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Title image:  Getting ready for expeditions, resources and tips

Expedition Gear Series

Sleeping Bag Maintenance: Tips for Prolonging the Life of Down

By Sara Tiffany

When I look at my sleeping bag, I am reminded of the I Love Lucy* episode where Lucy shoots the commercial for Vitameatavegamin, a booze-filled vitamin supplement. Lucy’s commercial lines read:

“Are you tired, run-down, listless? Do you poop out at parties? Are you unpopular?”

To these questions, my eight year old, 18F/-8C, down sleeping bag would answer, “Yes! I’m also lumpy and I was recently replaced by a younger, loftier bag.” It is my fault, of course; I didn’t take care of my poor sleeping bag – mostly out of ignorance. Don’t make my mistake and pay attention to the needs of your sleeping bag, so that it can last decades like it should.

Down sleeping bags are never cheap, especially when you are purchasing an expedition bag with a rating of-40F/-40C or even -4F/-20C. While you may not use your expedition bag often, it is really something you can’t live without when you are traveling to altitude or extreme climates. To help your bag last through many adventures, follow this advice:

1. Take Care of your Bag on the Trail

Airing out sleeping bags on Aconcagua

Airing out sleeping bags on Aconcagua

The key to sleeping bag maintenance is keeping it as clean and dry as possible, which is easier said than done when you are on the trail. Whether or not you like to admit it, after a few days on the mountain or trail, you’re probably a dirty and sweaty. The dirt, sweat and grease on your body transfers to your bag and can cause the down to clump and the material to breathe less effectively, trapping moisture inside the bag and making you feel colder. To keep your bag clean when you are dirty, sleep in clean clothing, wear a hat or clean bandana over your head and use a sleeping bag liner. Liners are affordable, easy to wash and they come in a variety of materials from cotton, to silk and even fleece. If you’re going somewhere cold, consider a fleece liner which can increase the warmth rating by a couple of degrees. Liners are also a good option for people who don’t like to wear much clothing to bed.

You also want to keep your bag as dry as possible when you are on the trail. Tents become humid places overnight because when we exhale, we emit warm, moist air that lingers in the tent and condenses on the cold tent walls. At high altitudes, you breathe faster and therefore even more moisture accumulates. If you can, air out your bag by putting it in the sun or wind before you stuff it in your backpack for the day. Airing your bag out at lunch or before you put it in your tent is also a fine alternative. Rainy and humid weather will make airing your bag out more difficult, but do your best. Your bag will continue to function when it is damp, just make sure to dry it out really well when you get home or when the weather improves.

Finally, stuff your bag carefully into the stuff sack. Use the stuff sack that came with the bag or use a compression sack. When you try to fit your bag into a sack smaller than it was intended for, you end up putting stress on the stitching which can harm the bag. Start with the toe end of the bag and try to stuff the sack evenly. Zipping the zipper on the bag will make it easier. Also, make sure that the sleeping bag will stay dry while it is in your backpack. Wrap your stuff sack in a plastic bag or line your backpack with a plastic liner to keep water from getting into your bag during the day. Pack covers work too. If you’re not worried about weight and are expecting rainy weather, try hiking with an umbrella.

2. Dry your Bag When you Get Home

This is the most important step for prolonging the life of your sleeping bag. Storing a damp and dirty bag is a recipe for mildew and clumpy down which will drastically reduce warmth and loft. Hang your bag outside in the wind or indirect sunlight until it is completely dry (a day or two). Leave it out both right side-out and inside-out to ensure that it is completely dry. Keep in mind that direct sunlight will slowly degrade the fabric and don’t forget to take it in if it looks like it might rain or if your neighbor is watering their lawn!

If air drying is not an option, you can put the bag in your drier at home. Make sure the temperature is low (hot temperatures can degrade or even melt the fabric) and check on it often. Put a few tennis balls in the drier with the bag to keep the down from clumping and pull it out every so often to manually pull apart clumps.

3. Store your Bag Properly

This is the most simple and yet most commonly ignored tip. Do not store your sleeping bag in a stuff sack or compression sack. Keeping your bag compressed for long periods of time will decrease loft. Also, stuff sacks are usually not very breathable which means that any remaining moisture will be trapped in the bag. Instead, store your bag in a large, cotton or mesh bag that does not compress your sleeping bag. Most sleeping bags come with a storage sack, but if yours does not, a cotton laundry bag will work.

Also, make sure that you are storing your bag in a dry place. If your basement storage room is damp and dank, consider storing it on the top shelf in your bedroom closet or somewhere else dry and cool.

4. Wash Your Bag Carefully

If you find that you need to wash your sleeping bag after every camping trip, you are doing something wrong. You should only need to wash your bag when it starts looking flat or lumpy, or if it smells bad. For more on this topic, check out our next article: “The Art of Washing Down.”

*If you haven’t seen this episode of or others from the I Love Lucy series, I highly recommend that you add it to your Netflix list. Classic TV is the definitely under-rated.