There’s no way around it: quality backpacking gear is expensive. Learning how to care for it is the best way to make the most of your investment. Here are four easy things you need to do as soon as you get home from any backpacking trip to make your gear last. I guarantee they’ll make your next adventure even better.
Whether it’s rain, dew, perspiration, or condensation, your tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and clothing are probably going to come home with some moisture in them. Even if your trip was a dry one, you need to thoroughly air out your gear as soon as you can. Failing to do so risks allowing mold and mildew to develop, potentially ruining all your expensive stuff.
I like to do this by basically setting up camp on my back porch. If you live in an apartment, you can do the same in your living room. I’ve even seen particularly space-strapped people do this in their parking space in their building’s garage. I avoid my yard, just in case it’s hanging onto moisture from the night before—or dog poop.
Erect your tent. It can be hard to find ways to fully spread out a rain fly, particularly in a manner that doesn’t allow it to blow away. Fortunately, your tent’s body is designed for that exact purpose. Both tent and rain fly are capable of fully drying out when attached to each other.
Spread out your sleeping bag and pad inside the tent, and zip the doors closed so your dogs stay out. One thing you shouldn’t do is inflate your pad. Moisture from your breath gets inside every time you blow it up, and what you’re trying to do here is dry out the inside of the pad. Spread it out on the tent floor and open all its valves.
Don’t forget stuff like your backpack, clothing, and water filter. Open all valves or caps on the latter, cycle its pump until any remaining water is gone, then leave it in the sun until any signs of condensation are no longer visible.
Dirt, sweat, and other debris you pick up outdoors can slowly degrade the performance of stuff like waterproof membranes and down insulation, abrade or penetrate fabrics, and generally make your gear gross.
All your gear is designed to be cleaned in some way. But only clean it when truly necessary, since saturation, heat, agitation, and tumbling will eventually degrade most materials. Fortunately, most of the dirt your gear came home with can simply be brushed off once you’ve allowed it to dry. Start there, then move on to wiping stuff down with a damp cloth if it’s still dirty (and letting it dry thoroughly again). Beyond that, consult the item’s care instructions.
Clothing and sleeping bags made from down will benefit from semi-regular washing—once a year, or as needed—because your sweat and body oils will slowly compromise their ability to loft and, therefore, provide insulation.
Synthetic soft- and hard-shell pants and jackets also benefit from seasonal care. Their durable water repellant (DWR) coatings wear down, causing face fabrics to wet out. Body oils and sweat slowly clog the pores that allow these fabrics to breathe. If your water-repellant or waterproof items start to hold onto water or look dirty or greasy, wash them.
All of the above items will include care labels with instructions on water and dryer temperatures. Follow those, but note that, generally speaking, front-loading washing machines will be gentler on your stuff than top-loaders. You’ll also need to use special detergents designed for the unique needs of the different materials used across technical gear. Nikwax makes a variety of cleaners and treatments designed for anything you might own. Follow that brand’s instructions, and you’ll be rewarded with gear that works as good as new for years longer than you expected. Some performance-enhancing treatments, like Cotton Proof, can make your gear perform even better than new.
One final tip for down bags and clothing: running them through a tumble dryer is crucial for restoring loft. I add a dozen tennis balls in a large mesh bag to the dryer to help beat out the clumps that the down forms in the wash. It is totally worth spending a couple hours in a laundromat to do this if you don’t have front-loading machines at home.
All outdoor gear should be stored in a dark, dry place. UV exposure and moisture are kryptonite for your expensive camping gear. I dedicate the insulated, sealed crawl space that contains my home’s furnace to camping gear storage. The furnace pulls moisture out of the air, resulting in a totally dry space.
If you purchased a quality sleeping bag, it may have come with a cotton or mesh storage bag that allows you to contain it without compressing it. If you don’t have one, buy one. Storing your down gear compressed in a stuffsack will destroy its loft in short order.
Sleeping pads should also be stored loosely. Folding them into a tight package can cause seams and creases to fail over time. Remember to leave their valves open so residual moisture can escape. Normal clothes hangers work great, or you can simply roll your pads loosely and store them without any weight on top. Make sure to keep repair kits in the stuffsacks, and loop those around the hanger’s hook so you don’t lose anything.
Tent materials can be stored rolled up in their stuffsacks without concern. Take care to make sure poles, guylines, and stakes remain with the appropriate tent.
Learn from It
Keep a notebook or note-taking app handy as you go through the drying, cleaning, and storage process. Jot down any missing or broken components, like tent stakes. Order new ones immediately, and store them with their corresponding items. The idea is to address potential problems while they’re fresh in your mind—not wait till a year from now, when you’re setting up camp in a thunderstorm.
Similarly, take note of any issues you had or improvements that might help. There’s something about hours and hours of trudging along a trail that tends to both highlight shortcomings and inspire creative solutions. My wife’s new backpack, for instance, includes slits that enable you to load water bottles into the bag’s sleeves horizontally. But she carries a bladder and uses the sleeves for small essentials like hand sanitizer. We plan to sew up those slits to lessen the odds of losing the sanitizer. Noting that now, when it’s fresh, allows us to plan better for our next trip.
Keep track of consumables, like stove fuel. How many meals and for how many campers did an entire canister enable you to make? If you used only a portion of the canister, how much? It is possible to measure how much fuel is remaining in one, but it’s way easier to track use and know not just how much fuel is remaining, but also how many days of use that fuel will last you. I’m doing this right now since I’ve just switched from the smaller MSR Pocket Rocket 2 to the larger, more efficient Reactor. Learning exactly how many cups of Alpine Start and how many Good To-Go dinners a canister of isobutane will get me through will enable me to carry less fuel more confidently in the future. Do the same for flashlight batteries.
Also take note of things you didn’t use or that would have been nice to have. The most effective way to cut pack weight and better enjoy backpacking is to take less stuff. Learning what you do and don’t need is a process that will result in a different conclusion for every camper. Just make sure you’re actively advancing the process with each trip.