Chapter 20: Hiking Light – Caring For Your Ultralight Performance Clothing and Gear

High performance backpacking clothing and gear can be a substantial investment. Since most of the fabrics are synthetics, it’s good to know how to clean them and make them last.

The most obvious instructions are those on the care tag. If you are a super fanatic and remove tags to save weight, at least save the tags and write a brief note as to what tag goes with each piece of clothing.

It’s a pretty safe bet that many hikers throw their hiking gear in with the rest of the wash. Depending on your settings and detergents, this might work or it might damage the performance qualities of the fabric.

If you keep your apparel clean it will last longer and perform better. When you do have to wash gear, remember that the washing process is stressful to any fabric, so it’s better to hand wash. This doesn’t have to be a long, tedious job. Soaking for a few minutes is usually more beneficial than having your clothes twist back and forth in a washing machine. Very few hiking garments should be dry cleaned. It’s always best to avoid those chemicals anyway. Harsh detergents and dry cleaning chemicals can harm your clothing’s performance coatings.

When cleaning your synthetic fabrics, use a minimum of laundry products. Their additives can clog fabric, reducing the wicking power of the fiber. Never use scented detergents, bleach, dryer sheets, or fabric softeners. You can turn garments inside out to avoid snags. Always wash your synthetic clothing separate from cotton garments. This keeps cotton fibers out of the fabric and greatly reduces drying time. Wash on a cold, gentle setting. Never get your synthetic gear too hot. Cool tumble dry, or better yet, hang to dry – that’s what they are made to do. They’ll avoid gradual shrinkage, and they’ll look better, too.

Remember that not all synthetics are alike. Some can go in a washing machine. Some can be tumble dried, while others should never go in the dryer. Some garments can have their performance qualities restored by using commercially purchased products suited to the gear.

For cleaning Gore-Tex and other breathable synthetic outer shell clothing, follow the instructions on the label. These can usually be machine-washed in cold water using a special Gore-Tex cleaner or gentle powder soap that contains no bleach.

Polar fleece can be cleaned in the washing machine using cold to warm water. Turn it inside out to avoid pilling. Don’t wash with other items because the fleece will attract fluff and leave fluff on other non-fleece clothing. It can be tumble dried. Pilling gets worse with each wash.

You can wash your down jacket much the same as you care for your down sleeping bag. Extend the life of your jacket by keeping it as clean as possible so you don’t have to wash it too often. Wear clean clothing when possible to protect against trail dirt, body oils, sweat, and lotions that can harm the down.

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.

Always follow all the manufacturer’s cleaning instructions. By following a few simple guidelines you can have a clean jacket and restore its loft.

Never dry clean your jacket since the solvents can strip away natural oils contained in the down.

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. Use cold and gentle cycles.

For all down jackets it’s safest to wash by hand in a sink or tub. You can use mild soaps such as Ivory Flakes or Woolite, but not detergents. Do not add bleach or fabric softener. You can also use one of the down cleaners that are made especially for down products.

Fill your sink or tub with warm water. Use only the amount of down cleaner recommended. Rinsing it all out is one of your most important objectives. Gently knead the soapy water through the jacket. Carefully scrub the dirtiest places. You can apply the cleaner directly to the worst areas. Don’t expect the down cleaner to remove every stain. Let the jacket 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, you may want to rinse 10 times or more. Getting all of the soap out is critical. Empty the sink or tub with each rinse and let the water drain out. The thing you want to be really careful about is pulling or lifting your jacket went it is wet and at its heaviest. The stitching or interior baffles can be ripped loose. One trick you can use is to put the jacket in a mesh bag and carefully and slowly lifting that bag to knead the soap in and to rinse the water out. Press on your jacket to remove the water after each rinse, but don’t ring out the water. If you wash your jacket in a front loading washer, run it through a second cycle without soap to get all the suds out.

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 jacket in a top loader for this part. When you move the jacket from tub to washer, you can gently roll it into a ball or carry it in a mesh bag.

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 hours or more. During washing the down collects in clumps. As you dry, check for lumps and redistribute with gentle massaging and more drying time.

When you return home from a hike, letting your sleeping bag and other gear dry out is one of the most important things to do. Place your sleeping bag and tent in a warm area away from kids and pets. Letting your gear dry thoroughly is far easier than removing that mildew smell later.

Your lightweight running shoes are efficient and comfortable for ultralight hiking, and they’re easy to clean after a dusty hike. Just let them soak in a sink or small tub. You can quickly scrub them with a brush, rinse them, and let them dry with the help of a fan.

Take care of your ultralight performance clothing and gear and they will continue to take care of you.