After getting home from spending time in the great outdoors, whether it’s a day hike or weeklong camping trip, the last thing anyone feels like doing is cleaning their gear. All too often, exhaustion and procrastination win out, and people tend to stuff their dirty, grimy gear in the far corner of a garage only to discover that, come spring, their tent or backpack has become a Petri dish of nasty stuff. To make matters worse, people often store gear in places where heat and humidity, rodents, and cold temperatures can degrade or even destroy fabrics, stitching, glue, and other components.
If that scenario sounds familiar, fear not: With a little know-how and elbow grease, you can save your trusty tent and hiking boots from a similar fate. Here’s what to know about spring cleaning your outdoor gear, plus insider tips on how to give your backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, and footwear a little TLC before you hit the trail this season.
So, your backpack smells like a locker room trash can. The odor is likely due to sweat, dirt, and that food bag you forgot to empty—all of which not only stink, but can shorten the life of your pack. Another damaging element? Salt from sweat, which can corrode the metal in zippers and breaks down nylon fabrics.
But cleaning your backpack involves a bit more than just tossing it into the washing machine. In fact, don’t even think about doing that: The agitation from a machine can break down fabrics as well as foam 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 a delicate detergent to warm water and use a sponge or cloth to wipe the pack down. Some pack manufacturers also recommending avoiding hot water or spot removers, as these can damage the fabric.
As you clean your pack, examine the 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 dryer, either: 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.
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 seep into the pack and damage it. Also, if your pack is on the floor, mice can chew through the fabric while searching for crumbs.
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 elements 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 and one cup each of salt and lemon juice, plus one 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.
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 campout with the kids, for example, 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
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 dirty spots on the shell. Don’t forget to 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 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. You can usually find the cleaning solutions and DWR spray at an outdoor gear store.
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.
Over time, dirt, mud, and sand can deteriorate the leather in boots and shoes and cause wear and tear on the fabrics and stitching in synthetic footwear. So, to properly care for your boots and shoes, within a day or so of returning from a trip, clean them 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 drying 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 (especially important in the hotter months in Alabama). 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, which can harm the glue and leather in footwear. Also, shoes or boots can break down more quickly if you store them in a place with extreme temperatures or poor ventilation, such as a garage, attic, or the trunk of a car.
If you plan 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. Though it might make for a good story later, it’s no fun to hike with blown-out boots wrapped in duct tape.
Originally written for BCBS of AL.