Anyone backpacking long enough will eventually need to repair their gear or feel a need to modify/upgrade/reinforce something. Although you may be able to find a good luggage repair shop or shoe repair shop to do the work for you, may may opt or be forced to to do them yourself.
A small sewing kit should be included in you gear for any trip greater than a day. This kit should at a minimum include a heavy duty needle and thread. Better stocked kits should include an assortment of needles, threads and possibly a needle threader, sewing scissors, repair parts (cloth, buttons, hardware), needle drivers, etc.
Needles used for repairing backpacking gear should be larger gauge heavy duty made of stainless steel. These should last long enough for several repairs and store well without rusting. Needles intended for leather work, upholstery and use on sail repair may be suitable.
Surgical needles may be useful and are generally good quality. If you are using these, it is important to recognize that most are curved and they come with either a cutting or tapered point. The cutting type tip is made to cut through though human/animal tissue and will damage backpacking gear. Tapered tip needles are better suited for most field repairs.
Even if you are getting a local tailor or shoe maker to do your repairs, you may need to provide good quality thread (if abroad) if you want the repair to last. Your thread material, construction, treatments and size will affect how strong your repair will be, how easy it is to sew, what need size you need and how long your repair will last in humid or sunny areas. You can read more about thread sizes on our Backpack Sewing Thread Size page.
Upholstery thread is generally easy to find and is generally adequate for most repairs.
Heavy duty bonded polyester or nylon thread can be found at specialty stores and allows of simple field repairs without too much fear thread failure. Nylon is stronger than polyester but lacks UV resistance. There is some debate over which is better for backpack and outdoor gear construction but many high end backpack manufactures seem to like heavy duty UV treated nylon. These types of thread can be purchased at special outdoors fabric supply stores.
As to the question of size, this also varies per manufactures. Many manufactures use #69 "boot weight" 10-12 lb. thread since this is the largest size thread you can continually use in a clothing weight sewing machine. McHale and Co use # 92/16 lb. U.V. treated nylon for their high end packs. More about comparisons of sizes can be found on our Backpack Sewing Thread Size page.
GŁtermann 100% Polyester Thread
GŁtermann makes high quality threads that are popular amongst many of the backpacking gear Do It Yourselfers. They have a variety of threads and colors and have nice little spools with a fancy thread locking feature that doesn't fray the thread.
Waxed Dental Floss
Waxed dental floss is is generally nylon and/or teflon treated with wax, flavors and a few other additives. It is pretty strong and has multiple uses. You can use it to sew/repair backpacks, tents and clothing as well as use it for fishing line, in snares, small lanyards, tying up mosquito nets and for any task that needs string or small cord. Floss is also easy to find in most places in the world and its plastic dispenser is compact and eliminates tangles.
Properly selected surgical suture works well for repairs and often come with a needle already attached and in a nice compact little package. Of note, suture is either manufactured as absorbable or nonabsorbable. The absorbable suture is designed to be used to hold tissue together until the body heals and absorbs the suture altogether. Absorbable suture is not suitable for gear or clothing repairs. Nonabsorbable sutures generally are either monofilament and braided.
Monofilament suture is similar to monofilament fishing line and is a bit more difficult to use and less flexible than braided suture. Braided suture made from nylon, polyester or silk (which will slowly rot over time) can be pretty hardy and easy to sew with.
Suture size can be difficult to translate, but as the smaller the number of the size the smaller the diameter of the suture. Once the suture size gets to 0 smaller sizes start at 1-0 then, 2-0 and so on with the size number before the -0 increasing as the suture diameter decreases. Braided suture size 0 and larger can be used as robust repair thread.
Heavy duty course waxed sewing cord/twine (hemp, polyester, etc) is often too large for gear repair, is difficult to use and the size of needles used for them can often damage your gear significantly. This type of thread is great for makeshift repairs on heavy duty vinyl tops and such but are not recommended for backpacking gear use.
When sewing up your gear, a sewing machine will generally do a better repair job than one done by hand since it does a good job of distributing the force between the stitches and is a must for big projects. If you are in the market for one, check out Penny's FAQ about buying a machine. Unfortunately, a sewing machine can't always be used for a repair without unstitching other parts of your gear and isn't always available.
Where use of a sewing machine isn't feasible, sewing awls can be used to create sewing machine like stitches. These allow you to sew through very thick material in awkward tight spaces where a sewing machine just can't get into.
Leatherman used as Needle Driver
If you don't have a sewing machine or awl, a needle driver (such as Leatherman Tool) can make is a lot easier to sew through thick material.
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