Care and Cleaning of Down Gear

Do you suffer from soup and coffee stains on your down parka? Does your down bag give off an ominous scent sure to repel ill-tempered Sasquatch? Friend, you have suffered the trail funk long enough; it’s time to do something about it! In this post I’ll show you step by step how you can WYO (Wash Your Own) down gear. With a little TLC you can refresh your down gear and even improve its performance.

Oh noooes!!
Oh noooes!!

Options for Washing Down Sleeping Bags and Garments

There are right and wrong ways to do this. Going about it the wrong way may destroy your expensive down sleeping bag!


GOOD Ideas…

  • Bag Laundering Service:

    A laundering service such as Rainy Pass Repair out of Seattle Washington specializes in laundering down bags, garments, and repairing outdoor gear. If you don’t want to do it yourself then definitely find someone like these folks. The downside of course is the associated cost and the turn around time which might be 2 weeks or more.

  • Hand Washing:

    Hand washing is the way to go if you’re going to wash your own. This is what we’re going to talk about in just a second.

BAD Ideas…

  • Dry Cleaning Service:

    DO NOT take your bag, or down clothing to a dry cleaner. The harsh chemicals they use will shorten its life and strip away insulating properties of the down.

  • Machine Washing:

    DO NOT use a washing machine. The rotary motion can be tough on delicate seams, especially with lightweight fabrics that many sleeping bag shells are made of.

How to Hand Wash a Down Sleeping Bag or Quilt

If you decided to WYO, here’s a run down.

First, you’ll need a few things:

  1. A Bathtub or large wash basin
  2. A clothes dryer
  3. Clean tennis balls, 2-3 of them. Yes, you will need these.
  4. Specialty soap such as Nikwax Down Wash or a non-detergent soap such Dr. Bronners Magic Soaps
  5. About an hour of your free time

Step 1

Keep the sleeping bag compressed up until you’re about to put it into the bathtub.

Step 2

Fill the tub with about 8 inches of warm water. Check the directions on the soap for the correct amount to use, Nikwax recommends 3 cap fulls for washing in the tub.

Step 3

Remove the sleeping bag from its stuff sack and lay it out in the tub – or as commenter LightDan suggested, just put the stuff sack underwater, then remove the bag from it. The less air in the bag the better. Knead and press it under water. Try to work as much air out as possible to work the soap into the down. Continue doing this up and down the length of the bag. It’s going to take a little (lots of) effort. After about 10-15 minutes of it should be looking like a dead jellyfish and your bathwater may be a tad bit disgusting.

Step 4

Drain the tub and squeeze as much of the wash water out of the bag as you can. If the bag and wash water were really gross you may elect to give it a second wash, just repeat steps 2-4.

Step 5

Refill the tub with warm water. Knead and work the bag like you did earlier. The goal is to rinse out as much of the soap as possible. After kneading for a bit, let it soak for 5-10 minutes then drain the tub and squeeze as much of the rinse water out of the bag as you can. Rinse it under running warm water for a few minutes if you feel it still has some soap inside.

Step 6

Transfer the bag to your clothes dryer. Put the tennis balls in the dryer with it. Do NOT put any fabric softener sheets in the dryer, only the sleeping bag and the tennis balls. LOW heat is desirable, if your bag/quilt has a 5D or 10D shell you may even elect for no heat to avoid potentially melting the delicate material. Ok, so just let it tumble. It will probably take at least one cycle to fully dry. The purpose of the tennis balls is to break up clumps of down which ensures the down will dry completely. Without them this will take A LOT longer.

Step 7

When your bag is all done drying (there should not be any clumps of down) use your hands to massage the down into the baffles. Some bags allow for down to be moved around more than others so there may be a lot or not much to do on this step. Congrats, your bag is all fresh and ready for your next trip!

Nikwax Down Wash
Nikwax Down Wash
Soaking
Soaking
Dead Jellyfish
Dead Jellyfish
A Clean Alpinlite!
A Clean Alpinlite!

Taking Care of Down Gear

Down loses some of its insulating properties as it gets dirty, and of course it gets heavier too. Just a couple of reasons why birds are constantly preening. Washing your down gear once a year is probably often enough for the average Jane or Joe, crazy berserker hikers may need to wash more regularly. Keeping gear clean is not an easy task, of course. One way to keep your sleeping bag a little cleaner is to always sleep in base layers, or use a bag liner. Either way will reduce the transfer of oils from your skin into the bag, and eventually into the down.

Airing out down gear will increase its lifespan as well. A few minutes laid out in the sun can dry out any moisture absorbed by sleeping bags and clothing overnight. If you have down-filled air mattresses don’t blow them up with lung power, instead use some type of pump or a contraption such as the Instaflator. This will prevent moist air getting into the air mattress where it will have a hard time drying out. Storing down that’s still damp is an invitation for mold, mildew, and degradation of the down. Long term storage should be done in an un-compressed condition.

Lastly, be careful applying any type of DWR spray to the shells of down gear. You may increase the water resistance of the kit, but at the same time you may decrease it’s ability to breathe. If moisture can’t escape then the down will become saturated and will no longer insulate you.

In Summary…

Show your down gear some love and it will treat you well in kind. Make sure to approach any cleaning the “right way” and follow the manufacturer’s care instructions when in doubt. That’s it. Enjoy your feathers! Hike It. Like It.

Jacob D Written by:

Jacob is the head honcho, wearer of many hats, and modern day berserker here at Hike It. Like It. When he's not out hiking or running the trails you'll find him operating in full capacity as a Super Dad and chipping away at a degree in Kinesiology. This guy likes to stay busy. Follow on Strava

10 Comments

  1. LightDan
    April 16, 2015
    Reply

    Good advice here.
    To make it easier to soak the bag (step 3), keep the bag compressed in the stuff sack, press down everything in the water and then pull the sleeping bag out of the stuff sack while under water. The bag will then be more or less instantly filled with soapy water and there will be need for much less kneading and pressing before reaching the “dead Jellyfish” mode. 🙂

    • April 17, 2015
      Reply

      Heya Dan. Thanks for the tip… brilliant! I dunno why I never thought to do that, guess I didn’t want to get my stuff sack wet 🙂 Yes, that sounds like it would make getting water into the bag much easier. Let it suck the water in and do the work instead of wearing out my arms!

  2. Elliott Wolin
    April 6, 2015
    Reply

    Great instructions, but possibly misleading to some people.

    You use the word “kneading”, but I found that excessive squeezing can lead to down clumps that remain after drying. I tell people to press the item with open hands, and not to squeeze, knead or wring the item with closed hands.

    Or maybe you haven’t had the same problem…

    • April 7, 2015
      Reply

      Hi Elliott. Thanks for sharing your technique. I haven’t had any problem with clumps of down. My bags/quilts go in the dryer for a couple of cycles with 3 tennis balls and everything is nice and fluffy when it comes out. When washing them I knead, push, press, squeeze, and wring as much as I need to in order to work the water in (which is surprisingly quite a chore) and of course trying to get as much of it back out before putting them in the dryer.

  3. Craig W.
    February 15, 2015
    Reply

    Hey Jacob, hope you’re well, regret not being able to get up to Pt. Reyes.
    I’ve got some bag washing to do….came back to this article to jog my memory…Thanks!

    • February 17, 2015
      Reply

      Hi Craig. Would have been nice to meet up at the Point Reyes GGG; we’ll bump into each other somewhere soon enough. I would love to come down to SOCAL and do some climbing/canyons with you. Maybe this summer if possible! I just washed Sandra’s down bag yesterday, I too had to refresh my memory 🙂

  4. Eugene Smith
    December 29, 2012
    Reply

    Jacob, the quilt was a Javan Dempsey quilt that I regret selling, but all is well. It had cuben baffles, of which variety I cannot recall, would have to check old emails.

    • Jacob D
      January 6, 2013
      Reply

      Ah, I forgot that Javan had been using some Cuben also. Not sure how to get in touch with him at the moment, but I did run the question by Tim Marshall, just because. Tim mentioned that his Epiphany quilts wouldn’t need more than a wipe down since they’re Cuben inside and out (dirt and oil cannot get inside). He wasn’t familiar enough with the design of yours to comment. It’s doubtful too many people own quilts constructed of Cuben, but for those who do definitely consult whoever made it on cleaning instructions.

  5. Eugene Smith
    December 23, 2012
    Reply

    Does anything change if a bag or quilt uses cuben fiber baffling? My last quilt had cuben baffles, but I sold it before it needed a proper washing.

    • Jacob D
      December 23, 2012
      Reply

      Hi Eugene. Up late are we? No rest for the weary I guess.

      That’s a great question my friend! Did that quilt happen to be one made by enLIGHTened Equipment? Either way I’ll see if I can get Tim Marshall to chime in. The big question would be: how will the Cuben and/or any bonding adhesives used hold up in the dryer? (we would need to know if the material was sewn or bonded I suppose).

      Thanks for bringing up such an interesting point. I may not be able to sleep now 🙂

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