Down is a material that is highly compressible, meaning that although down is lofty and warm when it’s time to pack your down sleeping bag away you can easily roll it up into a tight package to fit into a hiking backpack, cramped car, or small storage unit.
But, washing and caring for your down sleeping bag can be tricky business, especially because of the characteristics of that sweet, sweet—but temperamental— down.
In order to ensure your efficient and cozy sleeping bag can keep you cuddled close for years to come, here are some important instructions and tips on how to wash down sleeping bag properly!
First, what shouldn’t you do?
If you own a down sleeping bag, then you know that it is not a cheap purchase to make. You also probably know that the durability and potential life span of a down sleeping bag (if cared for properly!) characterizes it as a good investment for the active camper and hiker.
In order to make sure that you get the most out of your carefully considered investment, knowing what shouldn’t be done regarding washing and care methods should be highlighted. For that reason they are listed here first:
Never Dry it
Although it would seem like a wise and gentle choice of treatment for your down sleeping bag, NEVER dry it. The solvents used in the dry cleaning process remove the natural oils on down that aid in keeping it lofty.
Loft is the characteristic that keeps down fluffy and light but also keeps it effective at warmth and heat retention. In fact, dry cleaning is such a huge down sleeping bag care taboo, in the case of some down sleeping bag brands, it will void your warranty!
Avoid top loaded washers that have an agitator
In case you aren’t familiar with what an agitator is, it’s an easy spot. It looks like a large plastic arm up through the center of the washer, often having spiraled wings coming off of it. The reasons to avoid an agitator are that the wings or arm may catch the material and seams of your down sleeping bag shell causing ripping and tearing.
Also, the agitator can cause bunching or stretching of the sleeping bag, where bunching makes it more difficult to dry and maintain the loft of the down. Stretching weakens the durability of the sleeping bag shell.
Do not use bleach
Also don’t use any variety of bleach alternatives, and do not use fabric softeners. With down, the fewer chemicals, the better, as down will always be best in its most untouched, natural condition, allowing for the down’s natural oils to stay intact.
Do not use a traditional form of laundry detergent
There are a variety of down-specific cleaners available on the market through outdoorsman retailers and regular retailers alike. Regular detergent not only will leave excess residue in and on your down sleeping bag but just like dry cleaning, it will strip the oils of your down. Go ahead and buy detergent meant for cleaning down.
Ultimately, the number one thing to ask yourself before washing down sleeping bags is whether or not what you are about to do will strip the natural oils from the down. The natural oils included in down help keep your bag clean longer and make your down lofty and warm.
For this reason, the better and longer you can protect those oils, the longer your down sleeping bag will last. After you consider whether or not your washing method will keep the down oils intact, then decide if you would like to spot clean your bag, hand wash it, or go for a deep-clean machine wash.
Spot cleaning down sleeping bags
Spot cleaning your down sleeping bag is a smart thing to consider before committing to a fully-submerged washing of the down. Down does not handle becoming wet very well, as it completely flattens it, and takes a very long time to concurrently dry out.
Additionally, once the down is dry, it must be shifted around in order to de-clump, fluff, and re-distribute the down through the sleeping bag evenly. The qualities of down which make it a premium insulator include the loft of the down, trapping heat in pockets between each tuft.
The more a down product is subjected to washing, drying, and the subsequent shifting of down within the sleeping bag, the less the loft it will retain. For this reason, if the entirety of your sleeping bag is not soiled, try a spot clean. Spot cleaning is an easy process and does not require nearly as much time as a full wash of the sleeping bag.
In a spot clean, you also do not necessarily need to purchase special down cleaning detergents. Rather, it is possible to mix regular clothing detergent with water, making a light cleaning solution in order to target especially dirty spots in your sleeping bag.
Also, spot cleaning is an easy way to maintain a sleeping bag over time, as spot cleaning can be done after each major outdoors use due to its ease of process and lack of effect on the down. In spot cleaning, the shell of the sleeping bag is what will be cleaned, allowing the down to stay out of the equation.
This can be done by gripping the shell of your sleeping bag, and lifting it away from the down, followed by rubbing cleaning solution onto just the shell lightly, and wiping it away with a damp cloth.
The recommended tools for this are a toothbrush to scrub the material, a cleaning solution of choice which has been diluted with water, and a damp cloth to wipe away the soap from each cleaned spot.
To get the job done
First, check the cleaning instructions on the tag of the sleeping bag to see what material the shell is made from. If the shell itself does not have specific requirements, such as certain recommended detergents, go ahead and use your regular clothing detergent and dilute it with a good amount of water. It should be just slightly soapy.
In this case, less is more as making your cleaning solution too strong could result in a buildup of soap residue left in the shell, making the material sticky or stained. Then, take a soft-bristled toothbrush and dip it into your cleaning solution to use on the sleeping bag. Do not pour the solution into the sleeping bag spots you are trying to clean!
Using your hands, carefully lift the shell of the sleeping bag up away from the down inside, and gently scrub the dirty portions of the shell you have lifted away, using the toothbrush you dipped in the cleaning solution to scrub.
Do not scrub too hard as to damage the material, because again the point of a spot clean is a gentle, light cleaning—so less is still more! The areas of the sleeping bag you will want to target in this case are the hood and head portions of the sleeping bag where hair and skin oils permeate after long days of hiking.
You will also want to get inside the sleeping bag: by turning the bag inside out and lifting the shell away similarly, scrub around the feet area, as well as areas of contact, like where the back or hips rest. After lightly scrubbing each spot with the soapy toothbrush, wipe away any extra soap with a damp cloth.
While spot cleaning, avoid pulling too hard or scrubbing too hard on the shell so you don’t stretch it out, tear it, or rip seams. Also, do not over saturate it with soap or water because the point is to not touch the down inside. After completing a spot treatment on your sleeping bag, let the material that is wet completely dry before storing it away for another adventure.
If your down sleeping bag is VERY dirty, go for the heavy clean!
If you have been spot cleaning, but now it isn’t enough to rid your down sleeping bag of smell, stains, and oils, choose to wash your bag completely. Washing your bag when truly necessary, and if done properly, will not deeply impact the loft of your down.
Instead, it will only involve healthy and normal wear and tear through the life cycle of your down sleeping bag. Also, if a bag is too dirty, the oils and dirt can weigh on the down, impeding the loftiness. So, in a washing that involves fully submerging your sleeping bag, you can either opt for a washing machine to do the job, or you can hand wash it.
With hand washing, it is more manual labor, but you also have more control over the process. In hand washing, it is easier to gauge how soapy the water is, exactly what temperature the water is, and how roughly your down sleeping bag is being treated. You can also make sure to target especially dirt areas.
The catch to hand washing is the mess it may make, as well as the time and attention it requires. Machine washing is a good choice because it requires less personal commitment, but it can prove to be rough on your sleeping bag.
With machine washing, a careful regulation of water temperatures, soap levels, as well as washing machine type is important. So which one is better for your down sleeping bag? You decide!
Hand washing your down sleeping bag
In hand washing, the best container to wash your sleeping bag in is the bath tub. Fill the bathtub halfway with cool or slightly warm water and add soap that is specifically designed for washing down. If the soap bottle has instructions for water-to-soap ratios, follow instruction accordingly.
If not, add enough to make the water just a little soapy, as too much soap can mean a much tougher time rinsing the down and shell. If your sleeping bag is water resistant, turn the sleeping bag inside out so that the water can soak into the entire bag.
Place the bag into the already soapy tub water and massage the soapy water into it, rubbing spots gently that are especially dirty. Let the bag sit in the water for at least 60 minutes, and then drain the tub. Push as much of the excess water out as possible.
*Do not ring out the sleeping bag or pick it up and squeeze the water out. Doing either of those things could rip the seams, stretch the fabric, damage the down, or cause bunching of the down. Keep the bag flat in the tub and push down on it with flat hands, starting from the top and working towards the drain in order to remove the water.
Once the soapy water has been drained, and you have pushed on the bag to get out as much of the residual soapy water from the down as possible, refill the tub with clean water to rinse the bag.
Move the bag around in the tub to get the clean water through the down and shell, and again drain the tub, followed by pushing the water out of the sleeping bag again. Repeat this step until the water coming from the sleeping bag when rinsed is no longer soapy. Finally, leave the sleeping bag in the tub to drain for 15 minutes.
If you are going to use a dryer to dry your down sleeping bag, pick the sleeping bag up from underneath, fully supporting the weight of the wet bag as you carry it to the dryer. Not doing so could result in the wet weight of the bag tearing the seams, stretching the fabric, or clumping the down.
If you are going to let the bag sit out to dry, lay it flat on a clean surface in a protected area to dry. Turn it over every couple of hours so it may dry evenly, and massage it occasionally to make sure the down is drying completely and not in clumps. If the steps above seem like too much time and too much work, go for using a washing machine!
Machine washing your down sleeping bag
Machine washing is a far less hands-on approach. The key to machine washing is using a machine that is front load or using a top load machine without an agitator. If you have an agitator in your washing machine, or if your washing machine is too small for your sleeping bag, you will have to head to the laundromat.
It is important to have a washing machine that is big enough to thoroughly wash the sleeping bag as well as provides enough space to not cause damage and bunching to the sleeping bag and its down while washing. Whether using your home washing machine or a laundromat, first carefully read the washing specification on the sleeping bag tag.
Follow any specific washing instructions identified. Before putting your sleeping bag into your own washing machine or that of laundromats, check inside the machine for any loose items, such as bobby pins or loose change, which could puncture or damage the shell of your down sleeping bag.
Then, check the detergent hold for any residual laundry detergent. If there is any, clean it out before putting in the down soap. Put the sleeping bag into the machine and wash in cool water on a gentle cycle, with the rinse cycle set to repeat twice if possible.
Once the bag is done washing, carefully support all of the sleeping bag in your arms as you transfer it to a dryer. If you choose to use a machine dryer, set the heat low and dry slowly. Too high of heat could melt the shell material or damage the down.
Also include two or three new, clean tennis balls in the dryer in order break up the down as it dries, preventing clumping. It may be loud, but it is effective, harmless to the machine, and good for the sleeping bag down. Continue to dry the bag on low heat until it is completely dry.
Do not pack away a moist down sleeping bag, otherwise, it will clump the down, ruin the down loft, or even cause mold! Once your bag is newly clean, it should be lofty and ready for another outdoors experience!
Try to prevent the need to wash your sleeping bag
Because it is so much effort and time to wash a down sleeping bag, here are some things you may do to keep your bag cleaner longer:
- If possible, do not sleep in your bag when you are sweaty and dirty. This is not always possible while camping and hiking, so if you cannot wash it yourself, and the environment is cool enough, wear a beanie over sweaty, oily hair, a t-shirt and sweats, and socks over dirty feet. This way the dirt and body oils get on clothing instead of the sleeping bag!
- Purchase a sleeping bag liner. If you can afford the space in your pack and layering clothes is not reasonable, purchase a sleeping bag liner (OR make your own) which can be removed and washed separately from the bag. See our reviews of the best sleeping liners to help you in every way.
- Always lay your bag down on a mat or blanket. Whether you are in a tent or sleeping under the stars, do not put your sleeping bag directly onto the dirt. For more information on the best backpacking sleeping bag, check out our earlier article on this topic.
- Do not wear your sleeping bag around you while near a sooty and smelly fire, and do not jump around the campsite in your sleeping bag.
- If you are clean, do not wear dirty clothes in your sleeping bag! This includes clothing from the day or clothes worn around the fire.
Keep it clean!
Overall, down sleeping bags are a high quality and expensive piece of camping gear. They are also meant to last for a long time if cared for properly.
Down is a temperamental form of insulation when it comes to care methods, and the general idea when caring for down is less is more. Read our instructions on how to clean a sleeping bag for more information.
But, down is worth the price and effort, and therefore, using correct washing methods is key to extending the life of your down sleeping bag, keeping your investment in quality well spent!