Broken down on the road

Why does travel gear break? And why does it always break in the most inconvenient places?

Packs and gear look very similar when new. It is very difficult for anyone with an untrained eye to notice the difference between travel gear that is on the low end (Jansport, Kathmandu, et al) from the stuff on the high end (Arc’teryx, Eagle Creek, Swiss Army Brand, MacPac, Mont, etc.).

It’s shiny and new. It’s on sale. It looks great on the shelf but how long will it last when you are on the “chicken bus”in Guatemala?

Chances are that it will. I have seen poorly made packs that have been out on the road for many months with no problems at all. I have also seen newish, expensive packs that have troublesome breakage while still on their maiden voyage. With packs, you generally get what you pay for. Buy a $1500 RTW ticket and then get a $50 travel pack?

Don’t be silly.

Buy the best and buy it once.

Unless you are planning on settling down in Topeka and having children immediately after your big trip to Nepal, it is likely that you will get the wanderlust to go somewhere again. You will have itchy feet.

While itchy feet are most often caused by using the shower in dodgy hostels, it is pretty much a given that after a few months of working at some mind-numbing job (or studying useless trivia in college) you will be ready to buy another ticket for somewhere in a completely different time zone and with cheaper beer. Your pack should be able to withstand multiple trips, not break apart in Lhasa on its first trip away from home.

Will your gear be ready as well?

Gear fails for a variety of reasons, and most of the time it is because of a failure of the moving parts: zippers, buckles and closures.




The reason that one pack costs two weeks wages and another costs – of that is most often because of the cost of the materials.

Constructing travel packs is very labor intensive, they are difficult to make and the labor is a big factor. Nowadays, most gear is made in Asia where labor is cheap. The pack companies as most often use contractors in Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia or Mexico to do their sewing for them. These contractors do excellent work, but they don’t all use the same parts. They only use what they are told to use, and that is where the difference in quality comes from.

A quality product will use quality parts, though just what a quality part is can be elusive.

With coiled zippers, the zipper coil is not as important as the zipper slider. The coil just lays there, the slider (that’s the metal part thingie) has to go up and down the coil ?getting beaten up? by each and every coil ‘tooth’. If you had to do that (back and forth and back and forth) every day, you would wear out too. Add some dust or grit onto the coil, and the slider soon wears out (from the inside out) and soon has larger clearances. After awhile it doesn’t do it’s job anymore: the slider will not force the coil ‘teeth’ together and your zipper won?t stay zipped. It just ‘peels apart’ after you have zipped it. Hilarity ensues.

Zipper manufacturers know this, they make various grades of zipper sliders in varying grades of durability, but not every manufacturer can afford to use those and still make their profit margin. The worst zipper sliders are made of cheesy potmetal and then lightly painted. There is no brand name on the zipper pull and even if there is it does not say ‘YKK’. Unbranded zipper sliders wear out pretty quickly. Avoid those.

Next up are the painted, branded ones. Some of the pack manufacturers use painted zipper sliders with their name on the zipper pull. Those are still junk, but the pack usually has some sort of warranty. (Good thing too, because you will need it)

Much better are zipper sliders that are nickel-plated.

Insist upon nickel-plate zipper pulls. Nickel is much more durable than paint, it lasts up to 5,000 cycles (under sterile conditions and with luck ). Most decent pacts use nickel-plated zipper sliders. (Tents used in extreme conditions use stainless-steel zipper sliders which withstand 50,000 cycles. These are not used on packs however.)

Buckles break also.

In the olden days, we looked for buckles made by National Molding or ITW Nexus. These days, ‘offshore production’ (read: Asia) means that the buckles are sourced from sister companies in Asia, such as (Woo-Jin Duraflex) which are perfectly good. Look for a brand name on the back of the buckle. Any brand name is better than a cheap unbranded generic. This is especially important when it comes time to replace a broken buckle. While 1′ buckles (for example) all look the same, there is an infinate number of incompatible buckles. And although your local outdoorsy store has a few replacement buckles in stock, I guarantee you that the one side that breaks (usually the male side that breaks) will not click into the female side that you have. The female side is usually sewn in, which means that to replace both sides you have to rip the seams, which is a big pain in the ass to do.

Overstuffing your pack is all fun and games, until someone gets hurt.

If your pack isn’t overstuffed, then you are not trying hard enough. In most cases this is fine, packs re made to handle this unless they were not engineered properly.

One of the ways that a cheap pack can look the same as a more expensive one is by scrimping on the production. Most people won’t see the difference, the difference is on the inside of the pack where they hope that you will not look. And even if you do, it’s similar to kicking tires on a new car; you don’t know what to look for anyway.

Look for bias tape.

The nylon fabric (Cordura, Kodra, Endura, etc.) will start to fray and unravel if you let it. If that happens, your pack will ‘blow apart’ when you try to stuff another tube of Pringles into the full pack. To prevent this from happening, the fabric should be ‘hot cut’ so that the fabric edge threads are fused, and then contain the (soon to unravel) fabric by sewing some bias tape onto the edges. Good packs have this, cheap packs do not.

Reinforcements are great idea, otherwise the shoulder strap will pull out when you lift up your pack too many times. The best way is to reinforce these with a special dedicated sewing machine that makes a ‘bar tack’. These stitches do not pull out. They are often hidden underneath where the eye cannot see, so don’t panic is your cannot find them. (For an example of a bar tack, look at how the belt loops on your bluejeans are sewn; that’s a bar tack)

Zippers and buckles: an exceedingly dull, but important subject.