Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Chronicles Project: Sleeping Bag Care and Cleaning

© 2009,2010,2011 Albert A Rasch and
The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles
Cleaning a Sleeping Bag Properly

It’s time to start thinking about Fall and camping! For me, there is nothing like getting up before everyone else, stoking the fire, setting out the coffee pot full of milk and chocolate to heat. As the nighttime creatures settle in for their daytime sleep, you’re sitting back and warming your hands by the flames as you wait for nature and your family to awaken from the night’s slumber.
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Your sleeping bag is probably the most important piece of equipment when it comes time to get some shuteye. A good sleeping bag is expensive, and taking good care of it will more than pay you back in terms of longevity.

A sleeping bag should be taken care of just like any other piece of equipment. That means regular inspections, proper storage, and cleaning when necessary.

Before you take it out into the field for the first time of the season, give it a thorough going over and check for weak or splitting seams, knotted ties, poorly functioning zippers, or any other deficiencies or potentially problematic ones. Better to get them taken care of before you need your bag, than to find out miles away from the car.

Though I use synthetic insulation in my sleeping bags in Florida due to the constant humidity, down is by far the better choice for any other area. Not only is it lighter, but also offers greater insulation per cubic inch. Down also gains loft over time, whereas synthetics will lose up to 40% of their loft. In other words, synthetics lose their ability to insulate as time goes on.

Storing you sleeping bag is pretty straightforward. All sleeping bags should be loosely rolled and placed inside a breathable fabric bag. You do not want to compact it into the smallest possible package, as this breaks down the individual fibers.

When you return from an expedition, (or an overnighter in the back yard), you should check the bag again for damage. Turn it inside out and dispose of any foreign objects or critters that may be in it. Air it out and make sure any dampness is gone before storing it.

There are really only two ways that you can clean your sleeping bag properly when the time comes that it needs it. You can either machine wash it or do it by hand. Drycleaning is not an option for either synthetics or down filled sleeping bags. The chemicals used, carbon tetrachloride and perchlorethelene, will remain in the lofting for quite some time. You do not want to be in that sleeping bag while that’s happening.

Whether you use a commercial front loader or decide to do it by hand, you will need the appropriate soaps for washing down. Woolite is acceptable, better yet are soaps made specifically for down. Cuddledown Fine Fabrics Wash and Fluffers is a well respected brand as is McNett ReviveX Down Cleaner

For synthetics use a recommended detergent, or Woolite.

When machine washing your bag, you must use a large commercial front loading washer. You cannot use a top load, agitator style washer. An agitator will damage the baffles that keep the down in place and help compartmentalize and maintain the loft. Tear the baffles loose and you will get cold and thin spots as the down shifts and compresses. Set the wash cycle to warm, and the rinse cycles to cold.

It is best to run the bag through the front loader twice, once with soap, and the second sans the soap. Rinsing your bag well is critical for the down’s well being, and the bag’s longevity. Residual soaps and detergents attract and hold dirt, dander, and dust thereby exacerbating and speeding up subsequent soiling.

Hand washing is tough, but it is the safest way to clean an expensive sleeping bag. It is virtually impossible to damage a sleeping bag when hand washing. And though it is real work, you are all but guaranteed a clean, undamaged, and well maintained bag.

If you decide to hand wash your sleeping bag, use warm water. I would recommend a watering trough, or barring access to one, a bath tub will do well enough. Practical yes, totally cool, no.

Again use the appropriate soap for your bag’s insulation. Leave your bag in its carry sack and start to soak it in the warm, soapy water. Use a Plastic cup and pour the water into the sack and in the bag. Massage and knead the sack until the sleeping bag within is totally soaked. Now start to take it out of the sack and continue to work the soapy water trough the bag. If there are areas or spots that are particularly soiled, like where your head rests, make sure you dedicate some time to it and get it clean. After you’ve worn yourself out, let the bag soak for another our or so, occasionally agitating by hand to loosen any other grime that is stuck to the bag. Give it a good going over and start to rinse it.

Note: At no time should you lift the bag from any single point! Wet down or insulation can be exceedingly heavy, and you could tear the baffles loose.

Continue rinsing until you are positive all the soap has been removed. Now you must be careful with the bag. Use a laundry basket and carefully place the bag in it. Press as much water out of the bag as possible. Do Not Wring The Bag! You will ruin it if you twist it and wring it. Press the water out. You can also carefully put it in its carry bag, push it to the bottom, twist the carry bag tight, and then press the stuff sack itself.

Some laundromats have extractors which are excellent for getting the maximum amount of water out of a bag. The more water you get out, the quicker it will dry.

Regardless of whether you used a washing machine or you did it by hand, you are going to need a dryer. If you hand washed it you may want to drip dry it for a while first. If you used a machine, when your bag is done on the spin cycle, carefully remove it and transfer it to the dryer. Remember that laundromat dryers are notorious for burning clothes! Either find one that actually runs on low to medium, or resign yourself to a constant vigil. There is no other choice. A hot drier will ruin your bag.

You will also need a half dozen tennis balls with three socks, or a pair of clean canvas tennis shoes. Take a couple of balls, drop them in a sock, and tie the end off. Throw them in the drier with the bag so that as the bag tumbles it gets pummeled constantly by the balls and the down regains its loft. Tennis shoes work the same. Take it out occasionally as it gets drier and fluff it up before tossing it back in. If you have a down comforter, this is a great way to fluff it up too.

It takes a long time to dry a bag, be patient.

Store you sleeping bag and its stuff sack in a larger loose fitting, breathable bag. Make sure they are kept in a dry location, which has some ventilation. A closet is fine, but keep your sleeping bags out of the Rubbermaid boxes! Mildew will ruin a bag if it gets a hold of it.

A Few Basic Care Rules for Sleeping Bags:
  • Store your bags loose, not compressed in their carry bags.
  • If your bag happens to get wet, dry it thoroughly before storage.
  • Try to keep the bag clean if possible. They have liners for bags, and even wearing night clothes helps by absorbing oils. If you put your boots in the bag with you, put them in their own sack.
  • When it gets dirty wash it!

Best regards,
Albert A Rasch