How to Wash Down Outdoor Gear: Maintenance and Precautions

Washing a down jacket or sleeping bag is a long, delicate process in which fatal mistakes can also be made. However, by following the instructions that we are going to offer you, you will be able to enjoy a piece of gear with the same features as when it was new and thus extend the life of your garments in the best conditions. We invite you to lose the fear of washing down with these tips.

Down clothing: we have to take care of it as well as it takes care of us we. Photo: The North Face.

At the end of spring and beginning of summer is the best time of the year for washing down clothing. The rise in temperatures means, on the one hand, that it is no longer necessary to carry our down jackets on each excursion at altitude and, on the other hand, it allows us to guarantee correct drying which, as you will see immediately, is the most critical and necessary point in down maintenance.

The fear of washing down clothing

Perhaps you have heard that down clothing should not be washed. Jackets that have lost their insulating capacity, bags that have rotted, a permanent smell of humidity... the terrible experiences in mountaineering lore involving unrecoverable material are many and varied although, unfortunately, it is likely that many of these stories have a basis in truth.

That a material as necessary as a down jacket or sleeping bag is at the same time so delicate, makes any user try to minimize the exposure of these products to any action that could render them useless or reduce their performance.

Unfortunately for our interests as mountaineers, washing is a process that has destroyed some down garments in the past, but today, thanks to new down manufacturing systems and the greater information that exists about maintenance of these garments, it is more difficult to clean them incorrectly.

Down is a raw material of natural origin, specifically from geese and ducks, whose many virtues include its low weight, its ability to create pockets of air to trap body heat and its durability. We have talked at length about these characteristics in the articles about down and about comparisons between down and synthetic insulation that we have written and we invite you to reread.

Among the weak points of down, the one that matters most to us is its poor functioning in wet conditions and, in the case of washing or wet storage, its tendency to rot. If a down garment is wet, the down in its interior filling tends to clump together, which creates a double danger for the durability of the material: these clumps cause the down jacket to lose its loft capacity and prevent that the moisture that formed them disappears quickly, generating mold or accelerating the detioration of the down.

The need to wash and maintain down garments

Birds usually carry out exquisite grooming of their plumage to keep it in perfect condition. Apart from situations that do not affect us as users such as de-worming, socialization or courtship, the self-cleaning of the birds' feathers maintains the thermal insulation of the bird which is the function for which we use down.

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Down, insulating and water-repellent thanks to the grooming of the birds.

The stimulation of the uropygeal gland allows the secretion of a grooming oil that the bird spreads with its beak and head throughout the plumage. This oil contains hydrophobic and antibacterial elements that provide excellent insulation and antiseptic protection against microorganisms and diseases.

Once the down is in the garments, this oil, necessary to continue maintaining its performance, progressively disappears. The dirt from outdoor activities and the accumulation of sweat and body fat from physical exercise contribute to the down, with use and the passage of time, losing its insulating performance.

How do you prevent problems before washing down?

Modern down garments and bags already have construction systems and technologies that minimize the problems associated with soaking down insulation. The most important are two: the first is the baffle construction, making the garment by which the down is distributed in panels independent of each other and which, in addition to allowing a homogeneous distribution in the jacket or the bag, prevent the accumulation of wet filling and facilitate the separation of the foreseeable lumps and their aeration.

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50 50 technology from The North Face. Partitioning and breathability.

The second technology that prevents the problems caused by water in down is the water-repellent treatments applied to the down, among them the best known is perhaps the NHD (Nikwax Hydrophobic Down) that provides water repellency to the down, preventing the tendency to accumulate moisture and thus maintaining loft.

Similarly, the possibility of waterproofing a material that is not originally hydrophobic except for the grooming oil that birds apply, allows giving a second life to down insulation from old clothes, allowing the recycling of this material and creating even more sustainable garments.

How to Wash Down Garments

At this point in the article, we hope we have convinced you of the need to wash your down clothing. You will see that, although you have to be extremely methodical in the washing and drying process, the result is great and allows you to prolong the life of your down jackets.

Precautions

The washing process can be somewhat traumatic for delicate garments, so it is advisable to be very careful and do everything possible so that the washing is beneficial for the garment and not the other way around.

To do this, we will ensure that the garment does not have any holes through which the down can escape. Normally, the existence of a small opening in the outer fabric is quickly detected due to the loss of down and is quickly repaired, but in case you have not detected it since sometimes these small damages are almost imperceptible, we recommend that you do a rigorous inspection of the outer fabric and sew or tape it in some way (sometimes electrical tape is usually enough) any possible loss of down that you find.

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It is essential to monitor and correct that there are no down loss points

Check the washing instructions. We are going to offer you some generalities here that should work well in all situations but that, in the case of garments with a very diverse mix of materials or for very specific activities, may have better solutions such as dry cleaning or the use of other cleaning products other than those we are going to refer to here.

Not always, but depending on the size of your washing machine or the quantity and volume of the material, it may be a better option to wash by hand than by machine. It is advisable that the clothes inside the washing machine drum are loosely placed so, although it is more laborious, it is usually a good idea to wash the different items one at a time.

Washing expedition bags, bulky ones where they exist, or taking advantage of washing all the down garments of family or friends are usually the main reasons for deciding to wash by hand. In that case, we will need a space large enough to carry out the entire process; Due to proximity, the bathtub at home is usually the best place to wash down by hand.

If you are going to wash your down material in the washing machine you should be careful with the remains of detergent, fabric softener or bleach from previous washes. All of these substances are harmful to the correct expansion of down. A simple and efficient precaution is to clean the detergent drawer or give the washing machine a quick rinse cycle before putting in any down clothing.

Washing Down Garments and Sleeping Bags

One of the most important aspects when washing down clothing is the choice of soap. We insist on soap, never detergent. Conventional detergent leaves a surfactant component on the garment with a hydrophilic finish (attracts moisture) that is not suitable for proper puffing of the down.

In the case of down, it is essential to use special soap for delicate garments and some brands distinguish between machine or hand. We recommend the use of Nikwax Down Wash Cleaner, since it also Extremely good, it is specific for down, it reactivates the water repellency of down and is environmentally friendly.

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Down Wash Direct by Nikwax. Cleaner for down garments.

Before washing the garment, you can apply a small amount of soap to any stains or areas prone to dirt, such as the collar or cuffs. Turn the garment inside out, inside out, and make sure there is nothing it can get caught on. Close the zippers and loosen the drawstrings and Velcro.

If you are going to wash the clothes in a machine, choose an automatic wash cycle for delicate garments. It is important to wash the garments with cold water or, at least, that the water temperature is not higher than 30ºC, preferably with a double rinse and that in no case run it through a spin cycle at more than 400 rpm.

If you have planned to wash your jacket or clothes by hand, also use cold water, calculate the correct dosage and rub the clothes very delicately in the bathtub or container that you have decided to use. Empty the water with the soap and rinse with running water insistently but carefully until no more foam comes out.

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Washing the garment. A process as necessary as it is delicate.

Whether by hand or by machine, do not overdo it with the dose of soap. You may leave residue on the garment or it will take longer to rinse the down jacket, in addition to being an unnecessary waste of soap and water.

Drying Down Garments and Sleeping Bags

When you take your once shiny down jackets out of the washing machine and see how wet they are, you may think you've made one of the worst decisions of your life. Calm down, you are on the right path even though the image of your soaked garment does not give you the same idea.

If until now we have explained the importance of doing all the steps in a particularly careful way, when we get to drying we have to be even more insistent on this aspect.

That a down garment is free of any hint of moisture is essential for its correct insulation. We remember again that a wet down garment stops being efficient by enormously increasing its weight, canceling its insulating capacity and accelerating its degradation. That is why drying is where we are going to put the most caution in the entire cleaning process.

In the case of drying down, it is in the dryer where it is best done due to speed and practicality, but a good result can also be given by drying it in the open air, although it requires a little more attention and work.

Whether you have washed your jacket or coat in the washing machine or in the bathtub or another similar item, if you have followed our instructions for rinsing and not spinning (or spinning very gently) the material will come out very wet, literally dripping.

Once the wash is finished,squeeze very gently to drain away as much water as possible. Do not twist the garment, simply press gently on the entire surface of the down jacket until all the water possible is extracted. Place the sleeping bag or jacket in a large towel or in a waterproof cover to transfer it to the dryer, the clothesline or the place where we are going to carry out the drying process.

In the Dryer:

For convenience, results and speed, this is the best option. Select a low cycle without heat and remove the garment or sleeping bag every 20 or 30 minutes. Remove the garment to allow perfect redistribution of the down through each of the baffles and repeat the process as many times as necessary. The first few times, while it is wet, you have to shake and remove the garment very carefully; As it feels drier, it can be done more vigorously.

Rab
Clumps of feathers during drying. Unavoidable, but they must be eliminated. Photo: Rab.

Putting two or three clean tennis balls in the dryer helps the distribution of the feather to be more efficient and saves us some work in manual redistribution that, even so, we are going to be forced to do.

There will come a time when we touch the garment and believe that it is already dry. Well, it is almost certain that the inside is still damp, even if you don't feel it to the touch. The process of drying down in a dryer lasts about 3 hours for small garments and about 5 hours for large bags. Normally, it is the natural swelling that confirms the complete drying of the garment.

Air Drying:

Choose carefully the place where you are going to dry your down. It is essential that it be a very ventilated place, without direct sun and with a flat surface to place the material horizontally. Under no circumstances should you hang your down jacket or coat, as the result will be an accumulation of wet down that causes the “lumping” problems mentioned above.

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Two moments of drying. On the left, almost dry garment with few traces of moisture. On the right garment with feather accumulation that cannot expand.

Gently shake the garment or bag periodically to redistribute the down evenly, placing the garment on one side each time. As air drying is slower than in the dryer, it is not necessary to do it in such short periods, but it is mandatory to be very careful when carrying out the process correctly. The first few times, when the garment is wetter, it will be more laborious to separate the caked down. Don't despair, pinch and separate those clumps as much as possible, the drier the garment is, the easier it will be to do so and, in turn, the fewer clumps of down there are, the faster the garment or bag will dry.

Depending on the humidity, temperature and ventilation conditions of the place where we are doing the air drying process, it can take a long time. Likewise, the size of the garment, as well as the wringing or spinning we have subjected it to, changes the drying times. It's difficult to estimate exact hours, but be prepared to exceed 24 hours of air drying under normal conditions.

Whether you have tumble dried it or air dried it, we strongly recommend that you not immediately put your down jacket away. A highly recommended action is to keep the garment for at least two days in a ventilated place to be sure that it is dry before storing it.

Storage

Never store down gear in a plastic bag or compressed for a long time. The ideal situation is to keep this material in a spacious and ventilated place, although we are aware of the difficulty of achieving this, especially in the case of large shipping bags. A mesh storage bag is usually a suitable option and not particularly expensive.

If for reasons of space you have to store your down compressed, you should be careful to take it out periodically and shake it and distribute the down just as is done in the drying process so that the filling is well distributed throughout all the panels, avoiding the formation of cold spots.

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Compressing a down bag should be something reserved only for its transportation.

If due to compaction or humidity reasons the dreaded balls or clumps have formed, sometimes it is enough to have a little patience and pinch and separate the down where it has accumulated. In severe cases, when there are a lot of down balls, it is usually more effective to wash the garment or try putting it in the dryer with the tennis balls to see if this way the down is distributed better.

Summary

Washing down jackets is a process that, because it is laborious and delicate, is usually completely ignored or procrastinated sine die. However, if what we want is to keep such a necessary material in perfect condition, we will be forced to provide it with minimal maintenance.

Using a special soap and exquisite care during washing, rinsing and especially during drying are quite acceptable requirements for the advantages that we will appreciate when we use the jacket or jacket again. feathers.

We invite you to lose your fear of washing these clothes because we are sure that the result will surprise you.

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