Sleeping Bag Care

Are you guilty of this sin? Following a camping trip, do you put away your sleeping bag in the garage or the basement, still stuffed in its tiny stuff sack? If so, you are guilty of sleeping bag destruction

You see, keeping your sleeping bag in a stuff sack for lengthy periods compresses the insulation and prevents that insulation from "bouncing back" once the bag is released from its stuff sack imprisonment.

Thus, rule #1 in sleeping bag care is to never keep a sleeping bag in its stuff sack when not in use. Instead, store a sleeping bag in its mesh bag (if it came with it, most quality bags do) or, failing that, inside a partially open large trash/laundry bag. The reason to keep the bag open is to allow any moisture to escape—thus preventing the sleeping bag from acquiring mildew.

Now, that's rule #1. It's a simple rule and applies to all sleeping bag insulation types (although synthetic sleeping bags are much more forgiving), whether synthetic or goose down.

How to Clean A Sleeping Bag

Cleaning a sleeping bag is either simple or a perilous chore, depending on the bags insulation.

A North Face three-season synthetic sleeping bag. These bags are the ideal "summer camping bag" and are simple to clean. See similar bags at Backcountry.Com.

For synthetic fill bags, cleaning is simple. Fully unzip the bag and toss it in a front load washer (never a top load washer). Wash in cold water with a scant amount of soap. Then tumble dry on low heat for 10-20 minutes or until the bag is basically dry. Just be sure to not over-dry the bag. And that’s it. Basically, cleaning a synthetic sleeping bag isn’t much different from cleaning bath towels.

By contrast, goose down sleeping bags are more difficult to clean. Many goose down bags require washing by hand in a bathtub, followed by a lengthy air dry period. Other goose down bags, such as those from The North Face, require professional cleaning by a service that specializes in cleaning down (which means taking it to a dry cleaner that specializes in cleaning down products).

So why are goose down bags more difficult to clean? Down is more “fragile” than synthetic insulation. The rigors of a front load washer compress the down feathers and remove oils from the insulation. When a down bag goes through a washing machine, the bag loses much of its loft. The loss of loft (fluffiness) leads to the bag losing much of its insulating ability.

A few goose down bags—such as those made by Marmot—are “washing machine” friendly, although they are the exception. Before putting a goose down bag in a washing machine, double check the care instructions to insure the brand allows for it. Then follow these instructions.

  • First, use a front load washer.
  • Second, use only a slight amount of soap, not the amount used for normal wash. And use no bleach or other additives, either.
  • Third, use only cold water.
  • Fourth, plan on multiple rinses. Multiple rinses are needed to remove all soap from the down feathers. Failure to remove soap from the feathers breaks down the oils of the insulation, leading to degraded performance of the sleeping bag.
  • Fifth, tumble dry at the lowest possible setting. Because down is slow to dry, it might take hours before a bag fully dries.

Because of the difficulty in cleaning down bags, most manufacturers suggest—even those that make washing machine friendly goose down bags—the bags be cleaned by a commercial cleaner instead. Just make sure that they do not dry clean the bag. Instead, special compounds and cleaning methods are used to clean the bag without ruining it.