You’re looking at your limp, dirty sleeping bag and thinking, “might be time to wash this.” But then you get it home and paralysis sets in.
The fact that you shelled out hundreds of dollars for a top of the line sleep system cycles through your head.
Your mind whispers, “Don’t do it. You’ll ruin it.”
Tell that little whisper where it can go because I’ve got you covered. From washing to storing to keeping it clean, I’ve got all the tips and tricks.
Just a quick note before we continue, I use the terms sleeping bag and quilt interchangeably below so no one feels left out. The process is exactly the same for both.
Before we go any further, let’s start with the first, and most important, lesson.
BEFORE YOU ATTEMPT TO CLEAN YOUR DOWN ITEM, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, CHECK THE LABEL AND MANUFACTURER’S WEBSITE FOR SPECIFIC INSTRUCTIONS. YOU MAY VOID THE WARRANTY IF YOU DO NOT FOLLOW THEIR INSTRUCTIONS.
Table of Contents
I don’t usually give the Table of Contents its own section, but this is a long and detailed post, so take your time and read through it.
- Table of Contents
- How Often You Should Clean Your Sleeping Bag
- How to Spot Clean Your Sleeping Bag
- The Right Tools to Wash Your Down Outdoor Gear
- How to Wash Your Down Quilt
- How to Dry Your Sleeping Bag or Quilt
- DWR Treatment
- Caring for Your Items While Camping
- Carrying Your Sleeping Bag in Your Pack
- Storing Your Sleeping Bag or Quilt at Home
- Basic Sleeping Bag Repairs
- What if Feathers Start Leaking Out
How Often You Should Clean Your Sleeping Bag
The great news is that down usually doesn’t need to be cleaned frequently. There’s no set time frame like “once a year”. Some people can go years without needing to clean their bags.
It really comes down to how frequently you use it and your backpacking habits. Do you wear clean clothes when you get in it at night? Is it kept inside your tent or do you wear it around the fire? These all factor into how often your bag will need a cleaning.
You’ll know it requires cleaning if the dirt and oils are causing the down to lose its loft, and thus warmth. It should only take one night where you realize it’s not keeping you toasty warm to recognize it’s time.
If you’re not there yet, it may just need a spot clean.
How to Spot Clean Your Sleeping Bag
There are a lot of sites that tell you to use a toothbrush. While this may work on items with a stronger nylon fabric, high-end, ultralight gear may rip if with this technique.
To be safe, I recommend using a down specific soap and clean cloth.
Steps for spot cleaning:
- First, move the down away from the area that needs to be cleaned.
- Next, dilute the soap per instructions in a small bucket or sink.
- Saturate your clean cloth with the soapy water and gently rub or blot the stain until it fades sufficiently, or disappears.
- Lastly, remove the soap residue. If you can do this with a clean cloth, that’s great. Otherwise, place the area you just cleaned (not the entire quilt) in a sink or bucket with clean water to thoroughly remove the soap.
- Be careful with the fabric and support it as it becomes wet.
- If the spot was small and you can air dry the quilt in a couple of hours, go ahead and let it sit. For larger areas, place it in the dryer with no heat and 2 tennis balls until it is dry.
- The no heat setting could be called “cool air”, “air only”, or “air fluff”. If this is not an option, use the lowest heat setting, usually “low heat”.
The Right Tools to Wash Your Down Outdoor Gear
Before you start cleaning, you’ll want to make sure you have the right tools on hand.
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Only Wash Your Gear With Down Specific Soap
Only wash your down gear with technical soap specifically made for down.
These products are gentle and will not strip the oils from the feathers. They also leave less residue.
Several brands make a down and a regular tech wash with similar packaging so always double-check you’re getting the right one. Before purchasing, verify the label specifically states the product is formulated for down.
A few favorites in the backpacking world:
Items to Help Unclump the Down in the Dryer
- Three pairs of wool socks rolled into balls
- 2-3 clean tennis balls (As in they’ve never seen a tennis court or met your dog)
- A large dryer with an air-dry function
Items to Help Handle Your Wet Quilt
- A clean sheet
- Plastic laundry hamper
The rest of the specific items are noted in each section below as they differ per technique.
How to Wash Your Down Quilt
Another warning here – Do NOT, Under any circumstances, NOT EVER, Dry clean your down sleeping bag or quilt.
Dry cleaning can remove the natural oils that protect the down and potentially damage the breathability of the technical fabrics.
Professional Services That Will Wash Your Sleeping Bag
Washing a bag or quilt is an all-day adventure (think 6-7 hours) and you need to babysit it the entire time. No running off on errands.
If you don’t have time, consider a professional service like Rainy Pass Repair.
Other options include Boulder Mountain Repair.
Keep in mind that shipping larger items can be expensive so be sure to factor that into the overall cost.
Machine Wash at Home
Before you toss your quilt in the washing machine, be aware that hand washing is preferred and, in some instances, machine washing will void the warranty.
Check Manufacturer Instructions
I know I’m sounding like a broken record here, but always double-check with the manufacturer. Almost all of them have a “how to clean” section on their website.
I have both a Hammock Gear Quilt and an Enlightened Equipment Quilt. They have different recommendations on their websites.
Hammock Gear recommends hand washing but provides washing machine instructions. Enlightened Equipment is clear that machine washing will void the warranty.
If you opt to machine wash, use the largest capacity front loader you can find. Do not use a top loader with an agitator.
Steps to Machine Wash Your Quilt
- Place the item in the washing machine.
- Add your chosen soap made for down items per the instructions on the bottle.
- Choose a gentle/delicate cycle.
- Think cold. Cold water wash with a cold water rinse.
- If there is a spin cycle setting, put it on the lowest speed available.
- When the load is complete, be very careful removing the sleeping bag or quilt. Once wet, the down becomes extremely heavy and can actually bust the baffles or create a tear in the fabric.
- Wet down bursting out of your treasured, and probably expensive, sleeping bag is not a good feeling.
- Always fully support the item. I like to loosely wrap it in a sheet and carry it like I’m bringing a new puppy home. Support every inch of it in a big hug.
- Even better, gently place it in a laundry basket. The sheet will protect the exterior fabric from catching on any of the plastic holes.
A dryer is the only way to properly dry your sleeping bag. Click on down here for information on how to properly dry your bag.
Hand Wash at Home
Hand washing is the recommended way to wash all down sleeping bags and quilts.
You’ll need a bathtub and soap made specifically for down.
I like to fill the tub with lukewarm water and add the detergent before grabbing my quilt.
Make sure all zippers, cords, tabs, et cetera are locked up. I have a quilt and zip my footbed so the zipper doesn’t catch on the fabric and tear it.
If you have a sleeping bag, I would zip it all the way. The water and soap will penetrate through the fabric so don’t worry.
Place the footbed into the water first, opposite the end with the drain. (This will make life a lot easier when you need to knead the water out).
Gently push it down into the water and work the rest of the bag into the water bit by bit. It’s going to fight you and try to keep popping back up. Just continue to add it to the water section by section slowly.
Steps to Hand Wash Your Sleeping Bag
- Once the bag is wet and in the water, agitate it with your hands gently for about 5 minutes. You want to very gently swish the water around so it gets into and all around the bag.
- Let it sit for 10 minutes, then agitate again. I like to repeat this 4-5 times.
- Finally, let it sit in the soapy water for about 30 minutes. The enzymes in the detergent will continue working.
- Now it’s time to rinse.
- Let the water out of the tub, but be careful and make sure the edge of the quilt remains away from the drain.
- Once the water is removed, you’ll need to push the water out of the quilt itself. Begin at the footbed and gently knead the quilt pushing forward. The water should begin to squish out.
- This will take a bit of time. I don’t recommend rolling the quilt. The down can become very heavy and putting pressure on it by rolling and squeezing can burst the baffles.
- Just be patient and continue kneading.
- When you have as much water out as you can, refill the tub with lukewarm water.
- Agitate with your hands for at least 5 minutes. Let it sit for 10 minutes.
- Remove the water and knead what you can out of the bag.
- Repeat the rinsing cycle until the water is clear and you don’t see any more soap. I like to do one more round after this point.
- Be aware, that it can take 5 rinses to remove all of the soap.
- Once you’re sure you’ve removed all the water you can, wrap your bag in a clean sheet.
Be Careful With Your Wet Sleeping Bag
Wet sleeping bags are extremely heavy and delicate. Just lifting it unsupported can cause the down to break the fabric or baffles and destroy the bag.
- You want to loosely wrap your bag in the sheet to provide support, and then gently lift it from the tub while supporting the entire bundle. Treat it like the most precious thing you own that you’re afraid of dropping.
- Make sure you support the bottom as you lift.
- If you have a laundry basket, put it in there. The sheet will help protect the delicate fabric from catching in any plastic holes.
Now take it to the dryer for the final round.
How to Dry Your Sleeping Bag or Quilt
Once you’ve washed your quilt, loosely wrapped it in a sheet, and gently placed it in a laundry basket, it’s time to get it in the dryer.
Carefully, place the item in the largest dryer you can find.
A no heat setting is best if available. Look for “cool air”, “air only”, or “air fluff”.
If you do not have a no heat setting, choose the lowest heat setting possible (usually “low heat”). High heat will damage the item.
A lot of people recommend adding tennis balls and this does work. But, if you have a high-end bag or quilt that’s extremely delicate, the balls may be a little rough when it’s still soaking wet.
I like to start out with 3 pairs of wool socks. Take the two socks and roll them into a ball (if you grew up in the 80s, this should seem familiar).
Add your 3 sock balls into the dryer with the bag or quilt.
Check on your quilt after 20 minutes. Make sure it’s not hot, as this would mean the dryer setting is too high.
You should be able to sub out the wool socks for 2-3 clean tennis balls at this point. They will do a better job of breaking up the clumps than the socks and the fabric should be dry enough that it’s not as delicate.
Continue to let the quilt dry, stopping the dryer every 20 minutes. When the quilt feels dry enough to safely maneuver, use your hands to break up any clumps of down and try to help distribute the down throughout the item.
It’s easier to do this if you remove it from the dryer.
Keep repeating until the sleeping bag or quilt is completely dry.
You’ll know it’s dry because that “dead goose” smell will be gone.
Drying can take 4 hours or longer so don’t get discouraged. Low and slow is the way to go here.
Some quilts and sleeping bags have a DWR coating which may need to be replaced over time. This is manufacturer and model-specific so check their website before treating it with a DWR refresher.
Most manufacturers will recommend you use a spray instead of a wash-in.
I can’t really advise here since it’s highly specific to the brand and model.
Be aware that aftermarket treatments could void your warranty.
Caring for Your Items While Camping
Keeping your gear clean in the field is the best way to avoid needing to clean it frequently. This means doing what you can to keep dirt, sweat, and oils from getting into the down.
Keep Your Personal Dirt and Oil Off the Bag
Before settling into your bag or quilt for the evening, remove as much bug spray (I’m talking to you Deet), and sunscreen as you can from your body.
Sleeping in clean clothes is not only good for you, but it will also help keep your sleep system clean. Even better, if you’re in a situation where you can use a sleeping bag liner, that will really help.
Wearing a hat or wrapping your hair in a bandana will help keep the oil in your hair from penetrating the bag, especially for mummy style bags with hoods.
Keep Campground Dirt Off Your Bag
This goes without saying, but keep your quilt off the ground. The best way to do this is to keep it in your tent (or hammock).
I know that there are pictures of happy campers sitting outside their tent wrapped in their sleeping bag, but these are photos. If you’re truly cowboy camping, have a pad or tarp under the bag. Even better, use a bivy sack.
Don’t wear your bag or quilt as a wrap around the fire. Smoke can penetrate the down and embers can burn the fabric.
As the air cools overnight, condensation can occur and you’ll find your sleeping bag wet in the morning.
If there’s time in the morning, you can place it over your tent to get some early morning rays, otherwise, take it out to dry immediately when you reach your next campsite.
While UV rays can degrade the fabric over time, it’s more important to keep it dry so a little sunshine is fine.
Please don’t throw it over a branch, hang it on bushes, or put it on a little knob on a tree to dry. I get heart palpitations every time I see that.
This is likely one of the most expensive pieces of equipment you own. It’s somewhat delicate and your life can depend on it. Why would you consider tossing it over pointy things that can potentially cut or rip?
The nice smooth top of your tent or hammock tarp is a spectacular place for your quilt if it needs drying. Just do a quick wipe with a small towel or bandana first.
When you get home, even if it feels dry, leave it out for a bit or toss it in the dryer with some tennis balls on air (no heat) to make 100% sure it’s completely dry before storing.
Don’t Loan Your Quilt to Friends
Lend your beloved sleeping bag or quilt to a friend at your own risk. It’s okay to say no.
Carrying Your Sleeping Bag in Your Pack
Getting it in the Stuff Sack
The best advice I ever got was from the owner of an outfitter store, “You want the sack to do the compressing, not the act of stuffing the quilt into it”.
I’ve found that having room in the compression sack is helpful. Rather than creating a tight football that is limited on placement, you can have a slightly less compressed item that is easier to pack.
It’s also better for the quilt or sleeping bag to not be so tightly compressed.
That being said, don’t use a 20-liter dry sack for a quilt. If the sack is too large, you won’t be able to get all the air out and your sleeping bag will begin to “grow” while in your pack. That’s just so much fun. Been there.
But how do you get the sleeping bag in the compression sack? We’ve all had that giant bubble pop out at us while shoving a bag in a compression sleeve.
It’s like trying to wrestle one of those giant Gumby things at the mattress stores into a sock.
The way around this is to stuff the footbed in first. Air can escape out the top of the bag so by putting the footbed first, you’re allowing air to escape out while you’re stuffing.
Do it the other way around and air has nowhere to go, hence the giant sleeping bag bubble.
Keeping it Dry and Safe
Since your survival can depend on your sleeping bag or quilt keeping you warm, it’s imperative it remains dry.
I use a waterproof compression sack. A lot of folks recommend lining your pack with a garbage bag, but I’ve seen that go south one too many times to be on board with it.
If you can find a trash compactor bag, that will be more reliable.
Even if you use the garbage bag, still have your sleeping system in a waterproof container.
I know many people are going to say they use the garbage bag all the time and never have an issue. But I live in wonderful North Carolina where the humidity can go over 100%.
We get soaking wet, and I mean “wring your shirt out” wet, without encountering any water. You literally soak through everything with your sweat.
Moisture plus temperature differential can equal condensation. If the temperature changes too rapidly with all that moisture in the air, you can get sweating inside the garbage bag.
A compression sack removes most of the air so you won’t have the same problem.
I teach an Intro to Backpacking course and have had to emergency loan my sleep sack and extra clothing more than once due to garbage bag liners.
Once you get to camp, take your quilt out and let it decompress for a couple of hours before getting in.
Storing Your Sleeping Bag or Quilt at Home
At home, you want to store your sleeping bag loose. Long-term compression can destroy the loft.
It’s best to hang it, but if that’s not possible, most bags come with a large canvas storage sack.
Just like any gear, keep your sleeping bag out of direct sunlight which can degrade the fabric. It should be kept in a temperature-controlled room inside the house rather than an attic or garage.
You’ll want to keep it away from pets. You know your dog would just love to get their paws on it.
If possible, try to store it in an area with good airflow rather than a stuffy closet like a coat closet or a storage bin.
I keep mine in the closet of a spare bedroom with bi-fold doors. It’s out of sunlight, temperature-controlled, and isn’t stuffy.
Basic Sleeping Bag Repairs
You can repair a sleeping bag in the field and at home pretty readily.
If the zipper snags, stop. Don’t pull or force it. The delicate fabric likely is stuck in the track.
Gently pull the fabric out in a perpendicular manner. If this doesn’t work, hold the fabric taut and very slowly pull the zipper back.
Small tears have two options. Tape it or sew it.
Sewing is hands down the better option. If you’re in the field, this may not be possible, but if you can make it home, try to wait until then.
Trim any stray fraying ends, then fold them under, bring the fabric together and sew. You definitely want thin sewing thread for this and not dental floss.
For situations where you have a tear in the field and it needs to be fixed now, your best bet is Tenacious Tape. Fold the frayed ends under the best you can, pull the fabric together, and apply the tape.
The issue here is that you won’t be able to remove the tape without making a mess. I would leave it on and, when home, seal the edges with seam grip.
Large holes will need professional repair. You can find a company that repairs camping gear or see if the manufacturer offers services.
What if Feathers Start Leaking Out
A feather here and there popping out of an item is normal. We’ve all been there.
Rather than pull it out, reach from the underside and try to gently coax it back in.
Now a large loss of feathers on a continuing basis is not good. This generally means the item is falling apart and will need to be replaced.
Usually what happens is the holes around the thread creating baffles have stretched. This is where the feathers are leaking from.
There’s not much you can do when a bag is on the decline. It will need to be replaced.
However, if you take good care of it, this shouldn’t happen for several years, if at all.
Cleaning your down gear is a bit of a chore, but doable for almost everyone. Just take your time and treat your wet bag gently.
You can minimize the need to wash it by taking good care of it before, during, and after your hike.
Down sleeping bags and quilts are an investment, but they’re well worth it for their longevity, light weight, and comfort.