10 Backpacking Gear Maintenance Tasks for December

10 Backpacking Gear Maintenance Tasks for December

Here are 10 hiking and backpacking gear maintenance tasks to put on your to-do list this December. With the winter hiking and backpacking season starting, it’s worthwhile to repair your existing hiking gear and to switch to a few winter-specific items. Winter can just be brutal on clothing, footwear, and gear but the stuff is expensive, and these days, scarce, so it pays to extend its lifetime. In my stomping grounds, you can tell the more seasoned hikers from the newbies by the number of repairs that they’ve made to their winter gear over the years.

1. Add snow baskets to your trekking poles.

Summer baskets and snow baskets
Summer baskets and snow baskets

Snow baskets provide flotation for your trekking poles and prevent them from sinking deeply into snow when hiking. It’s important to put them on before the first significant snowfall. A lot of inexpensive trekking poles don’t come with trekking pole baskets, so it’s best to pick up a pair that do, or to purchase a set of baskets for your poles if they’re sold separately. If you find that you lose snow baskets because they fall off (black diamond snow baskets are notorious for this) try supergluing them to your poles.

2. Sharpen crampons and microspikes.

Winter traction aids such as crampons and microspikes get dull with use, particularly when you walk across rock. This is unavoidable in mountainous terrain, so it pays to sharpen your traction aids manually with a file so they have a better bite in ice. The sharpening process is remarkably easy and just requires a common 10″ Mill bastard hand file. Just sharpen the thin edge. Don’t sharpen the sides of the spikes because that will make the metal thinner and weaker. As to the correct method, just make sure that your file strokes go in the direction away from the pointy base of the file, so you are pushing it away from your body.  Don’t use a powered grinder, as it may heat the metal and ruin its temper. You want to sharpen the point until it’s equivalent in shape to the tip of a ballpoint pen. When the spikes get too worn down, it’s best to replace them with a new pair. Crampons and microspikes are safety gear. Don’t skimp on getting the best.

3. Pre-fit new crampons and snowshoes before winter hikes.

Prefit your crampons and traction aids

If you’ve bought new boots, crampons, or snowshoes, it’s important to pre-fit them at home before you go on a winter hike to make they’re all adjusted correctly. No one wants to sit at a trailhead in the freezing cold while you adjust the length of your crampons or get your snowshoes to fit your new boots right. Some crampons also require special tools to adjust which you may not have carried with you. Do this at home beforehand.

4. Replace or repair gaiter instep straps.

The stitching anchoring the gaiter strap can fail and needs to be resewn
The stitching anchoring the gaiter strap can fail and needs to be resewn


The instep straps of high winter gaiters can wear out over time or get pulled out if the seams holding them onto the gaiter let go. Some high gaiters like Outdoor Research’s Crocodile Gaiters and Sea-to-Summits Alpine eVent Gaiters have replaceable instep straps, others you can simply replace with a piece of elastic cord. Otherwise, you may have to replace the gaiter entirely if the instep strap cannot be replaced or repaired. (Hint: buy ones that have replaceable instep straps).

5. Switch to lithium headlamp or flashlight batteries.

Hiking by Headlamp, Mt Cherry Trail

Lithium batteries operate at a high level of efficiency down to -40F below while alkaline batteries begin to perform inefficiently when temperatures drop below 32F and cease functioning at 0F degrees. If you still use a headlamp or flashlight with general-purpose AA, AAA, etc. batteries, you want to switch to lithium batteries during the colder months.

If instead, you use a headlamp with a built-in lithium battery, I’d even suggest packing a second rechargeable headlamp with a built-in lithium battery so you have a backup in case yours runs out of juice or your partner needs one. You can’t really do the latter by just carrying extra batteries or a power pack because charging a lithium battery in the cold will destroy its performance permanently unless it’s specially designed. Most aren’t.

Spending an unexpected night out because you can’t see, called being “benighted” in search and rescue circles, isn’t really an option in winter unless you’re carrying all of the necessary backup insulation for a night out. That extra headlamp really comes in handy sometimes and will keep you moving until you reach a safe destination.

6. Repair your winter boots.


If the soles of your winter hiking footwear have started to separate or peel off, this is a good time to glue them back together using Shoegoo, Gear-Aid Shoe Repair Glue (formerly known as Freesole), or AquaSeal Shoe Repair. For example, the front toe kick on my insulated Oboz boots was peeling off, so I glued them back on and they’ve been good to go ever since. You can often extend the life of your winter boots, or any other shoes for that matter, by gluing together seams that have started to loosen or separate, or by coating the front of a boot with a thin coat of Shoegoo as a toe-kick if it’s showing a lot of wear. All of these shoe repair products are urethane adhesives that bond permanently to soles and heels and dry as clear and flexible rubber that won’t peel or crack.  Winter boots are expensive and hard to find this year due to supply chain issues, making it even more worthwhile to repair what you own already.

7. Service your liquid fuel stove.

When burning the Whisperlite will glow red.
When burning the Whisperlite will glow red.

Liquid fuel stoves including the MSR Whisperlite (all models), MSR DragonFly, or MSR XGK-EX are good for snow melting because they work in colder, subzero temperatures (Fahrenheit) than canister stoves. These stoves burn different forms of gasoline which may include impurities that can gunk up the inside of the stove over time. While you can enjoy years of use from these stoves, it’s good to check, clean, lubricate, and replace worn-out parts on an annual basis. MSR sells a basic annual maintenance kit for this purpose as well as more elaborate stove-specific kits for more involved maintenance tasks. Since you depend on these stoves for drinking water, it’s worth the extra effort to pamper them once a year or before long trips. Tip: When winter backpacking with others, carry two stoves that can burn the same fuel type. I’m not sure what other liquid fuel manufacturers require in terms of maintenance. It’s probably worth finding out if you don’t know.

8. Restock your snowshoe repair kit.

The pins holding the binding to the snowshoe broke
The pivot pins holding the binding to the snowshoe broke

Snowshoes break and when they do, you want to be able to cobble together a field repair so you can get back to the trailhead without post-holing all the way. There are several types of common breaks that you can prepare for, including snapped pivots pins, binding strap breaks, and snowshoe frame breaks. Pivots pins, called clevis pins and rings, let the footbed tilt up and down when you walk. They can fatigue and snap. When this happens the best repair is to replace the pin with an equivalent one obtained from the manufacturer or a clevis pin you buy at home depot. They just cost a few bucks. The same goes for snapped binding straps. You can usually buy these online or just get them from the manufacturer by calling customer service. Finally, you can usually splint a snapped pipe-style snowshoe frame with a hose clamp and some duct tape, at least to get you closer to your car. If you have MSR snowshoes, they sell an MSR Showshoe Repair Kit with a few of the basics.

If you’re assembling a snowshoe repair kit from scratch, carry the items mentioned above and a multitool and carry them whenever you go snowshoeing. If you like more extreme winter hikes, they’ll come in handy for you or other members of your group.

9. Make more long-burning wax firestarters.

We carry emergency firestarters in winter to get a fire going in case one of us has an accident and needs to hunker down until search and rescue can arrive. The biggest factor in getting a winter fire lit is to have a long-burning firestarter. The best way to make these is to fill used cardboard egg cartons with a combination of sawdust or wood chips and wax. You then cut the carton apart to make separate firestarters. The cardboard acts as a wick and will burn for about 10 minutes.

10. Pack cold-weather survival gear in your car.

Car stuck in snow.

Someday, your car or truck isn’t going to start after a winter hike or you’ll get stuck in deep snow. Rather than freeze to death at the trailhead waiting for a tow to arrive, if you can even contact one, it’s best to pack a sleeping bag and sleeping pad so you can sleep in your vehicle if you have to. Here are some other items that can come in handy in winter to get unstuck:

  • a shovel to dig out your car if it’s buried in the snow
  • a tire iron and a small hydraulic jack to change a tire
  • sand for traction on ice and weight over your wheels,
  • a battery-powered lantern
  • an emergency blanket
  • a small propane stove and fuel
  • an axe to clear trees or branches blocking the road

If you hike in the backcountry, all of this stuff becomes handy sooner or later. I’ve used every single one of these on past winter hikes in New Hampshire and Maine, for example.

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  1. The -40F claim for Lithium Ion batteries is suprising, but I can find no definitive documentation that says that Lithium Ion batteries will fail to work at cold temps. Anecdotally however, I know that my smartphone battery, which is Lithium Ion based, has always done poorly in cold temps. Also, electric vehicles like Tesla’s actually heat their battery packs in winter to keep them at optimum efficiency.

    Further, Fenix makes an 18650 Lithium-Ion cell that’s specifically designed for cold weather here: https://www.fenix-store.com/fenix-arbl18-2900l-cold-resistant-rechargeable-18650-battery/
    NiteCore has something similar for cold weather: https://www.nitecorestore.com/NITECORE-NL1835LTHP-18650-Battery-p/bat-nite-18650-nl1835lthp.htm

    This suggests that not all Lithium-Ion batteries are made the same or will perform the same in sub-freezing temperatures.

    When I think of cold weather battery performance, I usually turn to a headlamp that can take Lithium PRIMARY cells (AA or AAA, like Energizer Lithiums). However, i may have to get one of those cold weather specific Lithium Ion 18650s’ for my ZebraLight H600.

    • It’s not that they fail to work, it’s that they won’t deliver a full charge. Alkaline batteries are really bad in the cold and crap out quickly. Lithium batteries are affected much less, in fact, minimally affected. Heating a lithium-ion battery in a tesla, would offset the approximately 10% loss of retrievable power they likely experience in cold weather.

      I’d always heard that alkaline batteries contained water, which freezes in the cold, but lithium-ion batteries don’t. But I can’t find the source for that info anymore.

      • There’s a wikipedia page on Lithium Ion batteries that describes a dizzying array of different electrolyes, anodes, and cathodes that can be used. I don’t think you’re wrong in your original claim, just that “it’s complicated” depending on exactly what chemistry is being used in a particular battery pack.

        Petzl has a PDF for their “Core” battery pack that specifies a CHARGING temperature range of 32°F-113°F and an OPERATING temperature range of -22°F to +140°F

        I agree that Alkalines are well known to be the worse performers in cold temps.

        I just ordered one of those Fenix cold weather 18650’s to try in my Zebralight HL600. It will be interesting to see if there’s any noticeable difference in performance vs my standard 18650 cells in cold weather. I’ve been known to use it for winter hiking, running, and ice climbing after dark.

    • I think the main issue with charging Lithium batteries in the cold is that they can be damaged by charging at low temps. That’s why Tesla has the battery warmer. Lithium-Iron batteries aren’t damaged and are increasingly being used in battery banks because of their lower cost and ability to handle charging at low temperatures. They don’t have the energy density of Lithium-Ion so are not used in portable devices. There’s constant research into improving batteries. It’s an exciting field. If I was fifty years younger, I might go into that… but I’d still hit the trail!

  2. Instead of making an emergency firestarter, I just use Esbit tablets. They are already prepackaged, very dependable, and have an 8-10 minute burn time.

  3. The statement about Lithium Ion batteries should be Lithium “Iron”.

    Energizer Lithium AAA = Lithium Iron
    Rechargable headlamps = Lithium Ion

    If someone does manage to buy a AAA Lithium ion battery and use it in their headlamp, bad things are bound to happen. I would suggest renaming that headline to just “lithium” batteries, and being specific in the type for AAA vs recargable.

  4. Lots of good points in this article. Reminds me of a trouble-fraught backcountry ski trip into the Pemigewasset Wilderness one winter.

    There were 9 of us in three cars. We all filled our white gas stoves (several different models) with gas from the same tin that I bought at a K-Mart along the way. ALL of them gummed up and we had to cook over wood fires for the next five days. People had broken ski binding bales and pole tips came loose. One guy forgot winter boots or down booties to wear around camp and started to get frostbite wearing damp ski boots when the temp dipped to zero later on the first day. Another person suddenly remembered that she didn’t have a foam pad after we were 8 miles into the wilderness. We each cut 7 or 8 inches off the bottoms of our pads and duct-taped them together to make her a pad. We all got sunburned on the third or fourth day when it really warmed up — I was the only one to pack sunscreen, but not enough for 8 other people. Finally, when the trip was ove, two carloads of people drove off and I was last to leave. Only then did I discover my car battery had died and I had to wait a full day for someone to come by and jump start me.

    After that trip, we developed what we call “New Hampshire Rules.” Never share fuel from a single source. Bring sun screen in winter. No one leaves the parking lot until EVERY car has started and has two wheels on clear pavement. etc. So check ALL your gear. Check each other’s gear. Then have a safe and more comfortable trip.

    Pro tip: always park your car facing OUT so someone can reach your battery with jumper cables!

    • Yep – I feel your pain. But you survived to hike or ski another day!

    • Russ,

      If my family read that, they would say, “I thought this stuff only happened to you!” I’m glad all made it out and learned from it. I tell people these types of things happen because of “creative bad planning”. It’s not just bad planning but we have to be creative about it to get so many disasters to happen at once. Your “New Hampshire Rules” are a good set of rules for hikes anywhere at any time.

      Thanks for sharing!

  5. I keep tire traction boards in my trunk. Got stuck last winter and stuck these under my tires and drove right out.

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