Because I have been living outdoors for almost 4 years straight (hiking the Triple Crown amongst other trails) I am now in the rare position to be able to report about the longivity of gear out of my own experience. I buy a new piece of equipment and use it until it completely breaks or fails - and after 4 years I have a very good idea of what breaks when and why. When reading this post keep in mind that all the times given are referring to the period of constant use, not to the age of the gear.
Tents: I have been using Tarptents through almost all my hiking career and I am extremely happy with them. I started with a Virga, then a Virga II followed by a Contrail and now I am using a Rainbow. After a couple of months of use the tent floor will get little holes, but this has never bothered me and I don't use a ground sheet either. The first thing of consequence that will break is the slider of the tent zipper. Depending on what sort of environment you are moving in (lots of sand or not) this will happen after 4 - 6 months of constant use. The slider will wear out and you will not be able to zip up the tent any more. This is a gradual process and you should act as soon as you experience the first difficulties. Of course this always happens in mosquito country where you depend on your tent being closed.... The problem is quite easy to fix with a needle and thread if you have spare sliders with you - don't leave for a long trip without the appropriate spare sliders and familiarize yourself with how to change a slider. I change sliders up to 3 times before the tent dies of old age! After about one year of use the tensioners for the guy lines will wear out and/or the guylines itself will become too slippery to tension them anymore. You can work around it by putting little knots in the guylines or using them with their maximum length, but it will be difficult to tension the tent then without restaking. This is not a life threatening problem but a sign that you should think of getting a new tent. Three times in my 4-year long outdoor career a tent pole has broken and I could always repair it with a repair sleeve. This usually happens when you do not insert the tent pole segments into each other correctly before bending them - they will then break at the thin segment end. Do carry a small repair sleeve on long trips! In my experience a Tarptent can easily withstand 1 - 1,5 years of constant (ab)use before it has to be replaced and this is an excellent life expectancy for an UL piece of equipment.
Sleeping pad: I am using Therm-a-Rest Prolite inflatable sleeping pads of all sizes and thicknesses and no matter what you do they will delaminate sooner or later. Delamination means that the air chambers break and create a bigger and bigger bubble in your pad until it becomes too uncomfortable to use. It usually starts with two little chambers merging into one bigger and then gradually progresses. Act as quickly as possibly when this happens and replace the mat as you cannot stop the delamination process once it has started. It is a major quality problem that seems to concern all brands of pads that use perforated foam. It has nothing to do with strain or pressure put onto the mat. It will happen no matter whether you fold the pad for transport and storage or not. It has nothing to do with the age of the pad - only with the amount of time it has been used. I want to emphasise that this has happened to every single one of my sleeping pads and I had to exchange pads under warranty 8 times! The only reason why I am sticking with Therm-A-Rest is that this problem concerns all perforated foam mattresses, but with Therm-A-Rest at least you have a world wide life long warranty service. The maximum amount of time a Therm-a-Rest has survived constant use without delamination is 7 months. Once the delamation process has started you have anything from one day to 2 weeks before the bubble becomes too big to use it comfortably.
Sleeping bag: I have been using Western Mountaineering sleeping bags most of the time and depending on the climate I am alternating between the Summerlite, the Ultralite, the Versalite and the Puma. Generally speaking the bags are high quality and very durable. After about one year of constant use the slider of the zipper can wear out. As all WM bags have two sliders and usually only the top one that is most used wears out this is not a life-threatening problem. The slider can be replaced very easily if you have the appropriate spare. After about half a year of constant use the down in the bag will start clumping and thus reduce the warming capacity of the bag. Washing will restore the loft, but still it is my experience that no matter how and how often you wash the bags, after one year of constant use they will have reduced loft and after 2 years of constant use the down has so much deteriorated that I am now thinking of replacing it after about 700 nights in it. I am now using a BPL 240 synthetic quilt.
Platypus water bottles: Like Therm-A-Rest they are another Cascade Designs product with a serious quality problem for long-term users. No matter what you do and how you treat a Platypus bottle it will start leaking after some months of use. I think in 4 years I had to change about 10-12 bottles under warranty. Typical leaks will form at the mouth of the bottle, but I had leaks all over the bottles. Never ever trust a Platypus bottle - it will break! Always carry at least two bottles. If you are in a real pinch you can temporarily repair the leak with Seamgrip. If you want a something bombproof, use Ortlieb water containers. They are way too heavy for UL hiking, but I use them for cycling and paddling.
Gas canister stoves: I started my hiking career with MSR Pocket Rocket stoves. After about 6 months of constant use the thread will wear out and you will not be able to screw the stove down to the canister any more. As long as the canister is completely full of gas the stove will still work on a low flame, but after a couple of days the gas pressure will be too low and your stove useless. In a pinch you can try to press the stove down onto the canister with a string/rope and wedges construction, but this is not a long-term solution. This has happened to me with two different Pocket Rocket stoves despite careful handling. MSR has refused to exchange them under warranty. I would never ever carry a Pocket Rocket on a long trip again and can only advise against them. I have now changed to a Snow Peak Giga Power and to my big surprise the thread is still holding up after almost 2 years of constant use. Apparently Snow Peak uses a better material for the thread than MSR. One last word on stoves with Piezo ignition: When I bought my first Snow Peak I wanted to give it back after a couple of weeks of use because the Piezo would not ignite the gas any more. Luckily the sales person explained and fixed the problem for me: The metal end of the Piezo where the spark comes out has to be at a certain angle towards the stove head. By just moving this metal rod a fraction of a millimeter the Piezo worked again.
Trekking poles: I have been using Leki trekking poles for my whole hiking life and they seem to be unbreakable. After about 3.000 to 5.000 km you will have to exchange the tips but this is about it. Always start a long trip with new tips or carry spares and you will have no other problem with Leki. One pair of my Leki poles has survived more than 15.000 km of hiking with no problem - great quality I can only highly recommend.
Backpack: I started with Golite Gust packs and they survive about 1,5 years of constant abuse before you will get holes on the bottom from abrasion. A fantastic pack with a great life expectancy that unfortunately has been discontinued. I then changed to the Gossamer Gear G4 and now I am equally happy. The G4 has a lot of sewing on it and after about 4 - 6 months of constant use the sewing will break because the yarn is wearing out. This is a gradual process and can easily be fixed by re-sewing the seams with dental floss. Always carry a needle and thread, preferably dental floss for that purpose. If you poke holes into the pack body repair them quickly as otherwise the tiny hole will rip further and further and eventually turn into a life-threatening huge tear. I use repair tape for that but I sew the tape on to prevent it from peeling off through dirt and moisture coming in from the edges. If you are not doing hardcore bushwhacking for months on end the G 4 has a life expectancy of about 12 - 16 months of constant use. Considering the weight and the moderate price of the pack this is an excellent value.
Rain jackets: I have tried both Goretex Paclite and eVent - and have been disappointed with both of them. I first used a Hagloefs Oz Paclite Pullover and after a couple of months of use it started leaking like a sieve. I returned it under warranty and got a brand new one, but after a couple of months the same thing happened. I then changed to eVent and bought a Integral Designs jacket. Everything was fine, but after about three months of constant use it was leaking despite washing and ironing it. I am not back to cheap Tyvek rain gear - it might not be perfect either, but at least it is cheap.
GPS: On some trips I have used a Garmin GPS of the etrex series. The first GPS died after about 3 months of use just like that without any warning. From one moment to the other it could not be switched on again. As it was out of the warranty period I bought a new Garmin etrex - not realising that Garmin offers a flat-rate repair service. The brand new Garmin died after 2 months of use - all of a sudden the background lighting died rendering the device useless. Garmin replaced it under warranty, but still a broken GPS in the middle of nowhere created a lot of problems for me. I will now have to see how long this new device will hold up. I don't know whether I have just had a streak of bad luck but I can only say: Do not rely on your GPS as your only navigational device! Always carry a backup in whatever form (maps, compass, cell phone GPS etc.)
Shoes: I have been using Keen trail runners on all my last hikes - either Voyager or Targhee. I am very happy with them and prefer them to the Merrell shoes I have been using before. Keen shoes have a longer life expectancy and last about 1.000 - 1.500 km before they have to be replaced. That means that on the trail I need new shoes every 4 - 6 weeks and this is a major factor on my monthly budget. Even if the sole still looks good, do change trail runners after a maximum of 1.500 km. After that the foam has been compressed to a degree where it does not have a cushioning effect any more and your feet will start hurting. Do not try to save money here: This can cause serious and long-lasting foot problems.
If you are interested in the longivity of other pieces of equipment, please let me know. If I have used them I can tell you how they fared on the long run. I have posted my gear list and gear recommendations for specific trails on my blog:
I am also interested in other hikers' long term experience with their equipment as I am constantly trying to improve my setup.
Christine aka German Tourist