How to Care for Down Gear

We keep hearing that “if well cared for, down can last a lifetime,” but what exactly does “well cared for” mean? Here are a few ins and outs of caring for down outdoor gear, and all the advice can be applied to sleeping bags, jackets, and any other article stuffed with down.

Storage and Packing

Sleeping Bag Storage

One of the most important rules for extending the life of down gear is to store it unstuffed. Even though down packs down super small and you may be tempted to take advantage of this to stretch your closet space, don’t. Down clusters keep their loft best if they are allowed to stay puffed up as much as possible. Storing down items in stuff sacks for long periods of time can compress the clusters to such an extent that they won’t readily expand to their full potential again. So if you have the space, hanging your jackets and sleeping bags is the best option. Most people can’t afford to take up half a closet with a sleeping bag, so the large breathable storage bag that came with your bag is a good second option. If your bag didn’t come with a storage sack, a big cotton laundry bag will serve perfectly well.

The stuff sack that came with your bag is usually the perfect way to pack your bag down for trips. If you are using a compression sack with your down bag, keep in mind that you are going to want to leave the bag in there as little as possible, as the tighter the down is compressed, the longer it takes to loft back up. If you are going on a float trip or somewhere it is going to rain a lot, it is a good idea to line your stuff sack with a garbage bag before you stuff the bag in.

When it is time to pack up for a trip, wait to stuff your bag until you are ready to go, and when I say stuff, I mean it. Stuffing your bag into the stuff sack (feet first works best) is the best way to ensure uniform compression of your down over time, and it is far easier than rolling your bag and trying to squeeze it in all at once. When you arrive at your campsite, unstuff your bag as soon as you can. If it is nice out, drape it over a bush or tree in the sun to let it breathe, dry, and loft up. This is a good move while you are cooking breakfast on sunny mornings too. If it is rainy, just unstuff it into your tent. If you are traveling and staying in a mix of hostels and camping, and therefore not using your bag every day, take advantage of any opportunity to unpack it. Letting your sleeping bag spend the day unpacked in your room is a good way to ensure it will have the loft when you need it.

Cleaning Down:

The hassle involved with cleaning down is a frequently cited drawback, so Rule Number One is do it as little as possible. If you are traveling or otherwise putting a lot of use in a sleeping bag, us a sleep sheet (Learn about other Adventure Travel Packing Tips) inside your bag, as those are easy to remove and wash. If you are worried about surface stains on your down jacket or bag, use a cloth dampened with a mild soap solution to surface clean the fabric and then leave it out to dry.

When your down starts to feel clumpy, or just doesn’t seem to have the loft it used to, it you probably have to break down and clean it. Contaminants from the outside and oils from your body can, over time, coat the clusters of down and inhibit their loft. Here is how to tackle the job:

  • Step 1: Buy some Loft Soap. Loft soap, like Nikwax Downwash, is specially formulated to gently clean down clusters. If you can’t make it to your favorite gear store, or you are just too cheap to spring for it, a mild, scent-free gentle-cleaning powdered detergent, like Ivory Flakes, will work in a pinch…but buy the loft soap if you can.
  • Step 2: Find a nice big sink or a Front-Loading washer. Hand washing works great if you have the time and the inclination, but it is a big job. For a big down bag, a bathtub is key for washing, as all but a huge sink would be too small. If you just don’t have it in you, find a front-loading washing machine. These are showing up in more and more homes, but it might mean trekking to the laundermat (these are good because the huge dryers are a plus for drying down bags…bring a couple tennis balls, a whole roll of quarters, and a good book). Don’t talk yourself into throwing your gear into a normal machine, because agitators are hard on the delicate baffling in some jackets and most sleeping bags.
  • Step 3: Get your jacket/bag soaked. Because water is the enemy of down in the field, down jackets and bags are cleverly designed to keep water out as much as possible. As a washing machine fills with water, down gear has a tendency to float for a while, reducing cleaning efficacy. A good trick is to stuff your jacket or bag in a stuff sack, then unstuff it under water in a sink or bucket (you can put a little soap in this water if you want, but remember to subtract that amount from what you add to the machine). Once it is wet, be very careful handling your gear so that the soaked down doesn’t strain or tear the baffles. A good trick is to use the cotton storage bag to carry the wet gear around.
  • Step 4: Wash away and rinse well. If you are hand washing, squeeze and agitate every section of the jacket or bag until you are confident that every piece of down has been swished around in soapy water. It can take a while, but you can be sure of the results. Squeeze all the water out of the bag, and rinse it well. Do this 2 or 3 times, until the rinse water comes out clear and no longer feels soapy. Then rinse one more time for good measure and roll it up tight to squeeze as much water as you can out. If you are at home, you can place the bag in the washing machine (either type will do…handle carefully!) and run the spin cycle to get as much water out as possible. If you are using a machine for the whole process, use the most delicate cycle possible. If there is an option, run an extra rinse at the end and then do two rounds of the spin cycle to dry the bag as much as possible before it goes in the drier.
  • Step 5: Dry Dry Dry. Carefully move your bag to the drier. Squeeze any residual excess moisture out (it should be gone now, thanks to the spinning) and place it in the drier with a couple of tennis balls to bang into the bag and break up clumps. Set the drier to low heat and, if you’re at home, use time dry for 90 minutes to start (for a small jacket, 60 minutes is a reasonable start). If you’re at the laundermat, drop in a bunch of quarters and start reading your book (if the bag is -20 or warmer, better have War and Peace, or the entire Harry Potter series)! You want to dry your gear until the down inside the baffles is completely dry and puffed up, and this requires continuing to run the drier until long after the exterior fabric is dry. If you can lower the heat to extra-low, go ahead and do it for the end of the cycle. It might take more than 2 hours to get the job done, but be patient. The end result will be your bag or jacket, clean, puffed up, and good as new.

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