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Ski Gear Love: Year-Round Care and Maintenance

Based on my last three decades of heavy gear usage, I’d say I fall into the “easy on gear” category.  I’ve broken one pair of skis in my life, and that was after they had a good 250+ days of resort pounding on them. The few bindings I’ve blown up were either prototypes, or self-inflicted catastrophes like forgetting to close the roof rack and seeing an entire quiver of skis go gracefully arcing into oncoming freeway traffic. In theory, part of the reason I may be easy on gear could be due to my spindly 143-pound physique, but I think a bigger part has to do with my background as a gear designer where I learned to respect the limitations of gear. This is especially important with mountaineering equipment, where there is often a fine balance between weight and strength. I’ve broken very little gear over the years in part because I use it carefully, but also because I take care of it and maintain it.

In-Season

Traveling Safely

Shipping gear around is a major cause of damage and putting a “Caution–Fragile” sticker on it is like waving a red flag in front of a bull; if anything, it encourages baggage handling abuse. I try to pack strategically with soft stuff like sleeping bags or clothes around the perimeter and the fragile stuff towards the center. Ski tips are especially vulnerable to getting snagged as the bag is rammed in and out of planes and luggage chutes. To beef them up, I’ll surround the tips with semi-hard items like first aid kits or a small bag of hardware and then Voile Strap the whole package in place.  So far, I’ve never had a pair of skis lost or damaged during shipping. (Knocking on paulownia.)

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Bringing our own mountain of gear to the mountains of the Himalaya.

Small, fragile items like electronics are placed inside the cooking pots or Nalgene bottles, and gear that might entice the TSA to tear your bags apart should be disassembled and scattered to the far corners of your luggage.

If it Ain’t Broken … Don’t Break it

As a gear designer and project manager, I saw many of my designs that were returned for warranty reasons. As a result, I can say without a doubt that scouts and scouting troops are the worst abusers of gear on earth and it is not because they weigh so much and use the gear so hard, but because they misuse it so frequently. A #4 Camalot to pound in tent stakes? Avalanche shovels to pry rocks and boulders? A Megamid pole as a pole-vaulting stick? Really? Of course this stuff breaks. When used as designed, most gear will last through many, many seasons of NORMAL use.

Eyeball Your Gear

Unlike generic sports equipment, skiing and mountaineering gear has a life-or-death quality to it that makes inspection and maintenance much more important.  A broken baseball bat is a mere inconvenience compared to a broken climbing rope or ski binding.  I was pondering this once while staring at the nylon nest of ropes and runners that were holding me onto a hanging belay thousands of feet off the deck on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley when Alex Lowe chimed in, “If you can’t trust your gear, you might as well give up climbing!” True enough, but a bit of routine inspection and preventative maintenance always goes a long ways toward peace of mind and gear longevity.

Some gear, like ropes and underwear, should be replaced often just as a safety precaution and the expense written off to the price of having fun. On the other hand, unless there has been some major design improvement, there is a lot to be said for getting many years out of items like crampons, ice axes and/or ski poles; after a few years, they become a trusted, known entity.  Conversely, showing up for a major skiing expedition in a pair of brand new, untried boots is a recipe for disaster, if not blisters.

Daily TLC

With skis, one of the easiest daily care tricks is to place the tips on a bench and tails on the floor, then give the bases/edges a quick wipe and let the bindings drip-dry overnight.  By having the bindings down, all of the gook drains out of them instead of evaporating inside the mechanism.  Slamming them together and leaving them in the rack is an ideal way to get your edges to rust.  As an aside, road grime –salt, dirt and nasty water–getting forced into your bindings on a roof rack is far worse than almost any type of skiing you can do.  Whenever possible, transport skis inside your vehicle or in a ski bag.

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Flip your skis over and let them drip dry before putting them away (left).
Stored skis and skins – ready to rock (right).

Salt water in general is very tough on gear, especially aluminum, and it’s extra-especially hard on gear with aluminum and stainless steel, where galvanic corrosion can occur. I once thought it would be fun to end the season by skiing into the ocean in Iceland, and the next summer discovered it was also the end of my bindings.  After skiing somewhere right on the ocean, frozen or not, it’s a good idea to hose everything off with fresh water.

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End of the run, end of the season … and end of the bindings.

End of Season

Take Inventory

The end of a ski season is always a sad occasion, but using it as an excuse to sort out your gear and start planning for next year takes some of the sting out of it. My daypack for Wasatch skiing is currently weighing in at about 8.5 pounds fully loaded. Getting to this small and light a pack happened over a series of years where at the end of each season I’d pull everything out of my pack and if I hadn’t used it, it was dropped. Now it is just down to the bare essentials: a warm puffy jacket, a shovel, a one-liter water bottle, a micro first aid kit, and a few snacks.

Packs and Pockets

I can’t be the only person out there to put some small item (like cash…) in a super-secret little pocket in one of my packs or jackets, and then forget all about it until I find it again three years later. A while ago I thought I had lost my car keys and in a state of frustration I checked every one of the 22 pockets in all of my layers and packs. (The keys were right where I left them that morning–on the driver’s seat.) Because of this, I always give my luggage and ski gear a careful check before putting them away for the summer.

Another reason I like to clean, inspect and repair my gear before putting it away for the season is that it is then ready to go without a second thought at the beginning of the next year. The first day of the season is always a junk show and broken boot buckle and blown skin tip loop just adds to the chaos.

Remove batteries from seldom-used electronic devices like your beacon or radio.  The batteries will most likely be dead or at least unreliable months later by the time you use them again and they often cause corrosion on the terminals. Plus, when you do use the device again, you’ll probably want to put in fresh batteries anyway.

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Remove batteries from seasonally used electronics.

Dry Stuff Out

For any sort of fabric, one of the best things you can do after using it is to let it thoroughly dry out before packing it away, as mold or mildew will ruin tents, sleeping bags and duffel bags. Over the years, I’ve grid-bolted my workshop ceiling with screw-in bike hooks, with one roughly every three feet.  This makes drying after a trip very easy as the tent/bag/jacket goes straight from the duffle bag up onto hooks for a day or two to dry.

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Hooks galore. The hanging scale in the foreground helped me avoid hundreds of dollars on overweight airline fees. “That bag looks heavy, sir… oh, 49.9 pounds.  I guess it’s not.”

After they are all dried out, make sure to store your sleeping bags in a loose bag or hanging up, since a tight compression sack like you’d use for packing them will crush the loft if left for too long.

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For long-term storage, store sleeping bags loose, not in compression sacks.

Skin Drying Rack and Storage

Nothing fancy–just a wooden dowel hung from a few of the above mentioned bike hooks that I throw my skins on right after I get home from skiing.  Afterwards, I fold the skins up and Voile strap them to their appropriate skis.

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A simple skin drying rack – a wooden dowel held up by two strings.

Brand-new, shiny gear is fun, but at the same time, there is something to be said for having well-loved gear that has been with you for years and been on many great adventures.  If properly cared for, lots of gear will outlast its owner. Just be sure to close the roof rack before you merge onto the freeway.

Related

How to Lighten Your Touring Setup
Touring Tips: Skinning Techniques
Out of Bounds, Sidecountry, Slackcountry: It’s All Backcountry

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