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Published May 12, 2022 3:00 PM

Down is a very popular insulation for sleeping bags. If you’re reading this, my guess is that you own a few down items, or maybe you’re interested in buying some but aren’t sure they’re worth the money or the work. 

If you are deciding between buying a down sleeping bag or a synthetic one, you should know a few things. First, not all down is created equally or ethically. Regardless of the type, down will be lighter and pack down smaller than a syntenic, but both are great insulators. The main downfall is that down will not insulate when wet, but synthetics will. 

Since down comes from animals like geese and ducks, it is not a vegan product. If you are vegan and want to have the benefits of down, you can choose to buy secondhand. For other conscious consumers concerned with animal welfare, look for down products that are Responsible Down Standard Certified. This certification ensures that ducks and geese produced for down products are not subjected to unnecessary harm and should not be plucked alive or force-fed. 

Other than buying down products responsibly, the next best thing you can do for any gear is appropriately store and maintain it. Following manufacturer recommendations for cleaning and storage is one of the best ways to improve the overall longevity of the gear. For many outdoor enthusiasts, many products can last years of use or even several lifetimes if they are cared for appropriately. 

How to store a down sleeping bag

When you buy a down sleeping bag, it generally comes with a stuff sack but should be stored in a much larger bag. If it came with the it, keep that larger bag for storage. It is best to store uncompressed down to prevent it from clumping and forming cold spots in the insulation. 

If you have just used the bag on a trip, when you get home, unzip the bag and find a cool, dry space out of the sun to let it air out for a while. If you want to kill off any bacteria that may have built up on the trip, you can unzip the bag and lay it inside out in the sun for 15-20 minutes. Do not let it sit in the sun too long as it can damage the fabric. 

Once the bag is dry, you can store it in a mesh or cotton bag. Be sure that the bag is large enough to hold the sleeping bag without compressing it. If you do not have the large bag the sleeping bag came with, you can also use a pillowcase. Do not store the sleeping bag in your stuff sack. The stuff sack is meant for travel purposes only. 

Using mesh or cotton allows the bag to breathe. Although the bag should be dry when put into storage, if it is stored in an airtight bag, mildew can still build up over time. Prevent this by hanging the bag in a cool, dry place out of the sun in a breathable mesh or cotton bag. 

Gear Rx: Down Sleeping Bag Care
Most sleeping bags come with a stuff sack and a storage bag. The stuff sack is for travel only. Store the bag in the larger mesh bag (on right) to prevent insulation clumps and cold spots.

Caring for your down sleeping bag in camp

When you have your sleeping bag out with you on a trip, the number one goal should be to keep it clean and dry, no matter the materials. Having the appropriate storage system and a rain guard on your backpack is only the first step in this process. If you have a down sleeping bag and are worried about rain on the trip, then consider packing it in a waterproof stuff sack to ensure it stays dry. 

Most campers will sleep in a tent, which protects the bag from quite a lot. To help keep the bag clean, pack and unpack your sleeping bag inside the tent once it is set up. Avoid pulling out all of your gear and laying it around camp. This is an excellent way to lose things, and it is also a good way to get things dirty. 

While it may not be avoidable in all situations, avoid sitting around the fire in your sleeping bag. If you are car camping, you can pack an old sleeping bag or some blankets for added warmth around the fire. Keep your sleeping bag away from flying embers and avoid walking around in it. We have all seen the cute pictures and videos of people jumping around in sleeping bags, but this gets them dirty and will wear out the bottom of the bag. 

If you are backpacking, try to pack a pair of clothes to sleep in at night. In some cases, this is a hard sell because you’re tired, and going through the extra effort of swapping clothes can seem like a chore. On a multi-day trip, though, this gives you a chance to check for things like foot injuries and rashes and keep your sleeping bag a little cleaner. 

Although I don’t use these year-round, for shoulder seasons and even winter camping a sleeping bag liner is another good way to keep the inside of your bag clean. Most liners are made from a material that can easily be put into any washing machine. The liner will pick up most of the dirt and body oils as you sleep, which keeps the bag cleaner for longer. 

The last recommendation is to let your bag air out on a multi-day trip. When I’m backpacking, the first thing I do when I get to camp is set up my tent and let my bag air out. If it is raining or snowing, this isn’t an option, but in good weather conditions, you can forego putting the rainfly on your tent right away and drape your bag over the top of the tent. If you have a clothesline, this will work too. I don’t recommend draping the bag on tree branches as this can cause rips and tears, or you can pick up things like pine sap which is hard to remove from fabric. 

How to wash a down sleeping bag

Washing a down sleeping bag should be done with care, and it honestly shouldn’t be washed all that often. Thoroughly washing a down sleeping bag can impact the loft and insulation, so the best method is to spot clean when necessary. 

All you need to spot clean a sleeping bag is some gentle non-detergent soap, water, and a small brush. Using an old toothbrush is a great option here. If you don’t have a brush, a sponge may work, but the smaller the brush, the more precise you can be with your clean. 

The most common sleeping bag area that gets dirty is the hood and collar region. For most campers, this will be the only place where a lot of your body oil rubs off onto the bag. Only slightly dilute the soap with some water to make a paste-like consistency to spot clean. Then, holding the fabric away from the insulation, scrub and clean the area. Rinse with water when you’re done, but avoid getting the insulation wet if possible. 

Even with special care and occasional spot cleaning, your bag may need a full wash at some point. To wash a down sleeping bag, you’ll need to decide a few things before you start the process: 

  1. Research and read the manufacturer’s recommendations for washing. Follow those instructions carefully to prevent damage to the bag. 
  1. If you have a front load washing machine (no agitator), then you are in luck because you may be able to wash your bag in the washing machine. 
  1. If you don’t have a front load washing machine, you can go to a laundromat or have a gear specialist clean the bag. Do not have your sleeping bag dry cleaned. 
  1. The last option is to wash the bag by hand. This is my preferred method as it is very gentle and less likely to disturb the insulation or other materials. 

No matter the washing method you choose, use a down safe soap. Avoid using bleach or bleach alternatives, and never use fabric softeners. Non-detergent soaps work best, and there are down-specific soaps available as well. 

How to wash a down sleeping bag in a washing machine

If it is safe to wash your down sleeping bag in a washing machine, only use washers with no agitator. Most of the time, these are front load washing machines, but some newer top loaders without agitators work. Washing the bag in a machine with an agitator has a high likelihood of ripping or tearing the bag and should be avoided. 

The next consideration is if the washing machine is large enough to accommodate the size of the bag. If it is not, consider using one of the industrial front load washers at the laundromat. 

How to wash your sleeping bag in a washing machine:

  • Change wash settings to a gentle cycle using cold water. 
  • Run the rinse cycle at least twice to ensure no soap residue is left. If the rinse is not working, you can also rerun the wash cycle without adding any soap. 

If the washer is being thrown off balance, add a couple of towels to help it balance the spin. 

Drying the sleeping bag can be done either in or out of the dryer. If you choose to use a dryer, run it on the lowest heat setting and check it occasionally to ensure it isn’t too hot. Near the end of the drying cycle, throw in a few tennis balls to help loosen any clumped insulation. You can also do this by hand when it is dry. 

How to wash a down sleeping bag by hand

Washing your sleeping bag by hand is slightly more labor-intensive, but it yields excellent results. It is far gentler than a washing machine, so there is a lower likelihood of disturbing the insulation or ripping the materials. 

How to wash a down sleeping bag by hand: 

  • Fill a large tub with lukewarm water. Cold water works as well. Avoid using hot water. 
  • Add in the down cleaner of your choice. Be sure not to add too much soap. 
  • Submerge the sleeping bag in the water. 
  • Let the bag soak for up to one hour. Agitate the bag occasionally by swirling it around and rubbing exceptionally dirty areas together. 
  • Drain the water and gently squeeze out excess water from the bag. Do not wring out or twist the bag. 
  • Rinse out the tub and fill it with clean water. 
  • Submerge the bag once again and swirl it around to release the soap. Let the bag sit for around 10-15 minutes before draining the tub. 
  • Repeat this rinse process until all of the soap is gone. 

To dry the sleeping bag, you can use a dryer. Set the dryer on low and check it periodically to ensure the temperature is not too high. If you have dryer balls, use those along with some clean tennis balls to help break up the insulation clumps as the bag is close to being dry.

If you choose not to use a dryer, find a clean, flat place outdoors that is large enough for the bag. Let is air dry in partial shade or some light sun. The drying process will take several hours with continual rotation. As the bag gets drier, manually break up any clumps of insulation. 

FAQ

Q: Can you machine wash a down sleeping bag?

Yes, you can machine wash a down sleeping bag if the washing machine has no agitator and is large enough.

Q: How long does a down sleeping bag last?

When used regularly, a down sleeping bag should last at least 10-15 years or more. With the right care, it can last much longer without losing too much fill power or insulation. 

Q: What detergent is safe for down?

We do not recommend using regular detergents on down sleeping bags or other down products. Use a down-safe detergent instead. Products like Nikwax Down Wash or Gear Aid Revivex Down Wash are excellent options. 

Q: How often should you wash a down sleeping bag?

There is no right or wrong answer to this question, and it is up to the user of the bag. If you use the bag on long-distance hikes or for entire seasons, then an annual wash can help prolong the bag’s integrity. If you only use the bag a few times a year, and it does not appear dirty or soiled, spot clean it and wash it later on when it is needed.