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How to look after a down jacket or sleeping bag

How to look after a down jacket or sleeping bag
Look after your down-insulated gear, and it'll look after you (Image credit: Rab)

They're likely to be among the most expensive bits of outdoor kit you ever buy, so it’s well worth protecting that investment by knowing how to look after a down jacket or sleeping bag. Luckily, with a bit of regular care and maintenance, you can ensure your precious down gear lasts you for many years and multiple adventures.

How to look after a down jacket or sleeping bag: storing your kit

Generally, down survives repeated compression well – far better than most synthetic fills, which can be a decider in the down vs synthetic insulation debate. As such, your down jacket or sleeping bag ought to retain its loft even after multiple uses. But for optimum long-term performance it is still best not to store it compressed when not in regular use. That’s why most premium down sleeping bags are supplied with a larger, breathable mesh or cotton sack or storage cube in addition to a small stuff sack. Similarly, it’s better to hang your down jacket in a closet or wardrobe rather than keeping it bundled up in its tiny stuff sack or rolled into its hood in a drawer somewhere.

The best place to store down gear is in a warm, dry room – ideally, somewhere with decent airflow. That will prevent the growth of mould and mildew and stop your kit from picking up musty odours. Your shed or garage might be the obvious place to stash outdoor gear, but generally it isn’t ideal for down kit. For one thing, mice and rodents love to chew through (and even nest in) jackets and sleeping bags, especially in winter, as they’re warm and cosy. If you don’t have a choice, pack your outdoor kit away in a rodent-proof container – a clear plastic storage box or crate is ideal. Adding a couple of sachets of silica gel (like the ones you find in shoeboxes or in food products) is also a good idea, as this will help to ward off moisture from condensation. And try to air your kit by taking the lid off the crate every few weeks. After all, down gear is expensive, so it’s worth looking after it.

How to look after a down jacket or sleeping bag: what to do if it gets wet

The traditional Achilles heel of down is that although it is a superb insulator when it is dry, if it becomes saturated, its performance drops off drastically. That’s because sodden down clusters tend to collapse, meaning they can no longer trap warm air. Moreover, saturated down clumps together and takes a long time to dry out, so if it gets wet, it stays wet. That’s not so great if you’re wearing a down jacket in pouring rain or huddled inside a damp sleeping bag inside a wet tent. Try to avoid this at all costs, even if you have a jacket or sleeping bag filled with hydrophobic down (meaning it’s been treated with a water repellent coating). Use a rucksack liner or dry bag to keep your down gear from getting soaked through in your pack.

If your down does get wet in the field, there’s probably not much you’ll be able to do unless you happen to get a warm and sunny, or dry and windy day – in which case, you might be able to hang your jacket or sleeping bag somewhere to drip and air dry.

Follow the same process when you get home. Always allow down products to drip dry and then air dry first by placing them in a warm room. If your kit is totally saturated, lay it out flat on a towel or across an airing rack, which will help to avoid clumping. The next step is to tumble dry it thoroughly on a low heat, using dryer balls or tennis balls to agitate the down and help restore its loft. If you have an ultralight down jacket or sleeping bag made from particularly delicate fabrics, you can place them inside a pillowcase or duvet cover first. This will help protect them during the drying process.

How to look after a down jacket or sleeping bag: losing loft

How to look after a down jacket or sleeping bag

Shaking your gear regularly is a good way to prevent down loss (Image credit: Rab)

Over time, the fine nature of down means that clusters tend to escape from the seams of jackets and sleeping bags (and they can sometimes even work their way through face fabrics). This can lead to down loss, which will impair loft, since there is less fill to occupy the internal baffles. Another problem is down migration, which is when the down fill moves around inside the baffles of your jacket or sleeping bag, clumping together in some areas and leaving ‘cold spots’ in other areas.

Regularly shaking out your jacket or sleeping bag will help to counter down migration and clumping. You can also place jackets and bags in a tumble dryer (low heat) along with a couple of dryer balls or tennis balls as described above, to help separate the down inside, restoring loft.

If you see a down quill poking out through a seam or the fabric of your sleeping bag or jacket, do not be tempted to pull it out! This can create a hole in the fabric that may grow big enough to allow more down to escape. Instead, pinch the quill through the fabric from behind and try to draw it back inside the baffle of the garment or bag. Then roll the fabric between your fingers for a few seconds to restore its weave. This will help to prevent your precious down gear from losing too much fill.

How to look after a down jacket or sleeping bag: cleaning

However, if your down gear does seem to have lost its loft, it’s likely that some of the down inside has either clumped due to dirt and grease or escaped altogether. Individual down clusters are fragile and easily get clogged with dirt, grease, sweat and body oils, all of which impair performance. When it comes to sleeping bags, the easiest way to mitigate this is to use a sleeping bag liner. With a down jacket, it is important to reproof the fabrics of your down jacket regularly to protect the fill.

Many people are reluctant to wash down items for fear of ruining their performance. People often think that down jackets are supposed to smell anyway. To a certain extent this is true, particularly with older down kit. Commercial down is sourced from ducks or geese, which does have a slight odour. And duck down tends to have a slightly more pronounced ‘bird’ smell than goose down. This comes from the fact that since duck down tends to be of a lower fill power and is therefore cheaper, it is generally cleaned less rigorously (and is also frequently of a lower grade in terms of its down-to-feather composition). But improvements in down traceability and overall supply chain quality have meant that modern duck down products are of an extremely high standard, with next to no whiff of their wildfowl origins.   

In the first instance, if your jacket or sleeping bag picks up the odd mud splatter or similar, it’s better to spot clean it first with a damp cloth or sponge. However, if your down kit is causing your camping, hiking or climbing buddies’ noses to wrinkle, it may be time to wash it. But there’s no need to do this too often – maybe at the end of a hiking/climbing season, so a couple of times a year at most. 

Though it can be done by hand, by far the easiest way to wash a down jacket or sleeping bag is in a washing machine. Use a modern front-loading machine rather than an old-style top-loader with an agitator, as the latter can be a little too rough for delicate down items. Before washing your gear, brush or sponge off any loose mud or dirt and do up any zips or Velcro tabs.

You should never get down gear dry-cleaned – the cleaning solvents are too harsh for delicate down products. Nor should you wash outdoor kit with standard detergent or fabric softener, as these products can damage the durable water repellent (DWR) coating of face fabrics, as well as hydrophobic down fill. Instead, use a specialist down cleaner, such as Nikwax Down Wash Direct, Granger’s Down Wash or Gear Aid ReviveX Down Cleaner. These can be purchased online or from any decent outdoor shop.

Remove any traces of standard detergent from the drawer of your washing machine and then pour in your down cleaner, following the dosing instructions on the bottle. Set the machine on a gentle cycle at 30°C. If you have an ‘extra rinse’ programme, use that, but skip the spin cycle, as this tends to damage the down.

Once the wash is complete, you can run the same cycle again but this time add a re-proofer, which will revitalise the DWR treatment of your item. Again, Nikwax Down Proof or Grangers Down Repel are both good options. There is no need to dry your item between these two wash cycles – just leave it in the machine and go again. Once the second cycle has finished, remove your jacket or sleeping bag from the machine. Careful, it’ll be heavy. Rinse by lightly squeezing out excess water (don’t wring it out) over a sink or bath. Then let it drip dry and air dry, before tumble drying on a low heat with a couple of dryer balls, as noted previously.

How to look after a down jacket or sleeping bag: dealing with small holes, rips and tears

How to look after a down jacket or sleeping bag

With care and attention, down kit can last for years (Image credit: Rab)

Modern jackets and sleeping bags are tougher than they look, thanks to the advent of ripstop fabrics. However, like all outdoor kit, down garments get their fair share of abuse. If your jacket or sleeping bag develops a hole from abrasion or a flying campfire spark, or gets caught on a rock or tree branch, it’s important to deal with the damage quickly and minimise down leakage. When thinking about how to look after a down jacket or sleeping bag, the key is not to lose too much precious fill.

The old standby for a quick field repair is duct tape or gaffer tape. This is normally a pretty effective solution, if not the most elegant way to patch it up. A better solution is a specialist weatherproof repair tape, like McNett Gear Aid Tenacious Tape, Gorilla Clear Repair Tape or Stormsure Tuff Tape. All are relatively inexpensive, widely available and well worth adding to your ‘just in case’ repair kit. They come in clear PVC as well as black or coloured nylon and ripstop nylon, which makes it easier to match to different fabrics.

To use them, poke any stray down back into your jacket. Smooth out the jacket around the damaged area, ensuring the face fabric is clean and dry. Cut a strip of tape to size, leaving a margin of about 5mm or ¼ inch around the tear. Don’t forget to round off the corners of the tape. This will ensure a strong hold and prevent it from lifting or snagging. Apply the tape over the rip or tear and press down firmly. Smooth the tape from inside to outside edges.

An even easier option is to purchase a pack of self-adhesive nylon repair patches. Just like tape, these come in a variety of colours. The same approach applies – take the right size patch for your repair job and peel off the backing. Spread the fabric flat, place the patch over the tear and press down firmly.

How to look after a down jacket or sleeping bag: professional repairs

If your down jacket or sleeping bag has suffered major trauma, you might want to get in touch with the manufacturer – many brands, including Alpkit, Rab and Montane offer specialist repair services. They can deal with everything from patching holes to replacing and re-stitching entire fabric panels or baffles. Though this is more a more expensive option, it will likely result in a high-quality repair, as most manufacturers are able to match fabric colours and types. Obviously they know how to look after a down jacket or sleeping bag, so your gear ought to come back pretty much as good as new.

How to look after a down jacket or sleeping bag: rejuvenating your down gear

If well looked after, down kit can be very durable indeed. With a bit of regular care and maintenance, there’s no reason your down jacket or sleeping bag won’t provide many years of good service. Indeed, if you hang around with enough climbers, you’ll likely spot plenty of battered but much-loved sleeping bags and down jackets that continue to be used and abused.

It’s also worth noting that there are a number of specialist companies in the UK who can rejuvenate old and tired down gear by professionally cleaning and/or ‘topping up’ the down fill inside your jacket or sleeping bag. Scottish Mountain Gear, Lancashire Sports Repairs and Mountaineering Designs are good examples of well-established companies with a wealth of experience in repairing and rejuvenating down products. We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the results in the past – often, when a jacket or sleeping bag comes back, it looks and feels like a brand-new bit of kit, making the cost very reasonable.

Matthew Jones

An outdoors writer and editor, Matt Jones has been testing kit in the field for nearly a decade. Having worked for both the Ramblers and the Scouts, he knows one or two things about walking and camping, and loves all things adventure, particularly long-distance backpacking, wild camping and climbing mountains – especially in Wales. He’s based in Snowdonia and last year thru-hiked the Cambrian Way, which runs for 298 miles from Cardiff to Conwy, with a total ascent of 73,700 feet – that’s nearly 2½ times the height of Everest. Follow Matt on Instagram and Twitter.