What to do if your sleeping bag gets wet on a backpacking trip

What to do if your sleeping bag gets wetYou’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.

Bail Out

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.

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29 comments

  1. I learned some harsh lessons on this topic.
    In my early days of backpacking I was reading and spending to much in an effort to go ultralight. I bought an 8×10 UL tarp with bug net and with no practice took it on a 4 day hike with my buddy. The first night I pitched it wrong, we had a short but intense thunderstorm and the foot of my sleeping bag got soaked.

    To compound the issue, I stuffed the wet bag into the stuff sack, soaking it through in other spots.

    I never got the bag dry on that trip. It was summer and the nights weren’t particularly cold. I always pack a small down jacket that packs into it’s own pocket for emergencies (and a pillow). I spent the remaining nights wearing all my clothes, the jacket and borrowing my friends jacket that covered my legs like a quilt.

  2. I was leading a group of kids on a ten day hike on the AT along the NC/TN section when one night we got caught in a quick rain storm before everyone had their tarps properly set up. One kid had pulled his bag out early and it got soaked and he was just miserable. Fortunately, he was the only one who had a wet bag. I gave him my sleeping bag for the night so he was comfortable.

    I was in a hammock that trip and set up my tarp and then layered up with my rain pants and jacket. It was a clammy night’s sleep, but I stayed warm and dry through the night. Rain gear worked as an uncomfortable but effective vapor barrier to retain most of my heat.
    Pulling out wasn’t an option, but we just lashed the bag to the outside of the pack for the next days hike. Fortunately we had good weather and between being in the air and then his body heat the next night, the bag did dry out.

  3. Why I carry my sleeping bag in a waterproof dry sack! And why I will spend the night climbing a hill rather than pitching on a large level area.

    Back in the late 1980s, I was out with two of my kids and we got not just a rainstorm, but a cloudburst. We woke up next morning to 6 inches of snow and with the bottom 1/3 of our sleeping bags in a lake. We moved the tent out of the pond (while my 14-year-old daughter pontificated, “Mom, if you’d pitched the tent where I suggested, this wouldn’t have happened!”), and wrung out the bags (synthetic). The kids stayed in the tent while I prepared hot cocoa and we waited on the weather. By noon there was no sign of the snow stopping or of clearing, so we packed up and hiked out. We got to the car just before dark and had a long drive home, getting there after midnight. We heard later that it cleared (and froze) that night, and the next few days were beautiful. Obviously we should have gotten a motel room that night, dried the bags, and gone back. The kids, though, were so discouraged that neither of them suggested such a thing.

    I have since taken a header during a dicey stream ford. Thanks to the dry bags containing my sleeping bag and insulating clothing, nothing important got wet.

  4. My grandson and I attended a backpacking session at REI some years ago and the speaker was talking about the difference between synthetic and down insulation. He pointed out that synthetic will still insulate when wet but then asked, “How many of you would crawl into a cold, wet sleeping bag?” No one raised a hand. He then pointed out that we’d all find other ways to get warm. The “synthetic still works when wet” adage may be true, but it’s not practical in real life. The best thing to do is make sure the sleeping bag doesn’t get wet.

    If you do decide to dry one in a commercial dryer, be sure to read and follow the instructions. I destroyed an expensive brand new down bag by tossing it in a dryer with heat. When I opened the dryer, it looked like a snowstorm going on inside. Another really nice down bag in that dryer was damaged but salvageable. There was no need to even dry them since they were only slightly damp on the Pertex ends from condensation. Costly lesson for Grandpa.

  5. We had an incident this summer with a person who cowboy camped and an unexpected storm came up, soaking her quilt. I had room in my tent so she moved into my tent and slept with her dry clothes. It rained all the next day, a very cold rain, so we opted to get into a hostel and was able to dry her quilt. It is sometimes emotionally difficult to hike out and cut it short, but it’s usually the smart thing to do.

  6. I’ve slept in a wet synthetic bag in mild weather and it felt like I was growing mould. Very unpleasant but survivable. I’m thinking of adding one of those reflective mylar survival bags to my kit and have wondered if it’d be best to get in the wet sleeping bag then put the mylar bag over it or get into the mylar bag first then put the sleeping bag over it.

  7. If the dampness is restricted to the foot of the bag it is possible to improve the situation with a nalgene bottle of hot water. Place the securely sealed bottle of hot water in the foot of the bag as soon as possible. Over the next hour you will see steaming water vapor rising from the bag. This is inadequate for a soaked bag but for a damp bag it does help.

  8. Has anyone actually used a “space blanket” reflective bivy in an emergency? I keep one in my day-hiking kit except in high summer (night-time low 75 degrees F or higher).

  9. I’d appreciate knowing how you used your pack liner plastic bag as a bivy bag in cold weather. Please explain.

  10. If you have ever tried to wash a down sleeping bag in the bathtub, you probably appreciate how hard it is to get down completely soaked. Lots of moisture resistance in all those feathers!

  11. I hike/camp in the Southeast. I’m totally paranoid about rain and thunderstorms. I admit it. I use lots of plastic bags, for getting sleeping bag/clothes wet is a major issue here. Small violent storms with nearly horizontal sheets of rain are common events. I might crawl into a partially wet synthetic bag for a night if I could line the wet area with a garbage bag that I most likely would have, but UGH the idea….
    Never thought of myself as a bag lady, but camping here will do it.

    I read of hikers who lighten their loads by not putting sleeping bags and clothes in stuff sacks or bags. I hope they camp in deserts or somewhere drier, because I just can’t fathom doing not having lots of sacks or plastic. I did that before plastic was as common as it is now. I always put my sleeping bag back in it’s sack too when not using it too. Not because I’m organized, but because the storms here have trained me.

  12. I have used down bags for most of my camping life.

    recently got a wiggys bag. his own version of synthetic.

    I have snoozed under the stars several time and woke up with the bag pretty much soaked. I was still warm. The bag dries out in a flash.

    a bit heavier and bulky compaired to down but at least for me the ability to deal with water soaking has been worth the extra weight.

    • I guess. I’m sticking with down.

      I’ve been thinking of a follow up post to this one, assuring people how difficult it is to soak their sleeping bag. If you sleep in a decent tent, pack your gear in a waterproof bag in your backpack and use a minimum of common sense, the odds of soaking your sleeping bag are pretty low.

      • The Scout method of soaking your bag uses a cheap or poorly pitched tent and having a few inches of water pool in the “bathtub” floor. Usually, that only soaks the foot of the bag. I’ve seen it done a couple of times.

  13. I dried a bag by a campfire after storms in the California Sierras caused flash flooding. I was very, very careful. It would have been four days walk to a road, so bailing out was infeasible. After flash flooding in the Arizona Superstition Wilderness, we hiked out to a motel, dried out, then resumed hiking. I usually hike in the soggy mid-Atlantic, but in landscape drained by rivers and streams you rarely see flash flooding as can happen in deserts. I carry a huge garbage bag as a bivvy, but have never used it for that purpose. I used it once to carry out trash left by vandals and another time to improvise a litter in emergency response training. A companion once took a fall crossing a stream, but her bag was fine in a dry bag. Everything else got soaked, so we all lent her clothing until hers dried.

  14. This summer we missed a back country musterers hut deep in the bush and had to bivi under a 9 x 6 tarp, the country was rough and the pitch not perfect and during the night we had a mother of all thunder storms with torrential rain. Water flooded half the bivi – my half and my UL down bag was soaked. A 5 am start got us warm and it was still raining going up to the pass. Over the pass the weather improved and we made an emergency shelter by 3 pm. My bag was unzipped and spread out over a dead tree and the tarp pitched for both to dry. With a little sun and a good breeze both were bone dry in just over an hour. The next two nights were great, I was both warm and dry and slept well.

  15. I stupidly assumed that my backpack and stuff sacks were waterproof and got my down sleeping bag and clothes wet after hiking half a day in drizzling rain on the JMT. Luckily my hiking buddy lent me his long underwear and space blanket. I spent the night in damp clothes, “sleeping” with my lower legs inside my backpack, draped by the space blanket then the wet sleeping bag on top. I shivered and slept poorly, but made it through the night, then did a short hike the next day, leaving plenty of time to hang dry my wet gear. I was lucky to have a hiking partner and learned to put clothes and sleeping bags in trash bags from then on.

  16. Great reason to carry a few disposable hand warmers. Use them with a VBL and hopefully you will have a good story to tell in the end. S.O.L. make a 3oz emergency bivi bag that when used with some hand warmers or hot water bottles inside the bag should get you some rest to survive the night. No matter what your experience level you should always have considered the what if? Go out enough and you will get wet at some point.

  17. I’m well trained in dealing with everything from a tick or splinter to bullet and shrapnel wounds, but you never want to put you training to use as I have, many times. I once had a woman on a training exercise in the Aussie Army in the bitterly cold southern part of Victoria, in the middle of winter, allow herself and her bag get completely saturated while it was sleeting heavily, then snowing. After 2 hours she was hypothermic and in a very bad way. Totally white and blue lips and hands with uncontrolled shivering and couldn’t communicate anymore. With no spare clothes, and no way to evacuate her due to radio difficulties I had some of the troops start to make her warm drinks, stripped her and myself naked and we went into my sleeping bag together. It was without any doubt the most bitterly miserable night I have even endured. She was close to slipping away and my training was skin on skin is the fastest heat transfer. I also had my troops warming water and putting it into water bottles to slip into the bag with us. Certainly no thoughts of hanky panky with this very attractive woman naked in my bag with me as we were shivering so bad and miserably cold. It was a solid 9 hours before the support staff arrived with medics who took her away for assessment. She made a number of mistakes that were compounded by the training staff not ensuring that the very inexperienced members had their gear checked and knew the routines to ensure their gear was protected from weather and that they didn’t become a self inflicted casualty.

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