YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Camping's big stink

Extend the life of your gear by cleaning it properly before storing.

October 28, 2003|Julie Sheer | Times Staff Writer

As owner of Wilderness Workshop, Janice Cooney often finds herself playing the uncomfortable role of the Grim Reaper of gear.

Her Highland Park establishment cleans and repairs gear and technical clothing, so she knows when an item can be rescued and when it should be dispatched to the Great Campground in the Sky. Plenty of people expect miracles from her.

"Sometimes I can help," she says, "or sometimes I can be the angel of death."

After 21 years in business, Cooney has "an acute sense of what will go and what won't." She'll turn down items that she feels won't tolerate washing because of age or wear and tear. For example, a down sleeping bag is kaput if it has too many torn baffles -- the semi-quilted interior walls that make it poufy and hold the bag's guts in place.

Sleeping bags present a special challenge because they're like sponges, picking up dirt and absorbing odor, and they usually need a good scrubbing at the end of camping season. It's fair to say that at some point after backpacking, fishing, climbing, pedaling or whatever, you may have transferred your own, shall we say, unique perfume to the bag.

To get the most out of your season-specific gear, you've got to make a commitment to cleaning it properly before storing it away. Before stashing your stuff, take inventory of what needs to be cleaned and repaired. You can launder and do simple repairs yourself. For bigger problems, first check with the manufacturer; most have specific warranty guidelines, and there is the possibility of a free repair or even a replacement if there's a defect, such as a faulty zipper.

Cleaning a sleeping bag is relatively easy. You can hand-wash it, if you're up to wrestling it in the tub. It's generally OK to wash sleeping bags in a machine, which is how professional outdoor gear cleaners usually do it. Of course, to withstand the rigors of washing, the bag can't be falling apart.

To do it yourself, you need a large mesh laundry bag. Next, find a commercial laundromat with front-loading machines. A sure way to end up with a torn or wadded-up mess is to throw a bag in a top-loader with an agitator that will play alligator with that $500 zero-degree bag.

Before you begin, close the zipper, clamp down any Velcro parts and tie up loose cords. Put the sleeping bag in the mesh laundry bag and wash it on regular cycle in cool water. Use gentle liquid soap rather than harsh detergents. Outdoor stores sell several such soaps, and several retailers mentioned Nikwax Down Wash and Ivory Flakes as being especially effective.

After washing, the bag can be hung to air dry outside, but if you are using a dryer -- this is especially vital for a down bag -- it's important to keep it in the mesh sack it was washed in. If the bag tumbles freely, it could be ripped to shreds. Drying at low temperature is crucial -- and this is one reason to have a bag washed professionally. Commercial dryers like Cooney's can be adjusted to work at low temperatures that aren't as hard on fabric.

Make sure the sleeping bag is dry before storing it. Never keep it in its stuff sack, which causes it to lose loft and insulation. Lay it out or hang it in a dry place until the next time you need it.

Follow these steps and you'll avoid outdoor gear's biggest enemy, the dreaded M-word -- mildew. Never ever store bags or tents when they're damp, unless you want to become intimate with the world of mildew. It's best not to let this pervasive fungus even start, but it can be removed. Professionals, including Wilderness Workshop, treat tents for mildew, and do-it-yourselfers can try the North Face's recipe for mildew removal, which is posted on the company's Web site (see item above).

The same goes for boots, jackets and other gear: Give them a good washing before storing them for the season. It also can't hurt to give pockets and containers one last inspection. Do you really want to open that bear canister next June and discover an 8-month-old peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Or find that your stove fuel has soaked your pillow? Or reach into a pocket and find a fishhook -- the hard way?

In other words, be good to your gear and keep the Grim Reaper at bay.

To e-mail Julie Sheer or read her previous Outdoors Institute columns, go to




Do your own dirty work ...

... or hire a pro

Do-IT-YOURSELFERS can try the following method for removing tent mildew, posted on

Set up the tent and wipe it using a sponge and warm, soapy water.

Rinse by wiping with a clean sponge.

Using a sponge, wipe the tent with a solution of one-half cup Lysol and one gallon of hot water. Let the solution dry.

Rub a solution of one cup of lemon juice and one gallon of hot water into the visible mildew.

Let dry.

You may decide it's worth the $15 or so to have a sleeping bag washed professionally. REI doesn't launder gear but recommends Wilderness Workshop, 6916 N. Figueroa St., Highland Park, (323) 256-0723. The cost: $17 for down sleeping bags, $15 for synthetic. Mildew-treating a tent runs about $12.

Adventure 16, with six Southern California locations, also will send gear out for laundering. For more information, call (310) 473-4574.

Los Angeles Times Articles