Sayonara, Stink: How To Clean Your Sleeping Bag

Key Points

  • Understand the difference between down and synthetic sleeping bags.

  • Clean and wash your sleeping bag yearly, or more if it's filthy.

  • Follow the right steps to clean and wash a sleeping bag.

  • Sleep in clean clothes to keep your sleeping bag in shipshape.

Slumber experts worldwide advise washing your bed sheets at least once a week due to a hefty amount of bacteria, dirt, and smells, even with a daily shower. As with bed sheets, you must clean and wash a sleeping bag — but thankfully not as often as your bed sheets.

Imagine the generations of microorganisms festering in your sleeping gear after camping. Ensure these nasty critters meet their maker by taking time to clean and wash your sleeping bag. It's a simple process that keeps your sleeping bag clean, extends its lifespan, and gives you a bacteria-free place to rest after gallivanting through the woods.

Everyone wins — except the bacteria.

Wash Your Sleeping Bag at Least Once a Year

There's no scientific law for washing a sleeping bag. It isn't rocket science. It's common sense. As such, logic dictates when your sleeping bag must undergo at least a yearly wash — as with a backpack.

Do this before you store it at the end of the season. If you don't, all the grime, dirt, skin flakes, oils, and other natural by-products fester in your sleeping bag for months. That's just nasty.

Imagine whipping out your hammock or sleeping bag for another camping season only to find some unwanted tenants living in the fabric. Gross.

A yearly wash takes care of them.

If you're camping a lot, wash your sleeping bag more.

Packing up sleeping bag

Put those senses to work. If your sleeping bag looks gross, feels crusty, smells icky, and screams when you put it in the sun, wash it — or maybe hire an exorcist for that last one.

Filth builds up, damaging the filling and liner of the sleeping bag.

After giving your sleeping bag an ocular pat down and deciding it needs a good washing, throw it in the washing machine. Before doing that, determine what kind of material it is.

Down vs. Synthetic Sleeping Bags

Like the American political system, you have two choices. You may opt for down or synthetic sleeping bags.

Down sleeping bags come from the light plumage of ducks and geese that grow under their feathers. It's one of nature's finest insulators and something to avoid if you're against using animal products.

Down sleeping bags last 10 or more years with proper care and are perfect for cold winter nights, given their sleeping bag temperature ratings.

One online Q&A site includes a reply from a specialty outdoor retail associate who says, "With regular weekend use, a down sleeping bag can often last 10-15 years, especially for higher fill power down. In comparison, a synthetic bag might begin to feel colder in as little as 3-4 years."

They also squish down to a carriable size, making them easy to store in your backpack. If you're trekking through a frozen tundra in December, choose a down sleeping bag.

The downfall of down sleeping bags is that they cannot handle any amount of water. Get one soaked, and it loses all its insulation properties. They're also expensive and get more pricey as the down fill quality increases.

Synthetic sleeping bags come from the minds of some smart Homo sapiens. Unlike down bags, they're cheap and dry quickly. Synthetic sleeping bags are the best option for people who dabble in camping during warmer seasons.

They don't pack up as easily, so they are harder to store. They're also heavier and less warm.

Washing a Down Sleeping Bag

Down is delicate. Treat it gently. Don't put it through a spin cycle with hot water and high speeds. It doesn't like that and displays its displeasure by losing its insulating properties.

Don't wash them inside out. The material within is more delicate than the exterior material.

Check the Care Label

Manufacturers give you the cleaning lowdown for your sleeping bag on the care label. Refer to it before doing anything else. There might be specific instructions or recommendations you must abide by.

Shake Out Any Debris

Unzip your sleeping bag and give it a good shakedown.

This is especially important if camping in dusty or sandy areas.

Many folks are breakfast-in-bed kind of people. While this is especially enjoyable when camping, it will leave many crumbs in your sleeping bag.

Remove large debris, dirt, or other undesirables before putting a sleeping bag in the washing machine.

Look for tears, holes, or any other damage to the lining. If there are issues, such as a tear causing the down filling to spill out, repair it before washing.

Use a Front-Loading Washing Machine

Front-loading washing machines ensure the sleeping bag stays protected. Use a top-loading machine only if a front-loading one isn't available. The agitator column in top-loaders can damage a down sleeping bag.

If you must use a top-loader, wash the sleeping bag separately and check on it often to ensure it doesn't wrap around the agitator.

Whether you're using a front or top-loading washing machine, opt for a commercial washer at a laundromat. They have more space, so the sleeping bag gets thoroughly washed. Your washing machine at home can also do the job.

Girl in sleeping bag

Use Gear Wash or Mild Detergent

R.E.I. sells gear wash designed for down sleeping bags.

A mild detergent also works, but don't use anything too strong. Strong detergents make the down clump or reduce its loft (fluffiness). After a long day in the woods, the last thing you want is to nestle into an unfluffy sleeping bag.

Avoid fabric softeners, bleach, or any harsh chemicals.

Unzip It Completely

If it isn't already, unzip the sleeping bag entirely. This ensures it's thoroughly washed.

Use a Gentle Cycle

Send your sleeping bag on a gentle ride through your washing machine. Use warm water. Warm water on a gentle cycle creates the perfect conditions for sleeping bag cleanliness.

Scalding water with an rpm rate high enough to make NASCAR drivers look slow is a one-way ticket to sleeping bag destruction.

Rinse Thoroughly

Ensure every bit of soap is out of the sleeping bag. Feel free to rinse it more than once. Leftover residue prevents the down from lofting.

If it has a sponge-like, squishy texture, rinse it again. It's still harboring leftover soap. Squeeze out as much moisture as possible before drying it.

Washing a Synthetic Sleeping Bag

It's the same process with synthetic sleeping bags, though they're easier to wash. Synthetic material isn't as fragile, so it's able to sustain a wider range of cleaning methods.

The only difference is that synthetic sleeping bags hold less water. After rinsing, expect them to be wet and not drenched like a down sleeping bag.

Drying Your Sleeping Bag

The time-to-dry is different for synthetic and down sleeping bags.

Synthetic sleeping bags take at least an hour to get bone dry. Down takes several hours to reach complete dryness.

A completely dry sleeping bag has its loft back, meaning it's just as fluffy as before cleaning it. If there isn't loft, dry it some more. The material clumps in the sleeping bag. Disperse it evenly by gently massaging it back to its original shape.

Use a Front-Loading Dryer

As with a washing machine, use a commercial front-loading dryer. It's the best means to dry your sleeping bag. Commercial driers provide the tumbling sleeping bags need to reach their max loft.

Don't put anything else in the dryer. Sleeping bags don't play nice with others.

Your dryer at home works just as well, but it may take more cycles.

Low Heat

Use a low-heat setting. Low heat over several hours beats high heat in short durations. High heat melts the lining of sleeping bags. That's fine if you're trying to make sleeping bag soup.

Low heat is the way to go for sane people wanting an un-melted sleeping bag.

Check on the sleeping bag every half hour to make sure it doesn't overheat.

Add Some Tennis Balls

Add two or three tennis balls to the dryer. They speed up the drying process and agitate the material so it reacquires its loft quicker.

Don't Stop Until It's Dry

Your sleeping bag needs to be dry before storing it. Run as many cycles as you need. If you're pinching pennies, run it for one cycle, then air dry.

It takes longer if you want to avoid the drier outright and just air dry. Place your wet sleeping bag in a shaded area with good ventilation.

Sleeping bag at campsite

Hand Washing Your Sleeping Bag

If you read Little House on the Prairie and wish to reenact that rustic, pastoral life — or inflation is jacking up electricity costs to astronomical heights — hand wash your sleeping bag.

Use a Bathtub or Large Basin

Given the size of a sleeping bag, you need a container large enough to hold it. Your kitchen sink won't work.

Add lukewarm water and your cleaning agent of choice. Avoid strong detergents.

Submerge the Sleeping Bag

Submerge every inch of the sleeping bag. Rub the material with your hands, move the sleeping bag around, and scrub it inside and out.

Be thorough. Get all the cracks, crevices, and corners.

Let It Soak

Soak it for 15-20 minutes. Go longer if you want a more thorough clean.

Once you're satisfied with the level of cleanliness, drain the soapy water and refill the basin with clean, cool water.


Rinse out all the suds. It may take a few attempts to remove all the soapy residue.

Once it's thoroughly rinsed, press the sleeping bag gently to remove excess water. Expect this to take longer with down sleeping bags.

Air Dry

When the sleeping bag is no longer waterlogged and instead merely wet, air dry it.

Hang it in a well-ventilated area until it's dry. Lay it down on a flat, clean surface. Whatever you do, give it space to breathe and don't put it in direct sunlight.

Fluff It Up

Agitate the sleeping bag to resuscitate its fluffiness. Flap it in the wind or give it a couple of good shakes. It may still be wet if it's struggling to regain its loft.

Spot Cleaning Your Sleeping Bag

Some situations warrant a complete cleaning. Others require a simple spot clean.

If the filth quarantines to one part of your sleeping bag, washing the whole thing is overkill.

Identify Ground Zero

Understand the difference between needing just a spot clean versus a full-on clean. Spot cleans are for minor messes, such as spilling your coffee. That's an easy fix.

Issues requiring a deeper clean stem from the filth of undesirable levels. Use your imagination to picture such a scenario.

Camping with sleeping bag

Prepare and Apply the Cleaning Solution

Mix your cleaning agent with lukewarm water. Apply it with a sponge or soft-bristled brush. Don't use something abrasive like steel wool.


Rinse the spot with clean water. A garden hose works.

If the spot is still dirty, reapply the cleaning solution and rinse until it's gone.


Blot out excess water from the spot until it's wet. Leave it to dry in a well-ventilated area.

Sleeping Bag Cleaning Services

If you're flush with cash and don't want the hassle, take your dirty sleeping bag to a professional cleaning service. That's a real thing. Isn't the modern world amazing?

These professionals provide cleaning and maintenance services. With their specialized equipment, detergents, and knowledge, they ensure your sleeping bag is immaculate. They also repair damages such as broken zippers or tears.

Check outdoor gear retailers or look online for nearby sleeping bag cleaning services. The three things to consider are reputation, price, and quality of services. Look at reviews to determine if companies provide the services you need at your desired price.

Tips for Maintaining Your Sleeping Bag

Little actions lead to big outcomes. Take time to do the small things to ensure your sleeping bag gives you many years of outdoor enjoyment.

Some of these tips are for in-the-field care, while others are at-home maintenance advice.

Air It Out Every Morning

Give your sleeping bag time to air out first thing in the morning. As you enjoy a symphony of chirping birds, lay your sleeping bag on a tree branch or over your tent.

Airing it out prevents the buildup of odors and bacteria.

Nothing beats a quiet morning camping. As your tent dries out, take time to bask in the peace and quiet of nature.

Sleep in Clean Clothes

Set aside a pair of clothes that are your go-to pajamas every night. If you're camping for a while, change your sleeping clothes after a few days.

Sweating is inevitable if you hike 15 miles in a day. That's where clean clothes come in. A pair of fresh clothes for sleeping serves as a barrier between the sleeping bag and the sweat haven of your armpits.

Don't sleep in clothes you cook in. Animals smell that from miles off. The only thing scarier than a grizzly bear is a grizzly bear conditioned to actively seek out human food.

Keep Yourself Clean

You're not getting a proper shower in the woods. Getting dirty is part of the camping experience. However, you don't have to stay dirty.

Take a quick dip in a river, or clean yourself off with baby wipes at the end of the day. It's better than nothing.

Use a Sleeping Pad

Don't place your sleeping bag directly on the ground. The debris on the ground might damage the lining and reduce the loft. Sleeping pads are much comfier and protect your sleeping bag.

Go Easy on the Zippers

Don't be aggressive with stubborn zippers. Treat them gently when they snag or get stuck in the lining. Furious yanking is a recipe for a broken zipper.

Couple in sleeping bags

Don't Hop Around in It

Nothing's worse than needing to pee at the witching hour. The night is chilly, and your sleeping bag is warm and cozy.

When the urge to make your bladder flatter strikes, your first instinct may be to hold a potato sack race to the nearest tree. Don't do that!

Hopping across the sticks, stones, and other debris on the ground damages the sleeping bag's toe box.

Get out of your sleeping bag, put on your shoes, and head into the cold to answer nature's call.

Keep It Away From Campfires

Campfires create conditions conducive to camaraderie and contemplation.

They also burn stuff, like your sleeping bag.

Keep it away from campfires. Convective heat quickly melts the materials used to create sleeping bags. This is a problem if you use your sleeping bag as a blanket while sitting beside a fire. Melted sleeping bags become misshapen or completely unusable.

Another issue is embers. These little sparks shoot through the air with no regard for what they land on. They might get on your sleeping bag and burn a hole through the lining.

Leave your sleeping bag in the tent. You don't want to damage it. Bring an extra blanket for nippy nights.

Store It Properly

Store your sleeping bag properly at home and in the woods.

At home, store it in a dry, cool area. Exposure to humid, damp conditions damages the insulation and fabric.

When you're in the woods, use a liner to protect it. Get a breathable stuff sack large enough for your sleeping bag to fit inside. These reduce the size of the sleeping bag and serve as a storage area when you're out and about.

Types of Stuff Sacks

Stuff sacks are the best place to store a sleeping bag when camping. There are many kinds to choose from.

Compression Stuff Sacks

Compression stuff sacks shrink your sleeping bag to a smaller size that's easier to carry. They have straps that compress the stuff sack as you tighten them.

Don't keep your sleeping bag fully compressed for too long. Use them when camping, but don't store your sleeping bag in one during the off-season.

Waterproof Stuff Sacks

Waterproof stuff sacks keep your sleeping bag drier than the Dust Bowl, even when it rains.

They have roll-up openings that fold into themselves and buckles to keep them in place. If you have a down sleeping bag, you probably want a stuff sack with waterproof qualities.

Hybrid Stuff Sacks

Hybrid stuff sacks combine the best of waterproofing and compression. Such stuff sacks are a bit heavier, which might be a headache if your sleeping bag is already quite weighty.

Catching Z's in a Clean Sleeping Bag

The internationally renowned author John Fowles loved the woods.

He said, "In some mysterious way, woods have never seemed to me to be static things. In physical terms, I move through them; yet in metaphysical ones, they seem to move through me."

Nature moves. The natural world ebbs and flows to survive. When you're in this world, you must move with it. A person who fights against the movement of nature finds themselves left behind as life goes on without them.

You need to move when camping. Movement brings exploration, adventure, and a well-earned night of sleep. It also brings undesirable by-products like sweat, body odor, dirt, and grime. They're as natural as anything else. That doesn't mean you want to bring them into your sleeping bag.

A clean sleeping bag is a clean slate — the foundation from which you rest peacefully at night to enjoy the glories of nature during the day. Bring along a camping pillow and you'll be set!

Do yourself a favor; clean your sleeping bag.

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