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Cleaning a Sleeping Bag

According to the Outdoor Foundation’s annual camping report, the tent is the most important piece of camping gear. What is the second most important piece of gear? According to campers, it is the sleeping bag.

In fact, a full 54 percent of campers said a sleeping bag is essential to the success of any camping trip. But how well you take care of your sleeping bag will make the difference between whether it is able to hold up its end of the bargain for each new camping adventure.

In this article, learn what you need to know to clean your sleeping bag between trips and prolong its life.

Do You Need to Clean a Sleeping Bag after Camping or Hiking?

According to the experts, you don’t need to clean a sleeping bag after every single hiking or camping adventure.

However, at a minimum you need to do two things after each trip: air out your sleeping bag and store it properly.

The Correct Way to Air Out Your Sleeping Bag

To air out your sleeping bag, do three things:

  • Unzip it fully so it lays flat.
  • Shake it thoroughly to ensure any debris or dirt is completely dislodged.
  • Hang it up for a time to air out (a clothesline can work well here).
  • Make sure the drying area is out of direct sunlight to avoid UV damage.
  • Allow your bag to air and dry for at least a full 24 hours before you store it away.sleeping-bag-spread-out-to-dry

The Correct Way to Store Your Sleeping Bag

Once you have aired out your sleeping bag, it is time to pack it away until the next adventure.

Most sleeping bags today come with two bags: one large and one small. The small one is for use during camping – it compresses your sleeping bag to fit into a small space. The large one is for longer-term storage.

If for some reason you don’t have two bags, just find a nice fine mesh or breathable cotton bag and softly fold your sleeping bag so it fits inside. You want it to be able to breathe and receive airflow during long term storage.

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How to Clean a Sleeping Bag?

No matter how careful and meticulous you are about keeping your sleeping bag neat, clean and dry during hiking and camping, at some point it is near-guaranteed you will sniff it and realize a more thorough cleaning is in order.

When this happens, don’t panic. Even the most high-end, ultra sophisticated sleeping bags can be safely cleaned and washed. You just have to follow the manufacturer’s instructions to the letter so you won’t inadvertently damage the sleeping bag.

The first step you need to take is to figure out what kind of sleeping bag you have. Most sleeping bags fall into one of two categories: down or synthetic. The type of filler material your bag uses determines what you need to use to wash it.

Sleeping Bag Cleaning No-Nos

Regardless of the type of bag you have, there are some things you should absolutely never do if you want your sleeping bag to have a long life.

  • Do not send it out for dry cleaning. The cleaning chemicals can quickly degrade your sleeping bag.
  • Do not use fabric softener or bleach. These harsh agents can destroy your sleeping bag.
  • Do not wash it in a top loading agitator washing machine. The agitator can quickly rip your bag to shreds.
  • Do not wash it more than once per year. Unless you are an “extreme camper” it is best to spot clean your bag as needed and only wash it fully about once every 12 months. This will also help retain the weatherproof coating for as long as possible.

Sleeping Bag Cleaning How-Tos

You can opt for three different ways of washing your sleeping bag: hand-wash, front loading washing machine or send it for professional cleaning (NOT dry cleaning – bag cleaning).

Regardless of which method you decide on, you will need to use the right type of cleaning product for your type of bag. A down sleeping bag needs down-specific detergent (here is a good example). If your bag is synthetic, you can just use a gentle mild soap (castile soap works well).

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From here, these are the steps you want to take to wash your sleeping bag in a way that will not damage it:

  • Make sure you zip up the zippers and close up any velcro loops.
  • Choose an appropriate sized wash area (either a bathtub for hand-washing or a commercial-sized front load washer for machine washing) – larger is usually better.
  • Use warm (not hot or cold) water.
  • If you are machine washing, always choose the gentle cycle.
  • You can machine dry your sleeping bag, but choose “medium” or “low” heat only (start with “low” until you see how hot it gets) and put in some dryer balls (or tennis balls also work well) to be sure the filler material doesn’t clump up during the dry cycle.
  • If you plan to air-dry your bag, first squeeze as much water as you can by folding the bag into the center from each end and pressing down on it.
  • Then lay it as flat as possible out of direct sunlight and UV.

You will need to allow your sleeping bag to continue drying until the filler material is entirely free of clumping. This is especially critical for down material. If the filler is still clumped up in places inside your bag, it means there are areas that are still not fully dry. This opens up the insulation to potential mold growth (mold = bad).

By taking the time to do the best job of washing and cleaning your sleeping bag, you can protect the investment you’ve made into your own comfort while hiking and camping.

For extra protection, you can use a sleeping bag liner to reduce the need for a thorough wash and dry.

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