How to Wash Your Sleeping Bag

Back from Katmai National Park in southwest Alaska, where I spent four days on a very gritty backpacking adventure in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. It's quite the desolate lunarscape, site of the largest volcanic eruption of the twentieth century. And it's full of ash. Ash that blows around like a dust storm, or sand at the beach, except that it's much, much finer stuff and gets in everything. We were camping in a four-season tent that allowed us to close up all the screen vents, and still the ash came in.

Long story short, I got a lot of ash and grit in my sleeping bag. It was due for a wash anyway—and today was the day for the exciting deed.

Over time, dirt and body oils get in the insulation and reduce its loft and warmth. Washing your sleeping bag goes a long way to restoring its original warmth and loft. Here's my step-by-step primer for washing a sleeping bag:

1) Head to your bathtub. You don't want to wash your sleeping bag in a standard washing machine with an agitator, which can tear the delicate baffles inside the bag that separate the insulation into its different compartments. (You can, however, use a front-loading washing machine without an agitator.)

2) Put your sleeping bag in, plug the tub, and fill it up with lukewarm water for the first rinse. Your sleeping bag will likely be full of air like a balloon, since air can only easily escape from the seams. It's really helpful to work out the air so that you can fully submerge the bag. Give it a good kneading for a few minutes and be excited/appalled/surprised by how brown the water in the tub gets.

3) Drain tub, refill with water, and add in an appropriate, mild detergent. You can buy stuff specifically designed and marketed for this, like Nikwax DownWash or TechWash (for down and synthetic bags, respectively) or Penguin Sport-Wash. Alternatively, use a mild powdered detergent like Woolite. The key is to avoid using liquid detergents; they are much harder to fully rinse out and tend to leave some water-attracting residue behind. Fully submerge the bag and knead it thoroughly.

4) Drain the soapy water and squeeze out as much as possible from the sleeping bag. This is a challenge! Avoid picking up the bag when it's soaking wet. The saturated insulation can be heavy enough to actually damage the baffles.

5) Refill the tub with water to rinse the bag. If you are still getting brown water coming out, or if soap bubbles are still appearing in the fabric, rinse it again. Squeeze out as much water as possible by hand.

6) Place wet sleeping bag in your washing machine and put it through a spin cycle to get as much water out of it as possible.

7) Place bag in dryer and put it on low heat. High heat can potentially melt the nylon. If you are drying a down bag, add several tennis balls, racquetballs, or a pair of lightweight sneakers. You need something to break up the down clumps in order for it to dry. You will likely need to dry it for up to two hours.

8) Enjoy clean puffy toasty sleeping bag!

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