Are you striving to ensure your outdoor gear lasts for years?
Heidi Allen, marketing director for Nikwax North America—a U.K.-based manufacturer of cleaning, conditioning and waterproofing products—stresses one vital tip that extends across the gear-care spectrum: “Clean it!”
“This is probably the most-overlooked step. A lot of people jump right into waterproofing… but by regularly cleaning your gear, you’ll have to waterproof it less frequently,” Allen explains. “Dirt, oil, campfire smoke, etcetera, will all get onto the water-repellent finish of your gear—those things will actually pull water into the surface fabric and mask the water-repellent finish.”
So, when someone tells you that washing a jacket ruins its performance, look elsewhere for advice. We did—to Allen, product expert and self-professed dispenser of “nerdy know-how”—to discover how to keep valuable gear and apparel functioning properly and lasting for years.
“Household detergents will leave a residue that attracts water… which will make your jacket wet-out faster than it should,” explains Allen. So while washing your jacket is key, apparel-specific, residue-free cleaning products are paramount. (Of course, she recommends using Nikwax’s Tech Wash. We use and approve of this product as well—but there are a variety of residue-free apparel cleaners, such as those from Grangers and Nathan.) Cleaning frequency depends on use, but Allen notes it’s important to keep in mind not only the grime on the shell’s exterior, but the sweat and body oils inside it. “Bacteria likes to get on the inside and chew on this, and, at the same time, chew on the jacket,” she explains. “Cleaning regularly will help your jacket last longer.”
Ever noticed delamination on the interior of your older shells, especially around the neck or cuffs? That’s probably due to bacteria, Allen says.
For stubborn stains, Allen recommends spot-treating with undiluted cleaning product, then scrubbing with a soft-bristled toothbrush. Read the care label for washing instructions and to see if it allows for a dryer. “Using a dryer can reactivate some water repellency,” she says, “but always look to the care label.”
After cleaning and drying, if your jacket is still absorbing water, it’s time to add a water-repellent treatment—either wash-in or spray on. If it beads—you’re good to go.
“Down can be intimidating because it seems delicate and it is expensive,” Allen says. “The most important thing about washing down is: only do it in a washing machine without an agitator.” This usually means front-loaders, though some new top-loaders are agitator-free. (Have an agitator? Head to the laundromat.)
“Agitators can rip the baffles apart and break the feathers, causing your jacket to lose loft. If it has a super-thin exterior material, which a lot of down jackets use, it can tear. Agitators are bad!” she affirms.
After you’ve run a wash cycle, using down-specific cleaner and in accordance to the care label, run a couple of extra spin cycles to get as much water out as possible. Throw it in the dryer on low, with a couple of dryer balls or clean tennis balls (confirm dryer-use on the label). “The balls will break-up the clumps of down,” Allen assures, noting that a puffy can look pretty rough when it first comes out of the washing machine.
If you’re washing a sleeping bag, down-filled or otherwise, you’ll almost certainly need to track-down a commercial-sized washer at your local laundromat. “A home washer isn’t big enough for your bag to get the amount of water circulation to ensure all the product is washed in, and all the dirt is washed out,” Allen says.
“Wash synthetic insulation similar to how you’d wash your hard-shell,” Allen says, referencing Nikwax’s Tech Wash. “It’s easier to care for than down, as you usually don’t have to worry about the synthetic insulation clumping.” (She added that some new synthetics that closely mimic down—like The North Face’s Thermoball—may require the “tennis ball method.”)
“A lot of today’s wool products are fairly easy-care, but there are some best-practises if you want to get the maximum amount of performance out of them,” Allen says. Nikwax’s Wool Wash is designed to naturally soften already-soft merino wool, enhance wicking and reduce stink, she explains. If the care label allows, toss it in the dryer—but never use a dryer sheet or fabric softener. Residues left by these products inhibit a garment’s ability to wick—and wicking is the reason you wear a base layer in the first place.
“It’s really important to get dirt and mud off your footwear as soon as possible,” Allen explains. “Rinse them after you get back from the trip, brush them off—a soft-bristled toothbrush works well—and let dry. Dirt will suck the moisture out of leather and cause it to crack and dry-out prematurely.”
When cleaning your hikers, remove the insoles and laces and stuff the shoes with newspaper or paper towels—this prevents excess water from getting inside. Afterwards, set them in a warm, dry environment—but never next to direct heat—with newspaper or paper towel stuffed inside, which helps pull out excess moisture.
Waterproof leather/suede treatments are recommended—though Allen advises that, “Any time you add something to leather, you will get a mild darkening to it… something to be aware of if you’re really obsessed with the cosmetic appearance of your footwear.” (But if you don’t waterproof your boots, they may absorb water and become stained.)
Aftermarket UV-protection products can add years to your tent’s life, as solar rays degrade fabrics. One problem: “It’s hard to apply a ‘proofing’ product to a new tent, as it already has water-repellency on it, so it won’t really absorb any additional product,” Allen says. “As soon as you start noticing your tent fly absorbing water, I would recommend a cleaning… then apply a [UV protectant].”
Handle With Care
Heidi Allen stresses: “Always read your garment’s care label.” If your care label is unreadable, look to the manufacturer’s website—they often post instructions online.
The Golden Rule
Should you use fabric softener or dryer sheets? In Heidi Allen’s words: “Oh, gosh, no, never! They leave all sorts of residues that destroy wicking and water repellency.”
Nothing Lasts Forever
Over time, all durable water-repellent treatments degrade—abrasion, washing, normal use and packing-and-unpacking will wear away DWR. Expect that your DWR-treated clothing will eventually require re-proofing.