We keep hearing that “if well cared for, down can last a lifetime,” but what exactly does “well cared for” mean? Here are a few ins and outs of caring for down outdoor gear, and all the advice can be applied to sleeping bags, jackets, and any other article stuffed with down.
One of the most important rules for extending the life of down gear is to store it unstuffed. Even though down packs down super small and you may be tempted to take advantage of this to stretch your closet space, don’t. Down clusters keep their loft best if they are allowed to stay puffed up as much as possible. Storing down items in stuff sacks for long periods of time can compress the clusters to such an extent that they won’t readily expand to their full potential again. So if you have the space, hanging your jackets and sleeping bags is the best option. Most people can’t afford to take up half a closet with a sleeping bag, so the large breathable storage bag that came with your bag is a good second option. If your bag didn’t come with a storage sack, a big cotton laundry bag will serve perfectly well.
The stuff sack that came with your bag is usually the perfect way to pack your bag down for trips. If you are using a compression sack with your down bag, keep in mind that you are going to want to leave the bag in there as little as possible, as the tighter the down is compressed, the longer it takes to loft back up. If you are going on a float trip or somewhere it is going to rain a lot, it is a good idea to line your stuff sack with a garbage bag before you stuff the bag in.
When it is time to pack up for a trip, wait to stuff your bag until you are ready to go, and when I say stuff, I mean it. Stuffing your bag into the stuff sack (feet first works best) is the best way to ensure uniform compression of your down over time, and it is far easier than rolling your bag and trying to squeeze it in all at once. When you arrive at your campsite, unstuff your bag as soon as you can. If it is nice out, drape it over a bush or tree in the sun to let it breathe, dry, and loft up. This is a good move while you are cooking breakfast on sunny mornings too. If it is rainy, just unstuff it into your tent. If you are traveling and staying in a mix of hostels and camping, and therefore not using your bag every day, take advantage of any opportunity to unpack it. Letting your sleeping bag spend the day unpacked in your room is a good way to ensure it will have the loft when you need it.
The hassle involved with cleaning down is a frequently cited drawback, so Rule Number One is do it as little as possible. If you are traveling or otherwise putting a lot of use in a sleeping bag, us a sleep sheet (Learn about other Adventure Travel Packing Tips) inside your bag, as those are easy to remove and wash. If you are worried about surface stains on your down jacket or bag, use a cloth dampened with a mild soap solution to surface clean the fabric and then leave it out to dry.
When your down starts to feel clumpy, or just doesn’t seem to have the loft it used to, it you probably have to break down and clean it. Contaminants from the outside and oils from your body can, over time, coat the clusters of down and inhibit their loft. Here is how to tackle the job:
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