Clean Your Backpacking Gear The Right Way

Backpackers can spend a lot of money on their gear. But what many don't realize is that they may be slowly ruining a lot of that expensive gear just by not cleaning it correctly!

Some people simply don't clean their gear enough because they are afraid of doing it wrong. Others may clean their sleeping bags and other items too often or not use the proper method. 

In this article, we'll cover:

  1. Why you need to clean your gear and what can happen if you don't.
  2. How to clean specific types of gear like down sleeping bags and jackets, boots, backpacks, base layers, and more. 

Make sure your gear does its job when it really counts by taking care of it correctly. Don't waste money by making mistakes you could avoid! 

Let's dive in.

What Could Go Wrong?

One of the most important pieces of gear on a backpacking trip is your sleeping bag. It's one of the "Big 3". There is a lot of fear around washing a sleeping bag, and wondering if it will degrade the insulation. The fact is that if you wash your sleeping bag correctly, this shouldn't happen.

But did you know that by NOT washing your bag, it's very likely insulation is losing loft and therefore warmth? 

There may be some things going on inside your sleeping bag that you're not even aware of! Even if your sleeping bag doesn't stink, and there's nothing wrong with it that you can visibly see, it's possible for your bag to develop mold growth. 

These micro amounts of mold growing inside your sleeping bag can be from things you don't really even have control over. Sometimes just sleeping in the bag, sweating in it,  or getting it dirty can cause your sleeping bag to lose fill power.

Lost fill power means you don't stay as warm at night!

So what about other types of gear? Let's look at waterproof breathable membranes in rain jackets. 

If that membrane starts to collect dust, salts or oils off your skin, or anything else like that, your rain jacket will be able to fail or "wet out". That pretty much renders your rain jacket useless. Your rain jacket, if it has collected too much filth, will start to get soggy, heavy, and will quit breathing or keeping you protected from rain/moisture!

There are many types of gear that we could go on about. But the point is, if you aren't cleaning your gear correctly, you may be accidently letting it deteriorate and lose its ability to do what it was meant to do! You need your gear to perform for you on the trail and on your adventures, and don't want your hard-earned money to go to waste, so find out how to properly care for your gear in the next section. 

How To Clean: Synthetics, Wool, Waterproof Membranes

Synthetic fabrics, wool, and waterproof membranes are items that we treat very similarly. Items made out of these materials are typically being used very frequently, and need cleaned more often. 

Items in this category include things such as:

  • wool neck gaiters
  • performance pants (such as our Satu Pants)
  • base layers
  • synthetic jackets (such as our LoftTek Jackets)
  • etc.

You can wash items in this category in a washing machine, but there's a catch:

DO NOT wash them in a washing machine that has an agitator! Front loading washing machines are generally safer for this type of gear because there is no agitator, but really anything without an agitator will do.  

Actually, we just saw a DragonWool Hoodie the other day where a customer had washed it in their washing machine with an agitator. That hoodie was wrecked! It had gotten wrapped around the agitator and was worn out all over the place.

Another big DON'T is not to wash synthetics, wool, or waterproof membranes with anything that has velcro on it! Velcro is just a bunch of hooks and loops, and any uncovered hooks will tear especially into your wool and shred it up.  

While washing, you'll want to find a very gentle laundry detergent. 

Brands like Deft (something like that, it's for babies), or something unscented with fewer chemicals are ideal. Once you've found a suitably gentle detergent, look at their recommended dose for a load, and cut it back! That's right, use less detergent than is recommended by the brand itself!

Set your washer to cold and put it on a delicate cycle. If you can, set your washing machine to rinse the load an extra time. 

Once the wash cycle is over, DON'T throw your synthetics, wool, or waterproof membranes in the dryer. They are not meant to be put there! It'll put a lot more wear and tear on them, the heat can wear off any DWR treatments or shrink your wool, and other issues can occur. 

So just don't use a dryer for these types of products.

Hang dry it. You'll find throughout this article that hang drying your gear is never the wrong choice. 

The truth is, dryers can cause quite a bit of damage to these types of gear items, like making wool shrink, or causing DWR treatments to wear off more quickly, et. 

As a quick recap on washing commonly used items like synthetics, wool, and waterproof membranes:

  1. Use a washing machine WITHOUT an agitator, and set it to cold on a delicate cycle.
  2. We recommend making sure any zippers are zipped up to avoid the chance of your gear getting caught on something during the cleaning process.
  3. Use a gentle detergent, such as is used for baby clothing. Use less than the manufacturer suggests.
  4. Give the load an extra rinse cycle.
  5. Hang dry your gear.

How To Clean: Rain Jackets

Rain jackets can cost hundreds of dollars, so you're really going to want to take care of them. Plus, they have a really delicate membrane that you need to watch out for. 

The instructions to clean something like this are exactly the same as above, EXCEPT instead of using detergent, use a NikWax Tech Wash or something similar. This type of wash will make sure that things like your seam taping and membrane are getting treated appropriately. 

Like mentioned before the other instructions are the same, including giving your rain jacket an extra rinse. Any detergent residue left on the jacket will have an impact on its performance. 

To recap, clean your rain jackets as follows:

  1. Use a washing machine WITHOUT an agitator, and set it to cold on a delicate cycle.
  2. We recommend making sure any zippers are zipped up to avoid the chance of your gear getting caught on something during the cleaning process.
  3. Use NikWax Tech Wash to help maintain the integrity of seam taping and waterproofed membranes.
  4. Give the load an extra rinse cycle.
  5. Hang dry your gear.

How To Clean: Backpacks & Boots

Backpacks and Boots actually need cleaned a lot more often than you may have realized! 

Think about it. People are always setting their backpack down in the dirt. Boots get filled and covered with trail dust. They just get dirty often! 

So why is that a problem? Little bits of dirt that get stuck in seams or in the fabric itself of your gear increase abrasion. All those tiny little grains likely have microscopic sharp little edges that can wear through fabrics and gear pretty quickly! 

If you've ever been rock climbing, you know one of the number one rules is to keep your rope out of the dirt. This is why! You don't want those tiny grains of sand or dust wearing through your rope so that it breaks when you need it most. 

So you've got to get all that stuff cleared off of your backpack and your boots if you want them to last.

Spray off both the outside and inside of your backpack and boots frequently. 

To further prevent wear and tear, try to keep your backpack out of the dirt by hanging your backpack up where possible. 

If you really feel the need to get soap involved, get a tote or fill up your tub with water, and put just a little bit of that NikWax Tech Wash we mentioned before in there.  (You can also use this Tech Wash with your boots if they have a waterproof membrane in them).

Soak your backpack in that mixture, scrub it a little bit, and the make sure it gets completely rinsed off. 

Once again, spraying off and cleaning your backpack and boots is something that should be done frequently!

To sum it up, follow these steps to clean gear like backpacks and boots:

  1. Spray off both the outside and inside of your backpack and boots frequently.
  2. If you need to use soap, fill up a tote or tub with water and add just a little NikWax Tech Wash (this will not need done every time.)
  3. Rinse thoroughly. 
  4. Hang or air dry.

How To Clean: Down Products (Sleeping Bags, Jackets, etc.)

As a quick caveat, treat any hybrid down & synthetics (like our LoftTek Hybrid insulation) like down and follow the instructions for cleaning below. 

Down is incredible. We so far have not been able to truly reproduce what down can do with any synthetic alternative! But such an amazing material requires some specific care. 

Recently we were having a conversation with Allied Feather, our down suppliers. They helped clarify and dispel a common myth about "re-waterproofing" down. Down in sleeping bags and jackets often has a waterproof treatment, and many people are so scare of their down losing its waterproofing, that they are re-waterproofing it more often than they are washing it!

Allied Feather said that people need to wash their down a lot more. 

If you waterproof your down too much, you can basically glue debris to your down on accident, or even plaster the down together in clumps. That will cause your sleeping bag or jacket to lose loft. 

Our personal rule of thumb is to only waterproof your down once every 4 washes. Bear in mind that you won't want to wash down all the time either! Re-waterproofing just doesn't need to happen as frequently as people tend to think.

Ok, now we'll hurry up and share how to actually wash your down products!

Just like synthetics, wool, and waterproof membranes, you can wash your down in a front-loading washing machine, or one that doesn't have an agitator. 

If you don't have one, you can clean your sleeping bag or jacket in your bathtub. 

IMPORTANT: wash your down product by itself if possible! Washing a jacket with other laundry can cause the down to clump up a bit.

With down products, you can't use regular detergent. We recommend NikWax Down Wash. This is different than their Tech Wash. Make sure you get the bottle that is specifically for down. 

Make sure you wash your down on cold, give it an extra rinse cycle, and make sure your washing machine is set to delicate. 

Once your down product is washed, hang-dry it. 

Now, if you want to use a dryer, you can use it to start and finish the dry cycle, but you'll still hang-dry your sleeping bag or jacket in between. Typically you can put your down in the dryer along with a few tennis balls on the lowest heat setting and let it run for 5 minutes MAX to get  just get the drying process started. 

Then hang dry it until your down is completely dry.  To finish it off, you can put your sleeping bag or jacket back in the dryer, this time at NO HEAT, with a few tennis balls to break up any clumps of down that may have formed. 

Then you're ready to go! 

Here's the recap:

  1. Use a washing machine WITHOUT an agitator, and set it to cold on a delicate cycle.
  2. We recommend making sure any zippers are zipped up to avoid the chance of your gear getting caught on something during the cleaning process.
  3. Use NikWax Down Wash to make sure you don't decrease the loft of your down.
  4. Give the load an extra rinse cycle.
  5. Give the load an extra spin cycle. 
  6. Hang dry your gear.
  7. Toss the sleeping bag/jacket/down product in the dryer on NO HEAT with a few tennis balls for 5-10 minutes to help break up any possible clumps of down. (make sure any velcro is closed so it doesn't catch on any of your gear & so the tennis balls don't get stuck!)

Keep It Clean!

Just like we mentioned before, if you want your gear and performance textiles to work effectively and last long, make sure you are washing them! If you're not washing them, you may actually be causing them to deteriorate, and you won't be able to count on those gear items like you should! 

Don't let your gear get ruined by dirt, grime, mold, or anything else. Keep it clean!  

If you have any additional questions, please reach out to, or drop your comments below.

Keep Living Ultralight, and we'll see you out on the trail!




What about cleaning a tent, can you put it in the front load washer with tech wash?

ryan archer September 07, 2021

What about cleaning sleeping pads and tarps and tents? Thanks

‎John September 07, 2021

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Living Ultralight is not just about the lowest pack weight. It's about more enjoyable experiences!

Tayson Whittaker