When should I retire my gear?

Everyone has a story about an indestructible pair of boots or jacket whose age is counted in decades rather than years, but the truth is that everything wears out eventually. Even the mountains can’t avoid it—the Appalachians are presumed to have been taller than the Rockies at one point, before wind and erosion wore them down to their present height. While age may simply take a toll on the aesthetics of some items, it can hurt the performance of others. If you’re looking for an excuse to start the new year with new gear, consider the expiration date on some of these everyday outdoor items.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Biking

If you bike, you should own a helmet. And if you really love biking, you probably own multiple helmets, as everything from mountain to road to cruising around town all have brain buckets designed especially for them. But is your helmet as safe as you think it is?

As a general guideline, you should replace your helmet every five years, as everyday wear and tear, cosmetics like shampoo, and even sweat can degrade the materials in your helmet. Additionally, today’s helmets are much more sophisticated than those of five years ago. Give your head a happy New Year with a new helmet.

Oh, and the five year rule doesn’t just apply to bike helmets…make sure to check your ski/snowboard helmet and climbing helmet as well and replace if necessary.

Paddling

PFDs have a hard life. They are constantly cycling between wet and dry, regularly exposed to too much sun, and forever battling against salt, whether from the ocean or sweat. Not to mention, PFDs are not always the most well-cared-for piece of gear. So let’s start with the basics: you’ve cleaned your PFD recently, right? While you’re doing that, check if the color is fading, the fabric is ripping, or the webbing looks tattered. If so, it’s probably time for a new vest. Also critically important is the quality of your PFD’s foam. If it’s starting to feel hard or doesn’t quickly regain its original shape after being squeezed, replace it.

While you’re checking your PFD, look over other high-wear items like your kayak’s rigging, bulkheads, and seals. Then check out the gaskets on your drysuit, the buckles on your dry bags, and the rope in your throw bag. When you’re done, give your boat a coat of 303 Aerospace Protectant, it’s basically sunscreen for your boat.

Climbing

If you’re using your climbing harness regularly, it is recommended that you replace it every three years. But many factors—including regularly taking big falls—can shorten an individual harness’ lifespan. Before you rope up this year, give your harness a good visual inspection. First check the tie-in points, making sure they are free from any tears, cuts, or abrasions and that the fabric is uniform and no one section is thinner than others. Moving along, make sure the rest of your harness isn’t showing any suspect wear, abrasion, or fading. Furthermore, make sure that the buckles are intact, don’t have any burrs or rough edges, and are free from corrosion.

After checking you harness, spend a few minutes inspecting your other climbing gear. Ropes that have flat spots, are frayed, worn, beat up, or feel stiff—a sign its losing its elasticity—should be retired. Ropes older than 10 years should also be replaced, even if they haven’t been used regularly. Additionally, check your slings, as their strength can be affected by both abrasion and UV exposure. Finally, examine your carabiners for wear and grooving.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Hiking

Finding boots that are comfortable, supportive, and fit right is a tricky task, so it’s no wonder so many people wear theirs into the ground. There is no set mileage or magic number of days a hiking boot has in its life, so the easiest way to tell if a pair needs replacing is to give each boot a quick inspection. Examine the soles to see if they still have tread and all the lugs. Scrambling down wet rock can be dangerous when the rubber has been worn down. Then check the stitching and liner—both inside and out—for fraying or signs of giving out, to avoid them from bursting open when you’re in the middle of your next hike. Another good indicator that it’s time for new boots is how they feel on your feet. If you’ve recently started getting hot spots, blisters, or unusual aches, you might want to kick off the New Year in…well, new kicks.

Pro Tip: Give your boots the “press test.” To do this, press the outsole of the boot upward with your thumb—simulating their movement when being walked in—while watching the midsole. If the midsole folds into a line with small wrinkles, it’s okay, but if you see strong compression lines or cracks, tell your boots to take a hike.

Backpacking

Do you remember the nights being a bit colder than usual during your last backpacking trip? If so, it might be time to upgrade your synthetic-filled sleeping bag. In general (it’s hard to be specific with so many different synthetic fills available these days), the more you compress your bag, the faster its fibers break down. A sure sign that your bag’s life is coming to end is if the fill is clumping or if some spots have more fabric than fill. If you come across either of these, consider downgrading your bag’s degree rating or upgrading to a new one.

Check your puffy jacket, too! Synthetic-filled puffies break down as well, often faster than sleeping bags, thanks to their year-round usefulness and being shoved in and out of backpacks. Before heading out this year, make sure your synthetically insulated stuff is up to the task.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

First Aid

Carrying at least a small first aid kit on all your outdoor adventures is a good idea. Of course, a first aid kit is only as useful as its contents. Before heading outside in the new year, take a look at the expiration date on your first aid kit’s medication and replace anything past its prime. While you’re at it, spend a moment reviewing the first aid cliff notes found in most kits. If anything feels rusty, it’s probably time to refresh those expired first aid skills as well.

Give your gear some love

Of course, not everything needs to be replaced when it starts to show some age. Giving your gear a little first aid by patching that hole on your pack or reviving the waterproofing on your favorite shell is a great way to keep your gear going strong into the new year.

Replacing expired gear is not only a great way to make sure that you’re safely participating in your favorite outdoor sports, it also ensures that you continue to enjoy them. More so, there’s no better way to get stoked to hit that big jump, send a route, or take a trip into the woods than new gear.