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For most who own a down sleeping bag, one of the tasks that are avoided to the detriment of their gear may be the washing and cleaning of a down sleeping bag or quilt. Additionally, the lack of cleaning your down makes it less efficient over time and causes it to retain less heat. This can bring down the heating quality it provides you during those cold backpacking nights.
You definitely should wash your down sleeping bag after extended use or before putting it into storage for any length of time. While many have been told to never wash down, you MUST take care of your bag by cleaning it as this will extend the life and ensure a clean smell. This can be done with a machine or by hand.
Your down bag can be your greatest partner when in the wilderness and when treated nicely, it can last through decades of frequent use, keeping you warm while out on the trail. Unfortunately, a great many backpackers mistreat their down sleeping bags by allowing dirt and grime the ability to work into them for years without washing.
We are going to look into how you can wash them with a machine or by hand, this should help you keep your bag ready to go for a lifetime and ensure it won't let you down when you need it the most.
How Do I Wash A Down Sleeping Bag?
Below is what I have done and been successful in cleaning my personal down products, while I am fairly certain it can be done in this method with any gear which is down I would ensure to read your gear manufacturers suggested cleaning method to lengthen its life. If they don't provide any instructions or you have long since lost them then the below is a good place to start washing your gear.
You can choose to machine wash, which a majority of hikers do, or you can opt-in for the hand washing. Hand washing is overall the safest method but it involves a lot of time investment, machine washing can give you a good result but you need the right machines and the right settings for it to be viable and to not damage your equipment.
How to Machine Wash A Down Bag
- Important Notes for Machine Washing
- No Top Loading as Agitation will cause damage or increase the possibility of damage
- Make sure to have a high volume washer (Important as this space keeps it from compacting)
- Run it empty once to clean out the washer and to flush out any detergent left in the dispenser.
- Wash Cycle (Delicate) - Wash using Nikwax Down Wash
- Make sure to pull up all the zips and velcro on the bag, if it has a waterproof shell then turn it inside out
- Additional Rinse Cycle - This is to help ensure that all of the soap you added is out of the bag
- Wash Cycle (Second) - This wash cycle is also on delicate, but this time you use Nikwax Down Proof instead of soap in the dispenser
- Post Wash Note: Prior to removing your bag from the washing machine, take the time to place several towels on the floor to soak up additional water. Down feathers are delicate and the sleeping bag will be much heavier when wet, ensure you support the length of the bag while moving to the dryer to avoid damaging the gear.
- Dry Cycle (90 Minutes) - Move your bag into the dryer and set on extra-low heat. Add tennis balls to help break up the drying down while drying is occurring, I use between 6 to 10 depending on size.
- If worried you could look into "dryer balls" which have become prevalent in society.
- Dry Cycle (60 Minutes) - Now you want to pull it out and do some more fine-tuned support by spraying some Nikwax Direct Spray around the head and face area along with anywhere you would normally have an issue with condensation, then rub it in good with your hands.
- Dry Cycle (Possibly 4 hours+) - After applying the direct spray you will want to put the bag back in the dryer and this time will require patience and multiple restarts as you need to let this go until dry.
- Dry Cycle (Last Cycle) - After you feel that the down is totally dry what you want to do is run it one more time as you want this to be 100% certain complete when you put it away.
How to Hand Wash A Down Bag
- Clean Tub Thoroughly - Start by first cleaning your bathtub BEFORE anything else, if very small I would recommend possibly using a cooler or similar container in place of the tub
- Rinse Items - Thoroughly rinse your gear in standing water, drain water after churning it for 10+ minutes to get that first layer of grime out.
- Empty and Refill Tub - Refill your tub with clean freshwater and the correct amount of Nikwax
- Manually Agitate and Mix Gear (Appr 15 Minutes) - You need to really work the gear while in your cleaning solution until you see no more air bubbles escaping from it.
- Start A Soaking Period (Appr 30 Minutes) - You want to let the gear sit in the solution letting it soak in for at least 30 minutes
- Drain Dirty Water - If you have gone a long time between cleanings then this water may be incredibly gross and disgusting, drain it out so you can eliminate this grime.
- Expectations: At this stage, you should have a very compact and heavy lump to move to clean area (either empty and back into tub or maybe a larger cooler with a large space)
- Initial Rinse After Wash - At this point, you want to start your main rinse and soak in clean water. Lightly squeezing out the water until the water comes out with zero bubbles from soap.
- Very important to take time and make sure you see no residual soap on your gear as you want it to dry without extra chemicals from the soap staying on it.
- Initial Air Drying Outside - If weather is nice outside then what you want to do is to place it on some chairs or a clothesline which will let gravity drain a good amount, if possible leave it out overnight for additional drying (weather permitting)
- Machine Dry Finish - You want to look at drying on a no heat setting with added tennis balls or dryer balls. Being as this is no heat please be aware this will take HOURS to complete, you will want to continue this drying until all loft has returned to your gear.
How Do I Fix Down Clumps In A Down Sleeping Bag?
The biggest way and the most frequently posted online is that once the clumps exist and are dry the only way to fix is to re-wash them and start the cycle over again. This means putting in the 4-6 hours work once again to fix the issues, while this may seem over the top it is much safer for your down to be treated correctly.
Why Not Just Tear The Clumps Apart?
When you tear the clumps apart by hand what is happening is you are breaking the structural integrity that keeps them providing warmth. This takes the loft and destroys it and breaks down the feathers, effectively shortening their lifespan, don't waste your investment in a down sleeping bag just to shave a few hours.
General Down Sleeping Bag Maintenance Tips
DO NOT STORE THEM COMPRESSED - Regardless of how you wash your sleeping bag whether by a machine or by hand when your bag is totally dry, be sure to store it loosely in a large mesh storage sack. Many times these are included with your purchase of a sleeping bag.
LEARN TO SPOT CLEAN - While a full wash is necessary over time you want to make sure to limit them as the more you fully wash your sleeping bag, the more the fabric and loft will eventually fail. Many times all you will really need is to spot clean or wash around areas such as the head or foot box.
To spot wash just apply a small amount of your choice of down soap to the area to be cleaned and use a toothbrush to scrub away the grit and grime then you just wash with a sponge. Make sure to minimize down being wetted or you will want to dry it outside or in the drier to ensure no down impact.
When you buy fancy gear like a down sleeping bag, down quilt or even a jacket you will be spending hundreds of dollars. How long this will last will highly depend on how well you take care of it when you use it, what you need to remember is that the gunk adds up over time and slowly makes it less protected.
Cleaning is not a fun task, I will agree with this with all my being but I also want to maximize the gear life that I spend my hard-earned money on. I have come to love this downtime, no pun intended, as a time to listen to audiobooks or music or other activity while cleaning.