After a long summer of camping out and using your sleeping bag, it is a good idea to clean it and store it securely for the next camping season. There are different ways to clean a sleeping bag, and it all depends on the type of sleeping bag you have. Consult your bag maker’s instructions. Sleeping bags can be washed in a washing machine, whether they are synthetic-filled or down, but both types of bags require careful washing and drying. If you have a down-filled bag that is typically lighter than a synthetic bag, you will need to put a bit more care and work into washing and drying it. Down is much more fragile than synthetic, and your safest option is to wash it by hand in a tub. However, if you are pressed for time, a down bag can be washing successfully in a front-loading washing machine.
How do you wash a sleeping bag?
It’s okay to wash either down or synthetic sleeping bags in a washing machine as long as it is a front-loading washing or a machine without an agitator. Don’t use regular machine wash detergents; they can break down the loft in your bag. This piece of advice goes for either down or synthetic bags. Down-filled sleeping bags require careful attention, and most campers prefer to have down bags professionally cleaned. You can, however, do it yourself by following care instructions. It’s great to hand wash a sleeping bag with specific instructions, and you can also spot clean your bag, which decreases the wear and tear of your bag.
There are tips and tricks you can use to keep your sleeping bag clean while on a camping trip which helps to make it easier to wash once you return home. However, you decide to wash your sleeping bag to get out the dirt and grime of camping (not to mention the body odors and fluids!) follow the manufactures instructions or the instructions you get from a camping store or an online site. After you have washed and dried your sleeping bag, you will need to store it properly to keep it free from mold, mildew and dust and ready for next season’s camping adventures.
Cleaning Sleeping Bags
The first rule is never dry clean your sleep bag. Solvents used in dry cleaning machines strip the natural oils from down that helps it retain loft. Dry cleaning will also cause the loft in a synthetic stuff bag to clump. The second rule is never to use fabric softener, bleach, or alternative bleach products. The third rule to washing a sleeping bag is to never wash a sleeping in a top-loading machine with an agitator. Agitators rip seams and pull apart sleep bags.
Clean your sleep bag, either down or synthetic, by hand. Washing your bag by hand will help you notice if there are tears or rips in the bag.
Take note that over-washing your sleeping bag can degrade the insulation’s ability to keep you warm the next time you go camping. Wash your sleeping bag only when necessary or when it gets smelly or after a particularly dirty camping trip. One or two washes a season is usually enough.
Do note that after a season of camping you should wash and dry your sleeping bag at least once. Don’t let it go from season to season without a good washing session. Not washing your bag at all after a camping season will bring on mold and mildew, retain smells and dirt, and cause your bag to lose it loft and ability to keep you warm.
Cleaning a Down Sleeping Bag
If you treat it well, your down sleeping bag can last for a very long time. Down sleeping bags do need to be cleaned after a season of camping to keep them pliable. Some campers and backpackers let their bags go for years without washing. Not washing your down bag will give you a stinky sleeping bag; you will ruin the fabrics and decrease the loft and insulation of the sleeping bag.
It does take several steps to wash a down sleeping bag by machine. Read the label to check if there are any special requirements. Do be patient when washing your down bag; it can take up to six hours from wash to dry.
- Large front-loading washing machine (no agitator, please),
- Special soap for down sleeping bags (contact a camping website or store for the best detergent for down bags),
- Large front-loading dryer,
- Tennis balls, wool dryer balls, or even clean sneakers wrapped in socks will help break up clumps when drying.
- Turn your sleeping bag inside out.
- Zip it up and load it into the machine.
- Put in soap made for down bags according to the instructions on the soap package. Never use bleach, bleach alternatives, or fabric softener. Don’t use regular detergent since detergents will strip the oils from the down.
- Set the temperature of the water to the setting on your sleeping bag’s label. The water should be cool or warm to the touch.
- Use the gentle or delicate cycle.
- When done washing, check to make sure there are no soap bubbles. Press your bag while still in the machine, if you see soap bubbles, rewash with no soap.
- Place your sleeping bag into a dryer on a tumble dry low setting. It is important to make sure the dryer is set to low. High heat will harden down feathers, and the bag will be ruined. It will take about 3-5 hours for your down sleeping bag to dry.
- When your bag is nearly dry, toss in 5-6 tennis balls or a clean pair of sneakers. These items will help fluff up your down sleeping bag by dispersing clumps of feathers that have grouped during the washing process.
- Hang up your bag loosely when fully dry.
- You can also lay your down sleeping bag a clean flat surface to dry. If you choose to dry your bag this way, you will need to manually fluff the bag and break up any feathers that are clumped together.
Cleaning a Synthetic-filled Sleeping Bag
A synthetic-filled sleeping bag can be machine washed or hand washed. It is not recommended to bleach, iron, or dry clean your bag. Fumes produced from dry-cleaning fluids can be dangerous and cause your bag to age prematurely.
- Preferably a front-load, no agitator machine,
- Mild soap or detergent specially formulated for synthetic sleeping bags. Check online or contact a camping store for the best detergent to use.
- Make sure all the zippers are closed, and the Velcro tabs are secure,
- Use a heavy-duty front loader on a gentle cycle,
- Set the machine to warm and add the recommended detergent,
- Once the bag is finished washing, tumble dry your sleeping bag on low heat. Do not use excessive heat, or it will melt the fabric.
- You can also air-dry your sleeping bag by laying it out flat on a clean, dry surface.
Hand-wash Down or Synthetic Sleeping Bags
- Detergents specially made for down or synthetic sleep bags
- Fill the tub with cool or warm water (never hot), add the detergent. Do avoid using too much soap. If the water and bags get too sudsy, you will have a hard time rinsing all the soap out of your bag.
- Lay the bag in the water and gently work in the soap. Rub together the heavily soiled areas.
- Soak for up to one hour.
- Drain the tub and press the remaining water from the bag.
- Fill the tub with cool or warm water to rinse.
- Work the soap out gently and let the bag sit for 15 minutes.
- Drain and press out the remaining water.
- Repeat until all the soap is out.
- Gently squeeze out as much water as you can from your sleeping bag. Gather the bag up in a ball to make it easier to carry to the dryer. Dry your synthetic or down-filled sleeping bag on the “low” setting. High heat tends to melt the synthetic fabric.
- If you choose not to use a dryer, lay the bag flat on a clean surface. You will need to manually break up clumps of insulation as the bag dries.
Keeping your Bag Clean While Camping
It doesn’t matter if you are using a sleeping bag made with down or synthetic, you do need to take steps to keep it clean and dry as you camp. If you take a few steps to protect your bag, it will last longer.
- Sleep in clean clothes. Don’t crawl into your bag wearing the same clothes you used for hiking. As time moves on and you continually jump into your bag after a day of activity, body oils, sweat, and dirt will ruin your sleeping bags insulating power. Change your clothes for sleep and wear a knit cap or bandana to keep oily hair off the bag’s hood. Make sure you wash off sunscreen, so it doesn’t soak into your bag.
- If you are in the bear county, you don’t want your sleeping bag to absorb cooking odors. Change the clothes you wore cooking into something clean. If you don’t, the bear will think you are breakfast. (Seriously. A group of campers cooked and ate fish for dinner one night, jumped into bed without changing, and had a large furry visitor during the night.)
- Use a sleeping bag liner. Liners are made from cotton, silk or polyester and are lightweight. They keep your sleeping bag clean and also add a bit of heat to your bag’s nighttime temperature rating. At the end of your camping trip, wash your liner, and store it away with your sleeping bag.
- Protect your bag from the ground by using a pad underneath your sleeping bag. Many bags have durable waterproof fabric on the underside, but you do need to protect any type of bag from sharp sticks, rocks, and conifer pitch. Using a pad under your bag will also help to insulate your body from rocks and sticks and make sleeping more comfortable.
- Treat your sleeping bag gently. Forego jumping around camp while you are standing inside your sleeping bag. If you want to sit by a campfire with your sleeping bag wrapped around you, don’t do it. Use something else like an older bag or even a quilt. You don’t want sparks to burn holes in your main sleeping compartment.
- Take care with zippers. If using a two-way zipper, keep it from snagging or coming apart on one end. Practice using your bag’s zipper at home, so when you are camping, you won’t yank on the zipper and cause a fabric tear.
- Air out your sleeping bag daily. Turn your bag inside-out to dry out any moisture. Don’t leave your bag in direct sunlight since UV light will cause damage to the fabric. Do a complete air out of your bag when you get home from your camping trip.
- Lending your bag to anyone else is not a good idea. Even if a friend or a relative wants to borrow your sleeping bag, you might want to reconsider.
Stuffing your Bag for Carrying
When you are camping or backpacking, you will probably need to carry your sleeping bag. The best way to carry your bag is in a stuff sack. Stuff sacks come in various sizes, and one may even come with your sleeping bag. You can also use compression or waterproof stuff sack you purchase from a camping store.
Start by zipping up your sleep bag about ¾ of the way. Beginning with the foot of your sleeping bag. Push the foot of your bag into the bottom of the sack and evenly stuff your bag as you go up the sack. Pressing on the stuff sack and bag releases air out of the top of your bag and puts even stress on the stitching.
Use a slightly larger stuff sack than necessary to make stuffing your bag easier.
Some bags come with a waterproof shell, and the best way to use a waterproof shell is to turn the bag inside out before stuffing. Push out the air as you stuff your sleeping bag.
Compression Stuff Sacks
Compression stuff sacks save a great deal of space in your pack. You stuff the sleeping bag inside, use the built-in straps to compact the bag, and your bag is now small and easy to carry. Just make sure that you don’t keep your bag compressed for long periods since compression reduces the bag’s loft.
Waterproof Stuff Sacks
Waterproof stuff sacks are awesome for backpacking. If you carry your bag on the outside of your pack, a waterproof stuff sack is essential. Stuff your bag as you would in a regular stuff sack.
Storing your Sleeping Bag
It doesn’t matter whether your bag is synthetic or down-filled, once you have finished camping for the season, store your sleeping bag properly to keep it free from dirt and dust.
- Before you pack away your sleeping bag, unzip your bag and air it out for at least 24 hours.
- Make sure it’s completely dry,
- Loosely store your bag in a large cotton or mesh storage sack. Often these types of storage bags come with the sleeping bag.
- Use a large pillowcase if it will not compress your bag,
- Sew yourself a cotton bag,
- Purchase a cotton bag from a sleeping bag or camping supplier.
Do not store your bag compressed in a stuff sack. Compression will damage the fill. Watertight storage bags and boxes are not a good idea, either. Condensation can build up inside the bags or containers, and the result will be smelly mildew.
You can also lay your bag flat, hang it in a closet, place it under your bed, or hang it in a dry, temperature-controlled environment. Try not to store your sleeping bag in a garage, attic, or damp basement. Synthetic and down-insulated bags will mold and mildew if they are stored in areas where it is damp, or there is a possibility of water damage.
Once you have cleaned and stored your sleeping bag properly, it will be a part of your outdoor gear collection. If you take proper care of your bag, it will give you years of comfortable nights on camping trips.