Why You Need to Learn Gear First Aid Before Your Thru-Hike

Every hopeful thru-hiker learns how to pop blisters and deal with basic medical emergencies before a thru-hike. But what do you do when it’s your gear that breaks? Thru-hikes are tough and demanding on your stuff, just as much as they are for you. Almost everyone will have to stitch up ripped backpack mesh, splint a tent pole, or fix a clogged filter at some point. Fixing your gear rather than just tossing it is also better for your wallet and the planet. It makes sense to learn some basic backpacking gear repairs before you head out.

Dry your gear every chance you get to prevent mold and mildew.

Prevention is Better than Cure

Make sure your gear is in tip-top shape before you start your hike. You wouldn’t start a thru-hike with a broken ankle. So if your gear isn’t performing how you want it to, either replace it before you leave or fix it before you start the trail. Shakedown hikes can be invaluable for checking the condition of your gear. This is especially important for older or used gear.

Some things you might want to consider before starting your thru-hike include:

  • Backflushing filters
  • Re-waterproofing rain gear
  • Washing your sleeping bag
  • Checking all your backpack straps and buckles
  • Checking stuff sacks, trash compactor bags, etc. don’t have holes and are still waterproof
  • Seam sealing tents (most tents are already seam sealed, but some are not!)

In addition to checking pre-hike, you should also keep an eye on your gear throughout your trip. Zeros in town are a great chance to wash or repair worn gear before it fails on you completely.

Throughout your hike, try and take good care of your stuff as much as possible. If your gear gets wet, dry it out so there’s no mold or mildew. If it gets dirty, clean it (sand will kill zippers quickly). Be careful around fires or barbed wire fences, unless you really want to have to fix holes.

basic backpacking gear repairs

Sewing repair on Altras. Photo courtesy of Rob Thwaites.

Keep it Clean

Keeping your gear clean can extend its life (and cut down on hiker stink). If you’re starting a hike with used gear, wash it before you begin. If your gear is still fairly new, you’ll want to wash it once it gets dirty on trail, and again at the end of your thru-hike.

Rain Jackets and Other Waterproof Gear

Dirt can cause waterproof fabric to wet out: rain jackets are particularly susceptible to this since pack straps really rub dirt into the fabric. Exact directions vary from to , so you may want to check online before washing. Wash with a cleaner designed for gear, such as Nikwax Tech Wash, and then dry in a tumble dryer for at least 20 minutes to reactivate waterproofing. If your jacket no longer beads up when wet, you may wish to use a spray on treatment in addition to cleaning it.


Washing down can be intimidating. You must use a down specific soap, like Nikwax Down Wash Direct. Never use regular soap or dry clean your down, as this will damage the feathers. Either wash your items by hand or in a front loading washer on the gentlest cycle. Dry your gear in a tumble dryer on the lowest possible setting, and add in some tennis balls to break up clumps in the down. Drying a sleeping bag can take most of a day, so plan to only wash your bag at home or on a zero.

Learn Basic Backpacking Gear Repairs

You’re likely to only have to perform small repairs on trail: sewing up rips and taping over burn holes are more common tasks than fixing a broken stove or backpack.  Here are a few basic skills that will allow you to fix most problems on trail.

Sewing and Taping

If you can sew even the most simple stitch, you can fix a torn backpack strap or a ripped shirt. Most hikers already carry a needle. If you add dental floss or a non-cotton thread (cotton will rot over time) to your kit, you can stitch up almost anything. If you can’t even sew on a button in regular life, it’s pretty easy to learn before you start your hike thanks to YouTube.

Tape can also solve many problems. Most hikers carry Leukotape, which is fantastic for many uses but can leave a sticky residue on fabric repairs. Tenacious tape or a similar gear repair tape is cheap, lightweight, and looks slightly better if you’re patching a hole in a prized puffy.

basic backpacking gear repairs

Shoe problems are common.

Shoe Repair

Have you ever seen a hiker walk past with the sidewall of their shoe completely blown out, or their toes sticking out? At some point, almost every thru-hiker has tried to get just a few more miles out of a pair of trail runners. A needle and thread can patch smaller holes, but if your shoes are starting to fall apart, you might want to try some Shoe Goo. I don’t carry this with me normally, but I will pick some up in town if my shoes are looking particularly bad. For best results, Shoe Goo needs to cure overnight, so this is a good chore to do in town.

Sleeping Pad Repair

A leaky sleeping pad can completely ruin your night. If you use an inflatable pad, make sure you have a patch kit or Tenacious Tape and know how to find leaks. You can help prevent issues by checking the area for sharp sticks, rocks, and other debris before you set up your tent. To find a hole in your pad, cover the suspected area with soapy water and look for bubbles. You can also submerge your pad in water and check for bubbles. If you’re trying to fix your pad on trail, remember to keep soap well away from bodies of water.

Once you find your leak, dry and deflate your pad. Clean the area with an alcohol pad (you probably already have one in your first aid kit). Add adhesive or seam grip, and then either a patch or Tenacious Tape. Let the adhesive dry overnight, and then make sure your pad holds air. If it still does not stay inflated, make sure you don’t have a second hole.

Be Creative

Creativity will get you out of a lot of sticky gear situations, or at least let you limp to town for a more permanent solution. When a tent pole broke on a camping trip, we splinted it with leukotape and extra tent pegs. I wouldn’t want a tent pole in that condition for an entire thru-hike, but it worked for a few nights. You can wrap a shoe in tape to hold on a sole for a few days or use a spare trash compactor bag as a makeshift poncho. You can solve many problems with what you already have in your backpack.

Also, consider learning a few repairs specific to your gear. If you have a Sawyer Squeeze, learn how to backflush it on the trail. If your stove requires adjustments or regular cleaning, make sure you learn how to do that while you have access to a manual or the internet.

How to backflush a Sawyer Squeeze

The Sawyer Squeeze is one of the most popular filters on trail, but it does require regular cleaning. If the flow rate of your Sawyer has slowed, make sure you backflush it. Simply squirt water through the clean end of the filter, until it runs clean from the other side. Sawyer provides a syringe for this purpose, and you can often find these in hiker boxes if you left yours at home. A Smartwater bottle with a sports cap will also work in a pinch, although it will provide less pressure. (Ed. note: also consider Sawyer’s cleaning coupling, which makes backflushing easy and leak-free. As an added bonus, you can also use this coupling to turn your Sawyer into a bona fide gravity filtration system).

If your filter is still slow, you can also soak it in warm (not boiling) water for two hours to loosen dirt in the filter, and then backflush as normal.

What’s in your first aid kit?

You already carry most things necessary for basic backpacking gear repairs. If your first aid kit doesn’t already contain the following, consider adding these items:

  • Needle
  • Dental floss or non-cotton thread
  • Tenacious tape or other gear repair tape
  • Shoe Goo if your shoes are looking worn
  • Sleeping pad patches and adhesive (if you have an inflatable pad)
basic backpacking gear repairs

Pretty sure the water is supposed to stay on the outside of the tent.

Bailing to Town

Just like in real first aid, there’s a pretty clear difference between what you can fix on trail and what you need to go to town for. You can sew up small rips, tape burn holes, or get creative in pitching your trekking pole tent if you snap a pole—all without leaving the trail. However, if your backpack is missing a strap, or your shoe completely falls apart, it’s pretty much impossible to keep going. If you are ever worried that a gear failure will create a life-threatening emergency, you should immediately head to town.

Let’s use a real-world example. This summer on the Great Divide Trail, my new tent stopped being waterproof. We found this out at 11 p.m. when it started raining inside the tent during a storm. We didn’t have a tarp, waterproofing spray, seam sealer, or any other way to try and fix our tent on the trail. The forecast was for rain and cold temperatures for the next week. Our sleeping bags were wet but not soaked. If we continued, we risked being in a situation where all of our gear was wet, we were cold, and our shelter didn’t work. So, we headed back to town to find a new tent.

You will have to use your own judgment as to what is serious enough to head to town to fix. If you are ever worried that your gear will leave you in serious trouble, it’s better to be safe than sorry and turn around.

Trekking pole handle repaired with leukotape after a hungry rabbit had a midnight snack.

Call the Manufacturer Before You Replace Your Gear

Your tent, sleeping bag, or backpack is broken beyond your ability to fix. You’ve headed back to town. You’re grumpy, upset, and annoyed. Before you throw your old item in the trash and head to the gear store to spend half your thru-hike’s budget, here are a few things to try.

First of all, call the manufacturer. Most gear companies have awesome warranties. You’ve probably already heard about Osprey’s almighty guarantee, where they will replace or repair any of their packs for any reason, for free. You’ve definitely heard of hikers who ship off their Darn Tough socks the second they get a hole and get a new pair of free socks in return. Many companies will replace their gear for no cost, as long as there’s a defect that is not the result of normal wear and tear or user error.

Make sure you tell them that you’re thru-hiking. Often, it’s standard procedure to mail off your busted tent or broken backpack and wait weeks for the company to ship you a new one. However, explaining that you’re currently on the trail will often get you special treatment. You may be redirected to a nearby gear shop that will go through the process for you. If you’re lucky, you can walk out with new gear the same day.

Sometimes, you can’t get same-day help. However, companies will frequently offer to mail replacement parts further down the trail to you. Make sure you ask how long this will take so you can give an accurate estimation of when you’ll reach a certain town. If it’s a non-essential piece of kit, like a trekking pole, you can often make do without it for a week or two.

Check with the Store

If the manufacturer can’t help you, the store you purchased the gear from can sometimes help. REI in particular has a great returns policy. Requirements for returning broken gear will vary from company to company and will have different date ranges. If you can’t physically get to a store, you can always contact customer service to see if you can return your gear at a later date, or if they will accept returns by mail.

One important note: most companies will not replace gear that is too dirty. It’s worth spending the time to wash your backpack or socks properly before you try to return them.

basic backpacking gear repairs

Even hiking mascots need repair sometimes.

Most thru-hikers never have to do much more than sew up a few ripped pieces of clothing. However, being prepared can make a big difference should a more important part of your gear fail. Learn just a few skills before you leave on your thru-hike and you can deal with most minor repairs.

Featured image: Photo via Eloise Robbins. Graphic design by Chris Helm (@chris.helm).

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Comments 1

  • Fritz : Nov 2nd

    I always carry 1 or 2 small zip ties. Weight is negligible and they are useful for temporary repairs of most gear, clothing or footgear


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