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.
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.
Great story. Good you had a buddy along.
Yep, same thing happened to me many moons ago. Now, if it’s a tarp or poncho for shelter, a big garbage bag comes along to slip over the foot of my bag on those rainy nights. Much better.
this is why I sleep with two thick fleece mummy bags, a bivy sack, and a tent. fleece sleeping bag insultion doesnt flat out when wet. I sleep with them unzipped as if they were quilts, unless I have a particularly cold night. My bivy sack with a full length zipper provides some addition insulation, blocks the breeze, and serves as a backup in case my tent collapses in the wind. It is also nice to sleep under the bivy wgen the weather is nice. the tent just stays in my pack, which is ubder my pillow.
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.
10 days? You’re either a saint or a madman!
You’ve earned your place in heaven, my son.
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.
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.
Definitely dry on “low”.
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.
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.
I’m pretty certain the proper order would be Mylar bag first… anyone?
I have slept in a wet synthetic. I am not going to mention the Mylar first, there are 2 more important things to do. The biggest heat and drying choices I could make are 1: eat protein and fat if possible Eat something to start your body furnace. Place your hand or upper arm over your heart/ chest to insulate heat around your heart. Place your other hand over you lower digestive organs to insulate your organs. You will find when you are cold your organs will pick up and try to climb inside your chest (they need to stay warm) Keep your spine insulted, not exposed to the cold a lot of heat runs though that as well.
Covering your bag: Your bag needs to be shielded from draft/wind that will pull heat out of it. Putting a bag or Mylar bag over it will block wind. You will notice it also blocks moisture and your bag will be wet. Ideally, you wont prevent damp air from leaving your bag.
Sleeping in a non breathable bag, like a Mylar bag. Is going to get wet. It still forces warm air to stay around longer. condensation does turn into a cooling mechanism. Any form of insulation can reduce the amount of condensation concentration, and reduce cooling.
If they Mylar bag is to be used: It probably should be on the out side.
By the way, I realize I did not mention physical movement to generate initial heat in your body. I was focused on sustaining heat through the night, with the hopes to not be woken by a temperature issue.
Things I think are obvious: Movement disrupts heated air. Air escapes up and it will leave any spot that isn’t the uppiest. Cold air will find a way in if there there is a place it can replace warm air.
Mylar bag 1st. Keep yourself dry, let the outer bag try to dry, yet realize that in drying, the temperature will decrease in that process, unless you have an external heat source, like a fire, going to warm things up. Be sure not to melt your bag either, so keep the bag far enough away from your bag that you can feel the heat, but the heat isn’t hot enough to melt the bag. Warmth your hand can easily stand is a good meter. Know how to estimate temperatures in a variety of humiditiws and atmospheric pressures/altitudes.
Once when testing my cold weather gear by camping in the back yard with temps near zero F (yes, I’m sort of looney!), I tried wrapping my sleeping bag with a mylar space blanket to see if it helped. After a couple hours, I was getting soaked with condensation so I stopped that part of the experiment. It told me the space blanket over my bag was for emergency use only.
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.
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).
From 2014. Some people have used them, but when backpacking you often have a sleeping bag/quilt and other gear you can use.
I’d appreciate knowing how you used your pack liner plastic bag as a bivy bag in cold weather. Please explain.
I put my sleeping bag inside. Very cold and windy night. Got very damp but I was at least warm.
You got damp… how wet did the bag get and did it affect it’s loft for the next night?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I can sort of relate, I was out field in Majura with officers cadets on Battleblock training middle of winter. I had a bivvy bag and issued ‘cold weather’ bag. We were a 3 man enemy party, it rained all night the first night. One members bag was soaked through due to his sleeping location and lean to hootchie set up. Most subsequent nights we had light drizzle but the nights it didn’t rain out hootchies were white with frost. I’m glad as was he that I had a large bivvy as we ended sharing the bivvy and my bag like a quilt for 2 nights, albeit weird with the toe box until the support staff bought in a new bag. Wasn’t until a staff cadet needed some new gear that we got our request actioned. My bag got slightly damp over those couple of nights as the bivvy couldn’t handle the extra moisture from another body but it was tolerable for the remainder of my time out field. What happens out field stays out field. We connected the 2 hootchies so the 3 of us could sleep under one shelter and try preserve a little more warmth from the second night on anyway. My thermos in my pack for hot chocolate on piquet came in very handy for warm drinks at 3am when we started to feel the cold.
Officers on an LOBC field phase learned I hope to get out of your bags instead of jumping into them in the pits because your cold in Pucka late in Autumn when we got stand to or your piquet cane up early in the morning on the last night we stood to for about 90min on that one in the pits started raining after 15-20 minutes and all their bags were soaked. Was the last night and only about 3 hours before first light so none of them got back to sleep. All were cranky.
Another time we were out field and during F&M one of the platoon members fell in an old well in QLD, wasn’t marked and grass was over knee high, soaked all them all the way through and all webbing and pack contents including sleeping, with a rotting kanagaroo. Wasn’t until next day we managed to get this member withdrawn after the medic intervened because of the stink coming from the members skin and feet. Spent a few days in hospital sick so I’d say ingested contaminated water from the dead roo.
Everyone thought I was silly spending my own money to buy a pack liner for the bottom of the ALICE Pack for my sleeping kit and every other piece of clothing was in a couple of dry bags in the top section. I’d carry double water or more, sometimes up to 4 canteens on my belt, another 8 litres on my pack plus camelback stashed under the lid to pull out easy on contact drills along with half a days rations, my belt order was my survival kit not to be touched while I had my pack on. That’s what I was taught by training staff.
All up in my carer I’d say at least 40% of my trips out field we had people go down to the elements from hypothermia to heat stroke. Fieldcraft skills seemed to be lacking and support to help those with heat illness or hypothermia without the medic intervening wasn’t readily forthcoming. I get it some section commanders and platoon commanders want diggers to learn lessons the hard way, not sure why sometimes, but most of the time they were never taught how to correct these for future trips or given ideas on how to make field less miserable. It could have been used as a useful training tool. I tried to impart my knowledge and experience when I could or was ‘allowed’ to at work. Sometimes I’d make suggestions to other diggers at boozer parade before field trips.
I’d like to say I hope it’s different now, I’ve been out 10 years, but I’d say it hasn’t though.