After a season of hiking, sleeping and sweating in your down jacket or sleeping bag things can get a little stinky. You might even notice a slight loss of loft as body oils compromise the fluffiness of the down feathers. Or, as in my case, the jacket is just grubby. Fortunately washing your jacket or sleeping bag is a lot easier than you may fear. In this article I’ll go step by step through washing one of my down jackets but the same process can be used for nearly all down sleeping bags. The only difference is more soap (typically a capful) and using a clean bathtub instead of a sink.
Total washing time for me is about half an hour long for a jacket with two to three hours of drying time. A sleeping bag may take double that time depending on the amount of down fill and your dryer.
You Will Need:
- Down specific soap (Nikwax Down Wash or Granger's solution have worked equally well for me)
- A clean sink, a stuff sack for your jacket/bag (or appropriately sized zip lock)
- A front loading dryer with a low heat or air fluff setting
Note that Nikwax recently came out with Down Wash Direct a new detergent for both hydrophobic treated and non-treated down so if you have a mix of treated and untreated products that detergent might be best.
Cover Your Bases
Before you get ahead of yourself, check the manufacturer’s recommendations for how to wash the garment. They might be on a tag on the jacket or on the website. Generally the website will have more specific information than the tag so it’s always worth a check. Most instructions will require the use of down specific soap, a front loading washer and dryer and recommend avoid using fabric softeners. I’m washing a Feathered Friends Daybreak jacket with untreated down, similar to most down jackets in the 7-9 ounce total weight range. Their instructions for washing all their products are located here.
Check the Jacket
Before we start, check the jacket for any holes and repair them with circular or oval pieces of repair tape so there are no corners to snag. Also look for spot stains that can be cleaned by lightly scrubbing with a mild detergent and a damp sponge. After that’s done, close all the zippers to prevent tearing in your dryer and turn the jacket inside out to prevent wear to the outside fabric. Lastly, stuff the jacket into the stuff sack or the jacket pocket if it was designed to stuff into its own pocket. A Ziploc bag might work in a pinch as well.
Now that the jacket is ready, thoroughly clean your sink and fill it about half way with warm water, no need for your jacket to smell like your toothpaste. Make sure you get any soap residue off the sink as well. Add a capful of down soap to your warm sink water, two if it’s an especially large sink. I find you don’t need much down soap washing things by hand and too much soap takes a lot of rinsing to get rid of.
Start Your Washing
Immerse the stuffed jacket into the sink water and slowly pull the jacket out, exposing it to the water. Uncompressing the down in the water helps it wet out faster. Swish the jacket around in the wash water while squeezing it to move the water through the down. Notice the color change!
Drain and Rinse
Now we want to get that soapy water out of the jacket, so drain the dirty water and let the faucet run over the jacket. Carefully squeeze different parts of the jacket to work the clean water through until you get very few bubbles each squeeze. Some bubbles are normal since you’re pushing air around as well as water, but it should be a noticeable decrease. 5 to 10 minutes of rinsing is a good estimate. Then turn the faucet off and carefully squeeze as much water as you can out of the jacket. This will speed the drying time.
Off to the Dryer
Next, take your jacket to the front loading dryer. Pick it up in one big clump and try not to let anything hang off as you carry it – the jacket is much heavier when wet and may overstress a seam or the fabric. This is more critical with sleeping bags but the same care should be taken for a jacket. You’ll often hear people recommending tennis balls to help break up the down clumps but I don’t think they really help. I have had to break apart down clumps by hand on a stubborn sleeping bag that was taking all day to dry and I don’t see how tennis balls would have helped in that case.
Make sure to set the dryer to “air fluff” or the non-heated mode. It will take longer this way but you won’t risk melting any of the fabrics. The low heat setting will often work but you want to check that the temperature isn’t high enough to damage the fabric. Either way, be sure to check the jacket after a few minutes just to make sure it isn’t tangled and then every 45 minutes thereafter. In 2 hours or so you should have a nice clean jacket!