Cleaning and Storing Your Gear

If you've invested in top-of-the line kayaking and expedition gear, you should be using it. And if you're using it, it's bound to get dirty, worn, or damaged. So, unless you want to replace your gear twice as often as necessary, you're going to have to learn how to care for and store it properly.


Tempting as it may be, it's not a good idea to put a dirty kayak into storage without cleaning it. Although a few months of filth may not technically "damage" your kayak, it can cause a number of inconveniences, including the likelihood that it will harbor a very unpleasant odor by the time you get it out again next season. Fortunately, there are really only a few basic steps you need to follow in order to store your kayak properly, and these can be summed up in three major steps: wash, inspect, and store. Keep reading for more information on each of these steps.

Washing your Kayak

This step speaks for itself. Basically, give your boat a thorough scrubbing with warm, soapy water. Be sure to use some muscle to get as much filth off your deck and hull as possible. Also, don't forget to rinse out the insides of the cockpit and hatches to eliminate any residual sea water, salt, sand, or scum. If applicable, rinse the neoprene hatch covers thoroughly as well, and let them dry in the sun. Also, dry out the kayak carefully so that no water is left behind inside the hatches or cockpit.

Inspecting your Kayak

Now that your kayak is clean, take a few minutes to check over all of the seals and hardware before you store it. Check the neoprene hatch covers for wear and tear. Check the bulkheads for leaks or cracks. Check the deck rigging and, if applicable, the rudder or skeg hardware. Make sure everything is in top-notch working condition. If anything needs maintenance, now is the time to identify it. That way, while your kayak is in storage, you can track down the necessary repair materials or replacement parts. Trust us, it's far more convenient to deal with these concerns during the storage period than at the beginning of the next season, when you're dying to get back out on the water. A little careful inspection before you put your kayak into storage can allow you to catch any potential maintenance problems that might delay or frustrate your paddling plans next season. Also, now might be a good time to consider assessing and repairing damage to your gelcoat. Read my article on Repairing Gelcoat for more information.

Storing your Kayak

Now that you've washed and inspected your kayak, you're ready to put it in storage. Make sure to store your kayak under some sort of shelter, preferably inside a garage or basement. Wherever you store it (especially if you have to store it outside), be sure to store it up off the ground, either by putting it on sawhorses or by building some kind of wall rack. Hanging it from a ceiling from a few large hooks also works well. Over the years, keeping your kayak off of the ground will help protect it from ground moisture and extreme temperature changes which, especially in colder winter climates, might otherwise damage the kayak. In addition to getting the kayak off the ground, it's also smart to fashion some kind of cockpit cover. If you don't want to buy a nice, custom-fit cockpit cover, you can make one with some heavy duty garbage bags, a scissors, and masking tape. In any case, covering the cockpit is crucial if you want to prevent mice and creepy-crawly things from making your kayak into a home. While this sounds like a minor concern, unwelcome inhabitants can turn your kayak into a real mess by the time you return to take it out of storage.

Sleeping Bags

Whether your sleeping bag is filled with down or synthetic, it needs to be kept clean in order to keep you warm. When dirt, sweat, and body oils collect on down, the downy fibers mat together and gradually lose their loft. As for synthetics, dirt and sweat eventually cause odors to collect inside the bag and may also cause the fill to degrade faster if enough dirt and grime accumulates. In both cases, this means a greater likelihood of cold nights for you. The obvious solution is to wash your bag; however, if you wash any bag too often, or wash it improperly, you will damage the fill and dramatically shorten your bag's life. Ideally, even with frequent use, you should never wash your sleeping bag more than once per year (even less, if possible). Although this may sound surprising, washing your bag once per year should be more than sufficient as long as you're not climbing into it muddy or forgetting to air it out between adventures.

Of course, the best way to keep a sleeping bag clean and reduce washings is to use a liner. Not only does the liner collect most of the sweat and grime that would otherwise end up on your bag, but it can also be washed as often as you like to reduce the likelihood of odors. Read my article Sleeping Bags, Pads,and Liners for more information about liners.

When it does come time to clean your bag, the best method (regardless of fill) is always to wash it by hand. Whatever you do, never dryclean a sleeping bag, never expose it to harsh detergents or spot cleaners, and never wash it in a top-loading washer with a center agitator. A commercial front-loading washer without an agitator is acceptable, but I still recommend hand-washing as the best method. Trust me, a large tub of water, a little gentle soap, and a lot of patience will go a long, long way toward protecting your investment.

Cleaning Down-filled Bags

The first time you wash a down bag, it will almost certainly lose a noticeable (but not disastrous) amount of loft. For this reason, some people recommend that you never wash a down bag. But this advice is wrong. While the first washing may indeed reduce your bag's loft and insulating ability (probably by less than 5 degrees if washed properly), subsequent washings should have no additional adverse effects. On the other hand, if you let the down collect dirt and sweat for years and years at a time, the damage to your bag will be far worse. Just accept the fact that a mild loss of loft is inevitable the first time you wash your bag. Then go ahead and wash your bag whenever it really needs it—no sooner, no later.

Although down is pretty tough stuff, down bags are surprisingly fragile when they're wet. With the added weight of water, the fabric shell and the inner baffles become far more likely to tear. This means the utmost care must be used when washing a down-filled bag. Never, never wash a down-bag in a typical washing machine with a center agitator. This is almost a sure recipe for torn baffles, seams, or shells. Many people believe it is okay to use a commercial front-load washer (which has no agitator) as an alternative, but even this makes us cringe. Although we've seen many down-filled bags washed successfully in commercial front-load washing machines, we adamantly believe there is no better, safer method for washing a down-filled bag than to do it by hand. This is the only way we wash our own bags, and it's the only way you should wash yours if you want to make sure your $200+ investment lasts.

To wash a down bag by hand, you're going to need a large open container. Really, there's no better container than a normal-sized bathtub. Just fill the tub with about three or four inches of water and add a cup or two of gentle detergent. Since harsher detergents can damage the down fill, we only recommend Ivory Snow, Woolite, or a performance soap which has been specially formulated for down (available at many retail outfitter stores). In any case, never use stain treatments or spot cleaners, which will almost certainly damage the fill, shell, or water-repellant coating of your bag.

Once you've filled the tub and added a mild soap, lay out your down bag in the water and gently "massage" the bag with open fingers to help the water work its way through the shell. Whatever you do, never pick the bag up once you've placed it in the water. As we said above, the weight of the water makes it far easier to tear the seams and inner baffles of the bag. To be safe, just leave you bag laying in the tub and keep massaging it gently, occasionally "mushing" the bag together with open hands and then gently smoothing it out again. Since the shell of most down bags is surprisingly water-resistant, it may take awhile—perhaps an hour or more—to thoroughly wet and wash the down fill. Don't give up or try to rush the process. A little patience goes a long way, but if you're not the patient type, just leave the bag soaking and go do something else for an hour. Eventually, soapy water will seep through the seams and soak the down, eliminating all those body-oils which inhibit its loft.

Once you feel confident the soapy water has penetrated and saturated the down, give the bag a few more minutes of gentle massaging to work the soap thoroughly through all of the downy fibers. Now you are ready to rinse. Do not pick up the bag. Instead, drain the tub and refill it with clean water. Begin massaging the bag again to help rinse the feathers and work out the soapy water. This will be slow and tedious, but remember, your bag deserves a little TLC for keeping you warm and cozy on so many adventures. As the water begins to cloud, drain the tub again, refill it with more clean water, and resume massaging. You may need to repeat this process as many as six to ten times until all the soap appears to be rinsed out of the bag, but again, don't give up. If you leave any soapy residue inside the bag, the feathers will not regain their full loft and your effort to restore the bag's thermal efficiency will have been in vain.

Once you feel confident your bag has been thoroughly rinsed, you will need to remove it from the tub to dry. Do not pick it up by one end. Instead, gather the whole bag together in your hands, supported by your arms, and pick it up with care, ensuring that no portion of the wet bag remains unsupported or dangles. Even better, slide a board or serving tray under the bag before you remove it from the tub. This will ensure none of the baffles get torn and none of the wet down gets damaged. Carry the bag to a warm place where it can dry thoroughly, without interruption. Don't put it in a damp or humid room; don't try to run the hair dryer on it; don't hang it on the clothesline; don't let it bake in direct sunlight. Lay it flat and unfolded on a board propped up at a mild incline so that water can drain out slowly. It may help to set it in the breeze near an open window, or resting several feet away from a fan or low-intensity space heater. Allow the bag to dry this way for two or three hours, until you are certain all of the water has been drained out of it.

With all the water drained out, it is time to place the bag in a traditional, front-load dryer equipped with a low-heat setting. Start the dryer and let it run until the bag is almost dry. Don't use a fabric softener sheet and don't leave it in the dryer any longer than it needs to be. As the bag nears the end of its drying cycle (about 10 minutes before you think it will be completely dry), toss in three or four clean tennis balls. The tumbling tennis balls will help to break up clumps of down so that the bag lofts evenly again later. When it finishes drying and de-clumping, remove the bag from the dryer. Check the bag thoroughly to make sure it is completely dry. If not, return it to the dryer. If so, remove it promptly and give it a healthy shaking for a minute or two to help distribute the down uniformly throughout the bag and restore its loft. Don't overdo it or you may tear the seams or baffles. Your bag is now clean and ready to store.

Cleaning Synthetic Bags

Although most people use a washing machine to launder synthetic-filled bags, there are many people who still recommend washing them by hand. A good hand washing is probably the safest way to protect your bag from any damage that might occur in the washing process, and if you want to play it safe, follow the directions outlined above for hand-washing down bags.

On the other hand, if you do want to use a washing machine, make sure you only use a commercial front-load washer without a center agitator. If you use a regular machine, your bag will almost certainly get wrapped around the agitator, causing some of its seams or fill to tear. Just go down to the laundromat and spend a buck or two doing it right, in the right kind of machine. It's worth the extra effort to protect your investment.

As with down bags, we recommend using a very mild detergent like Ivory Snow or Woolite. Follow the directions to add the necessary amount of detergent, start the washer, and go play outside while your bag washes.

When the wash cycle is done, you may want to run the bag through a second rinse cycle just to ensure that all the detergent has been rinsed out of the bag. Sleeping bag shells can be surprisingly water-resistant, and this makes it difficult for washers to rinse out all of the detergent with just one cycle. Regardless, once you feel certain the bag is sufficiently rinsed, be very careful how you remove it from the washer. Never grab it by one edge and pull it out. If you do, you will almost certainly tear the seams or the fill as the heavy wet bag flops out and dangles from your grasp. Instead, reach inside the washer and gently collect the entire bag together in your arms, taking care to support all of the material as you transfer it to the dryer.

Set the dryer to its low-heat setting and let it tumble until it dries. Don't use a fabric softener sheet and don't leave the bag in the dryer any longer than it needs to be. As it nears the end of its cycle, check it often to see if it is dry. When finished, give the bag a very gentle shake to help it regain its loft. Don't overdo it or you may tear its seams. Your bag is now clean and ready to store.

Storing Sleeping Bags

Whether your bag is filled with down or synthetic, you should never store it compressed in its stuff sack. Stuff sacks are meant to be a temporary, space-saving container for your bag while you are on a trip, but if they are used long-term, they can significantly reduce the bag's ability to loft and keep you warm. To put it simply, the longer your bag is compressed, the more likely it is to stay compressed and the less likely it is to recover its full insulating "fluffiness." Why pay for premium 800-fill down, PrimaLoft, or Polarguard Delta if you plan to crush it for months at a time and won't be able to enjoy its full insulating benefits? When you're on an extended trip, it's perfectly fine to store your bag in its stuff sack because you're using it on a regular basis. That means your bag gets a chance to get out of its cramped storage space, breathe, and loft back to normal each night. But if you deprive your bag of this much-needed breathing time over the long term, your super-cozy three-season bag might suddenly turn into a barely-adequate single-season bag.

So how should a sleeping bag be stored? I recommend laying your bag out flat on an open closet shelf, with nothing else sitting on top of it, for the entire storage period—especially if it's a down-filled bag. Depending on where the closet is located, you may also want to cover the bag with a lightweight bed sheet or garbage bag to protect it from dust. Alternatively, if space is an issue or you don't have any open shelves available, you can keep the bag stuffed inside a large laundry sack (at least four times larger than its regular stuff sack). Most sleeping bag manufacturers provide an oversized sack for precisely this purpose; however, if you don't have one, you can also use a large garbage bag. Another option is to hang the bag vertically in your closet from a hanger. While this may be a good option for synthetic bag owners, I don't generally recommend it for down-filled bags because, over the long-term, it can cause most of the down fill to migrate toward the footbox. No matter where you choose to store it, make sure your bag will be kept in a dry, clean, cool place. Don't put it in a dank basement, a freezing garage, or a sweltering attic. Also, don't store it anywhere that is susceptible to high humidity or frequent, dramatic temperature changes.

Liquid-Fuel Stoves

Canister stoves which run on butane rarely require cleaning and maintenance. But it's a different story entirely with liquid-fuel stoves. Even if you only run white gas (the cleanest fuel) in your liquid fuel stove, the burner is bound to become clogged or caked with soot and grime. Over time, this not only degrades the performance and efficiency of the stove, but contributes to the likelihood of mechanical failure when you're on a trip. To keep your stove running like new, I recommend that you clean it thoroughly at least once each year, at the end of your camping season, and replace age-sensitive parts like rubber O-rings and delicate valves at least once every two years.

Many of the best liquid fuel stoves are easy to disassemble, and should come with adequate instructions for doing so. The most important steps for cleaning, however, are to disassemble and scrub the burner head (the site of greatest soot build-up), inspect the fuel connections and O-rings (the likeliest sources of performance problems and hazardous leaks), and inspect the fuel pump (the most consistently overlooked stove-maintenance item). For a more thorough cleaning, you can also disassemble the fine-tuning fuel valve system on the stove (assuming your stove is equipped with one), clean out the fuel-vaporization tube (the copper tube which wraps over the edge of the burner to pre-heat the fuel, if equipped), and inspect the support legs and braided fuel line for signs of damage.

Assuming, as is typically the case, that the burner head will require the most attention, I recommend disassembling the burner head (if possible) and gently brushing the head elements with a wire brush to break loose any caked on soot or grime. Two things are particularly important to keep in mind during this process. First, make sure you pay careful attention to how the burner disassembles; otherwise, you may find yourself scratching your head confusedly when it comes time to reassemble the pieces. Second, the goal of wire brushing is not to restore the metallic silver sheen of the metal. (Typically, the metal will be permanently discolored by heat, so trying to grind it back to a clean metallic finish will do more harm than good.) The goal is to remove any of the perceptible black chunks or powdery residue which result from burning old or dirty fuel, or from spilling foods on the burner. But be gentle. Exercise a little patience and use soft, smooth strokes to break sooty residue free from the surface without causing damage to the burner elements.

Tying for a close second on the list of important maintenance tasks is (1) to inspect the O-ring fuel connectors which typically can be found at either end of the fuel line, and (2) to inspect the fuel pump for damage. When stoves fail in the field, the culprit is usally one of these two things. When inspecting the O-rings on the fuel connectors, make sure they are not only free of any visible damage or signs of leaks, but also that they are still rubbery and well-lubricated. Dry O-rings may look fine, but without proper lubrication, they are extremely susceptible to invisible cracks and other kinds of damage. It's best to replace them if they look dry or brittle, but if you're a serious cheapskate or simply unable to find replacements before your next trip, at least lubricate them. The maintenance kit for your stove should include lubricant. If you don't have a maintenance kit, buy one, or use a tiny dab of Vasoline to lubricate the O-rings. As for the fuel pump, make sure there are no signs of cracks or leaks in the pump housing. If your stove is more than two years old and you have a rebuild kit for the pump plunger, use it. Also, pay close attention to the pump housing near the master fuel shut-off valve on the pump. Sometimes, overtightening of the master shut-off valve can cause cracks or leaks at or around the surrounding casing. If you find any cracks or signs of weakness, replace the whole pump assembly. It's rare to find this kind of damage, but it's important to check for it nonetheless. Even better, as preventative maintenance, make sure you never overtighten the master shut-off valve, and when possible, loosen the valve before you store it in the off-season.

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© 2007, Wesley Kisting

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