Recently I gave a gear presentation to a local Alpine Group. In previous gear presentations I’ve often heard the presenter advocate to “Mark your gear, unless you want to loose it!” which I agree with, especially when you’re talking to a class of 100 new mountaineers. But I never hear this statement followed up with how to mark gear. What material should one use? Where should one put the mark?

After an intense research mission on the subject, it seems that there are just 4 main ways to mark your gear: tape, enamel, writing utensils, and permanent alteration, although there’s many sub-categories of each.

If you don’t want to totally overwhelmed yourself geek out on the subject,  just skip to the “overview” section at the bottom of each category.

Now, here’s the complete roundup!

Tape

  • Automotive Pinstriping Tape – Essentially the same as Rack Tags (see below), a very durable, low profile tape, stretchy enough for a tight fit. You still have to do all the cutting work (vs pre-cut Rack Tags). The price is all over the place, but easy to find at your local auto body shop. It lasts 2-8 years longer than all the common tapes.
  • Duct Tape (DT) –  Is a “lesser” electrical tape, it doesn’t stretch so it’s hard to get it tight, it has a bit higher profile and has more texture for things to catch on it, so it usually doesn’t last as long. It also leaves a sticker residue than most other tapes. You can use it, but there are better methods that are just as cheap and last longer.
  • Electrical Tape (ET) – The most tried and true method. It’s nice and rubbery so you can stretch for a lower profile and a tight fit. One challenge is there aren’t many colors available so using two colors is much safer. Note: its better to use two colors on different parts of the spine (not on top of each other) to last longer (side by side marking keeps the height down). Electrical tape will last 2-4 years of frequent use. When it comes off it leaves a sticky residue (and micro trash)—like all taping options.
  • Hockey Tape – Perhaps your cheapest option it’s about a $1 per role and you can even use it to protect your hands/fingers as a substitute for climbing tape. The durability is also much greater than climbing tape (which isn’t listed as an option because it’s collects dirt, has a fairly high profile, and leaves an extra sticky residue, and only comes in one color). Hockey tape is also textured, which isn’t ideal. So electrical tape seems to win the bang-for-your-buck tape battle, unless you’re looking for more versatility or already have another on-hand.
  • IdentitapeAnother tape option that lasts a 1-3 years longer than ET/DT, but it’s brittle and can flake off leaving little bits sprinkling your pack and the wilderness. One common solution: put a clear piece of tape over it, but now you’re back to doubling up your efforts! It does come in a lot of colored stripe options, and is about $9.
  • Rack TagsMade by Trango, these tags save you the hassle of cutting and rounding the corners of your tape. They come in a variety of colors and I’ve also heard of these lasting over 12 years (and still going strong) as they don’t slide around/fall of the same way that electrical tape does. When you compare price they’re not a lot more expensive either (especially if you count your time).
  • Scotchcal 220 series premium vinyl – a 7 year auto vinyl will not peal on you! It won’t last forever, but it will last 1-3 years more than the common tapes. Another plus: it has a ton of colors so you only need one layer. Get it at a commercial sign company. Comparative pricing to pinstriping tape.
  • Stickers and Packing Tape – A bit more work depending on how intricate your stickers are (does it require more cutting or not?), this adds a super customized feel. Fortunately, since packing tape is such a thin tape it also lasts 1-3 years longer than the most common tapes.
  • Tough TagsThese tags can be personalized with your details such as a phone number or email address, so if you forget your gear and a nice person finds it, there’s actually hope in getting it returned! So far no reports of how long they typically last, but they seem worthy of cams and other expensive items that don’t wear markers quickly anyway.
  • Vinyl Tape (branded)REI and Liberty Mountain have their own branded tape, though I haven’t seen any reviews to testify if it’s just glorified electrical tape or is actually a better more durable substitute like Trango Tags.

Overall: the best tape is the thinest, stretchiest tape you can get but still has a strong durability. If you round the corners the tape will be less likely to peel. Some folks add a dab of crazy glue at the ends of the tape to increase longevity too. Two colors almost completely ensures a lack of confusion with your partners gear.

One unfortunate is that tape does not last forever and you may inadvertently leave trash in the mountains (and also need to re-tape, with the hope that you have the same colors on-hand). Tape will also leave a sticky residue where it peeled off (duct tape is one of the worst, but all tapes leave a residue).

Enamels

  • Spray Paint – Fast to apply, it will make your gear so ugly that most people wouldn’t want to steal it and nobody will accidentally confuse it as their own. Most folks claim it lasts longer than nail polish too. Get quality spray paint only! The cheapest paints will flake off sooner, especially if you coat your gear heavily.
  • Nail Polish – This definitely seems to be the “up and coming” way of marking your gear. It’s goes on low-profile, is very easy to find, and there’s even $1 options. If you paint in the crevasses of your gear, it can easily last 2-6 years (a few years longer than tape). Nail Polish also allows you to add creative flare if you’d like to jazz it up.
  • Auto Laquer / Metal Compatible Paint – Similar to spray paint, it’s usually sold in spray cans and comes in lots of colors. It’s tougher and more durable than regular spray paint. This method ensures the “sloppy” look of your gear will not go home with a new “friend.” Generally a little higher priced than its spray paint brother, you can find this solution at your local Auto Shop.
  • The Mark – An official climbing specific “permanent” gear marking solution. It’s a solvent free two-component epoxy creating the “longest lasting and most durable gear mark ever.” This works great if you already have a huge rack and you want to mark everything at once (the Mark will coat about 250 pieces of gear). It’s a little harder to justify if you’re just starting out, as you’re required to mix two components to create this epoxy each time you want to mark your gear, and that’s not a reasonable option if you’re adding to your rack regularly.

Overview: Enamels tend to last longer than tape and have the benefit of not leaving trash on the mountain (as long as the enamel wasn’t excessively painted on). Enamels ARE messier to put on. We saw more than a few cases of nail polish bottles spilling and that’s probably the cleanest of the enamel options. One downside is that you cannot use enamels on any soft-goods like slings, so you’ll need to use at least two marking methods (or just make sure you mark the TAGS of the slings, and not the slings themselves).

To mark your gear, you’ll want to paint on any area’s that are inset (making it a great option for hot-forged carabiners). For example, on carabiners mark the base of the gate and next to the nose.  You want to paint in spots that aren’t used/rubbed but at the same time you want be able to quickly ID your gear so it can be a tough balance to find the perfect solution.

Writing Utensils

  • Paint Markers – The most popular writing utensil choice, Paint Markers provide a cleaner application than enamels and a ton of color options. It also allows you to have a very personal touch. Sad news: we have yet to see a solution that lasts more than a few years. Happy news: you get to change your mind and re-design!
  • Sharpie – Similar to the Paint Markers, it’s a fairly clean solution to implement, cheap, and come in a variety of colors. Generally speaking, don’t mark soft goods unless you know what the pens ink is all about and the effects it could have. BlueWaterRopes says get a water-based Sharpie like the Sharpie “rub a dub” laundry marking pen if you want to mark any soft goods.

Overview: In theory this method is great, it won’t leave a sticky residue, there’s a TON of color options, it won’t flake off leaving trash, and  it’s not messy to put on. The problem is it just doesn’t last as long as tape/enamels. Though, I’ve seen it last years on hot-forged carabiners where it’s marked on the inset—but that doesn’t help you have a consistent marking on all your goods.

Play it safe and don’t use markers on soft goods—the problem is companies change what chemicals are in their markers, so it’s hard to tell if it will have an adverse affect. If you get a water-based marker you’re probably OK, but we won’t guarantee your safety.

Permanent Alterations

Overview First: Permanent alterations are serious stuff. If you don’t know a lot about metals, I highly recommend staying away from this option. A mistake can weaken the material for both tensile and compressive stresses by providing a crack or propagation site for fracture to occur. That said, if you know what you’re doing enough to risk your life on it, then you probably already use this option and don’t need to read about it.

  • Cut the Tag – Ok, this method is pretty safe, but it only applies to slings and other tagged items. Though it’s not particularly unique (there’s only so many ways to cut a tag, it’s just that most people wouldn’t do it). You also risk cutting too much, harming your precious soft goods.
  • Engraving/Stamping/Inscribing/Etching – Historically climbers would inscribe the gate opening of a carabiner, back before their were wire gates! The theory is engraving does not impact gear, as your gear often gets “naturally engraved” when it rubs against rocks and gets little pocks and pits. If your engraver is not going deeper than that equivalent, the theory follows you’d be fine. Some folks use a dremel tool with a rounded ball tip to ensure it doesn’t go deep. Some only alter their the “hardest” gear like their cams and tricams using an engraver, but won’t engrave carabiners. If you’re curious read up, there’s a LOT of debate on the subject. This topic could easily invoke a few blog posts, and surely is not covered well enough in the paragraph here to make it a reasonable option, especially if you’re reading about it for the first time.

In the End it Boils Down To

Most Popular Method: 

  • Electrical Tape
  • Nail Polish

We assume this is due to the ease to put on, ease to find, cheapness, and tradition.

Longest Lasting Methods: 

The Mark > Rack Tags/Automotive Pinstriping Tape > For-Metal Enamels > Spray Paint > Nail Polish > Electrical Tape

You’ll definitely notice the cheapest options are last. Interestingly, (I was surprised at the results) it seems worth the money to buy Trango’s Rack Tags, which will last a good 10 years (2-4 applications of any other marking method) and only cost you about $6. The Mark would be worth the money only if you had a large rack and weren’t planning on intermittently getting a lot more gear intermittently as The Mark ensures claims (I have yet to find any reports of use) to be completely permanent.

There’s lots of conflicting reports on whether Nail Polish or Tape lasts longer. Overall, Nail Polish wins the internet battle, but it also depends on the climate where you climb and the placements of your marking.

Note: Permanent alterations would last longest, but are not recommended for most people so they’re not on the final list.

Did I miss something? Want to clarify any of the above information? Feel free to post in the comments!

Resources: Partners, Friends, and Hours of Google Searches sending me to the forums, scouring MountainProject.com, RockClimbing.com, SuperTopo.com, and other local climbing sites where wisdom is shared.

Share
Alison Dennis

Alison Dennis

Alison (she/her) runs WeighMyRack from her 17' travel trailer. She is currently touring the US and would love if you contacted her to meet up to talk about climbing, climbing gear, or if you have any fun and/or ridiculous adventure in mind.

All author posts