How to wash a sleeping bag: a guide to cleaning a synthetic or down bag
There is no one single to wash a sleeping bag. They can be washed by hand, in a machine, or by a professional company (but this latter option has some important considerations which we’ll look at in a while). You can even beat your sleeping bag over a boulder to shake out dirt and grit, but we don’t advise this… unless you have a serious amount of spare money to pay for regular purchases of new sleeping bags.
This post is part of our larger sleeping bag guide – a collection of hints, tips and advice for anyone wantint to know how to choose, use and maintain a sleeping bag.
Okay, let’s move on. This tutorial is part of our sleeping bag guide series and will show you how to wash a sleeping bag the right way. What do I mean by that? Well, most sleeping bags are, like any decent piece of hiking/camping gear, pretty tough and can withstand a lot of abuse before they fail. But the more care you give to them the longer they will ‘live’, and how you clean them can affect their lifespan.
The first, and most obvious question we need to deal with is…
What’s the difference between a down and synthetic bag??
The key differences between down and synthetic sleeping bags are:
- A down bag is filled with feathers – normally duck, or goose, down. Synthetic sleeping bags are made from man-made materials and the fill is usually a type of polyester. In recent years, synthetic materials mimicking the insulating qualities of down have become more available
- Synthetic bags tend to weigh more than down as more fill is needed to produce the required level of insulation. This results in synthetic sleeping bags being bulkier and heavier.
- Synthetic sleeping bags tend to be more water-resistant than down. Some down sleeping bags are treated with an aquaphobic wash that helps reduce the absorption of water by the feathers, but this treatment needs to be applied at regular intervals, in particular after washing, so as to maintain water resistance.
Can I clean synthetic and down sleeping bags in the same way??
In general, yes you can clean synthetic and down sleeping bags in the same way. The only word of caution is that you should avoid having your sleeping bag washed by a general dry cleaning service as the process removes the natural oils that help maintain the down’s loft. Always use a specialist service if you want to go down this route. Also, there was a report of a hiker suffocating due to the chemicals used in the cleaning process, but we can’t confirm this.
How to wash Synthetic sleeping bags
On the whole, cleaning a synthetic sleeping bag is a much less involved process than cleaning a down bag. The key piece of advice we offer is to only wash it when you need to. Frequent, and unnecessary washes will cause the materials to deteriorate faster resulting in a shorter lifespan.
Specialist cleaning products should be used to wash your sleeping bag. Failing that, you can also use ordinary soap flakes and liquid detergents available from stores and shops, but use one that doesn’t include fabric condition as this can damage the material.
I’ve heard some people recommend cleaning your washing machine before washing your sleeping bag. The idea behind this is that you remove any trace of fabric conditioner, and other chemicals harmful to your sleeping bag, but this is over the top. Neither I, nor Jake, have ever rinsed our washing machines beforehand and our sleeping bags have lasted for years.
Next, release the tension from all the drawcords. They’ll be exposed to some extreme forces during the washing process and if left under tension, there is a risk they can be damaged or snap. Likewise, fasten any Velcro tabs to prevent fluff, etc from snagging in them, which clogs them and makes them less secure when closed.
Open up the main zip to allow water and washing materials to flow through the entire bag.
Hint: the care label provides the machine settings recommended for cleaning a synthetic sleeping bag. If the label has faded, use the following:
- Temperature setting of 30 degs C
- Low to medium spin cycle
- Extra rinse to ensure all detergent/soap is removed.
Once the wash cycle is complete, remove your sleeping from the washing machine with care as it will retain some water making it heavy. At this point, rough handling can damage internal stitching.
How to dry a synthetic sleeping bag
Drying a synthetic cleaning bag is simple – you can either air dry the bag or use a tumble dryer. If you choose the second option, ensure the dryer is set to a low heat setting (most machines have an option for synthetic materials).
Note: using a higher heat setting will dry your sleeping bag faster, but hot temperatures can damage the fill, draw cords and shell material.
How to wash a down sleeping bag
Washing a down sleeping is a little more complex than a synthetic. There are professional cleaning services available and if you have any doubts, or don’t have access to a tumble dryer, we recommend you take this latter option.
Down-filled sleeping bags are more delicate than synthetic sleeping bags and should be washed less frequently.
You have several options for cleaning down:
- In a standard washing machine.
- If you have an extreme cold weather sleeping bag with 1000g, or more, of fill we recommend using an industrial washing machine or having it cleaned by a commercial service
- Hand washing is another option, but this takes a considerable amount of time and effort.
As with synthetic bags, we recommend using a specialist detergent designed for down. Failing this, you can use soap flakes, or washing detergents BUT without fabric softener.
The best temperature for cleaning down bags is 30C, or selecting the ‘delicates’ setting.
Down fill absorbs more water than polyester and you need to handle your sleeping bag with care when removing it from the washing machine.
How to dry a down sleeping bag
Down needs to be dried through before storing, or use. You should choose the lowest heat setting possible as, like synthetic bags, a hot setting can distort or damage the material, and reduce lofting.
A couple of points to note:
- Down fill takes a very long time to dry. Expect to run the cycle for several hours to remove all moisture from the bag.
- The fill in a down sleeping bag, or any down-filled garment, has a habit of clumping which will lead to cold spots when in use. Place 2 – 3 tennis balls inside the dryer with your sleeping bag to massage out the clumps of down.
- You may need to massage out the clumps of down once the drying process is complete.
Can you wash a sleeping bag in a washing machine?
Yes, you can wash a sleeping bag in a washing machine. Be sure to always check the label before washing, but if the label is no longer readable choose the lowest temperature settings. Always rinse twice.
Alternatives to washing: tips for keeping your sleeping bag fresh and odour-free
After each use, unzip your sleeping bag and turn it inside out, then hang it up to air. For the best results, hang your sleeping bag outside on a washing line.
Use an odour eliminator
Products such as Revivex Odor Eliminator and Grangers Odour Eliminator are products that consume bacteria that cause odours. This means the smells are removed and not simply masked.
Use charcoal to eliminate odours and bad smells
Placing a pack of activated charcoal inside, or close to, your sleeping bag will help remove odours.