Cleaning Down Gear: What’s The Real Deal?
Today’s down can be chemically treated so it is hydrophobic, and is available in super-powered 900 or 1000+ fill-power. These fancy, lightweight, and expensive items naturally give us pause at the laundry room door. We automatically know not to treat our down gear like a cotton t-shirt. So what’s the real story? In this article, we’ll tell you exactly how to care for your down jackets, down sleeping bags, and other down gear.
“Down” with Down Myths
Myths abound concerning goose or duck down-insulated sleeping bags and jackets. As professional gear experts, we’ve heard just about every myth about cleaning and caring for our down-filled sleeping bags and parkas. Here are a few things we’ve heard:
- Don’t wash down…just air it out.
- Only spot-clean the surface of down jackets or sleeping bags.
- Washing a down jacket will make it go flat.
- Washing a down sleeping bag will damage the feathers!
- It’s OK to wash a down jacket, but never put it in a dryer.
- Waterproof down is OK to wash but regular down isn’t OK to wash.
- Waterproof down has a chemical treatment, so it can’t get dirty.
Spoiler alert: all of the above are myths about down gear.
The Science of Down Insulation
Down-insulated gear is stuffed with goose (or sometimes duck) feathers, as well as with true down clusters. Down clusters are ultra-fine, roughly ball-shaped bundles of extremely fine and wispy fibers. Feathers help to give more structure and shape to your down gear, and down clusters help provide the incredible compressibility or loft. Higher fill-power down contains more actual down, while lower fill-power down has a higher proportion of feathers. If you’ve ever seen a feather quill poke out of your jacket and yanked it out (Don’t! More on this later.), it’s possible you’ve also seen a down cluster come out with the feather. Where a feather will gently float to the floor, a down cluster can almost defy gravity and hang weightless in the air. Peek into Rab’s down workshop. See the round, floating pieces? Those are the down clusters.
When down is clean, feathers and down clusters alike want to maintain their shape. Round down clusters want to take up space in all directions, and feathers want to stay splayed wide open. This air space is what keeps you warm.
Water fowl, like the ducks and geese from which we get our down insulation, keep their feathers and plumage clean. We’ve all seen ducks at the duck pond nibbling on their own feathers, necks crooked backwards to access every single feather. What they’re doing is maintaining clean feathers and down clusters. Sadly, events like oil spills show us what happens to these birds when their feathers and down can’t be cleaned – they not only lose the ability to fly from over-weighted feathers, but often die due to lack of insulation. The oils force feather plumes to stick together, and absolutely flatten down clusters.
Heavy from extra oils, and flat (unable to loft) – this is what happens to your down jacket and sleeping bag after significant usage. Grease from the camp kitchen, oils naturally produced by every inch of your body, and dirt from the environment all eventually press past the shell fabric of your down gear and get into the down feathers and clusters inside.
What should I do?
Wash it! Whether it’s stuffed with 650-fill-power duck down or 900-fill goose down, and whether it’s jacket, pants, or sleeping bag shaped…wash your down gear when it gets dirty. Typically, you can tell it’s time to wash down gear when you feel it lofting less. Significant body smell retention can also indicate it’s time to wash an item. There’s no hard and fast rule. The point to take home is that it’s fine to wash your down gear when you want to wash your down gear. Follow these steps:
- Check your pockets! We’ve recovered gummy bears, paper clips, Snickers bar wrappers, unused chewing gum, hand warmers, a bullet, cell phones, a $100-bill, camera SD cards, Sharpies, love letters, and countless sunscreens and chapsticks. We’ve found contact lenses and eyeglasses, socks and long underwear, headlamps, NYT Bestsellers, and wrist watches in sleeping bags.
- Run a front-loading washing machine on a rinse cycle, with no detergent. This helps flush a little detergent residue away.
- Next, load the detergent tray with Nikwax Down Wash, following the instructions on the bottle. Regular detergent works in a pinch…but purpose-built down wash works better.
- Loosely pop 1-2 down items into the machine, and run it!
- Next, transfer the down gear into the dryer.
- Then, 3-4 tennis balls, wool dryer balls, or knotted bundles of clean wool socks. These will help “punch out” the down clusters.
- Run the dryer on low or no heat until your gear is as dry as the snow on top of Denali (read: bone dry!). This can take many cycles, and you may need to manually massage clumps of damp down apart between cycles.
- ***If you are opting to use low heat, we recommend using a “wrinkle guard” setting. This will prevent the fragile outer fabric of your down gear from heating too much against the dryer drum.
Still skeptical? We wash our rental down parkas after every single use. Whether you’ve climbed to the top of Denali during a 3-week expedition or merely worn a parka for a few hours during a weekend climb of Mount Baker, each parka gets washed and dried in our Seattle HQ laundry facility. The same applies to our down-insulated -20°F and -40°F sleeping bags. After the thousands of wash and dry cycles we’ve run, we can confidently tell you that washing your down gear will prolong it’s lifespan in the long term, and improve it’s performance in the short term. What’s not to love?