Your Complete End-of-Season Guide to Gear Maintenance

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Right up there on the list of least favorite rafting chores, along with cleaning the groover and draining last month’s cooler, is winterizing your rafting gear.

In the fall, we all get tingly and excited about the change of seasons and start looking forward to powder turns and crisp, cold mornings. All too often, instead of neatly wrapping up summer and storing and repairing the gear that served us so well, we rush ahead into the next season, discovering only later the toll this neglect takes on our favorite inflatables and summer apparel.

Modern river gear is incredible for its durability and resilience, but it can age quickly with heavy use. Because it also tends to be the largest gear investment we make, it’s important to prioritize care and maintenance. So set aside a weekend, buy some beer and cue up your favorite playlist to make this the year when you put your rig to bed the right way.

Your Complete Guide to End of Season Gear Maintenance

Your Boat – Be it ducky, raft, cataraft or river couch, floating rubber and PVC needs a little love. And don’t forget your drybag is rubber or PVC or something equivalent, too!

Boat Maintenance – Repeat after me: Sand is the enemy! Hopefully, you at least rinse the boat after every trip, but if you’re a winch and trailer kind of crew, odds are that rig has been sandy for at least three months. Especially for those of us in love with the seriously silty western rivers, getting rid of our gritty nemesis is an ongoing struggle. So get that big rubber baby of yours down to its birthday suit by taking off all the hardware. Standing it out on the lawn or driveway, spray it down thoroughly, systematically working the dirt and sand out of the corners and spaces below the tubes.

Dry it off and give it a good ol’ wax and polish. First, use inflatable boat cleaner to remove fine grit and stains. If you’re not yet familiar with the magical qualities associated with 303 Protectant, then you’re in for a treat. Working your way thoroughly from bow to stern, apply this amazing UV protectant liberally. Focus especially on areas of wear, like the side tubes where your frame sits. Also, remember to pay special attention to spots on your boat which are constantly exposed to the sun. Once it’s dry, do a victory slide before deflating or rolling the boat. Here are some more tips on how to prevent wear and tear.

Boat Repair – When it comes to boat repair, a picture is worth a thousand words and a YouTube video quite a few more. So instead of getting wordy with ya, I’ve compiled a list of the best how-to videos and pages from the NRS gear experts: Patching PVCPatching HypalonValvesRepairing a Wearspot. 

As with any repair project, go slow to go fast. Watch the video or read instructions all the way through (just like your mom taught you about cooking recipes) before you rush in. Get the right materials well ahead of time. If you aren’t sure what type of material makes up your raft, here’s our handy guide to identifying the material construction of your boat. Always complete repairs in a warm environment so that the glue gets tacky and the rubber is easily manipulated.

Oars and Frames – Modern aluminum can take a lot of abuse from the elements without showing it. But make sure that abuse only occurs on the river. If parts of your frame are detachable, pull them apart and clean where possible. Pull the oar towers out and oil any metal components associated with it such as towers and springs. Let it dry fully before covering it or storing it.

When it comes to your oars, start by pulling the blades off of your oars and fully drain them. This should happen after every trip, but make sure that it at least occurs before they’re stored for the winter. Rust and abrasion from sand can significantly weaken the structure of the oar shaft, which causes oars to bend and break during that one big pull. If you need to repair an oar blade, or just want to see something really cool, check out this page!

Tents/Sleeping Bags – We all know to never let a wet tent sit in the bag after a trip, but for boaters, even without rain your tent can be at least damp, Before you put them away for the winter, lay the tent and fly out for a few hours either in the sun, or in a warm dry garage. This ensures that you have a clean tent for your first overnight instead of pitching the tent only to find a lovely little mold spot in the corner. Tent experts at MSR offer a few more suggestions for prolonging the life of your home away from home.

Zipper maintenance is big for boaters because of the grit and sand associated with our favorite campgrounds. Backpacker magazine offers this tutorial on how to fix a zipper slider, and using zipper wax regularly is a great way to repel sand from your desert tent.

There’s a lot already out there about sleeping bag maintenance from people wiser than me. REI’s gear guy has these washing tips. Let me just emphasize, if you do nothing else, at least hang up those bags or lay them out for winter! Months of stuff sacks quickly drain the effective warmth of any bag.

The Kitchen Box – This is the Ark of the Covenant for most boaters. The heart of the trip is often carried within the kitchen box. Most of us try to keep a kitchen box packed and stored, and then we clean the contents after every trip (hopefully!). Bring in any plastics or Tupperware storage which might become brittle in the cold if your storage area is not heated.

Next, empty everything out and make sure to clean the box itself. Any leftover crumbs can attract rodents. But once it’s clean it works as organization for itself. Take your long-suffering mess kit into the house and introduce it to the dishwasher. The one without bleach and river water.

Another great side effect of cleaning out the whole box in the fall is that you remember all those nifty kitchen gadgets you wanted to ask for this holiday season! Then make a list of any necessary refills (propane, spices, olive oil, whiskey, etc), and lay it on the top of everything to help with that first shopping trip.

Stoves – Sometimes in the kitchen box, sometimes in their own protective unit, stoves can be finicky and even the most durable require intentional maintenance. See again: sand is the enemy. Take apart your stove as much as possible and be sure to get the sand, grit and old scrambled egg smear out of every corner. Use surface cleaner, and then once it dries, oil the cooking grates and hinges. If your regulator was giving you trouble or not fully flowing by the end of the summer, check out this specific how-to guide for cleaning and repairing the propane regulator.

Layers

Wet Layers – Neoprene and Hydroskin layers are rafter’s go-tos for chilly water or cooler air temps. This means that by the end of a season, they have been marinating in a lovely mixture of sunscreen, sweat and silt. Although saltwater and chlorine (uncommon in the average rafting scenario) are the more aggressive enemies of neoprene, basic care of the material should be performed regularly. Soak your hydroskin, wetsuit, shorty or other apparel in warm water (< 120 F), and then lay flat to dry. Check out this video for more specific details on neoprene repair and maintenance. And just in case you are worried about that special kind of funk your paddle layers develop, for the sake of your close friends and family, please consider applying an odor neutralizer as well.

Dry Layers – For anyone pushing into the shoulder seasons when the weather is colder, or who regularly plans to swim in chilly mountain water, the drytop or drysuit is a literal lifesaver. Drywear often gets worn hard and put away wet. Maintenance and repair for your dry layers should look similar to that of the boat itself. Don’t make a bad swim worse by realizing that your suit has a leak in 44 degree water. I recommend Aquaseal for small tears and leaks. And remember that 303 Protectant works like sunscreen for your apparel, too. When storing your drysuit, don’t forget to hang it up in a clean environment with the zippers open.

Get organized – As a rafter, you have so much stuff. Seriously, it is ridiculous.

For those on the outside of the sport, the amount of gear accrued by a single boater just to be able to take day trips looks obscene. Add the multi-day needs to the mix and you have just a great big pile of shit.

Everyone’s organizational strategy is different. It totally depends on the space available to you, and often it evolves throughout the course of a boater’s lifetime, depending on priorities and needs.

One tip is to try to make everything as transparent as possible. Hang tools or hardware if possible. If you can, use clear plastic tubs for everything else, as the opaque ones can make it difficult to locate that one essential item.

So get to work! Good care and maintenance in the fall is the difference between taking advantage of that unexpectedly warm weekend in early April to float a quiet river with friends versus having to spend it up to your elbows in taureline in a stuffy garage. Avoid a lengthy inspection and repair process next spring and love your gear today.