How to clean and waterproof hiking, camping, and backpacking gear and boots
Quality outdoor gear can be an expensive (but worthwhile!) investment. Keep your backpacks, boots, tents, rain gear, jackets, and sleeping bags performing like new with these easy tips on outdoor gear cleaning and care.
It’s no secret: we’re serious fans of great outdoor gear and apparel. And we’re big believers in making investments in quality equipment: a well-crafted tent, rain shell, down jacket, pair boots, or backpack can make a big difference in comfort and safety out on the trail. (We learned our lesson early on: sloshy boots and a leaky tent make for a downright miserable outdoor adventure.)
Just like with any investment, some routine care and prevention can go a long way to help prolong the life of quality outdoor gear. From dirt and UV rays to insect repellant and sunscreen, human-made and environmental contaminants can cause technical gear to lose its waterproof, weatherproof, and insulation abilities, leading to downright misery on the trail and a shortened product lifespan. We follow these simple cleaning and care tips, using quality washes and weatherproofing products to help increase the lifespan of our gear. It helps protect our investment, and get the most out of our favorite boots, backpacks, tents, and apparel.
Before you start, be sure to review the manufacturer’s recommendations and instructions before applying cleaners and waterproofing products.
How to clean and waterproof hiking boots
Every year, we put in some heavy miles on our favorite trails, from our favorite hikes near Atlanta to rugged adventures chasing the most beautiful waterfalls near Asheville. A quality pair of boots is essential to keeping us on the move. Our favorite hiking boots, including the Lowa Renegade GTX and Lowa Innox GTX have carried us hundreds of miles through rivers and creeks, over snow covered trails, along sandy river banks, and up rocky mountain peaks. Though they’ve taken a serious beating, some care helps them perform and look almost as good as the day they left the box. We give our boots a thorough cleaning and refresh the waterproof coating several times throughout the hiking season.
Keeping boots clean is the key to the longevity of factory-applied waterproof layer. Rinse boots clean as soon as possible. Dirt and residue buildup from the trail can degrade the boot’s DWR (durable water repellant) coating leading to soggy, wet boots. Nikwax Footwear Cleaning Gel safely cleans the exterior of the boot without damaging the existing waterproof coating, like traditional soaps and cleaners can do. We also periodically apply Nikwax Fabric & Leather Proof. It’s not necessary after every cleaning, but it increases the boot’s breathability, refreshes the waterproofing, and helps prolong the life of our favorite hiking boots.
And don’t forget the insoles! Insoles can get pretty gnarly after a few adventures. It’s good to remove insoles after each hike to help the insole and the boots dry out more quickly. And several times a season, we use Nikwax Sandal Wash to clean the interior of our boots and insoles, helping to keep them smelling fresh.
How to clean backpacks
Our favorite backpacks, including our Osprey Aether 60 and Cotopaxi Incas, can take some serious abuse out on the trail. Sweat, oils, insect repellant and sunscreen can collect in the bag’s fabric. Food spills and crumbs left in pockets can stain and attract animals. Dirt and grime from the trail can degrade the material and weatherproofing. So it’s important to take some time after each hike to clean up our packs and get them ready for the next adventure.
After day hikes or short camping trips, a light cleaning is usually sufficient. We remove trash from pockets and compartments, shake out any dirt and debris, and use a wet cloth or soft sponge to clean out the interior of the pack. On the pack’s exterior, we wipe dirt clean with a cloth or sponge. For stubborn dirt and stains, we apply some Nikwax Tech Wash to the sponge and gently work into the stain, and then rinse off soap and any residue with fresh water. And then we dry the pack completely before storing in our gear closet.
A deeper clean may be necessary after longer adventures, and at least once a year. After removing everything from the pack, we shake out or vacuum the interior, paying particular attention to areas that may hold dirt, debris or food particles. A soft bristled brush, like a toothbrush, helps to remove stuck particles from zippers. And if a deeper washing is necessary (and the manufacturer’s instructions recommend it), we remove any removable pockets and attachments from the pack, and fill a bathtub or large storage container with enough water to cover the backpack and then wash the pack and accessories gently with Tech Wash and a soft sponge. Spend a little time with parts that frequently touch bare skin, like belts and shoulder straps, as they tend to absorb salts, sweat, and oils from the body. But take care not to scrub the pack’s exterior too hard, as many bags have weather resistant coatings. Then rinse the pack thoroughly with cool water and hang up to dry, preferably somewhere protected from the sun’s UV rays.
Exposure to UV light can degrade the backpack’s DWR layer, and reduce the fabric’s strength and elasticity. We use Nikwax Tent & Gear SolarProof to add UV protection and water-repellency, helping to extend the life of our backpacks.
How to clean and care for tents
Tents are our home away from home! Our Big Agnes Yellow Jacket 4 mtnGLO and Sierra Designs Divine Light 2 FL tents are two of our newest favorites that top our camping gear list. A little TLC during and after the camping season helps keep our tents clean and performing like new.
A crucial first step: never, ever store a wet (or even moderately damp) tent. Damp fabric can grow mold and mildew, giving the tent a musty smell and damaging the fabric and waterproof coatings. Whenever we break down our tents in wet weather, we dry it as soon as possible in a dry, shady place, like our garage or a covered deck, to dry completely before storing. (Don’t have a garage or weatherproof deck? A shower rod can work, too: just be sure to spread out the tent as much as possible, and reposition it several times to be sure all moisture has dried from the folds.)
Before the start of each camping season and after long camping trips, we give our tent a gentle cleaning. We shake out the tent to remove dirt and debris, clean the tent poles, and check zippers for dirt or stuck leaves and pine needles. If the manufacturer’s instructions suggest wet cleaning, we fill a bathtub with cool water and wash the tent and rainfly individually, using Tech Wash and a soft sponge or cloth on dirty areas. We never use household cleaners, detergents or soaps, since they can damage the tent’s DWR coating. After cleaning, we rinse the tent thoroughly and then hang it to dry completely before storing.
As with backpacks, exposure to UV light can damage the tent’s fabric and degrade the waterproof coating. We apply Nikwax Tent & Gear SolarProof to our tents every year to help extend their life.
How to wash and store sleeping bags
There’s nothing like crawling into a clean, soft, warm sleeping bag at the end of a long day on the trail. Our favorites, the Big Agnes Wiley 30 SL Sleeping Bag and Sierra Designs Frontcountry Bed, have us drifting off to dreamland in no time. To keep our sleeping bags in perfect sleeping condition, we give them a little attention throughout the camping season.
Like backpacks and technical clothing, dirt, body oils, and chemicals can degrade the performance of sleeping bags. We almost always use a sleeping bag liner (the Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor is one of our favorites) to help eliminate direct contact between the bag’s fabric and our skin. And most sleeping bag liners are machine washable, so clean up after the adventure is fast and easy.
While we’re out the trail, we let our bags air out every morning, turning the sleeping bag inside out, and if there’s no chance of rain, hanging it somewhere outside the tent. The breezy, fresh air will help to dry out any moisture, helping to keep the bag fresh and the insulation lofty.
After most camping adventures, a light cleaning is usually all our sleeping bags need. We spot clean any dirty areas with a damp cloth, and if necessary, use a little Nikwax Tech Wash. (Try not to overly saturate the area, though, as moisture can make the insulation lose its loft and clump.) If the bag is very dirty, it may be necessary for a thorough cleaning. We almost always wash our sleeping bags in a commercial sized, front-loading washer at a laundromat. (Some home washing machines are too small to allow for a proper wash and rinse.) Following the manufacturer’s recommended care instructions, we wash our down-filled bags with Nikwax Down Wash Direct, and synthetic filled bags with Tech Wash.
Drying is key when cleaning a sleeping bag. Filling tends to clump when wet, and it’s important for the bag to dry thoroughly to regain the fill’s loft, so be sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommended care instructions before drying. Several cycles on low heat are usually necessary to completely dry the bag – and adding clean tennis balls to the dry cycle can help break apart any down clumps that form in the bag. Once the sleeping bag is dry, store it in a large, breathable bag made of cotton or mesh. It takes up more room, but allowing the bag to breathe will keep the insulation fluffy, and will help keep you warm and snug on your next overnight adventure.
How to clean and waterproof down jackets, technical fabrics, and rain gear
Technical performance apparel can be expensive, so we make sure our favorites like the KUHL Retro Hoody, Stio Hometown Down Jacket, and Cotopaxi Teca Windbreaker are properly cleaned and maintained to keep them at their peak performance. It’s inevitable: after spending enough time outdoors, apparel will get dirty. Our technical pieces absorb sweat and oil from contact with skin, ash and smoke from campfires permeate the fabric, and chemicals like bug spray and sunscreen find their way onto gear. And all of these can build up, causing degradation of the waterproofing.
Nikwax offers a number of cleaning products specifically developed for different types of outerwear. Tech Wash is designed for water resistant gear like rain jackets, rain pants, and windbreakers. It cleans waterproof clothing while refreshing breathability and water repellency. It works great on our technical dog gear, too: we love the Ruffwear Powderhound Insulated Jacket for cold-weather adventures with our dog, Jake, and Tech Wash works well to remove the inevitable build-up of grime and dirt from Jake’s high-energy romps in the wilderness.
Nikwax Down Wash Direct cleans our hydrophobic and regular down jackets, coats, and vests, helping to maintain loft and insulation while adding waterproofing to the fabric. Both products are super easy to use, and can be used in the washing machine or by hand.
Refreshing water-repellant jackets
Over time and after heavy use, waterproof gear can start to lose its DWR properties. Periodically, we test our outerwear and rain gear’s waterproofing and refresh if necessary. To test, wash and dry a piece of gear, and then spray a section with water from a spray bottle. If the water beads and rolls off the material, the DWR is still in place. If the material soaks up the water, it’s time for a refresh.
We use several Nikwax products to help replace the water-repellency and breathability of our favorite technical gear. Nikwax SoftShell Proof is designed for softshell pieces like windbreakers and jackets with DWR coatings. To protect and restore the DWR properties of our down filled gear, we treat with Nikwax Down Proof. Down Proof refreshes the outer water-repellent coating of the garment and improves the down’s ability to repel water, keeping the down insulation lofty, insulating, and breathable. And for hardshell rain jackets and rain gear, TX.Direct keeps our pieces waterproof and maintains breathability, so we stay dry no matter the weather. All three products can be used in the washing machine or applied by hand.
Thanks to our friends at Nikwax for offering some tips and hints on keeping our favorite gear in top shape!
Thank you for your support! - the Trailful crew