Chapter 23: How To Care For And Clean Your Down Sleeping Bag
Your down sleeping bag is an important investment in lightweight backpacking. It’s good to know that with proper care it can last a long, long time.
To extend the life of your bag, never store it in its stuff sack. Long periods of compression will cause the bag to lose its loft. Keep it loosely stored in a dry place in a large cotton bag. Or hang it in a closet or store it flat. Don’t ever store your bag in something that is watertight. This can result in condensation and mildew. Avoid excessive heat that can evaporate the natural oils in down. Make sure your bag is completely dry after each trip before you store it.
Airing out your bag on each day of your backpacking trip will help keep it lofted and dry. Turn inside out and use the sun and breeze if necessary. Sleeping bags can be stuffed over and over without damage. Not using a compression stuff sack or even the smallest stuff sack possible may help you reduce the stress on your bag when stuffing it. Never roll your sleeping bag. Stuffing it is easier on the down and fabric. When you stuff your bag, start with the foot first to let the air escape more easily. Push the bag firmly into the bottom of the stuff sack and stuff with an even motion. This puts less stress on the stitching. As you stuff, if you press against your thigh or the ground instead of just holding the stuff sack out in front of you, you’ll put less stress on the bag and the stitching of the stuff sack.
As soon as you get to camp each evening, remove the bag from its stuff sack to allow it to air out and loft. Use an even, gentle motion to remove it from its stuff sack. Never yank it and stress its seams. Keep your bag out of sunlight unless you’re drying it, since the UV rays slowly degrade the fabric.
Extend the life of your bag by keeping it as clean as possible so you don’t have to wash it too often. Never lay your bag directly on the ground. If you’re not in a tent, use a ground cloth. Keep your sleeping pad and tent floor clean. Wear clean clothing to bed. This protects against trail dirt, body oils, sweat, and lotions that can harm the down.
If clothing is too restrictive, or heavy, consider using a sleeping bag liner. They are made of cotton, polyester, or silk and can weigh as little as four ounces. They also add a few degrees of warmth to your bag. After each trip, just wash and you’re ready for your next adventure.
Clean small stains and spills with a damp cloth as they occur to avoid repeated washings. You can spot treat stains with soap or cleaning solvent. Use solvents to remove tar or tree sap. Move the down away from the spot you’re treating.
When your sleeping bag is ready to clean because it has too much odor, too much dirt, or has lost its loft, always follow all the manufacturer’s instructions. By following a few simple guidelines you can have a clean bag and restore its loft.
Never dry clean your bag since the solvents can strip away natural oils contained in the down. Dry cleaning fluids remain in the bag, and dry cleaning is not effective in cleaning the down.
It’s probable that your bag is dirtier on the inside than outside, so turn the bag inside out before washing. Zip up all the zippers. Never use a top-loading or agitator machine because they can damage the baffle construction. If you do use a washing machine make sure it’s a front loader. Bags with tricot baffles are stronger than bags with no-see-um netting baffles. Use cold and gentle cycles.
For all down sleeping bags it’s safest to wash by hand in a tub or bathtub. You can use mild soaps such as Ivory Flakes or Woolite, but not detergents. Do not add bleach or fabric softener. Since you’ve invested so much money in your bag and you’ll invest so much time in washing it, it’s best to use one of the down cleaners that are made especially for down products.
Fill the tub with warm water. Use only the amount of down cleaner recommended. Rinsing it all out is one of your most important objectives. You can put your bag in the water and get it totally wet while it's in its stuff sack. This way the air has already been forced out of the bag and you won’t have to fight air-filled baffles trying to float to the surface. Pull the bag from the sack and gently knead the soapy water through the bag. Carefully scrub the dirtiest places such as the head and foot. You can apply the cleaner directly to the worst areas. Don’t expect the down cleaner to remove every stain. Let the bag soak for 15 minutes to an hour. It may be necessary to change the soapy water more than once, but don’t overdo it. You need to rinse with clear water several times to make sure you get the soap out. Some manufacturers tell you to rinse 3 or more times, but even using small amounts of soap, I've rinsed 10 times or more. Getting all of the soap out is critical. Empty the tub with each rinse and let the water drain out. The thing you want to be really careful about is pulling or lifting your bag went it's wet and at its heaviest. The stitching or interior baffles can be ripped loose. One trick I like to use is putting the sleeping bag in a large mesh bag and carefully and slowly lifting that bag to knead the soap in and to rinse the water out. Press on your bag to remove the water after each rinse, but don’t ring out the water. If you wash your bag in a front loading washer, run it through a second cycle without soap to get all the suds out.
After the last rinsing, carefully move your bag to the washing machine. A washing machine that will allow you to use the last spin cycle will remove a lot of water and save dryer time. You can carefully place the bag in a top loader for this part. When you move the bag from tub to washer, you can gently roll it into a ball or carry it in a mesh bag. Other techniques include putting it in a large pillowcase or rolling it into a plastic clothesbasket.
Some manufacturers warn against home dryers, but if you have a low heat setting, no hot spots, and no sharp areas inside the dryer that could damage the shell fabric, you should be fine. Tumble dry on the lowest heat setting. This may take two to four hours. During washing the down collects in clumps. As you dry, check for lumps and redistribute with gentle massaging and more drying time. It may be helpful to add two or three clean tennis balls to break up the down.
Here's a recap of the basics:
• Wash in bathtub or front loading washing machine
• Use down cleaner
• Don't pull and stress the bag when wet
• Rinse thoroughly
• Dry completely
With proper care and washing, you can enjoy many years of comfort in your sleeping bag.