How to Fix a Ladder Lock on a Backpack - or Your Soft Top

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We have a Softopper soft top on our 4Runner with cheesy plastic ladder locks that hold down the rear of the top. Ladder locks are the adjustable plastic buckles on backpack straps, all types of camping gear, and yes, our soft top. They can break easily. We’ve broken backpack ladder locks by crushing them under a chair. They are truly annoying to repair because they are sewed on, BUT WE FOUND A NO-SEW LADDER LOCK REPLACEMENT!

Broken Ladder Lock on Our Strap
Just like when a backpack strap breaks, this was a bummer. These straps are usually sewn into loops, so the only way to repair them was to seam rip and sew a new loop with a new ladder lock buckle.
New Ladder Lock Buckle Installed
This is a lot heftier than the old buckle.

Like working on our 4x4s, we’ve also made our own camping gear and modified backpacks, straps, and tents to better suit our purposes. We’ve had lots of experience sewing on ladder locks and plastic side release buckles (these are the hip belt buckles on a backpack). Sometimes you just know a repair is going to look super ugly or be super difficult. This is usually because the ladder lock attaches to a super short loop of webbing that emerges from a seam in the main fabric or the strap is just positioned or attached in a less than ideal way. For us, in this case, it was the second. We’ve had the Softopper for a few years (it’s held up very well) but we knew that the ladder locks would break one day, and that it would be painful to replace them.

As expected, one of these plastic buckle things partially broke on our 4Runner’s soft top. A few days later, the other one totally broke. We need these ladder locks to tension the rear of the top and it’s impossible to snap the rear portion of the top down without the rear straps being attached. We had rain coming in a couple of days and were looking at getting out the sewing machine, disassembling the top, and figuring out how to fix the rear soft top hoop in place so we could rip the old seam and sew on a new ladder lock.

Luckily, a few minutes (more than we expected, frankly!) of internet searching came up with the Sea to Summit Field Repair Buckle. It is awesome. It’s a plastic ladder lock buckle with a removable stainless steel pin. Because of the pin, you don’t need to do any sewing. You simply unscrew the pin, place the ladder lock, and screw the pin back in. Thread in the tensioning strap and you’re done. This literally saved us probably 1-2 hours of frustration and work.

Sea to Summit Ladder Lock Buckle
The buckle has a stainless steel pin that's easy to twist in with a regular #2 Philips screwdriver .
Sea to Summit Ladder Lock Buckle with Stainless Steel Pin Installed
The stainless pin will take the forces from holding our soft top in place much better.

The new ladder locks are much beefier than the original ones that came with the Softopper. Also, the stainless steel pin replaces the part that broke on our original ladder lock. This is a huge upgrade over the stock part. Sea to Summit currently offers these in 1/2”, 3/4”, and 1”. Just measure the width of your strap and choose the corresponding ladder lock.

The Broken Ladder Lock Compared to the New Ladder Lock
The Sea to Summit buckle is way bigger.

Sea to Summit also makes similar side release buckle replacements (the ones for your backpack hip belt) in 1/2”, 3/4”, 1”, and 1 1/2”. These come with either 1 or 2 pins. A 1 pin side release buckle will work for things like a backpack compression strap where one end is captured in a webbing loop and the other end is a buckle and ladder lock combined. Make sure you check whether you need a 1 pin or 2 pin.

Sea to Summit Side Release Buckle - 1 Pin with Ladder Lock
This could also probably be used on a backpack hipbelt or somewhere that you needed the adjustability of a ladder lock buckle.
Sea to Summit Side Release Buckle - 2 Pin
You can use this buckle on things like backpack hipbelts.

Installation Tips

  • We used pliers on either side of the ladder lock to bend and break it in half in order to get the remnants of the ladder lock off the strap. Watch for flying pieces. Both our ladder locks shot off pieces when we broke them apart.
  • If you were really in a pickle and needed to do a field repair, you could probably smash your ladder lock with a rock to break it.
  • The screw takes a #2 screwdriver. If you don’t work on your junk, you probably have this size in your junk drawer as it’s probably the most common size.
  • If you’re backpacking on a trail and you have this buckle, you can use the Philips driver on a Utilikey or maybe a small flathead to turn the stainless screw. The Philips on a Utilikey is a little small (a #1) but it’ll still do the job.
Repaired Strap Buckle Threading - Step 1
Pay attention to the threading of the new ladder lock so that it secures your strap properly.
Repaired Strap Buckle Threading - Step 2
You only need to thread the strap through 2 slots on the ladder lack.
The Fixed Strap Ladder Lock
The buckle is better than new with the thicker plastic and stainless steel pin.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tyler Branham

Tyler came out of the womb with a Birfield in one hand and a stick of 6010 in the other, ready to weld any piece of trail-busted steel back together. He has wheeled, broken, and modified a variety of rigs, from Toyotas to Jeeps to Fords to Chevies. He likes doing long distance overland travel and would happily spend every night in the bed of a pickup under the stars.

Last updated: June 3, 2019