Lusting after the newest equipment—items that are free of ember holes and designed with the coolest features—is a common predicament for outdoor enthusiasts. Maybe you have a perfectly good tent or stove that you want to upgrade, or maybe you really do need to splurge on something new, because what you’ve got in your gear closet is broken and beat-up and the latest version is truly safer. We spoke to gear reviewer and avid thru-hiker Tyler “Mac” Fox for guidance on how to know when it’s time to justify the price tag on a new piece of equipment.
Your tent can last a lifetime if you take care of it properly. “I have every tent I’ve ever owned,” says Fox, who has hiked both the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails. But just because they’re still standing doesn’t mean they won’t pop a seam or need new stakes over time, he adds. Poles, zippers, and mesh are usually the first features to fail on a shelter—but the good news is that those are all easily fixable.
Many brands—like Big Agnes, Lightheart Gear and NEMO Equipment—will repair their products. (If the issue isn’t covered under warranty, they may charge a small fee.) You can also try your hand at fixing a zipper, patching a tear, replacing shock cord, or re-waterproofing your gear yourself. “When the tent is so old that the people you’re sending it to are like, ‘We haven’t seen one of these in years,’ it may be time to replace it, but not necessarily because it doesn’t function anymore,” Fox says. This is because tent technology has come a long way since the heavy, bulky shelters of yesteryear. You can find models that are fully waterproof, made out of extremely strong and light Dyneema, or that only require trekking poles as supports.
One new reason to replace your tent is recent research showing that some frequently applied flame-retardant chemicals used to treat tents have been linked to a slew of health problems, ranging from cancer to reproductive complications. Mountain Hardwear recently eliminated toxic chemicals from its shelters. All tents from Fjällräven, and some from Hyperlite Mountain Gear and Zpacks, are free of flame retardants. REI will start transitioning away from using these chemicals this fall.
If you’re compressing a sleeping bag into your backpack every day on a thru-hike, it’s going to need replacing much sooner than if you car-camp a few times a year. Like most gear, a sleeping bag’s lifetime depends on use and care. Fox says a good way to tell when your sleeping bag is kaput is when it isn’t keeping you as warm anymore. “If you have a 900-fill, ten-degree sleeping bag, maybe after six months of hiking and sticking it in your backpack, it actually functions more like a 700-fill, 25-degree bag,” he says.
Before springing for a new one, consider patching any holes, throwing it in the wash (gear-wash services can also do this for you), or getting it restuffed with down (ask the manufacturer if it offers a refill service). Even if it’s still not up to par after trying to restore it, your sleeping bag probably still has some life left in it. “Maybe your fall sleeping bag becomes your summer sleeping bag,” Fox says.
You can also donate your used sleeping bag—and other gear—to someone in need. Check with your local homeless shelters, Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, and animal shelters to see if they can find it a new home.
One night while lying down in his tent, Fox heard a few pops and then felt his inflatable sleeping pad deform. The baffle seams had burst and the air ballooned at the head area. He needed a new pad. Inflatable sleeping pads tend to leak over time through holes developed during use. But try patching a hole before you toss it.
With non-inflatable pads, the time to upgrade may not be as obvious. Fox says to pay attention to the thickness of foam pads. “After a couple months of sleeping on them, they’re noticeably flatter,” he says. “When you buy a Therm-a-Rest Z Lite and stack it up, it’s probably seven or eight inches tall, and over time, it might be four inches tall instead.”
No matter what kind of pad you have, if you’re not getting a good night’s rest after long days outside, it may be worth the money to buy a new one.
Fox says that if there’s something on this gear list you should replace as a result of new technology rather than a system failure, it’s going to be your stove. Unless the autoignition on your stove stops working (and even then, you can simply use a match or a lighter), you’ll probably feel compelled to start shopping for something lighter, faster, and easier before it’s destined for the gear grave. Regardless of you stove’s age, after every camping trip, inspect it for gas leaks by connecting your canister, closing the valves, and listening for any hissing. If you hear anything and can’t fix it, even after talking to the manufacturer, it’s time to find a new one.
According to Fox, water filters give out much quicker than any other piece of gear. When yours gunks up and becomes difficult to pump, you can try to back-flush or clean the filter to prolong its life, but it’s likely time to put a new one on your shopping list. “When it gets to the point where I’d rather risk getting giardia instead of having to sit there and pump, then it’s probably time to replace my water filter,” Fox says.