How Should I Clean My Waterproof Shell and Down Jacket?

You’d think washing these items would hurt them. It’s just the opposite.

Feb 25, 2016
Outside Magazine
How Should I Clean My Waterproof Shell and Down Jacket?

   Photo: Jakob Schiller


Down jackets and waterproof-breathable shells are essential pieces of winter kit, but you have to keep them clean and store them well to keep them working properly. Here are nine care tips to extend the life of your favorite cold-weather top. 

Technical Shells

Use Technical Cleaners

Normal detergents have ingredients that help water seep into fibers, making for a deeper clean. But if you use these detergents on a technical jacket, they'll leave a residue that will make the jacket more hydrophilic (or absorptive), which you don’t want. Instead, opt for something like Nikwax's Tech Wash, which pulls dirt off while minimizing damage to the fabric itself. 

Spot Treat

If you accidentally spill wine on your shell during an après session in the parking lot, don’t be afraid to spot treat the stain with a technical wash and toothbrush. If you throw the jacket in the washer, you might have a permanent splotch.

Wash Often

We're talking once every five or six uses. This actually helps the materials perform better, as body oils, dirt, and even smoke clog up a waterproof jacket’s pores, and thus reduce its breathability.

But Dry with Caution

Heat reactivates water-repellant treatments (think DWR) but be careful—too much heat can seriously damage your shell. Before using a dryer, read the manufacturer’s label. If it doesn't have clear directions, place the jacket in a medium-low heat for 20 minutes. If that doesn't fully dry your jacket, hang it on the line.

Make Sure Your Jacket Is Clean Before Reapplying a DWR Treatment

If your DWR coating has completely worn off, clean your jacket before applying a new one. Any oils or dirt that aren’t washed off will get locked in by a waterproofing treatment and hurt the jacket’s ability to breathe and repel water.

Down Jackets

Never Use a Top Loader

The ripstop fabric on the exterior of most down jackets is delicate and could rip if it snags on the agitator in a top-loading washing machine. I’ve ruined a down jacket this way, even on the slowest cycle. If you don’t have immediate access to a front-loading washing machine (I trade a six-pack for use of a friend’s), think about hand-washing down pieces in your sink.

Dry It Slow

Too much heat can melt the exterior of a down jacket and singe the feathers inside. It’s fine to dry your down jacket in a machine, but use the slowest, coolest setting.

Throw a Tennis Ball in the Dryer

The ball will repeatedly pound the jacket, which helps loft wet feathers. Just don’t use anything larger or heavier than a tennis ball, as it can tear the shell fabric. And make sure the ball is clean.

Let It Hang

It’s fine to stuff your jacket into your pack for a backcountry ski trip, but never store it there long term. That crumples the down and destroys the loft (the space between the feathers that traps heat and keeps your warm). 

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