A tent is an essential part of a positive backpacking experience, especially in inclement weather. But sometimes things go wrong—your tent pole snaps or the zipper breaks. Many minor tent problems can be fixed with a little know-how and the right tools!
Zippers are usually the first thing to fail on a tent, but they aren’t as difficult to repair as you might imagine. Most tent doors are fitted with non-separating or “closed” zippers. These zippers are fused or sewn together so that they open and close but stay permanently connected at one end.
Clean the Zipper
Dirt, sand, or other debris can build up along the zipper over time. This prevents the slider from connecting the two sides of the zipper. If your zipper is sticking or not connecting in places, start by cleaning the zipper with soap and water. Make sure the inside of the zipper slider is clear as well.
While you are cleaning the zipper, look for any bent or broken teeth. Gently straighten any teeth that are bent with a small pair of pliers.
After cleaning the zipper, rub a pencil over the teeth. Graphite acts as a lubricant for most zippers.
If cleaning the zipper doesn’t resolve things, the problem might be that the zipper has become warped over time. Use a pair of pliers to squeeze the two sides of the slider. Don’t squeeze the top of the pull tab (the middle of the slider). Squeeze each side of the slider a little at a time and test the zipper. Be careful not to squeeze the slider too tight on each side, otherwise it will clamp down on the fabric and won’t move.
“Unstick” the Zipper
Sometimes clothing or tent fabric can get caught in the zipper pull. If you can’t gently pull the fabric out of the slider, rub a bar of soap liberally over the stuck fabric and the teeth until you can gently work the fabric out.
Replace the Slider
If cleaning the zipper and using pliers to close the slider doesn’t work. It might be time to replace the slider altogether, particularly if your zipper is separating at one or both ends or doesn’t close all the way around. To do this you will need a replacement slider of the same size that is on your tent, a small sewing kit, and a seam ripper.
- If the zipper is closed on both sides, find the side with little metal “stops” that keep the zipper from opening at the end. Gently open any seams with the seam ripper (be careful not to tear the tent fabric) and use the pliers to remove the stop.
- Once that end of the zipper track is open, remove the slider from the zipper. If it’s jammed, you might need to use the pliers to gently remove the slider. Be careful not to damage the teeth of the zipper track.
- Put the new slider onto the grooves of the zipper track. Make sure you install the slider with the pointed part going first.
- Pull the new slider until you can close the zipper. Test to make sure it is opening and closing properly all the way around.
- Re-sew the seams at the end of the zipper track with a needle and thread. This will keep the zipper aligned. The sewing doesn’t have to be perfect, just be sure there aren’t any threads that might get snagged in the zipper.
Replace the Whole Zipper
If the zipper is missing teeth it is time to replace the entire zipper. Many tailors can replace zippers relatively easily and this is usually a cheaper option than replacing the whole tent, especially if it is a relatively new tent with a lot of life left in it.
Repairing a Hole
If you find a rip or hole in your tent, don’t panic. Gather the following items for minor tent surgery:
- Rubbing alcohol
- A clean rag
- Repair tape (like Tenacious Tape) or a mesh patch kit if you are repairing a mesh part of the tent
Working on the outside of the tent, clean the area around the tear with the rubbing alcohol and clean rag. Then cut a piece of repair tape large enough to cover the tear and at least 1 inch around the hole. Be sure to round the corners of the repair tape so they don’t snag and rip.
Lay the tent on a flat surface and match the sides of the tear. Remove the back of the repair tape and press it firmly over the area. If the tear is near a high-tension area (like near a tent pole), repeat the process on the inside of the tent as well to increase the strength of the patch.
Let the tent lay flat for a day or so before packing or using it. This will allow the glue in the repair tape to thoroughly bond with the tent fabric.
If you have a long tear in your tent, it might be time to send it off to a professional repair service or the manufacturer for more extensive tent surgery. But patching with repair tape usually works for smaller rips or punctures.
Fixing a Tent Pole
If you find yourself in the backcountry with a broken tent pole, don’t panic! Some tents come with a pole repair sleeve, or you can purchase one to keep in your pole bag. It’s a sleeve that fits over your tent pole tightly and acts as a splint.
To use the sleeve, line up the broken pieces or gently straighten any bends. Center the sleeve over the break or bend. Use a few layers of duct tape on each end of the pole sleeve.
If the pole breaks where one pole connects to another pole, you will need to splint these two sections together. Be mindful that this will mean you won’t be able to take those two pole sections apart and fold it neatly when you take the tent down.
If you don’t have a pole sleeve, a tent stake (or a strong stick) works well to splint the broken or bent pole. Line up the broken sections or gently straighten the bent part. Place the stake so that the break lines up with the middle of the stake. Use duct tape or other heavy-duty tape to wrap the stake and poles several times until everything is secure.
Once you are home you can replace any broken sections and worn out shock cords by purchasing a pole repair kit.
If the tent repairs are beyond your comfort level, consider sending it to a professional repair service or the manufacturer for further assessment and repairs.
Have you had to perform tent repairs on the trail? Do you have any creative tips or tricks? Share them in the comments!