Most hikers and campers have at least one torn and tattered piece of gear they refuse to let go. Those are the items that tell the stories of what we’ve seen, where we’ve been, and the muddy canyons and thorny bushes we’ve gone through to get there.
But just because a beloved jacket or tent has seen better days doesn’t mean it should go in the trash. In fact, you can often repurpose your old gear by using it to create something new. This has the simultaneous benefits of giving new life to a valuable item, saving you cash, and keeping perfectly usable materials out of the landfill.
Good for you, your wallet, and the environment
New gear is expensive, and so are the materials to make your own. So it only makes sense to save yourself potentially hundreds of dollars in new equipment by repurposing and salvaging what you can from items that seem to have fulfilled their purpose.
But it’s not only your bank account you’ll be doing a favor—there’s also the waste factor. Synthetic materials like those often used in technical clothing and gear are, well, synthetic, which means they don’t decompose like natural fabrics. When you dispose of them, they pile up in landfills, overflowing them and hurting the environment..
The average American throws away 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles every year, so if more crafty outdoors people chose repurposing over trashing, it could make a big difference.
And while saving money and helping the environment are great reasons to preserve buckles, belts, and fabric, you might find yourself repurposing worn items for more sentimental reasons. Our gear has helped us get through mountains, valleys, and everything in between—no wonder it’s hard for us to let go. But with a little creativity, you don’t actually have to.
“It’s cool to give old things new life and a new story to tell,” says Chase Anderson, program coordinator of the Outdoor Product Design and Development department at Utah State University.
And if there’s anything outdoor people love, it’s a good story.
Repairing vs. repurposing
Before you deconstruct a perfectly adequate piece of gear in order to salvage its parts, make sure the item cannot be repaired. Sometimes washing or re-waterproofing items like tents and rain jackets, or patching small holes in sleeping bags or puffer coats, can make them last months or years longer.
Still, sometimes, it’s time to call it—your beloved stuff sack or backpack is worn beyond repair. You might think all you can do is toss it, but there are likely many parts and pieces that are in good working order and perfectly usable on other outdoor gear or DIY projects.
Identifying useful materials
Before you drop your gear in the garbage, give it a once-over and look for anything you might be able to use—you’re looking for things like large squares of fabric from a tent floor or rainfly, the internal frame of a backpack, zippers and buckles from a hip pack, and straps and webbing from an old pair of sandals. You can often salvage zipper pulls, metal poles, bungees, hook-and-loop strips, and elastics, too.
After you’ve stripped your items down, see if you can recycle any of what’s left. Often, aluminum or titanium tent poles, broken plastic buckles, or metal bits and pieces fall into this category. Still, we recommend you check with your local waste authority before dropping items in the recycling bin.
Even if you can’t use some (or any) of the parts you’ve collected, consider donating them to programs like USU’s outdoor product design and development department—which teaches students design principles, aesthetics, and technical skills in the outdoor product design space—or a local repair or craft shop.
Develop your skills
After you’ve stockpiled a few materials and you’re ready to start creating new from old, you might be tempted to jump into a project, but Anderson recommends first building a skill set that will help ensure success.
Sewing is a big one, but don’t think you have to be an expert to make gear. “Start simple,” Anderson says. “And slowly move up to items with zippers, or buckles, or multiple seams.” That includes things like jackets or backpacks.
In general, a solid base of tools and skills is never a bad idea. YouTube is a great resource for learning how to do everything from sewing to tying knots. If you’re not much of an online learner, check out your local craft supply stores and colleges—they usually offer courses for students of any age.
If you’re just developing sewing skills, don’t start by making your own waterproof multi-pocket jacket. Instead, practice by using fabric from retired gear or clothing to patch holes or tears in newer items. Then you can move on to simple projects, like cutting a pattern out of a threadbare base layer and sewing a face warmer. Anderson’s students have made beanies by cutting and sewing a pattern out of an old sweater, or crafted covers for ski goggles and sunglasses out of jacket lining and an old bungee cord or shoelace.
And don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Anderson has seen students replace malfunctioning zippers on jackets with buttons or snaps, and come up with an idea for a new chalk bag after digging through boxes of scraps.
I recently had to retire an old backpack. Most of the fabric was worn, torn or tattered, and the bits that were still in good condition were too small to use for other projects. However, I was able to remove several yards worth of straps and webbing, a dozen or more buckles and D-rings, some usable elastic, foam, and the lid of the backpack. I cleaned many of these pieces and used them with some fabric from a leaky inflatable outdoor lounge to make a simple ultralight daypack that would have likely cost me around $50.
One thing to keep in mind, though—never use repurposed materials to make any gear or equipment meant to save your life. This includes items like climbing harnesses, safety ropes, and avalanche airbags. These items must be in perfect condition to perform properly, so you should always buy them new.
Tips and tricks
Obviously, the idea is to make something new using as much recycled material as you can, but if you start a project and don’t have everything you need, don’t hesitate to visit your local craft or art supply store to get it. And if you’re worried about mismatched fabrics, don’t be—part of the beauty of repurposed products is their uniqueness and the story behind it. And if that doesn’t convince you, consider outdoor brands like Cotopaxi, which are famous for their beautiful, mismatched gear made with fabric scraps from their other products. If they can get away with it, so can you.
As for the actual making, Anderson recommends you design your project in cardboard or paper as you practice and experiment with forms and construction. Don’t jump straight into using the expensive materials before you know what you’re creating.
And if you’re struggling for ideas or aren’t sure where to start, find inspiration in the outdoor community by searching for influencers and websites (like Patagonia WornWear or gear repair shops) that celebrate up-cycled and repurposed gear. Browsing through their feeds will definitely help you see products and materials in a new way.
Once you start seeing scraps not for what they were, but for what they can be, you’ll not only save cash on new and original gear and keep non-recyclable materials out of the landfill, you’ll also be giving the items you love a new life.