It's a universal symbol of outdoor lovers: the greasy blackened sleeves and duct tape patches on a well used down jacket. It stands for nights around the campfire, scenic belay perches. A dirty down jacket is a badge of honor. Some of us love to hold onto our beloved grungy puffies until they're nearly in tatters. So we asked Outdoor Research product manager Alex Lauver for the inside scoop on how to extend the life of a down jacket. Because it's one item that seems to always love us back.
How often should I wash my down jacket?
"That's tough to answer. It depends how much you wear it and what you’re doing in it. The average lifestyle wearer/commuter/weekend warrior probably ought to think about washing it once or twice a year. Someone LIVING in it might consider a few times a season. It also depends on the jacket construction. I’d always refer people to the care labels on down garments. Excessive washing can cause wear and tear and stress seams.
Down jackets can start to compress and get clumpy after repeated stuffings in packs, bags, etc., but a quick tumble in a dryer on low heat can fluff all that down back up. If they get wet and start to smell—an odor that is unmistakable—it’s definitely time to wash it. Follow care labels."
Sometimes my puffy winds up compressed in the bottom of my backpack for days at a time, stashed for an emergency. How long can it stay compressed before its insulating properties get damaged?
"It’s hard to actually “damage” the insulating properties. It’s more of an issue of efficiency. The longer it stays compressed, the longer it will take to re-loft and fully insulate. It you have it crammed in there for a full three-day weekend and never need it, just hang it when you get home and it should be good a few hours later. Again, a quick tumble in the dryer makes a big difference.
If you have had the jacket for a few seasons/years and you notice the compression is an issue and/or the dryer trick doesn’t work, it may be time to replace your jacket. Down is organic and does break down over time. Long periods of compression do accelerate this."
If I spill something like coffee on it, should I wash the whole thing or is it best to try to spot treat it?
"I’d spot treat to the best of your ability. Excessive washing accelerates wear and tear on the garment."
For the few weeks a year when I don't carry it everywhere with me, what's the best way to store it?
"Ensure its 100 percent dry and hang it in the back of your closet. Easy as could be."
Any tips for the inevitable patch job?
"DON’T PULL FEATHERS!!! Push them back in. The old standby is duct tape, but unless you plan to leave it permanently, that will make it worse when you try to patch it with something else. (It pulls feathers, stresses fabric, and can make the hole worse.) Some companies sell precut patches and adhesive stickers. I have a roll in my gear repair kit that I got 10+ years ago and have only had to use once.
Some people say alcohol wipes help adhesive stick, but who has those laying around? The best way to temporarily patch—if you'll give it a better long-term patch later—is using a tape with less “tack.” Plain old Scotch tape or painter’s tape works for a few hours while you figure out what to do next.
Cut your patches in ovals or with curved edges. Points and sharp edges can peel and catch. And don’t patch too big—just enough to fully cover and seal is enough. I know a guy that temporally patched his belay parka with bandaids!"
Any other secret tricks?
"Treat it how you’d treat your sleeping bag. Take care of it—they are an investment. My biggest tip is keep it from getting soaked. That’s really hard on the down and getting it fully dry is tough. LOTS of drying time. If there is a decent chance of precip, think through your insulation system. I’d recommend people wash and dry their jackets at the end of a season so they go away clean and nice and dry. I’m also a fan of the wash-in cleaners and such for outerwear."
Thanks, Alex! Your advice comes just in time—I pulled out my oldest, beloved puffy—my red Sonata—and realized it's disgustingly overdue for a good wash—and I also just invested in a newer, beefier weather-resistant down jacket (a Floodlight). So I'm glad to know how to treat it in the future. Here are my personal favorite down jackets: