Keep Your Tent Zippers Working

Zipper and sliderIt’s the nightmare of every camper: you’re climbing in for the night in a cloud of mosquitoes and just as you’re frantically trying to close up the tent the zippers on the door fail.

Visions flash before your eyes of a whole night plagued by blood-sucking insects.

Before you dive into your sleeping bag for cover, hiding away every inch of bare skin, try these tips. They were kindly explained to us by Petra from renowned tent maker Hilleberg.

Let’s start by explaining the terminology…

A zipper is generally thought of as the whole unit but for this exercise, consider the zipper as the parallel rows of metal, plastic, or nylon teeth. The zipper is locked together by a sliding metal tab known as a slider.

When your tent doors fail to close it is likely because the slider has been worn down by sand and dirt and can no longer close the teeth of the zipper. You can prevent this happening to a certain extent by cleaning your zippers regularly with a toothbrush to remove grit.

“On any longer trip it is crucial to brush the zippers clean every day, especially in high dirt conditions. When grit covers the coils, it can wear away at the softer metal of the slider body. The effect is that the slider no longer presses the teeth of the coil together and the slider can not close properly.” Petra, Hilleberg

First Aid for Zippers
When the damage has already been done, you can start by trying ‘first-aid’ for your zipper by gently squeezing the jaws of the sliders together a little bit to help them close the teeth better.

If that doesn’t work, the next step is to replace the sliders. Fear not. It’s an easy job, especially if you were wise enough to pick up some extra sliders in the right size before you left. For Hilleberg tents, you need 6mm YKK sliders. You should be able to find sliders in any large sewing store or write your tent manufacturer before you leave and ask them to send you a few spares.

To replace them, simply open up the seams at the bottom of the zipper and remove the small metal clips there. Take off the old sliders, slide on the new ones, squeeze back the little metal clips at the end and sew the little seam back up again. You may have to wiggle and pull quite a bit on the slider to get it on to the zipper but it does work. A pair of needlenose pliers is handy for putting the clasp back on.

If you’re not confident enough to do this – we found it an easy job and replaced three sliders in an hour – seek out a good tailor to do the work for you.

It is possible that the zippers themselves are worn out. You can tell if they have been damaged by grit by rubbing your fingers over them to see if they feel rough and uneven. In this ‘worst-case’ scenario you will need to replace the full zip but usually putting on new sliders does the trick.


  1. Bruno Riollet
    12th September 2011 at 7:36 pm #

    We were having this problem in Botswana and Namibia (lots of sand). Fixed the sliders as mentionned in the article and problem is solved.
    Very useful tip thus. Thanks.


  2. Dave Conroy - Tired of I.T!
    9th May 2013 at 10:26 am #

    Glad there is no advice in here to put a grease on the zippers. Sometime a long time ago some misinformation appeared recommending this be done on th teeth of the zipper. Surprise! This only attracts more dust and junk and causes a world of pain. Carrying a small nail brush is more than adequate to clean them on a regular basis, and before usage if you are packing your tent while wet and open/close the tent after it has dried letting the dirt and dust accumulate.

  3. Andreas B.
    7th June 2013 at 1:28 pm #

    If you have one of those electric toothbrushes, on which the brush-head is swapped every few months, like Oral B and the like;—simply take 1 or 2 old brush-heads along, exactly the right size and very light-weight. Cheers.

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