The first wildflowers are popping up in the woods, and the snow looks like it's finally on its way out. Spring has officially arrived (in as much as Vermont has a spring), and it's time to break out the warm weather gear. As you're packing away your winter gear and busting out the summer gear, consider your sleeping bags and if your winter bag might need washing before you pack it away or if your summer bag needs a freshening up before you stuff it in your backpack and hit the trail.
You shouldn't wash your sleeping bag frequently, but a dirty bag won't perform as well as a clean one. The first line of defense in keeping your bag clean is to use a liner inside your bag when you sleep in it. That will keep sweat and body oils off the sleeping bag's face fabrics. And always sleep in the bag inside a tent or on top of a pad or a tarp to keep it out of the dirt.
If your bag has gotten a little pungent since its last use, try cooking it in the sun and fresh air. Sometimes laying your open bag over a chair or clothesline in the sun will do the trick and get rid of funky smells.
When your bag is actually visibly showing dirt or oils, however, it's time to put it in the washer. Front-loaders are best because they don't have paddles that can rip baffles. Stuff yours inside, and then use a detergent specially formulated for the bag's insulation (like Nikwax Down Wash for down bags or Nikwax Tech Wash or Atsko Sport Wash for synthetic insulated bags). Follow the direction on the bottle. Once your bag is clean, we recommend that you run it through the wash cycle again with a "proof" treatment. For down bags, use Nikwax Down Proof, which adds water-repellency, and revives insulation and breathability. For synthetic bags, use Nikwax Polar Proof, which helps maintain the air gap between the knit and weave, keeping you warm and comfortable, while repelling water from the surface in wet or humid conditions, keeping you dry. You can find all of the cleaning and proofing products we sell here.
Once your bag is out of its two wash cycles, it's time to dry it. Always follow the care instructions on the manufacturer's label. But here are some general guidelines. Place your down bag in the dryer with a clean shoe or two or three or four tennis balls on low heat. Nylon sleeping bag shells can melt if exposed to high heat in a dryer. So check your bag frequently throughout the drying process. The tennis balls or shoes will help to break up any clumps of down, and make sure your bag regains its maximum loft. Never steam, press, or iron a down sleeping bag. For a synthetic bag, tumble dry on low heat. Check your bag frequently during drying to make sure that no "hot spots" are developing which might melt the shell or insulation. The heat should never exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit. If in doubt, air-dry your bag, or use a no-heat setting in the dryer.
If you're not up for washing your own bag, take it to a launderer who will guarantee their work. Make sure that the launderer does not clean your down bag with dry cleaning solvents. The chemicals used in dry cleaning will strip a down bag of the natural oils it needs to stay lofted and warm. Happy trails!