get sand or dirt in the zipper teeth, clean them. The sand or dirt will destroy the slider.  I use my toothbrush if I have to (like after a heavy windstorm).
  • Fold it a different way from time to time. If you always fold along the same lines, you’ll get permanent creases that, over the years, will wear through.
  • If you have shock-corded poles, separate them in the middle first, not from the end. You’ll put less strain on the shock cord this way. And don’t go all Jedi on them when you take them out of the bag, snapping them in the air to get them aligned. It’s showy, but it ruins them over time.
  • Wash the whole tent every now and then.  No detergent. I use Woolite or Nikwax, and I wash it by hand with a soft sponge.  I hear people use front loaders on a delicate cycle, but I haven’t tried it.  I can wash it by hand in the time it takes me to drive to the laundromat.  Every three or four years I re-waterproof the fabric, and put seam sealer on the major seams.
  • After your hike, put it away dry, clean, and some place where mice or insects won’t get to it, like a heavy-duty Rubbermaid box.

The work tent is going to find a home with the heavyweight camping stuff after this year.  It isn’t going to the junk gear pile, or the pile of memorabilia, like my long-dead grandmother’s writing box, that every couple of years I dig out, open, and smell as a way of conjuring up the good times.  I expect to get a lot more use of it on river trips and front-country camping.  The little extra time it’s taken me to follow these few good practices has kept it going all these years, and will continue to ensure it performs as the workhorse it’s always been.

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Comments 3

  • Therese : Sep 1st

    Thanks for some REALLY GREAT advice on keeping a tent well into its middle aged years. I, too, will be doing the AT next year. I hope to run into you on the trail. Any idea when you’ll be starting? Email me if you would like. Cheers!!

    • Linda Vance : Sep 2nd

      My plan is to start a flip-flop around Troutville, VA in early April. But I am seriously considering a pre-hike of a week to ten days starting in Georgia at the beginning of March. I’d like to meet the people in the initial throng of NOBOs. And who knows, maybe I’ll keep going. Right now I have it in my head that I don’t want to give up the stellar fishing in the Gulf of Mexico from mid-March to early April. A girl has to have her priorities. But the trail’s gravity pull may be too strong to resist come March…… When/where are you starting?

  • Shane : Sep 4th

    Really great advice on upkeep of a tent. A lot of people looked at me funny when I swore even small things like this could add years to the life of a tent – but this article confirms it. Now that being said – 13 years? Dang – good for you! That is one heck of a run no matter how you cut it. I thought we did good keeping a family tent going for 6 years!


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