How to Clean a Sleeping Bag

Public Domain. Jesse Lee Roper

Learn how to care properly for your bag, and you might not have to wash it for years.

After a long day of hiking or canoe-tripping, there’s nothing worse than crawling into a funky-smelling sleeping bag. Avoid that unpleasantness by learning how to care for and clean your sleeping bag on a regular basis. It will make camping much more enjoyable, while also maintaining your bag’s performance and extending its lifespan.

Air it out.

Do this as often as possible. A good strategy is to air out your sleeping bag during breakfast, if the weather is good. Unzip it, lay it over a car, picnic table, or canoe, and let it breathe. This will go a long way toward maintaining freshness during a trip.

Spot-wash it.

Don’t hesitate to tackle small dirty spots with a wet soapy cloth or toothbrush. If you’re patient, you can wash the entire exterior shell of the bag without having to submerge the whole bag. REI is a big spot-washing fan, saying, “Unless the bag has gotten unusually dirty, many years may go by before it’ll need a complete wash.” Afterwards, leave it out to dry thoroughly in full sun before packing away.

Wash it.

If your bag gets really dirty or smelly (or a kid accidentally pees in it), you’ll need to wash it properly. Read the manufacturer’s label first, though the best approach is usually by hand. Both synthetic- and down-filled bags can be washed in the following ways, though keep in mind that down bags tend to be more fragile.

Wash in a bathtub or large container with a gentle, natural cleanser and warm water. Wet bag thoroughly, rub gently, and let sit for 10 minutes. Squeeze and rinse. Repeat until all soap is gone.

Some sleeping bags can be machine-washed, particularly kids’ bags. These can go in a front-loading washer, though be sure you have adequate space for the bag to expand. Do not use a top-loader, as the agitator can tear the fabric.

NEVER dry-clean a sleeping bag because the chemicals used in the process can damage the bag’s ability to retain loft. Do not use bleach, fabric softener, or any other kind of chemicals while washing. Avoid conventional detergents and cleansers that can clog any water repellency treatments on the surface of your bag.

Dry it thoroughly.

Adventure Journal recommends air-drying it open and flat, rotating every 20 minutes until “bone-dry.” Shake periodically to fluff it up, or manually break up chunks of insulation with your hands.

I like air-drying to get most of the moisture out, but then I put the bag in the dryer to get properly fluffed. You’ll only be able to dry one bag at a time, and it must have enough room to expand; if not, take it to a Laundromat.

A dryer must be used at low heat, since high heat can melt synthetic insulation.

Think ahead:

There are a few things you can do to ensure a sleeping bag never gets too dirty.

Sleep in clean clothes: Bringing designated pajamas along on a trip can save a lot of work; so can cleaning key your feet before climbing into bed at night. You can also purchase a removable liner to go inside that’s easy to wash.

Protect your bag from the ground: Always make sure there’s something beneath your sleeping bag, especially if you’re sleeping under the stars. Although some bags are designed to have a durable waterproof undercoating, this can still get mucky from pine resin and other things, so use a pad or tarp.

Store it properly: Never leave a sleeping in its stuff sack. Store it on a hanger in a closet, or use a larger cotton/mesh stuff sack that allows it to expand and breathe.