Down sleeping bags are the ultimate bags for backpackers. Lightweight and compact but still super warm you can’t ask for much more. However, to stay in top shape they do take special care. To ensure your down bag keeps you warm for years to come follow these guidelines.
Preparing your bag:
If you have bought your bag from a well-known name in backpacking it probably comes ready to use. We bought our Aegismax M3’s from a Chinese company and to reach their full potential they needed a little help.
If your bag came stuffed in a compression sack it’s loft may be a bit compromised. After the long trip from China our bags were severely compacted. If the down is compacted the bag will not keep you warm down to the temperatures it is rated for. A quick trip through your dryer’s fluff cycle with a few dryer or tennis balls is all you need to bring it back to it’s intended glory. Be sure to pick the no heat setting and let it tumble for about an hour. You bag will go in looking like a dried up worm on the sidewalk and come out looking like the Michelin Man.
The downside to down bags is that if they become water saturated, they will not keep you warm. The good news is there are products that can make your bag water-resistant. Some bags will be treated for water resistance at the manufacturer. To tell if your bag is water resistant drip some water on your bag. If the water beads up, your bag is already treated and you don’t have to do anything further. If it isn’t a quick spin through a wash cycle with the right products, and multiple long trips through the dryer, will ensure your bag will keep you warm even when wet.
There are several products you can use but I prefer NikWax Down Proof. Some products you just spray on the outside of your bag and they waterproof the shell. Nixwax’s down proof treats the individual fibers of each feather in your bag so that they maintain loft even when wet. If you have a front-loading washer or a top loader with no agitator, you can treat your bag at home. If not, you will have to take your bag to the laundrymat to clean it.
Before putting your bag in the washer, turn it inside out since the outer fabric tends to be a tighter knit and less water permeable. Then, simply add your bag and 100 ml of Down Proof to the washer and run it through on a gentle or hand-wash cycle. To shorten drying time, after it has spun dry on a low speed, you can spin it again on a higher speed. Then transfer your bag to the dryer, add some dryer or tennis balls, and run it through several cycles until dry. Between each cycle check for lumps and gently separate them and turn damper sections outwards so they can dry more easily. Check it over carefully when you think it is dry to be sure there are no clumps and that it is completely dry. If it is not dry it can develop mold which will ruin your bag.
There are a few things you can do while using your bag to extend it’s life. First and foremost being to keep it as clean as possible. Dirt and oils will degrade the fabric over time and repeated washings are also hard on the materials. A sleeping bag liner is always a smart idea. It not only makes a bag more comfortable and increases it’s temperature ratings, it also puts a barrier between your body oils and the bag. If you have no liner, putting on a clean base layer before sleeping will prevent you from transferring dirt and oils to the bag. Wash your face before bed to remove excess oils and bugspray or sunscreen. Wearing a beanie or bandanna will prevent oils from being transferred from your hair to the bag.
Don’t use your bag close to the fire. All it takes is one small stray spark and you will have a hole in the easily melt-able nylon fabric of your bag. The same goes for putting your bag directly on the ground. All it takes is a stray stick or sharp rock and your wonderful down will be carpeting the forest floor. Put down a tarp before laying down your bag.
In the morning, don’t immediately pack up your bag. Leave it out and open while you eat breakfast so that it can air out and any condensation from the previous night can dry. If you have to pack your bag while it is damp, take it out when you stop for lunch and let it dry out. Shake it vigorously to restore the loft lost from being compressed while damp.
Washing Your Bag:
No matter how careful you are, your bag will eventually get dirty and will need to be washed. Never take your bag to the dry cleaner. The chemicals used there are very bad for down and will shorten the life of your bag. Never use regular laundry detergent as it is also not suitable for down feathers. You need to buy a special down wash to properly clean your bag. I use Nikwax Down Direct which is specially formulated to protect your down products and adds water resistance. You will need a front-loading, or agitator free, washing machine. You can hand-wash your bag in a bathtub but I wouldn’t recommend it. It will take you all day and you risk ripping seams from handling it while saturated with water.
To clean your bag in a washing machine the process is similar to waterproofing. Turn your bag inside out to expose the more permeable inner fabric. Add the sleeping bag to your washer along with 100ml of Down Direct and set the washer to the gentle or hand-wash cycle. After it finishes run it through another complete cycle without any down wash to be sure the soap is completely removed. At this point you can either dry it or you can run it through an additional cycle with Down Proof to add more waterproofing to your bag. Then if you can select just the spin cycle on your washer, you can spin it again at a slightly higher speed. Follow the above directions for drying it completely.
Never, never, never store your sleeping bag in a compression sack. Aside from being ripped apart by a wild animal, nothing will destroy your bag faster than constant compressed storage. The best way to store down bags is either hung in a closet and covered with a cloth sheet to protect it from dust or folded loosely and stored in a fabric dust cover. Do not store the bag in plastic because plastic can trap humidity which will damage your bag.
Before packing your bag away for the summer or any long time storage you will want to inspect it. Carefully look it over for dirt, oily residue, or rips. If it has any odor or dirt it is best to clean it before packing it away. Be absolutely sure it is completely dry before storage. If there are any rips or tears repair them with needle and thread, if you are capable, or have a tailor make the repairs.
With the proper care your new down bag can last you a lifetime. Follow these guidelines and you will enjoy many cozy nights out in the backcountry and many days with your bags negligible weight melting into your pack.
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