Q:

What's the lifespan of a down sleeping bag?

My husband and I are having an argument about our 20-year-old down sleeping bags. The bags in question are Blacks Icecap XL mummy bags. I've recently being doing some fall camping and find that I get quite cold some nights, leading me to surmise that these sleeping bags have reached the end of their days. My husband says it's just my age, as he doesn't find them cold. Now I know I shouldn't bother arguing with him and just go out and buy myself a new sleeping bag, but I want you to tell him that down sleeping bags do "die" eventually. Can you back me up? Carol Port Moody, British Columbia

Sep 29, 2003
Outside
Outside Magazine
A: Good-quality down lasts a helluva long time. But it doesn't last forever. Still, I'm not prepared to say your down bags are beyond hope. You never mention if or when they have been cleaned. That might help them a lot. To wash a down bag, take it to a commercial Laundromat that has front-loading washers. Wash on warm with a mild powdered detergent (Tide is fine). Use two rinses, or more. Then dry on medium-low. It might be helpful to toss a clean tennis ball into the dryer to help break up the down "clumps" that have formed over the years.

DO NOT dry-clean the bags. Down contains natural oils that help the plumules stay soft. Dry-clean solutions can strip out those chemicals.

My belief is that a good wash will restore the bags to a good chunk of their original loft and warmth. I have some down bags that are up to 15 years old, which have seen moderate use and still are in great shape.


But, what if the bags remain lumpy, misshapen, and not-so-warm? Well, that's one possible outcome. Maybe then it is indeed time to buy new bags. Since you bought the Icecap bags, synthetic bags have become enormously popular. They're particularly good for camping in very damp or even wet conditions, something you probably experience in British Columbia. On the downside, they won't last anywhere near as long as a down bag. That's partly offset by their low price. The "classic" synthetic bag is The North Face's Cat's Meow ($169; www.thenorthface.com), rated to 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Western Mountaineering's Antelope Super MF ($385; www.westernmountaineering.com) is a bag that's the modern equivalent of your down bags. A lovely bag, rated to five degrees. And, while not cheap, it weighs a mere two pounds, 13 ounces. Another good choice would be Mountain Equipment Co-op's Pharaoh –7 ($310 U.S.; www.mec.ca), rated to ten degrees Fahrenheit.

Good luck, and I hope your dispute can be settled amicably!

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