Whether you’re a full-time camper like me or you frequent the wilderness a few weekends a year, your sleeping bag is the one thing you can’t camp without. Unfortunately, it’s often the least cared for item in your camping gear because washing a sleeping bag is often overlooked. Some people aren’t even aware of how to wash a sleeping bag or that it can even be cleaned.
Think about it. You change the batteries on your flashlights when they go out. You wash the cooking utensils after using (or when you get home). You carefully pack the tent and, hopefully, give it a good spray when it’s dirty. But washing your sleeping bag seems to fall by the wayside.
Everyone should know how to clean a sleeping bag because it’s the most vital part of your camping gear. You can sleep without a tent, but going without a comfortable, temperature relevant sleeping bag is nearly impossible. Let’s take a look at how to wash a down or polyester sleeping bag.
Can You Wash a Sleeping Bag?
Yes, you can and should wash your sleeping bag every few weeks, whenever it starts smelling a little raunchy or when you can visibly see dirt and grime building up on the inside or the outside. As long as you follow the instructions on your sleeping bag’s manufacturer tag and the pro tips in this article, washing a sleeping bag is easy!
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How to Wash a Down or Polyester Sleeping Bag
1. Look at Your Sleeping Bag’s Cleaning Instructions
The first step is to look at the manufacturer’s cleaning recommendations, which can be found on the pesky tag sticking out at the corner. Most washable sleeping bags have the same cleaning instructions: warm water, gentle cycle, low dry. But checking first is always a good idea.
2. Unzip the Bag and Loosen Drawcords
Before you put your sleeping bag in the washing machine, unzip the bag entirely and loosen all the drawcords (if it’s a mummy bag or similar). This allows the bag to get a thorough wash inside and out.
3. Spot Clean
If you see dirt and grime buildup around the edges of your bag, you should spot clean those areas before gently putting it in the washing machine. By using a toothbrush, cleaner, warm water and gently bristling the brush on the grimy areas, you should be able to clean all the gunk.
4. Wash on Gentle Cycle With Warm Water in Commercial Washer
After unzipping the sleeping bag and spot cleaning, it’s time to put it in the washing machine. The directions typically call for washing on a gentle cycle with warm water, but they may not tell you what kind of washing machine you need to use.
Sleeping bags are big, bulky and expensive, so you don’t want to ruin yours while washing it. You need to use a front-load commercial washing machine so you don’t run the risk of anything snagging and ripping. If your washing machine at home has that pesky center pole-like thing sticking up, you shouldn’t use it. Zippers and cords may get stuck on it and rip right off.
Instead, go down to your local laundromat and spend the $1.25, or whatever they charge, on a nice clean in a commercial-sized washer. Trust me, it’s worth spending the money.
5. Gently Remove It From the Washing Machine
When removing your sleeping bag from the washing machine, be sure to do so gently so it doesn’t get caught on something and rip. You don’t want to replace a sleeping bag due to human error. Let years of wear and tear be the culprit.
6. Squeeze out Any Excess Water
After washing the bag, unless you run an extra spin cycle (which would cost another $1.25), try to squeeze out any excess water that may be trapped in the down or polyester fibers of your sleeping bag. Doing this helps it dry much quicker.
7. Place in Dryer (Preferably a Front-Load Dryer) on Low Heat
The next step is to put your sleeping bag in the dryer, preferably a front-load machine as they should have at the local laundromat you’re going to wash it at. Top-load dryers use the shake and spin methods to dry things, which leaves a small margin for your bag getting trapped and ripping.
8. Add a Few Clean Tennis Balls With Down Sleeping Bags
Down sleeping bags are fluffy and comfortable. Tennis balls are fuzzy. Who knew the material of tennis balls complements the texture and makeup of down fabric? I wonder how the first person to do this figured it out, too. But it works.
Just for down sleeping bags, buy a canister of three tennis balls and put them in the dryer with your down sleeping bag. People may look at you funny, but you can tell them you’re a professional tennis player and need to win the next match so you’re rigging the game. That’ll teach them.
9. Run Cycle Until Dry
Due to the fiber makeup, down sleeping bags will take much longer to fully dry than polyester sleeping bags will. After an hour in the dryer, run it for 30-minute intervals until the bag is completely (or mostly) dry.
10. Lay Out Down Sleeping Bag
Even if you think your sleeping bag is dry as the Mojave desert, lay it out unzipped for a few hours just to make sure. Chances are good there’s still some moisture trapped inside, which could turn into mold and ruin your sleeping bag if you’re not careful.
Extras to Consider to Make Your Clean Sleeping Bag Last Longer
Washing a sleeping bag is the easy part. Keeping it clean while you’re using it is the tough part. These pro tips (from someone who uses a sleeping bag full time) can help you keep your bag clean so you don’t have to wash it as frequently.
1. Sleep in Clean Clothes
While this sounds easy, it’s pretty difficult after a long day of adventures or hiking, especially if you’re going on a multi-day hike. But stripping out of your dirty clothes and switching into clean clothes (or showering before you go to sleep) is the easiest way to keep your sleeping bag clean. But it’s by far the toughest thing to remember.
2. Never Lay Your Bag Directly on the Ground
If you’re cowboy camping under the stars, kudos to you and I hope you have a blast, but you should try to lay down a tarp or sleeping pad under your bag. This keeps the majority of your bag from directly coming into contact with dirt, mud and grime, keeping it cleaner for longer.
3. Air out Your Washable Sleeping Bag Each Day
When you unzip your sleeping bag in the morning, unzip it all the way and let it air out while you’re off hiking, exploring, mountain biking or whatever else you’re doing. This gives it ample time to dry out any sweat or moisture that built up overnight.
4. Use a Commercial Washer
I touched on this earlier, but it’s an important thing to remember. While you may get lucky washing your sleeping bag in a top-load washer a few times, it will eventually snag and rip. Trust me on this. This is coming from a person who’s had jackets, jeans, sleeping bags and all kinds of other clothes rip in top-load washers.
Commercial washing machines are front-load washers that don’t have that pesky pole-type thing in the middle, which is the main culprit for destroying clothes (and probably stealing socks, too).
5. Avoid Dry Cleaning
Never dry clean your sleeping bag. That’s the wrong way to do it. If you don’t want to wash your sleeping bag yourself, contact professional cleaning companies and see if they’ll do it for you. Just don’t take your sleeping bag, especially a down sleeping bag, to a dry cleaner. You may never get it back in one piece.
7. Use the Right Cleaner
Using the right cleaner is everything. Just like merino wool clothes, which are the best hiking clothes known to man, you can’t wash down or polyester sleeping bags with your run-of-the-mill cleaner.
When it comes to how to wash a down sleeping bag, go with Nikwax Down Cleaning or Gear Aid Revivex Down Cleaner. When it comes to how to wash a polyester sleeping bag, go with Nikwax Tech Wash or Gear Aid Revivex Pro Cleaner. They’re some of the best cleaning materials on the market for outdoor gear.
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8. Don’t Use Fabric Softener or Bleach
That brings me to the next point. Don’t use fabric softener or bleach. They will ruin your sleeping bags one wash at a time. Just take my word on this one.
9. It’s Better to Be Too Dry Than Still Wet
Have you ever put on a shirt that was still damp? Ya, trying to get through a full day in it sucks. Trying to get through a full night in a damp sleeping bag is even worse. Not to mention it entices the mold growth, which could ruin your sleeping bag entirely. A good rule of thumb (in life in general) is that it’s always better to be too dry than to be too wet.
10. Tight Stuff Sacks Deplete the Fill Faster
You’d think sleeping bag manufacturers would stop selling sleeping bags that are supposed to be packed in a tight stuff sack and stored for weeks at time, right? Wrong. Sleeping bag manufacturers are well aware that tight stuff sacks deplete the fill faster, but that means you’ll have to buy a new sleeping bag sooner.
It’s more money in their pocket, so they’ll keep selling sleeping bags in sacks that are way too tight. If you’re backpacking for many days, putting your sleeping bag in a tight stuff sack is a necessity. But if you’re storing it for the season or just a few weeks, keep it out of that stuff sack!
You’ll come back in three months to a sleeping bag you swore was fluffier. That’s because it was. I don’t store my sleeping bag in a stuff sack at all (unless I’m on a multi-day hike). I just roll it up loosely, snap the bungee cords and drive to the next location!