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Annoying Gear Failures: How to Prevent Catastrophe and How to Recover

Pitching a Tarp on Frozen Ground
Pitching a Tarp on Frozen Ground (Not)

Backpacking and hiking gear has a nasty habit of failing when you least expect it or you need it the most – in the dark, when it’s pouring rain, or in the middle of nowhere. Knock on wood, I’ve never been stranded by gear failure, but it can be damn annoying. Here are some of the ways gear has failed on me and how I adapted in the moment, or by changing my gear list to prevent a similar incident from affecting me in the future.

Backpack Shoulder Strap Breaks

I was hiking a section of the Long Trail in Vermont when the shoulder strap of my backpack came unsewn at the bottom. I pinned it back on with the pair of locking baby pins I carry in my repair/first aid kit, hiked another 30 miles with it, and then  sent it back to the manufacturer to have the strap resewn.

Water Filter Hose Tears

I used a First Need XL Water Filter when I hiked in the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine the first time. About 4 days into my trip, the pump pressure started drop intermittently as I was pumping water. I figured it was a hole in the intake hose, but I couldn’t find it by visual inspection. I started cutting off pieces of the hose to see if I could locate and remove the bad section. This worked, but it reduced the length of the intake hose by half.

Chlorine Dioxide Tablets Fail to Dissolve in Water

I got a batch of Katadyn Micropur Chlorine Dioxide Water Purification Tablets this summer that failed to dissolve when added to water. I use them to purify a big batch of water overnight while I’m asleep so I have water in the morning for breakfast and the first half of the day. I always carry two forms of water purification when I hike, so I simply filtered the undissolved tablets and unpurified water with my Sawyer filter, but it was annoying. I’ve since switched to liquid Aqua Mira drops instead of Micropur tablets.

Forgotten Wind Screen

I occasionally forget to bring a wind screen when cooking with an alcohol or liquid fuel stove.  This is easy to fix by positioning the stove behind a wind break like a big rock or by surrounding the stove with an accordion-style closed cell foam pad, like the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite. You can also use a plastic ground sheet as a wind break – see Jim Woods Kite Screen article about how to do this.

Carbon Fiber Trekking Pole Shaft Snaps

I’ve broken a lot of carbon fiber hiking poles in my time. The solution – I don’t use them. If you rely on one to pitch your shelter and it snaps, use a broken tree branch instead.

Tent Stakes Bend in Frozen Ground

Have you ever tried to pound an ultralight aluminum tent stake into frozen ground? They bend and don’t go in. Your best bet is to use a freestanding shelter instead, and fill it without enough gear so that it doesn’t blow away on a windy day.

Hiking Pant’s Seat Splits

If you have a sewing kit you can sew them. I never carry one, so I just suck it up and keep wearing torn hiking pants as is until I get home. No one really cares if you look like a hobo on the trail.

Hydration Reservoir Cap Comes Undone

The cap of my platypus hydration reservoir worked loose when I was hiking the Long Trail, filling my backpack with about 2 liters of water. Luckily, I’d lined my pack with a trash compactor bag so none of my gear got wet, but that’s the last time I carried a reservoir full of water inside my backpack.

Headlamp Stops Working

Not much you can do about this if you only have one headlamp, which is why I carry two.

Hard Shell Zipper Breaks and Falls Off

The zipper on my hard shell broke last autumn – on a relatively new coat. Not much you can do about this in the field, especially if it’s raining cats and dogs outside except to wait for it to stop raining. The manufacturer replaced my hard shell when I returned it.

Canister Stove Piezo Stops Working

The Piezo lighters that come on canister stoves eventually break and stop working – it’s happened to me several times.  I always carry a fire steel in my gear repair /first aid kit to ignite fuel or start a fire, so this is never a problem for me. That fire steel has saved my butt a few times, though.

Inflatable Air Mattress Leaks

If your inflatable mattress starts to leak, you can try to field repair it with duct tape or a patch kit if you happen to carry one, which I don’t. Another solution is to always carry a piece of closed cell foam with you like a Gossamer Gear sitlight pad, which will insulate your torso in a pinch. You can also lie on your backpack, clothing, or pile forest duff under you to insulate your core from the cold ground. I’ve done them all.

External Pack Frame Pin Breaks

Back in the day, external frame backpacks used to be connected to the body of the backpack using a metal pin. These would occasionally break, so I’d always carry a few extras by attaching them to the zipper pulls on my pack’s external pockets.

How about You?

What annoying gear failures have you experienced and what did you do to carry on?

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  1. Had a buckle crack on backpack waist belt about a mile into a 5 day trip in the Seven Devils in Idaho. Rigged up a workaround with a web belt but the rest of the trek was extremely uncomfortable – all shoulders. Now try to carry a spare buckle.

    • I had the same thing happen, I trussed it up with a little para-cord. Probably not the safest way to go but it kept the buckle together.

  2. I’ve had pump water filters clog, crack, otherwise become useless. At the time I carried iodine as backup and had to use it quite frequently. I use gravityworks filter now and never had one fail and bring aquamira as the backup and will use in addition to when filtering from questionable surface water.

    Had a load lifter/pickup handle combo strap break once. It made the load lifter inoperable so had to loosen the other one. Just made the rest of the trip less comfortable on the shoulders, so only a minor inconvenience. I had a jumbo safety pin with me, but thought it would not take the stress. Years previous, I used to carry a Chouinard gear repair kit that I could have used, but I had stopped carrying it by then.

    Back when I used boots, I had a pair of Vasque Sundowner boots that had plastic D-rings. Well, when one failed, I just replaced the boots to skip that pair of D-rings. When two failed, I poked a hold in the leather and laced through that. When I passed through Damascus, I had the cobbler there at the time sew loops of leather in place of the broken D-rings. That repair lasted until the boots just flat out wore out. I carry a small roll of duct tape for shoe repairs.

    Never had an inflatable mattress leak (knock on wood), any sort of tent failure, stove problems, or zipper failures.

  3. “No one really cares if you look like a hobo on the trail.”

    And here i was sharing food and stuff with them. man… lol

  4. The wife patched a leaking intake hose on her water filter with a band aid from her first aid kit, which held up over two days. A leatherman or other multiuse tool with plyers is great for pinching down on zippers that come loose/won’t zip up. Voile straps (, available in several lenghts) are handy thing to have (much like zip ties). I also like to keep about 12-18 inches of duct tape wrapped around my trekking/bc skiing poles directly below the grips. Out of the way and easy to always have.

  5. Many years ago, I had some cheap boots I was using in the Boundary Waters on a canoe trip. After 3 weeks of wet weather and use, the sole of one simply fell off. I used some extra line I found lying around an old campsite to simply lash the sole back on. This lasted me the remaining week of my trip. I always carry extra line.

  6. Hey, I recognize this topic .. thanks for picking it up so quickly. Good advice! I had pretty much all of them happen to me one time or other, and the only gear failure that really sucked (blowed, rather :) was the air mat. Duct tape didn’t help, it kept leaking slowly. I was two nights out. And there is seriously little duff to be had in the Utah desert. I ended up sleeping on the ground cowboy style on top of my Tyvek ground sheet and the deflated mat, but both nights, I woke up seriously shivering at 4am and then alternated jumping jacks with cups of hot tea until I ran out of fuel and the sun finally came up.

    My most important “repair” tools: Duct tape and zip ties
    My most important backup: Aquamira, for when the filter goes fubar

    A broken headlamp or flashlight isn’t much of a concern anymore .. with all the geek gear that we tend to carry these days, some “light” can usually be had; the LCD of the mobile phone, camera, GPS, etc, provides plenty ambient light to follow a trail or check a map in a pinch. Stove problems also aren’t much of an issue, a small fire can usually be had, presumed you carry a simple BIC lighter and not just some fancy commando fire steel from the Bear Grylls mail order catalog :)

    • meh, BIC lighters annoy me. Never any gas in them. Good topic suggestion. You had quite a few….:-)

      • I carry two BIC lighters. One to use. And on the emergency backup one, I use a tight zip tie to block the gas lever from triggering. They still leak this way, but very slowly .. I find they are usually good for a year or so. Before I started blocking the trigger, mine were always empty, too ;). Good tinder is important, but a steady flame for several minutes just *rules* when you need a fire real bad.

  7. I came to the same conclusion as you- sewing kits and duct tape can’t fix a broken pack strap, but interlocking safety pins can. I had to re-route a multi-day trip from multiple summits to valleys due to a pack strap failing at the top of the pack. We managed to rig it with duct tape and a minimal sewing kit, but the weight capacity of the pack was cut in half.

    I carry small circular patches and small tube of rubber glue from a bike tire repair kit to manage any leaks in hoses or bladders. A pinhole leak in a bladder is a nightmare, because it takes a little while to detect the disaster.

  8. I trimmed the straps on my pack to reduce weight. Fine, but like a dummy I didn’t re-hem the strap ends. I arrived at the trailhead to find out that half my hip belt buckle was missing! Fortunately, I had left the ends long enough so a square knot did the job. A couple of months later I cleaned out the spare tire well, and guess what I found! Ah, well, now I have an extra hip belt buckle, and I did do some hemming!

    On the same trip, my old hiking pants–I was of course trying to get the most possible wear out of them–gave up the ghost. The seat ripped from waist band almost to knees! I tied my wind shirt behind my derriere to preserve at least a little modesty. Fortunately, I had left a pair of jeans in my car at the trailhead, so I was able to visit the nearest pizza place on the way home. My 11-year-old grandson was with me on that trip, so of course we couldn’t possibly pass the pizza!

    I do take a needle with large eye that can be threaded with dental floss. The pants rip was just too long for the amount of floss I had left on the last day! Moral: pack out used floss separately from other garbage.

  9. In my line of work I build a number of sandblasted Granite signs and I use a special duct tape that is really thick and has lots of adhesive for masking the edges of the stone. That tape has been really handy on the trail. I wrap it around a film container that has other emergency stuff in it. I’ve duct taped holes in bladders and mattresses, reinstalled my boot sole, taped broken tent poles together, taped my grandson’s pack back together, etc.

  10. I’ve also sewn many things back together with dental floss.

  11. I read about a new water filter, in either Outdoor or Backpacker magazine, that’s like a big straw. That could alleviate a torn hose issue. Although if you’re filling bottles and such a pump is needed.

    When I was snowboarding on Mt. Hood, the zipper on my jacket fell off. So, I had to use my lift pass.

    Great tips!

  12. The big straw you are talking about is the Lifestraw. It filters 1,000 liters of water before needing to be replaced. About $25.00 on Amazon.

  13. On day one of a seven day trek on the AT I had the shoulder strap of my Kelty backpack let go at the top when a rivet failed. Wouldn’t be a fun trip with only one strap! I heated up a titanium tent stake on my alcohol stove and used it to make (melt) holes in the nylon strap and plastic back sheet and used some thin paracord from my tent to stitch them together. I actually used that pack for another year before I got around to contacting Kelty who repaired it for free. The hot tent stake did a wonderful job of making a hole that wouldn’t fray. I never head out without duct tape, a mini super glue, safety pins, sewing kit, extra para cord, etc.

    • I used to replace all of the zipper pulls on my external pack (circa 1976) with extra rivets. Locking safety pins work great – used one to pin a shoulder strap on a six moons starlite a few years ago far enough out that hiking with one strap would have been a big fail.

  14. Had my leg break back in 2004 in Scotland.. That was pretty annoying.
    Tried to repair it with elastic support tape, but it only worked for a few miles. ???? Not much you can do about that. Ruined the trip though. Bit of a pain when walking solo..

    I will ponder more on kit failures.
    I tend to always have backup for essential kit though.
    A short length of 15mm water pipe and some gaffer tape is good for a pole bodge.

  15. I hooked up the camelbak hose up-side-down. Apparently the hose end connector that connects to the bite valve is a different size that the hose end connector that mates with the reservoir. Didn’t realize there was a leak until the backpack was strapped to my back on the trailhead. Then a waterfall of syrupy orange gatorade was running down my back and on legs and shoes. This was a 20 mile trip and I needed every ounce. Now I test the reservoir for leaks the night before every trip.

  16. On two successive 50-miler Scout trips, the hip belt ripped free of the frame on a pack. It was the last day, each time. The first time, we drilled holes in the belt and plastic frame sheet and tied it back on with some tent line (spectra). The second time it was still connected to the pack fabric, so we redistributed weight. We should have stopped and fixed that one, too.

    I managed to rip one end of the top strap free on my Six Moon Designs Starlite at Philmont base camp. I tied off to the haul loop for the duration and sewed it back on at home.

  17. I’ve had a few, I was up north, about 200kms away from the nearest city, and at least 50km from the nearest town and the bulb and lid of my torch came off, not good, I managed to find it and taped it back on, still works fine though.

  18. Great tips all thanks.
    If in any remote area I suggest at ALL times have some item a fluro/ blaze or bright color on your top half. Ie a hat (white, orange, yellow, red etc) or some 1″ wide ribbon, cloth or surveyors tape 1 foot long tied to front of pack and back of pack. So you are seen by others,and not accidentally shot at by an over eager hunter or with poor eyesight..
    We dont like throwing out our favorite old (5-10year old) hike boots, but please use these up for training only, and obviousley train a bit with your newest pair for the hike. I had a sole completely separate from heel (cushy foam crumbled away) during start of training.. (on both). Thank god that didnt happen on the trail.. as unrepairable.. apparently this happens to most boots.. eventually.
    Back in your vehicle take all your spare items.. ie boots, stove, clothes, gps, camera, batteries, sleep mat, foods, water, much much better there than 100 or 500 miles away… even if not used.
    I have a yellow hiviz light tarp for shelter always with me (and bivvy) even when switching to a daypack.. experienced how life saving hiviz is when a chopper pilot gave us an orange flag to fly (or hold out) when he was looking for us at pick up time (in Mt Cook mntns NZ). A week after our trip 3 people perished on the mountains.. searchers couldnt find them.
    Remember what can go wrong, will go wrong..
    Its all fun until you roll an ankle, break a leg, or worse.

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