Top Tips on Spring Cleaning Your Gear

I’ll never forget the time that mice ate my PFD.

It was early spring when I tore through a pile of gear in the garage to retrieve my coveted Patagonia life jacket for  a paddling trip. Unfortunately, I pulled up a handful of tattered insulation from a PFD that was ripped to shreds. Apparently, the natural, fibrous kapok filler served as a hearty meal for the mice, and it’s likely that a Clif Bar left in a pocket lured them in for the feeding frenzy.

I could have avoided the disaster if I’d properly cleaned and stored my PFD when I put it away for the winter. Even if your grimy gear isn’t consumed by a rodent, it can break down or become a Petri dish of nasty stuff when it’s stored in the garage or a storage building. Over time, heat, humidity and cold temperatures can degrade or even destroy fabrics, stitching, glue and other components.

If you’re planning to hit the trail this spring, take a look at the following tips on cleaning and caring for backpacks, tents, sleeping bags and footwear:


Backpack Care

Wendy with pack copy

Cleaning: So, your backpack smells like a locker room trash can. It’s likely due to sweat, dirt and that food bag you forgot to empty. These things can shorten the life of your pack, especially if salt from sweat corrodes the metal in zippers and breaks down nylon fabrics.

When you clean your backpack, don’t put it in a washing machine. The agitation from a machine can break down fabrics as well as foams in hip belts, shoulder straps and back panels. Also, straps can get twisted in the components of a top-loading washer. Instead, first vacuum out dirt and debris. Then, add Woolite to warm water and use a sponge or cloth to wipe the pack down. Some pack manufacturers say you shouldn’t use hot water or spot removers, as these can damage the fabric.

As you clean your pack, examine your zippers, which can fail if they’re jammed with dirt and debris. You can vacuum out the dirt, or scrub zippers with a soft nylon brush (like a toothbrush) and cold water.

After you wash the bag, don’t put it in the clothes dryer. The heat levels are too intense and can break down fabrics and foams. A good way to dry your pack is to stuff it with newspapers and hang it in the shade.

Storing: Once you’ve cleaned your pack, store it in a cool, dry place, and hang it if possible. Don’t leave your pack on the garage floor, because standing water or other liquids like engine oil could invade the pack. Also, if your pack is on the floor, mice can chew through the fabric while searching for crumbs.


Tent Care

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Cleaning: When you return from camping in the rain, it’s critical to dry your tent to prevent mildew and fungus from forming. The primary problem is that these things will damage coatings on tent fabrics. Plus, they’ll make the tent stink. If you do get mildew, it’s very difficult to remove it completely, but you can treat it with a mixture that includes non-detergent soap, 1 cup of salt, 1 cup of lemon juice, and 1 gallon of hot water. Use this solution and a soft nylon brush to scrub the interior and exterior of the tent as well as the fly. Next, dry the tent in the sun. As with packs, you shouldn’t put your tent in a dryer because excessive heat will damage the fabric and coatings.

Storing: It’s fine to store your tent in its stuff sack. The primary concern is to prevent the tent fabric from being exposed to heat and sunlight over a long period of time. If you pitch your tent in the backyard for a camp-out with the kids, don’t leave it up for weeks at a time. As with your pack, it’s best to store the tent in a cool, dry place off the floor.


Sleeping Bag Care

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Cleaning: During an extended camping trip, a sleeping bag can get pretty ripe. When you get home, use non-detergent soap, water and a soft brush to clean and dirty spots on the shell. Also, clean the interior of the hood and collar where oil from your body can collect.

If your bag is really grimy, it’s best to wash it at a Laundromat, because the front-loading machines there won’t agitate the bag as much as your home machine. Also, commercial machines are larger and clean the bag more thoroughly than smaller home machines. It’s important to never wash a bag in a top-loading machine with an agitator, because it could rip the bag and stress fabrics and seams. Also, don’t dry clean a down bag, because the process can break down natural oils in the insulation.

At the Laundromat, use cold water, a gentle cycle and either mild soap or a special cleaning solution designed specifically for down insulation or synthetic insulation. While cleaning the bag, you can also use a special spray to restore its DWR (durable water repellent) coating. Typically, you can find the cleaning solutions and DWR spray at an outdoor gear store.

Storing: You shouldn’t store your bag in its small stuff sack, because over time compressed insulation will lose its loft and its ability to keep you warm. Many bag manufacturers supply a larger net bag for long-term storage, or you can hang the bag in a large cotton sack, or even a large pillowcase.


Footwear Care

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Cleaning: Over time, dirt and sand can deteriorate the leather in boots and shoes and cause wear and tear on the fabrics and stitching in synthetic footwear. So, within a day or so of returning from a trip, clean your shoes or boots with a brush and water or a cleaner that the manufacturer recommends. Avoid using detergents and bar soap, because they can harm leather and waterproof membranes in footwear.

Drying and Storing: When your dry your footwear, remove the outsoles and let them air out. It’s best to dry footwear in the house, because you want a cool, dry place that’s not especially humid. If you want shoes or boots to dry faster, put them in front of a fan and stuff them with newspaper. Avoid drying them next to a heater, because this can harm the glue and leather in footwear. Also, your shoes or boots can break down more quickly if your store them in a place with extreme temperatures or poor ventilation, such as a garage, attic or the trunk of a car.

If you pan to hike with fairly old shoes or boots, examine them and take them for a test run before you embark on a big trip. Over several years, the glue used to secure the outsole of shoes can simply break down, especially if you’ve kept them in a garage or unconditioned storage facility. We’ve seen outsoles peel off a pair of old boots while a hiking partner was ascending a pass deep in the Sierra Mountains. And it’s no fun to hike with blown out boots wrapped in duct tape.

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