Washing a Down Sleeping Bag

Laundromat Dryers

Washing my Down Sleeping Bag

I decided to clean my down sleeping bag this week instead of sending it to a company called RainyPass that REI recommends. Although it took 5 hours, it only cost me $28 to do it myself vs. the $37 + $15 return postage that it would have cost to outsource the job. Honestly, it was a lot easier than I’d imagined.

Go to a Laundromat

If you decide to wash your own down bag, go to a laundromat and do it with a front loading washing machine and dryer.  The agitator in a top loading washer, like you have a home, is too rough and can tear the baffles of your sleeping bag open.

If you live on the north shore of Boston, I recommend you visit the Melrose Laundromat in downtown Melrose which has a friendly owner, free tea, coffee, cocoa or cappuccino, a clean customer bathroom, and free WIFI!

Down Soap is a Must-Have

Before you do anything, buy yourself a bottle of Nikwax Down Wash. This is a special non-detergent soap that won’t strip the oil from the down in your sleeping bag. Regular powder or liquid detergent is way too harsh for down and you shouldn’t use them to wash a down bag. One bottle of Nikwax is enough for two three-season sleeping bags.

Rinse the Washer

When you get to the laundromat, open up each front loader and run your hand over the interior drum feeling for burrs in the metal or foreign objects like safety pins where the fabric of your bag can catch and tear. If your detect any, move to another machine and until you find one that is smooth inside.

Next, inspect the detergent dispenser, and see if it’s clean or has a residue of old detergent, fabric softener or bleach. If it does, clean these out carefully or move to another machine.  To be on the safe side, you can also run an empty load to wash out and residual soap or additives. I did this myself and saw residual suds in the washing water.

Wash the Bag

If your sleeping bag has a waterproof exterior shell, like Gore-tex, turn it inside out, so that water can reach the down. If the shell is not a waterproof membrane just leave the exterior shell on the outside. Next make sure all the zippers are closed and that all velcro fasteners are properly mated.

Set the temperature of the water to low or warm and wash on a delicates cycle.

After the first wash is complete, do another without any down soap, to make sure that the down in your sleeping bag has been rinsed fully.

Dry the Bag

Before your bag has finished rinsing, find a front loading washing machine to dry it in. Repeat the drum inspection process you used before and eliminate any dryer that has imperfections or burrs on it where the fabric of your bag can catch and tear. It’s also important that the dryer have a low temperature setting.

Carefully lift your wet sleeping bag out of the washing machine and carry it over to dryer. It’s important that you support the whole bag in your hands or lay it on a cart. Your bag is in a very fragile state when it’s wet. The feathers are saturated with water and can tear through the baffles if they’re unsupported.

Feed in quarters for 20 minutes and set the dryer temperature to low. You’ll keep it at this temperature for the entire drying process.

After 20 minutes, check your sleeping bag. There will be clumps of down in the bag. Gently break them up and let the bag go for another 20 minutes. Repeat this process for three or more hours or until all of the down clumps have broken up.

While dry times will vary across sleeping bags, it took my Western Mountaineering Ultralite 200 minutes (3.5 hours) of drying before it was done. That should help give you a baseline for what to expect for a 3 season, 32 oz down bag.

After the Laundromat

When you leave the laundromat, don’t put your sleeping bag in a stuff sack or compress it. At home, spread it out and let it loft for a few days before you use it. It should smell noticeably fresher and feel puffier when you use it again!

And that’s all there is to washing your own down sleeping bag.

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40 Responses to Washing a Down Sleeping Bag

  1. Milton October 14, 2010 at 5:30 am #

    I've done this in the past but will never do it again. The amount of time involved is not worth the cost savings in my opinion. What's your time worth is the question? My free time is limited and I value it too much to spend half a day worrying about laundering a sleeping bag. I'll gladly pay Rainy Pass to launder my sleeping bags.

  2. MZ October 14, 2010 at 5:41 am #

    Now you can make the call between do-it-yourself or using Rainy Pass. Assuming you started in the morning, could you have slept in the bag that night?

  3. Earlylite October 14, 2010 at 5:42 am #

    I used to think that way too when I had less flexible time commitments.

  4. Earlylite October 14, 2010 at 5:46 am #

    I probably could have used the bag that night, but I hung it up at home and let it loft another 3 days before taking it on a long backpacking trip. The upside of all this was the fast turnaround time I got by doing it myself. Plus, I got an experiential blog post out of it! :-)

    Seriously,I'm cutting back on expenses, and this was a good way to save a few bucks.

  5. planB October 14, 2010 at 6:43 am #

    I have been washing down sleeping bags and garments at home for over forty years. Over the years I have seen people absolutely destroy quality down bags. Then they brought them to me to bring them back to life. Once its dead its dead. Sometimes the fabric structure of the bag is in fine shape but the down is reduced to just the ‘bones’ with no loft remaining. This does not happen through rough use but through criminal cleaning. I can take a bag that has not been washed once in its ten year life and revitalize it. But let some miscreant clean it improperly and a six hundred dollar winter bag becomes a thin summer bag.

    I have made down blankets for nieces and nephews over the decades. The blankets survive barf, pee and all the normal baby and kid abuse and without exception they are still in use twenty plus years later. I had one blanket returned for revitalization. When I opened it up there was no down left inside it. The down had simply disappeared from washing over the years. Since high quality down was used in its construction there were not even any feathers left inside. I was able to restuff the blanket and it will be used for a new generation of kids.

    The instructions in your post are right on target. Don’t forget to thoroughly inspect the bag prior to washing for stitching and seams needing repair.

  6. Tomas October 14, 2010 at 7:17 am #

    Great tips!

    I've also heard of throwing tennis balls into the dryer when drying out down products, I guess it helps break up the lumps? Do you think it's recommendable?

  7. Earlylite October 14, 2010 at 7:45 am #

    It's not necessary, and I'd be concerned about hurting the exterior fabric when the bag is very wet. You can't really understand how fragile the bag is when it's saturated, until you hold it in your hands.

  8. Kmack October 15, 2010 at 10:19 am #

    Can you toss in a down jacket or vest along w/the bag or should the bag go solo?

  9. Earlylite October 15, 2010 at 10:21 am #

    I don't see why adding extra garments would matter. I guess it just depends on your level of paranoia.

  10. Guthook October 15, 2010 at 5:57 pm #

    Oh jeez, I need to wash my sleeping bag real soon. It's filthy.

    I used the tennis balls the last time I washed mine, and it seemed to work beautifully. I suggested to a fellow hiker recently to just put in a big sock ball since he didn't have any tennis balls handy. I'd never tried it before, but it sounded like it would work. He said it worked fine, and I'd imagine that's a lot more delicate on the bag than tennis balls. Anyone else try this?

  11. Earlylite October 15, 2010 at 6:09 pm #

    I read somewhere that you should wash your sleeping bag every 30 nights of use – I freaked when I saw this because I was probably at 3X that. But after a PCT thru-hike – I can't imagine what your bag smells like. The grizzlies could probably smell you from 50 miles away. :-)

  12. Guthook October 19, 2010 at 2:38 pm #

    Haha, the grizzlies could probably smell me from Colorado (common misconception, no grizzlies on the west coast. I think they're just in the rockies).

    I just washed about 3000 miles of funk out of my sleeping bag today. I can't tell you how beautiful the bag looks now. It's so amazing! I used three pairs of smartwool socks tucked into balls instead of tennis balls, and they seemed to do the job quite well. The bag is now shiny, smooth, fluffy, and very, very happy.

  13. marco October 20, 2010 at 10:42 am #

    As always, you deserve a well done on the article!

    Generally, it is OK to ignore rules for timing about washing down. My winter bag had at least 60 nights of use on it. But, I wear long johns and do not sweat as bad. My summer bags get washed a lot more. I go to sleep cool, wake up hot and sweaty. Then I unzip it. And, in summer it sometimes gets outright dampish feeling. I have yet to feel rain at 0F. Anyway, Sometimes after a couple weekend hikes I need to wash it. Sometimes after two weeks out it is still OK. So, I do it when it starts loosing a bit of loft and it starts smelling a bit. I do it at home these days in a large sized top loader with no agitater. Drying is the same. Again, I do it at home with a couple dryer balls my wife got somewhere. Often, I will drop it in the dryer before I leave…just to fluff it up some. Seems to help the first couple nights.

    jdm

  14. Earlylite October 20, 2010 at 12:31 pm #

    I use long johns too. All 4 seasons. Keeps things cleaner.

  15. Chad January 30, 2011 at 5:59 am #

    Glad I found this. My wife and I are about to buy one of those washers without the agitators in it so I can wash my bags at home. This step by step guide will make me feel much better about throwing my expensive bag in the wash! Thanks.

  16. Onestep August 7, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

    Good article. Back in the day I had a disastrous experience washing a synthetic bag in my bathtub. I've been gun shy about doing a down bag ever since. Your article, and your reader responses, have given me new confidence. One question, would "Woolite" work in place of Nikwax?

  17. Earlylite August 7, 2011 at 1:54 pm #

    I've read that a very gentle soap like Woolite is ok, but I cant remember exactly where. Given the possible consequences and if it were me, I'd buy a small bottle of Nikwash Down Wash just to be absolutely safe.

  18. marco August 7, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    Yeah, Down wash isn't that expensive, worth it to KNOW you got the correct stuff. Down is very forgiving of a lot of things, including heat. But detergent, not soap, detergent, will quickly reduce good down brittle plumes, then dust. The residual detergent in commercial machines can have the same effect…clean out the machine, and, run an empty wash and rinse cycle first. Phil is right on in recomending Nikwax stuff.

  19. Connie August 13, 2011 at 7:00 am #

    My father gave me an old down sleeping bag (probably at least 20 yrs old). It is still in great condition and I use it often. I do not think he ever washed it though. This summer I used it for a month straight and frequently after that. I was hesitant to wash it, but it really needed it. I used your advice almost to the exact point and it worked beautifully. Thank you so much it was a big help. Instead of down soap i used Woolite and it worked just fine. My sleeping bag will be able to be used for many trips to come!

  20. Connie August 13, 2011 at 7:02 am #

    My father gave me an old down sleeping bag (probably at least 20 yrs old). It is still in great condition and I use it often. I do not think he ever washed it though. This summer I used it for a month straight and frequently after that. I was hesitant to wash it, but it really needed it. I used your advice almost to the exact point and it worked beautifully. Thank you so much it was a big help. Instead of down soap I used Woolite and it worked just fine. My sleeping bag will be able to be used for many trips to come!!

  21. Earlylite August 13, 2011 at 7:02 am #

    Fantastic – It's great when you can bring old, perfectly good stuff back to life!

  22. eddie s August 14, 2011 at 7:59 am #

    You caught the two main items that destroyed my $400 down bag that I missed and I am glad you shared them…#1 was the rough burrs and on the metal or plastic edges on the drum, and the paddles of the machine. It just shredded my bag and I had goosedown being blown out all over the place during the spin cycle..The other was a dirty machine…The goosedown actually had clumps of dirt & unidentifialbe gunk attached to them from inside the machine.

    So now I first run a bit of silk or use a cotton hankerchief around the inside of the drum and across the paddles to see if the material "catches" and if not I then run a full empty load with lots of bleach in the water and the rinse water…

    Long & Low drying heat is the secret and might I suggest something…I add three Soft Balls to the dryer to help gently break up those down clumps…

    Woolite used to be the soap of choice back when Eddie Bauer made excellent bags and equipment in the 70's before the kids took over and ran into the ground. LLBean recomended woolite for a while and I believe Colin Fletcher mentioned it in on of his stories to. Nikwax is the soap of choice now because it is especially formulated for the new materials and the goosedown. Back in the 70's a lot of bags used a cotton and man made fiber mix for the covers which woolite could easily penetrate..

  23. Aaron Redman October 18, 2011 at 9:22 pm #

    I have been using regular powder detergent (not liquid as it can leave a residue) on my down sleeping bags for years with no problems. My $400 Mtn. Hardware bag even recommends it. I am not sure if the expensive down washes are really necessary or are just a good marketing ploy. I figure that down bags have been around for generations and specialty down washes have only been on the market for about 10 years. So how did folks clean their down bags before that? Did they ruin them with regular detergent? I doubt it.

  24. marco October 19, 2011 at 3:39 am #

    Arron, actually you are the first one that I have heard of that ever used detergent and had the bag survive the washing. The down cluster is made of a protein, a material much like your finger nails. Added to this is a lanolin like oil that is loosely bonded to the down plume’s structure. Using a detergent, or even a strong soap (almost the same thing) will break the lanolin bond allowing it to mix with the water. This is bad for down. Woolite, Nikwax and some others no longer available (Ivory Snow, generic Soap Flakes listed as safe for wool) are not strong enough, or, do not break this bond. This leaves the lanolin in the down plume. Many detergents will ruin down. Maybe you got lucky and you have one that lists it “safe for wool” but it is not generally recommended.
    http://www.mcnett-outdoor.com/McNett-Community/Vihttp://lightbackpacking.com/2006/08/25/secrets-fohttp://www.alpkit.com/support/stickies/cleaning-dhttp://www.kathmandu.co.nz/images/assetimages/infhttp://www.nunatakusa.com/site07/main_pages/down_http://marmot.com/faq http://www.featheredfriends.com/picasso/Headmenu/
    Lots more, but you get the idea. Washing with detergent will age a bag very roughly about 10 years for every washing. 4 times in one year will destroy it leaving the plumes quite brittle.

  25. eddie s October 19, 2011 at 4:04 am #

    Back in 1960 when my Dad bought my first Down bag from Eddie Bauer it came with a package sheet of instructions and a small packet of "Wool lite" to wash the bag with. The Instructions specifically said NOT TO USE regualar Household types Soaps such as Tide or Fab, Ivory, etc. etc. nor any hand soaps such as Ivory, Bon Ami, Palmolive, etc. etc. for the main reason it would remove the necessay and needed Oils from the Down Feathers causing them to disinegrate over time.

    Speciality Down washes have been around for over 30 years that I am aware of and would rather be on the safe side and wash my bags with products that are were especially created to wash the Bags with than taking a risk, that is, unless you are one of the lucky ones who can afford to buy a new bag every couple of years without a blink of the eye….

    Plus I understand some of the new detergents with man made grease eating formulas may not have been tested on man made materials…I am thinking along those microbes and such that they are using to eat up Oil spills and since the bags are gernerally made of man made materials from Oil..I wonder….

  26. Chad "Stick&quo November 27, 2011 at 9:15 am #

    So, I am about to throw my bag in the wash with some Nikwax Down Wash I bought months ago (Just haven't had time to use it til now…) But I am curious, does one zip the bag or unzip the bag? I am thinking zip the bag so that the zipper teeth does not catch the material and rip it. Also, the shell is not "waterproof" but I think I am going to turn it inside out anyway just because I feel like the inside is in worse shape because of me sweating in it…not that it's in bad shape though. I take great care of my gear and this bag only has about 60 nights use so far. So, here goes nothing…

  27. Guthook November 27, 2011 at 9:42 am #

    Good luck! I think you have the right idea with the zipper and turning it inside out. I always love the sight of my sleeping bag after the drying and fluffing with tennis balls. It's almost better than when it's new.

  28. Karen (from LNT!) July 31, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

    I AM DELIGHTED TO HAVE FOUND THIS ARTICLE! I was doing all sorts of searches about washing down bags at home and when I stumbled onto a “section hiker” post about it I was very excited because I knew it was a source I could trust! I actually found 2 great bags at the REI garage sale yesterday and just want to clear them of any “funk” left by the last people who might have owned them… Very excited to tackle this task tomorrow. Thanks man! :)

    • Earlylite July 31, 2012 at 5:11 pm #

      Fantastic Karen – Great to hear from you! This method works well.

  29. Marco July 31, 2012 at 5:02 pm #

    I just wanted to mention that Woolite is now a detergent, not a soap.

  30. Joan October 2, 2012 at 8:45 am #

    I followed your advice exactly, and it worked perfectly. I’d never washed my 2-year old sleeping bag for fear it would ruin it, but finally the smell was so terrible I knew I had to do something. Your clear article gave me the details I needed. The loft seems even higher than before. Thanks for an excellent article!

  31. Prep.a.Trip November 19, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

    Great article, this was so helpful! I have a question – I have a vegetable-based unscented powder detergent from Trader Joe’s. Do you think that this would still be too strong and damage the down?

    • Earlylite November 19, 2012 at 7:00 pm #

      I wouldn’t risk it. Use a product specially designed to wash down sleeping bags.

  32. Michael Doyle December 27, 2012 at 10:38 am #

    Great article, I have washed my bags several times over the years, both synthetic and down, using detergent. I have seen no ill effects but I will switch to a more approprate product. I would also think that a clean water wash with no soaps would clean bags quite well if the proper cleaning products are not available.

    I would like to see a follow up on wahing synthetic fill bags, and also cleaning of tents, water bladders, backpacks, etc. I think that routine care and damage repair articles would be great reading.

  33. biped December 29, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

    Good article. I have one criticism; the wash-dry cycle you describe does not clarify if there is a spin cycle involved or if the dryer is a tumble or spinner (I’m in Scotland, maybe this is obvious to USA/Can audience?).
    I’ve washed my bags several times over the past 20 years and a I write my 27 year old jacket is tumbling away hence why i am up at this hour.
    I’ve wrecked one bag in this time, by taking it out of the washing machine and placing it into the tumble dryer wet without adequate spinning. No matter how long I tumbled it for I couldn’t get it to unclump. Every other item has been run through several spin cycles before the tumble drying stage.
    A tip for tumble drying: many people I know put a pair of old rock shoes, tennis balls or suchlike into the dryer to help ‘beat up’ the bag and break up the clumps. I bought a few dog’s rubber balls with rubber spiky knobs all over them from pet suppliers for this purpose, they work a treat. Hope that is of help.
    Thanks for a helpful article, so may people are scared of washing their down kit.

    • Earlylite December 30, 2012 at 9:11 am #

      Good point us/can readers have washing machines with tumblers than run as part of the wash cycle unlike European ones where they are separate steps.

  34. BC Drums June 20, 2014 at 11:59 am #

    Phil,

    Your article gave me the confidence to wash my 30-year-old North Face down bag for the first time (Yikes!). The bag’s loft was fine, but it had that lived-in aroma. I washed the bag at home in our front-loader, gave it two extra rinses and a high-speed spin at the end of the cycles. I dried the bag on low in our front-loading dryer in 20-minute cycles. At the end of each dryer cycle, I broke up the clumps of down I could feel, which had gathered at the side seams. After about 6 cycles, the bag was dry, clean, and had even greater loft. I aired it out overnight, and now it’s like new.

    I used the Nikwax Down Wash. Again, thanks.

    • Philip Werner June 20, 2014 at 12:13 pm #

      Fantastic. Gear maintenance is very satisfying, especially because you can save so much money by taking care of good gear.

  35. matt July 13, 2014 at 1:08 pm #

    What if my kelty down bag’s care instructions recommend to not use a dryer? It says air/line dry and refluff by hands or by shaking when drying. Would you still use the tumble dry method or line dry? How long would it take to line dry if I follow the care instructions?

    • Philip Werner July 13, 2014 at 1:11 pm #

      I’d follow your manufacturer’s instructions. How long would it take to dry? I have no idea. Why don’t you call them and ask.

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