Caring for your outdoor gear is something that most people probably don't spend much time or money on - after all when you're not out using it the last thing you want to be doing is extra washing. However, it is a good idea if you want the performance of your clothing to last.
The most commonly used phrase in this article is check the manufacturers instructions, and with good reason. Nearly all the manufacturers have a product care page on their website which is a great source of information.
Waterproof Membrane Fabrics
Why doesn't my waterproof keep water out anymore?
Membrane fabrics work by having an air permeable porous layer within the fabric that allows water to pass through as a vapour but not as a liquid. Wearing synthetic fabrics under your shell allows perspiration to wick away from the body and then evaporate. The evaporated water can then pass through the breathable membrane. However water on the outside of the fabric is made of groups of molecules that are too large to pass through the porous membrane thus the garment is waterproof.
The outer surface of the fabric has a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) treatment, this ensures that any water on the surface of the garment will bead and shed away. However as time goes by the DWR finish will wear away, particularly in high wear areas such the the sleeve ends and shoulders where you might wear a pack. As this happens the garment may appear to be absorbing water (wetting out) and the wearer may complain of being wet. This is not because the membrane is no longer waterproof but because the membrane can no longer breathe. Evaporated moisture from the body cannot now get out and is condensing on the inside of the fabric, rather than moving through it. Yet the garment is still waterproof from the outside elements. This problem is also caused if the garment has been worn a lot without being washed as the tiny pores which the water vapour has to pass through to keep you dry become blocked with oils and dirt from the body. The easiest way to cure this problem is to wash and treat the garment with a DWR finish.
How often should I wash my waterproof?
If your waterproof garment is wetting out significantly then it's probably time to give it a wash and reproof. Unfortunately washing and reproofing waterproof membranes will never quite manage to restore the performance back to as good as it was when new. The reproofed DWR doesn't last as long as the factory applied coating so the frequency at which performance starts to drop off will slowly increase with use so you'll end up washing older garments more regularly. If you're having to do it after every use then it's probably time to think about getting a new one.
How should I wash my waterproof?
The various membranes may differ in the exact treatments to restore waterproofing, however the process is largely the same. When it comes to cleaning and proofing it is essential to follow the manufacturers instructions, though these may not tell you which cleaning and proofing products to use. Before you actually start to clean the garment ensure your washing machine is free from any detergent and fabric softener residue. The main area to clean is the detergent draw, just take it right out and wash it off under a running tap. It may be worth setting the machine off on an empty cycle to flush any resides from the insides.
Most brands recommend either Grangers or Nikwax products for washing and reproofing. Both these brands offer a some different products and methods to get your waterproof garments back up to scratch...
- Tech Wash tends to be very good but they are expensive and time consuming as you also have to buy a separate reproofer to apply once the garment has been washed.
- There 2 kinds of reproofers. Wash in reproofers apply the DWR coating very easily and it tends to last for a decent length of time. However as the DWR finish is also applied to the inside of the garment breathability is significantly reduced. Some also require activation by tumble drying.
- Spray on reproofers are the other option. They are quite time consuming and you do have to be thorough to make sure it is applied evenly all over the garment. The advantage with them is that the DWR is only applied to the outside, so maximum breathability is retained.
- There are also 2 in 1 treatments which will wash the garment and apply a new DWR coating. These work fine, but the DWR finish is also applied to the inside of the garment, which reduces breathability significantly. The advantage of this however is that it's more cost effective and quicker, although the garment usually has to be tumble dried for the DWR to be activated.
Please read the cleaning and care instructions that come with the garment or check the brand website. It is also very important to make sure your washing machine is free from fabric softener and detergent residue as these can damage the membrane permanently.
Softshells (membrane and non membrane)
Should I wash my Softshell?
Yes. Softshell fabrics fall into two basic construction types, those with and those with out membranes, though the washing and reproofing process for both is the same. Just as with waterproof garments the membrane in softshells with a membrane will stop working due to oils and dirt and the DWR finish can be worn off, so if the garment does get wet breathability and water resistance will be significantly reduced. Non membrane softshells offer a wind resistance by having tightly woven fabrics, a DWR finish is applied to keep water off and to allow the weave to breathe. If the DWR finish does get worn off then it will need replacing to keep the garment performing at its best both in terms of breathability and water resistance.
Can I just bung it in the washing machine?
It's best not to. Essentially these garments are treated in the same way as a hard shell jacket, they should be washed at a low temperature using a specialist washing product in the washing machine and then apply the DWR finish. Nikwax and Grangers are both reputable brands who make specialist washes and reproofers for softshells. Tumble drying some garments may improve the DWR, but check the label first and make sure it's not done for too long or on too high a heat setting.
The other more economic option is the use a 2 in 1 wash/proofer. This makes the whole process a lot easier, quicker and cost effective, however the DWR coating is applied to both sides of the fabric which will result in impaired breathability.
When it comes to cleaning and reproofing softshells, whether with or without a membrane, please take the time to read the manufacturers instructions or check their website.
Down and Synthetic Insulating Garments and Sleeping Bags
Should I wash my down jacket/sleeping bag?
If it's really dirty, yes. Washing down filled garments or sleeping bags needs care - the insulating properties of down can be seriously reduced by washing at the wrong temperatures or with the wrong chemicals and even by not drying it properly. Most people tend to avoid washing down products however, like any other garment they are going to get dirty and cleaning them becomes unavoidable. When done correctly it will also restore performance which may have been lost over time.
If you don't need the item urgently then the best way to get down clothing and sleeping bags cleaned is professionally by a down specialist. Rab offer a cleaning service for Rab down items, you can find the details on their website here. We also recommend;
Although this does take time they do provide an excellent service.
Can't I do it myself at home?
Yes. There are specific cleaning products available which have been formulated to clean down filled items and refresh any DWR coating on the outer fabric. Before you wash any down products please take the time to read the manufacturers care instruction. It is essential that you take the time to ensure that there is no residue from detergents or fabric softener in the washing machine, ensure that the detergent draw has been thoroughly cleaned out.
After washing any down garment it is critical to tumble dry on a medium setting in order to rejuvenate the down, this also restores the DWR finish. During tumble drying the garment should be removed every ten minutes and shaken to separate and loosen the down. Most persistent nodules may have to be broken up by hand but be as gentle as possible.
What about synthetic insulation?
Synthetic insulation is easier to handle and can often just be washed on a cool cycle in the machine. Always check the label and follow the manufacturers instructions. The care section of the manufacturers website is always worth checking.
Base and Mid Layers
Surely I can just chuck these in with my weekly wash?
Hmm well... Manufacturers don't recommend this to maintain maximum performance, but to be honest this is what most people do. Whilst just washing it with normal detergents will not actually permanently damage the garment as it would with membranes and down, it will reduce their performance. The washing powder residue will clog up the fabric and reduce it's breathability and wicking. To stop this there are specific products available for cleaning synthetic and wool base and midlayers, which will maintain breathability and wicking performance.