Considering how dirty we often get while camping, it's surprising how infrequently sleeping bags get cleaned.
As we head in from the bonfire and cocoon ourselves in the soft down, it's easy to forget that these sleeping shells have often been on the ground and that we're climbing into them, often covered in grime and body oils. We clean our sheets at home all the time, why should our sleeping bags be any different? One of the biggest issues lies in how to clean a sleeping bag, which is very different than doing traditional laundry! We've done the research for you and come up with a few options for keeping that sleeping bag nice and clean.
The composition of a sleeping bag is very different than traditional sleep linens, the shell material and down filling are not meant to be washed with standard laundry detergents and won't hold up well in a washing machine with an agitator (think: the big stick in top-loading washing machines). No worries, there are still several different (and easy) ways to keep your sleeping bag clean, plus we've included some tips for going longer between washes.
How to Clean a Sleeping Bag
This is easily the most popular and sanctioned method for washing your sleeping bag, and many people find a local laundromat because they almost exclusively use front-loading washing machines. After your camping trip, grab some tennis balls and the proper cleaner. If you have a down sleeping bag, Outside Magazine (my personal most trusted source for all things outdoorsy) recommends using Nikwax Down Wash or Gear Aid's Revivex Down Cleaner. For synthetic sleeping bags, they recommend Nikwax Tech Wash or Gear Aid's Revivex Pro Cleaner.
The care instructions on your sleeping bag should offer some guidance here, but typically you'll want to wash with either cold water or warm water, avoiding hot water at all costs. Once it goes through the spin cycle and rinse cycle, transfer it to a dryer on a gentle cycle on low heat. If you have a down sleeping bag, toss a few clean tennis balls into the dryer to maintain the fluff. If it has a synthetic fill, you don't need the tennis balls. Using commercial dryers is great because you get a better heat transfer on a low heat setting.
REI created a YouTube video with a demonstration, watch it here.
2. Hand Washing
If you have a top-loading washing machine or don't feel like visiting a laundromat, you can easily hand wash your sleeping bag at home. Fill a large basin or tub with soapy water, still using the recommended cleaner for your type of sleeping bag. Pour a small amount of the cleaner into the tub and use your hands to create suds. After it's nice and clean, wring it out and set it out to air dry. This will take a while, and it does go quicker in direct sunlight, but be sure to avoid leaving it out in direct light for too long, as this could damage the shell.
If you just have a little area on your sleeping bag that needs attention, you can easily spot clean without using a washer. You can easily spray and dab with a cleaner like Granger's Outdoor Gear Cleaner.
Tips for Keeping Your Sleeping Bag Clean
If you don't want to have to machine wash your sleeping bag often (and we don't blame you, it can be a hassle), try out some of these tips for keeping it cleaner between washes.
Using a sleeping bag liner (like this one from Amazon) is a great way to avoid cleaning the entire bag, plus they can add several degrees Fahrenheit of heat to your bag. Simply wash your sleeping bag liner after your backpacking or camping trip with normal laundry detergent and fabric softener, and it's ready for the next use.
Sleeping in clean clothes and keeping your hair from touching your sleeping bag is another way to keep your bag clean. This way, undesirable odors (think: food cooking smells) and body oils won't transfer onto the shell, keeping it clean for longer.
The best way to store your sleeping bag isn't tightly jammed into a little stuff sack but rather loosely stored somewhere or else in a larger storage sack. This keeps it nice and dry and prevents mildew buildup.