You’re on a backpacking trip and your sleeping bag gets wet. What should you do?
Assess the Situation
The first thing I’d do is to assess how wet the bag is.
If the foot end or cover are wet because they rubbed up against your tent at night and got damp from internal condensation, that’s a pretty low-risk (normal) situation. You can probably still use the bag as is, dry it out in the sun before breaking camp, or during the day during a rest stop. Drying gear is a normal “backpacking chore” and something that we all do when we have to, even if it means kicking back and waiting a few hours before setting out for the day.
If the wetness is through and through a significant portion of your sleeping bag because you fell in a river or a mini flash flood blew through your tent, things are a little bit more serious. First off, squeeze (but don’t ring) as much moisture out as possible. Next hang up your bag and let it drip dry further while keeping the dry parts from becoming wet. Be very careful in handling the sleeping bag because it’s easy to tear a wet bag. It doesn’t matter if your sleeping bag is filled with down or synthetic insulation. I’d recommend the same technique.
If you’re within a day’s hike of a town, your best bet would be to hike out and dry your bag in a drier at a laundromat, motel, or B&B. (How to Wash a Sleeping Bag) It’s going to take at least three hours to dry in a commercial drier, so you can imagine how long it would take to dry in the wilderness if you hang it from a tree. Of course, if you have cell phone or sat phone/text service, you can also just call a trail shuttle driver or Uber for a ride. I wouldn’t recommend drying your sleeping bag by a campfire. That’s a good way to melt or destroy the fabric that holds it together. If you’re not near civilization, keep reading.
Leverage Your Group
If getting to a drier is not feasible in one day, but you’re backpacking with other people, you’re going to have a lot more resources available to you than if you’re alone. Provided your sleeping pad is intact, you can share a sleeping bag with someone else by unzipping it all the way and using it like a quilt.
Or you can put all of your clothes on and some of theirs, and roll yourself up in a tent body or tarp to stay warm. This might be a bit sweaty, but it’s a common wilderness medicine technique called a “human burrito” which is used to keep patients warm when they’re injured or hypothermic. You can even place hot water bottles inside the “wrap” as another heat source. You can use this technique night after night until you get back to civilization or your sleeping bag dries by itself.
Solo Survival Strategies
If you’re backpacking alone, I’d still recommend hiking out and drying your bag in town. You’ll stay warm as long as you’re hiking, so get moving. If you do need to stop to sleep, then the human burrito technique is still a good option. If you happen to have a saw or an axe, you can also build a fire and a heat reflector, but that’s going to take a lot of time away from hiking out, so it’s probably not be worth it.
If you do backpack alone, it’s worth asking yourself whether you have enough gear, clothing, or skills to survive a catastrophic loss of sleeping insulation like a soaked sleeping bag or quilt. For instance, I normally use a plastic bag as a pack liner which I’ve used more than once as a bivy bag in cold weather. I always carry long underwear on trips to keep my sleep insulation free of dirt and body oils, but it’s also come in handy as a layer on cold nights. The same holds for carrying a stove, rain pants, a puffy insulated jacket, fleece cap, gloves, and a sleep shelter, even if it’s just a tarp.
What would you do if your sleeping bag got wet? Comment below.