How to clean and maintain a sleeping bag

sleeping bags

Maintaining and caring for a sleeping bag, like any piece of gear, not only assures you can count on it when you need it, but it can also greatly extend the life of your expensive investment. A quality down sleeping bag with a high fill can last upwards of 15-years if taken care of properly. Synthetic materials may not see a life as long as their down brethren. With the high cost of quality equipment, it’s worth going through the minimal effort of proper maintenance.

Here are some tips and tricks on how to take care of your down sleeping bag.

Sleeping bag storage

Modern technical sleeping bags are lightweight and compressible. Unlike the big rectangle plaid version you took to childhood sleepovers, almost all brands will come with a small stuff sack. It allows you to compress your sleeping back into a small size, making it ideal for backpacking and travel.

Although a great feature, the compact stuffing, unstuffing, stuffing, unstuffing cycle combined with the dirt, grime, and grit of regular use is what will break down the materials in a sleeping bag. One of the worst things you can do to a sleeping bag is stuff it into your compression bag or stuff sack and leave it stored for long amounts of time.

Storing your sleeping bag may seem like a no-brainer, but it is a critical component of sleeping bag care. If possible, store your bag inside and away from weather exposure. When not in use, DO NOT leave it compressed.

If your sleeping bag came with a mesh storage bag, use it, as it allows them to maintain their loft. You can put your sleeping bag in the mesh bag and store it on a shelf in a closet. Don’t put anything on top of it and you’ll help maintain the loft (the fluffiness of the down feathers) which is what gives you warmth when using it.

If you don’t have a mesh storage bag or if you’re looking or an alternative way to store it, consider a plastic storage bin. This allows the bag to stay compression-free while allowing you to store it in an area when items can be stacked on top of it.

Never store your sleeping bag stuffed small in a compression bag. Don’t stack on top of it when you’re storing it. Store it inside your home or in a large plastic storage bin.

Sleeping bag use

Once you pull your bag out of storage and head out for the weekend or longer, there are a few things you want to keep in mind.

  • Your sleeping bag is only one part of your sleeping system, the other being your sleeping platform. A sleeping platform can be a number of things, but it is basically whatever you are using that separates your bag from the ground. Aside from insulation, comfort, etc., these items also protect your bag from the environment. This helps prolong its life and keeps it from making direct contact with the elements.
  • Wear clean clothes when you go to sleep or consider using a sleeping bag liner. A liner is an easy way to reduce the amount of nastiness that gets into your bag. Think of it as a sheet for your sleeping bag. It’s not for everyone though … I struggle with getting comfortable with a liner, as I find it uncomfortable and it seems to bunch up and not stay put. Like any gear, it’s important for you to find what works best for you.
  • After use, air out your sleeping bag. Giving your bag time to breathe is equally as important at home and in the backcountry. This is an easy task at home and it will help prevent that musky, stuffy smell it can develop by being stored all the time. Be sure to air it out after a trip, making sure you shake out any debris that gathered and that it’s fully dry. Out in the field, air out your bag as soon as you get to camp (or during morning chores) to give it as much time to dry before you climb into it.

A little bit of planning (figuring out the sleeping bag system that works best for your environment, situation, weight requirements, comfort, etc.) and a little bit of maintenance goes a long way to ensure your sleeping bag will last a long time.

Washing your sleeping bag

There may come a point in time when your sleeping bag needs a thorough washing. If you are not sure, once a year may be a good goal depending on the amount of use. There are professional services that will clean your bag for you and most manufacturers also provide instructions on how to wash your bag.

I usually machine dry mine this way:

  1. Pick your detergent. Use a cleaner specifically made for the type of material your bag fill (down in our case). I like to use NIKWAX Down Wash for all my down cleaning needs
  2. Make sure your washing machine is large enough to fit your bag. An afternoon with a good book at your local Laundromats can be your best bet in terms of size and function
  3. Wash it. Always use the washing machines gentle cycle and be sure to check the manufacturer’s recommendation as to whether you should use warm or cold water. If your bag has a waterproof shell, turn it inside out to facilitate the washing process. Avoid washing machines with the agitator in the middle, so a front loader is your best bet. If there is excess detergent built up inside the machine, be sure to clean it off/out before use
  4. Rinse it. A second rinse cycle is sometimes needed to remove all the cleaner. Ring out any excess water
  5. Dry it. Make sure you get a big enough drier and use low heat to dry. Multiple cycles will probably be needed to completely dry your sleeping bag and tennis balls can be used to help even out the down and remove the clumps. If you don’t have access to tennis balls, you will need to manually perform this function every 20-30 minutes. Expect a dry time of 3-4 hours for a typical 3-season bag.

Once this somewhat laborious (mainly time) project is complete, your bag will be almost as good as new. It will smell better, regain some of its lost loft and be ready to go the next time you grab it.

Washing your bag is something you can go years without having to do, but when the stink is finally too much to take, always follow the manufacturer instructions on how to care and clean your bag.

If you’re new to camping, hopefully this takes the storage, use, and washing questions you might have had. Get out there with the gear you have and tweak it as you discover what works best for you.

Cody Martin

With over 18 years of federal law enforcement, training, and physical security experience, Cody focuses his time nowadays on both consulting and training. He regularly advises individuals, groups, multinational corporations, schools, houses of worship, and NGOs on security threats while conducting customized training as needed.

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