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Taking Care of What You’ve Got: a Look at Sustainability and Gear Maintenance From a Yellowstone Field Instructor

Reduce, reuse (reuse, repair, reuse, repair, reuse…), recycle. The lifetime of a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, etc. should be far past the warranty end date. These pieces of gear are an investment that repays in aurora sightings, solitude, early morning wildlife viewing, stargazing, restful nights listening to the river flow, personal growth, and as many lasting memories as one can find time for. Gear is simply a tool for experiences.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is Variable

Our Yellowstone courses experience rain threatening to soak sleeping bags, high winds blowing dirt and debris against tent walls, unexpected blizzards in June, blazing sun, and curious wildlife that don’t understand the impact of ripping through a rainfly. The luckiest trips can experience all of this within the same week. At EPI, our gear ensures the safety of each participant as well as the ability to get out into the Park and experience Yellowstone. We also take our environmental impact as seriously as we take our gear.

The Importance of Gear Acquisition

Gear maintenance starts before the first use. The way one acquires gear has as much to do with sustainability as the upkeep of that gear. For the smallest carbon footprint, consider buying used. Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, second-hand outdoor stores, and thrift stores are all great places to find used tents, sleeping bags, and even sleeping pads. Knowing how to repair gear can save you the most money and save a piece of equipment that is close to its landfill demise. However, buying new can be a safer, more time effective option. Safety equipment (climbing ropes, helmets, life jackets, etc.) are examples of things best bought new to ensure the life-saving capabilities of that gear. Maybe this is a last-minute purchase, second-hand options are out of reach, or new gear seems like the best-fitting choice at the time. In this case, think of your gear as an investment. Look for quality, durability, and versatility. Does this gear have optional accessories that can prolong its lifetime? Think tent-footprint, thin foam pads under inflatable sleeping pads, protective stuff-sacks for sleeping bags, etc. Does this item have replaceable parts? Backpack buckles, tentpoles, sleeping pad air gaskets, and stove parts might not be listed for sale on a company’s website, but a quick email to the brand might provide you with answers to how easy the gear will be to fix later down the line.

The Small Steps Add Up

Tents and Tarps

Routine maintenance is the next step in prolonging the life of your equipment. With frequent checks and several small repairs, more expensive fixes and in-field catastrophes can be held off. Hopefully, the owner of a tent gets to use it enough for small holes to appear along the bottom (usually in the far corners) of the tent. These holes are best fixed when they are small enough that they can hardly be seen. An easier way to find them is to un-stake the tent while leaving it pitched, bend over and place hands on the tent floor as if to crawl into the tent, and stand up with arms out, allowing the tent to lift. While standing inside the now upside-down tent, position the tent so that the floor is pointed toward the sun, and let the daylight shine through the small holes of the tent. If more than one person is available, using repair tape should be easy. The person on the outside can cut repair tape into small, round patches. These can then be handed to the person on the inside of the tent. With each placement of a patch, the person inside the tent can place their finger on where they placed the patch, and the person on the outside can easily find where they are poking to place a patch on the other side. This can also be done with rainflies and tarps, but might require more people to hold and stretch out the rainfly/tarp as someone crouches underneath to see where the sunlight shines through.

Sleeping Pads

Small holes in sleeping pads can also be repaired after use and before they become a bigger problem. If a sleeping pad seems to be losing small amounts of air overnight, but no holes are visible, soapy water can help locate the leak. With a sponge and bucket of soapy water on deck, inflate the sleeping pad as much as possible and lay on a flat surface. Apply the soapy water in sections, and press firmly and evenly on the sleeping pad, forcing air to escape. Watch for bubbles. As soon as you see a bubble start to form, place a pebble near that spot. After wiping the area dry or letting the area air-dry, use sleeping pad repair patches to block the leak.

Sleeping Bags

For sleeping bags, routine maintenance can look like poking feathers back in (not pulling them out), patching, and washing/drying to preserve the loft and warmth of a sleeping bag. Down bags need special care when drying, as they do not appreciate being air dried and can form clumps of wet feathers. When drying sleeping bags, a larger front-loading dryer at a laundromat is best. Bring plenty of tennis balls with you. Set the dryer to the lowest heat setting and throw the sleeping bag in with several tennis balls that will work towards breaking apart clumps of wet feathers.

Waterproof Gear

Rain jackets and other waterproof gear can be routinely re-waterproofed. Many brands have care instructions listed on their website. Secondhand rain jackets are often donated due to the need of re-waterproof, not because they are no longer useful. Re-waterproofing can be as quick as a wash with specialty detergent and dried as listed on the detergent. It is best to test out the success of re-waterproof before getting drenched on while hiking up to Trout Lake.

Bigger Issues

Larger wear and tear issues can be remedied with more effort. Speedy-stitches are a great investment for resewing soles onto shoes, stitching together heavy canvas and leather, and getting into tight corners that are hard to sew by sewing machine. They are also portable enough to be used in the field. While many tents come with a small metal sleeve to remedy a broken tent pole, the replacement of a broken tent pole will require an email to customer service.

Gear Storage

The storage of gear will also impact longevity. Sleeping bags will lose loft/warmth if kept in a stuff sack. Consider laying sleeping bags flat on a high shelf or hanging them for storage. As nice and tidy as it is to fold tarps and tents, folding these items in the same place can create uneven wear on your equipment. Stuffing or rolling without folding will increase the lifespan. Folding up tent-poles correctly also takes technique. By folding at the center first, then halving each end evenly until fully folded, the bungee cord that holds the tent poles together receives more evenly-distributed stretching, making it less likely to snap or wear out later on. Sleeping pads are best stored semi-inflated, but for space efficiency, can be stored rolled without folding as well. Cleaning before storage is key. Small pebbles and sand from the field can be abrasive when stuffing a tent back in its sack. They can also cause holes in a sleeping pad later down the road if they aren’t addressed.

Saying Goodbye

As with most things in life, nothing lasts forever. At some point, it’ll be time to say goodbye to the tent that was once a home away from home, the sleeping bag that was once warm and welcoming after a long day in the field, the rain jacket that’s kept gallons of water from soaking through to skin, and the sleeping pad that could almost make one forget about their mattress at home. After the grieving period comes to a close and it’s time to say goodbye, consider how you lay your gear to rest. Many outreach programs for those experiencing homelessness use parts of gear to repair tents and other shelters. Cloth from tents and tarps can be up-cycled into something new. The sleeping bag that was once suitable for sub-freezing temperatures might have lost that purpose but could still be useful for warmer environments.

With thoughtful care, gear can withstand decades of use. Every patch holds a story; each piece of tape and stitch is proof of an adventure. Sourcing and maintaining gear in a sustainable way helps protect the natural spaces these very items help us explore.

Want to help EPI replace our well-loved equipment? Help us gear up here!


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