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How To: Wash and Dry a Sleeping Bag The Easy Way

It’s actually kinda gross how long backpackers are willing to go without cleaning their sleeping bag. Body oils, trail dust, grit and grime all start to pile up, not only making your sleeping bag nasty, but it also decreases the effectiveness of your bag.

At some point all that build up just becomes to much to deal with. There comes a time in every backpacker/campers life that they will need to wash their sleeping bag.

You have two basic choices when you finally decide to wash your sleeping bag. Either machine wash with a mild soap or hand-wash your bag in a bathtub. You can then dry your bag in a dryer on medium-low heat(preferably a commercial dryer).

Don’t Do This When Washing a Sleeping Bag

If this is your first time washing a sleeping bag pay close attention to this section. Luckily, washing a sleeping bag is easy, but you can’t wash a sleeping bag like your regular laundry. Here’s a list of things you shouldn’t do when washing your bag.

Don’t Wash Your Sleeping Bag in a Top-Load Washing Machine that has an agitator.

Be very careful when using a top-load washing machine. If your machine has an agitator(big pole in the middle) you risk tearing up your sleeping bag. The bag always ends up getting wrapped around the agitator and eventually rips.

Some people have had success washing their bags on the gentle cycle, but I wouldn’t recommend risking it. If you have an expensive sleeping bag you’re better off heading down to the local laundromat to use one of their machines or hand-washing in a bathtub or utility sink.

Don’t Use Strong Soaps/Detergent, Fabric Softener, Bleach, or Bleach Alternatives.

Strong cleaning chemicals will quickly destroy your sleeping bags filling seriously reducing the temperature rating. It doesn’t matter if you have a down/synthetic bag strong chemicals will damage the bag.

Instead of using regular soaps/detergents use one specifically designed for sleeping bags. I’ve found the Nikwax Tech Wash to work with synthetic bags and the Down Wash Direct works well with down bags(this Grangers Down Wash kit also gets great reviews).

Don’t Dry Clean Your Sleeping Bag.

Never take your sleeping bag to the dry cleaner, because it will irreversibly damage the fill. The solvents used in dry cleaning will strip the natural oils out of your bags filling. Natural oils help down filling maintain its loft and temperature rating.

Don’t Hang Your Bag Out in The Sun.

UVA and UVB rays will quickly fade and damage nylon. Sunlight will seriously speed up the degradation process of your bag. You should also avoid storing sleeping bags near garage windows for this exact same reason.

If for some reason you decide to air dry your bag lay it on a flat surface in a shady area(like the garage floor). Use a fan to speed up the drying process.

Don’t Lift Your Bag From One End.

Lifting your bag from its end risks tearing the seams and zipper of the bag. Instead of lifting by one end lift the entire bag all at once and transfer it to your dryer.

Don’t Expect Your Bag to Completely Dry With One Dry Cycle in a Home Dryer.

Home dryers just don’t have enough room and power to completely dry a soaking wet sleeping bag. You can either babysit your dryer all day at home or take it to your local laundromat and finish in 30 minutes.

When Should I Wash a Sleeping Bag vs Spot Clean?

Most of the time all your bag really needs is a little TLC and a quick spot clean, it doesn’t need to be completely washed. Every time you throw your bag in a washing machine you’re subjecting it to wear and tear, decreasing your bags effective lifespan.

Spot cleaning a bag should be your first line of defense against moderate dirt and grime. Unless the bag is ridiculously dirty you can go years between deep wash cycles.

How to Spot Clean a Sleeping Bag

  • Make a paste out of non-detergent soap and water
  • Use a toothbrush to gently clean the outer shell of your bag.
  • Pay special attention to the hood/collar of your bag. That’s where all the skin oils and hair tends to accumulate.
  • Try to hold the outer shell away from the inside insulation and wash the area without soaking the fill.

How to Wash and Dry a Sleeping Bag

The care of your sleeping bag will depend on whether it’s a synthetic or down bag. Synthetic bags are easy to clean at home and don’t really require all that much special attention.

Down bags on the other hand require special attention and proper down detergent(this is the down detergent I use). Granger’s wash and repel includes a durable water repellent coating which is nice.

Machine Washing a Sleeping Bag

Let me start off by saying that you should only wash your bag in a front load washing machine or top load that doesn’t have an agitator. The agitator will quickly destroy your bag. Using a washing machine is fairly easy, wash in warm water and rinse with cold.

  • Down Bags: Down bags require a mild soap or special down soap that’s available in any outdoor store(this is the soap I use).
  • Synthetic Bags: With a synthetic bag there’s more room for error. On expensive bags, you’ll want to use a special synthetic cleaning product like Nikwax Tech Wash. On cheaper bags, you can usually get away with a gentle detergent like All Free and Clear, but I would still recommend a dedicated synthetic detergent.

Less is more when it comes to washing a sleeping bag. Use a mild detergent and scrub down the head/foot of your bag before throwing it in the wash. Just make sure you get all the soap out by using a 2-3 rinse cycles.

Step By Step Instructions
  1. Most sleeping bags can be machine washed (in a top load washer) although you might want to hire a professional when dealing with expensive bags. Just remember that some energy-efficient home washing machines might not have big enough drums to fully wash the bag. On small machines either head to the laundromat or hand wash.
  2. Put your bag in the washing machine on the gentle cycle with warm or cold water. Use an appropriate sleeping bag soap for synthetic bags (Nikwax Tech Wash) or down bags(Grangers Wash and Repel). Grangers Wash and repel also includes a durable water repellent.
  3. You might want to add other articles of clothing to the machine to balance out your load. This is the perfect time to wash your down or synthetic jackets and other technical gear.
  4. Make sure all the soap residue is gone by repeating the rinse cycle. Large machines will need at least 2 rinse cycles smaller machines might need more.

Hand Washing a Sleeping Bag(Bathtub)

You can also hand wash your bag in a bathtub or large utility sink(bathtubs are easier). All you need is Nikwax Tech Wash or Down Wash Direct and a bathtub or utility sink.

Step by Step Instructions
  1. Before washing your bag I recommend scrubbing the head and foot thoroughly(this is where most of the grime builds up). You can’t expect to remove deep stains from the outer shell, just learn to ignore them. Never use stain remover on your bag.
  2. Place your sleeping bag in in the bathtub and fill up the tub with luke warm or cold water. Pour in a small capful of detergent, slowly adding more until you see suds start to form. Try not to use too much soap/detergent, if the bag gets too sudsy it’s very difficult to rinse out.
  3. Lay the bag out flat in the tub and start kneeding your bag thoroughly. Roll the bag through the water making sure you scrub down all the seams. Rub heavily soiled areas together and soak for at lest 1 hour. You can use a soft toothbrush to get into all those seams. Once you’ve determined the bag is thoroughly cleaned start draining the tub.
  4. While the water is draining press out the soapy water with your hands. Don’t lift up the bag from the end or wring it out, that could damage the bag. If you have to lift up the bag roll it up and wrap your arms around it lifting as a whole unit.
  5. As you’re draining the tub, rinse the bag out thoroughly. Rinse out the bag and make sure all of the cleaning agents are out of the bag. Gently squeeze out as much water as you can rinsing as you go.
  6. Once the tub is completely drained, refill the bathtub with clean cold water. Keep repeating the process 3-4 times until you’ve completely rinsed out the detergent. It’s very important to get all the soap out of your bag, because it will mat up and destroy your filling.
  7. If you have a large dryer at home, gather your sleeping bag up in your arms, working your hands underneath. Place the bag in a large plastic container wand transport your bag to your home dryer or laundromat.

Drying Your Sleeping Bag

After you complete the final rinse cyle gently roll up your bag and press out as much water as possible. Never wring out your bag! Wringing out your bag risks tearing seams and displacing fill.

Step by Step Instructions
  1. Once you complete the wash/rinse cycle gently roll up your bag slowly pressing out the water. Try to get out as much water as you possibly can without wringing out the bag.
  2. Be careful when lifting up your sleeping bag. When soaked, the bag is extremely heavy. Lifting the bag by its end risks tearing the seams and baffles. Wrap your arms around the bag and place it into either a large pillowcase or plastic laundry basket.
  3. If you have a large dryer you can dry the bag at home or you might need to head to the local laundromat. Set the dryer on low-medium/low heat and make sure you check regularly. The heat on commercial dryers varies from one scene to the next so start off on low. If it’s too hot you risk melting the fill/fabric.
  4. The dryer needs to be big enough for the bag to flop around. As your bag tumble dries, you need to be patient. It could take several dry cycles for your bag to fully dry at home.
  5. Once the bag is close to being dry throw in a couple dryer balls or tennis balls to the dryer. The tennis balls will break up all the clumps and help restore your bags loft. Personally, I use those wool drying balls because I don’t like dealing with static cling, plus they speed up the drying time.
  6. Plan on waiting at least 3-4 hours for your bag to fully dry. You’ll need a good book and lots of quarters if you’re at a laundromat. Make sure the bag is completely dry before placing it in the storage bag. I always hang my bag up to dry for a couple of days just to make sure it’s completely dry.
You Might Need to Restore DWR(Durable Water Repellent)

Your bags durable water repellent coating will eventually wear off. How long it lasts, really depends on how frequently you use the sleeping bag. Restoring the DWR is so easy so I always reapply after washing my bag.

Plus restoring the DWR will help keep your bag cleaner on the trail. For synthetic bags, wash-in DWR is the easiest method. With a down bag you need to use Granger’s Wash and Repel 2 in 1

Storing Your Sleeping Bag

While your backpacking on the trail, you should definitely carry your sleeping bag in a stuff sack(this is the one I use). Stuff sacks are perfect on the trail, but not so great for storage. Keeping your bag stuffed in a compressed sack will slowly destroy its loft.

Once you get home, unzip your stuff sack and air out your bag for a while. I sweat a lot so I actually set up a fan to blow into my bag. After you’re sure the bag is completely dry store it in a mesh storage sack or large pillowcase. I actually found a mesh storage bag at dollar tree, but you can also find them on Amazon.

Using a Stuff Sack

Stuff sacks are used to compress your sleeping bag so that you can fit extra gear in your pack. Expensive sleeping bags sometimes include a stuff sack, but I would spend the money on a waterproof stuff sack(like this one).

  • Start Feet First: Stuff your sleeping bag into the sack by starting at the foot of your bag and working your way up. Working from the head of your bag down will create air pockets in your bag and end up stretching out the stitching.
  • Bag With Waterproof Shell: Bags that have a waterproof shell work like a big balloon. As you stuff the bag the outer shell will trap air and drive you crazy. To prevent this, turn your bag inside out.
  • Buy Oversized Stuff Sacks: The ultralight community would frown on this recommendation, but I always buy a stuff sack that’s slightly larger than my bag. Obviously the sack will weigh more, but it’s so much easier to stow and go.
  • Use Waterproof Stuff Sacks: Backpackers should always use a waterproof stuff sack(like this one). You can either risk ruining your expensive down sleeping bag, or spend the 20 bucks on a waterproof stuff sack, the choice is yours. Plus you can store your bag on the outside of your sack if you need extra room.

Keeping Your Bag Clean

It doesn’t matter if you’re bag is down or synthetic you need to keep it clean. Keeping your bag clean and dry at camp isn’t always easy, but by following these steps you should be off to a good start.

  • Use a Sleeping Bag Liner: Sleeping bag liners will significantly improve the lifespan of your bag(bag liners are cheap). They both keep your bag clean and significantly improve your bags temperature rating. You don’t have to worry about sweat and grime getting into the bag.
  • Wear Clean Clothes to Bed: When you’re completely exhausted it’s tempting to just crawl into bed. Do yourself a favor and change into clean clothes before heading to bed. You don’t want to get all that sweat and dirt onto your clean bag.
  • Air Out Your Bag Daily: Give yourself a little time in the mornings/evenings to air out your sleeping bag. Condensation and sweat will quickly ruin your bags fill.
  • Use a Sleeping Pad: Sleeping pads make your bed comfortable, keep you warm and help protect your bag from sticks, stones and debris. Most pads have waterproof coatings that will further protect your bag from moisture.

Making Sure Your Bag Lasts

Do you want to extend the life of your sleeping bag? Here are a few tips that you should follow.

  • Don’t Roll Sleeping Bag: Rolling a sleeping bag will actually damage the fabric and fill. Stuffing a bag keeps your down/synthetic filling in place and prevents your fabric from pulling.
  • Don’t Compress Your Bag Long Term: Your sleeping needs to breathe when it’s in long term storage. The fill needs to be able to expand and contract with the humidity. Use a mesh storage sack or pillowcase when putting your bag in long term storage.
  • Be Careful With Stuff Sacks: When removing your bag from its stuff sack try not to yank it out. Let the bag naturally expand and slowly work it out.
  • Wear Clothes To Bed and Use Bag Liners: Using a sleeping bag liner and wearing clothes to bed will protect your bag from body oils, sweat and dirt. Body oils and sweat will mess up your bags loft.