We’ve all been there: you’re in the backcountry or on a long hike when you yank the zipper on your jacket and—bam!—it comes undone, gets stuck, or the whole thing rips off. You’re forced to ski or hike down with an open jacket flapping behind you. On items like sleeping bags, wetsuits, or backpacks, working zippers are essential. We called up Daniel Cates, owner of Technical Equipment Cleaners, an outdoor gear-repair company in Truckee, California, for his tips on fixing broken zips.
How to Get a Zipper Unstuck
If your zipper gets stuck, first check if there’s fabric caught in it. If there is, gently tug the fabric out, and you should be good to go. If not, move on to plan B: lubricants that can help clean dirty or jammed zippers. Rubbing a graphite pencil or a Q-tip coated in olive oil or Vaseline on the zipper teeth around the jam can also help. Cates says that these lubricants can cause other materials—like dirt, hair, or fabric—to stick to them, so don’t go crazy when applying.
How to Realign a Zipper Slider
If the slider—the metal or plastic piece that connects the two rows of teeth and brings them together as you zip up—is out of alignment, grab a pair of needle-nose pliers. “Pinch the sides of the slider together around the teeth with the pliers. That’ll help the zipper teeth better align,” Cates says.
If the slider has come off entirely, or even broken in half, and the teeth on both sides are still intact, then you need wire snippers. “Remove the top spot of the zipper—that metal bit at the end of the zipper that keeps the slider from running off the tracks—and rerun a new slider onto the appropriate side,” Cates says. For that, you’ll need to buy a new slider and a new top stop. You can buy zipper parts online, but Cates cautions that people often order the wrong ones. Over e-mail or the phone, companies like Boulder Mountain Repair can help instruct you on which parts you need and how to put the new pieces on yourself (you’ll probably need to send photos of the broken parts). Or FixnZip makes a handy replacement slider that you can pop in without any additional tools.
How to Replace a Zipper Pull
If your zipper pull breaks off but the slider is still attached, you can swap in a paper clip as a temporary fix. Or keep a couple of these sturdy MSR Universal zipper pulls in your pack.
How Much to Pay to Replace Your Zipper
If the entire zipper rips out—including the teeth and fabric around it—and has to be replaced, you’ll need to know your way around a sewing machine. There are a lot of demos on YouTube for repairing broken zippers if you’re set on doing it yourself. Or take the easier route: send the piece back to the company that made it, if it’s still under warranty (check the brand’s repair and return policies), or to a specialized gear-repair shop. Cates says the average cost for a full zipper repair at a shop should be between $40 and $60.
Don’t Break It in the First Place
The easiest way to fix a zipper? Avoid breaking it. “It’s almost always user error,” Cates says. “Force is the main reason zippers break. Plug in the slider carefully, and zip it up calmly.” He says YKK zippers are usually more reliable than the unbranded variety—keep that in mind when shopping for gear—but he noted that even the best ones will break under a certain amount of force.
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