Keep It Clean. Make It Last.

Cleaning your trail gear is not just a spring and fall chore. In order to keep your goods in top condition, regular cleaning and maintenance should be done throughout the season—especially in extreme hot, wet and/or dirty conditions. With some simple and inexpensive cleaning practices, you can ensure that your trail gear will continue performing at its best, and will last from one season to the next—and avoid frequent and costly gear replacements.

Heidi Dale Allen, Nikwax VP of Marketing, and professional outdoor gear cleaner.

Nikwax's Heidi Dale Allen shares her top tips for keeping gear clean, and making it last

We went straight to the source, asking the pros at Nikwax what their top recommendations are for keeping trail gear clean. Heidi Dale Allen, Nikwax’s VP of Marketing, had some great tips to share. Here’s her advice for ensuring your gear stays reliable, and lasts season after season.

Q: Why is it important to maintain trail gear with specialty cleaning products instead of regular detergents?

Properly cleaning trail gear is important, as dirt, sweat, campfire smoke and body oils can compromise their performance. Most waterproof/breathable gear (apparel, footwear, backpacks, tents and sleeping bags) has a factory-applied, water-repellent coating (often called “DWR”). This helps water bead up and roll off the outer fabric. This not only helps the item stay dry, it also helps maintain its breathability. When an item soaks up water on the outside, moisture from the inside (sweat, or humidity in the case of tents) cannot escape through the wetness. Plus, in the case of backpacks, water absorbed equals weight gained!

Dirt, oils and other crud can also attract water to your gear. And household detergents leave behind residues that attract water, which can cause this type of gear to “wet out” more quickly. That’s why cleaning with the correct technical cleaner is so important.

In the case of baselayers, household detergents will work, but they won’t combat the particularly nasty odors, and they won’t add the performance benefit of enhancing the wicking of these active clothes. Some household detergents also have extra additives in them (fragrances and softeners) that can leave behind residues on your baselayers that inhibit the wicking. Similarly, NEVER use fabric softeners (this include dryer sheets!) on any items that are intended to wick, as it will drastically reduce performance of these items.

Q: What’s the difference between detergents like Basewash, Downwash, etc., and why is it important to use the proper cleaner?

Nikwax products are specially formulated for the gear they are designed for, and go beyond just cleaning to actually enhancing the performance of the item they clean. For instance, BaseWash is made for next-to-skin layers that wick sweat. It improves moisture transfer by enhancing the capillary action of fibers—but this would be detrimental to outerwear that is intended to repel water, not absorb it! Tech Wash is meant for items with water-repellent coatings, such as hardshells, soft shells and synthetic insulated pieces. It maintains that coating to help keep you dry. Down Wash Direct is formulated for down feathers, which are notoriously delicate.

Q: What’s the best way to get rid of funky, lingering odors from base layers?

BaseWash is a deodorizing cleaner for all of your synthetic technical underwear and next-to-skin wicking layers. It safely cleans, removes embedded odors, inhibits the buildup of body odors, and accelerates drying to improve cooling/warming efficiency. 

Wool Wash gets rid of lingering odors, helps wool dry faster, and softens without harming performance. When washing merino wool, be sure to avoid washing anything with a metal zipper on it, as this can easily tear the delicate material. Also, it’s very important to clean your wool well before putting it away. Any food or other odiferous residues can attract moths, which will nibble holes in your pricey wool layers.

Q: What’s the difference between wash-in and spray-on reproofers, and when should items be reproofed?

The frequency of waterproofing depends on how often you are using the item.The main reasons to use a spray-on waterproofer (e.g., TX.Direct Spray On) over a wash-in waterproofer (e.g., TX.Direct Wash In) is either if your garment has a moisture wicking liner, or if you are looking to treat a very specific area of your item. You should always clean before re-proofing, and usually you can go 3 to 5 washes before needing to re-apply the waterproofing. 

The best way to tell if an item needs care is if it looks dirty, or is starting to absorb water (called “wetting out”). Once either of those things happens, clean the item first. If after cleaning the item still isn’t repelling water, then it’s time to re-waterproof. Remember to apply waterproofers to wet items, as the products are water-based and use the wetness of the item to help distribute the waterproofing. 

BEFORE: A dirty and damaged puffy
AFTER: Same puffy treated with Nikwax

Q: How often should sleeping bags be cleaned in order for them to maintain peak loft and insulation?

Again, this depends on use. If you’re sleeping in dirty conditions, sweating a lot, and not using a sleeping bag liner, then you will want to clean more regularly. A good low bar is once a season, generally before you put it away. But again, if you’re getting your bag funky, clean it more often. Sweat, dirt and body oils can build up not only on the face fabric, but can get on the down feathers as well, causing them to lose their loft.

Q: What’s the best way to clean and maintain Gore-Tex and waterproof trail footwear (leather or synthetic)?

Start by keeping your footwear clean. This will ensure a long hiking life. In footwear, caked on dirt can dry out leather, causing premature cracking. It can also abrade fabric shoes and wear the fibers down faster. Similar to clothing when, even after cleaning, you notice your shoes are still absorbing water, then it’s time to re-waterproof.

Before cleaning, remove laces and rinse off any extra dirt or crud. Use a stiff bristle brush if needed. Cleaning off mud, dirt, and debris after each adventure will make your favorite boots go further—and save you money! Next, use Footwear Cleaning Gel. Apply generously over the boot and scrub-a-dub-dub! Rinse with clean water. If you have stinky insoles, Sandal Wash is great for deodorizing.

The breathability of your boots depends upon water repellency. Breathable, waterproof footwear is most likely to get sweaty, and wet inside when used in damp or wet conditions. If the outer fabric or leather absorbs water, the breathability of the footwear will be reduced. You can use Waterproofing Wax for Leather for full grain leather footwear, Fabric & Leather Prooffor fabric or mixed materials footwear, and Nubuck and Suede Proof for textured leather footwear.

Nikwax makes washes for all types of apparel and gear.

Q&A Lightning Round

Q: What is your favorite hike and/or trail?

My favorite hikes are ones with water at the end. I love having a destination to look forward to! My favorite recent hike was to some high mountain hot springs in Idaho with my husband and kiddo. That was a rewarding hike, and the views were amazing.

Q: What is your 11th Essential?

Maybe it falls under extra clothes, but I love what I call my “fuzzy pants” after a long hike. Nothing beats relaxing after a long day with some cozy pantalones. I love anything made from merino wool and recently splurged on some merino wool joggers. Other than that I’d say a nice craft beer!

Q: What is your top tip for outdoor adventurers? 

If you find gear you absolutely love, make sure you care for it! Time can fly by. You might realize that you haven’t cleaned your down jacket in a couple years and now it’s all nasty—and they don’t make the same style and color anymore! Take the time to clean and store things properly and they’ll last you for many adventures.


Always check your pockets before you wash your outdoor gear or put it away. It took having some mice chew through my favorite expedition pack to get at an old Clif Bar to help me remember that!

About Nikwax

Founded in the UK by Nick Brown, “Nick’s Wax” was originally formulated to create a waterproofing treatment for boots that would not soften them. The first consumer Nikwax product began distribution in 1977, produced with an old tea urn, a camp stove, and materials from the local hardware store. It wasn’t long before Nikwax was available in eight countries.

In 1983, following the then-new green movement, Brown looked for ways to improve his products, while removing toxic and flammable solvents. The result was the first water-based line of waterproofing treatments. This also made Nikwax products easier to use. Since then, Nikwax has received numerous awards for outdoor innovation and environmental consciousness.

Eli "Lounger" Boschetto

Eli "Lounger" Boschetto

Eli is the founder of PCT: Oregon, and the author of three Mountaineers Books guides: Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Oregon, Day Hiking: Mount Hood, and Urban Trails: Portland. He is also a brand ambassador for SPOT and National Geographic Maps, and is on the advisory council for the Oregon Trails Coalition. Eli lives in Portland, Oregon.

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PCT: Oregon is not affiliated with, and has no financial interest or stake in the Nikwax company. This information is provided solely as gear care information for Oregon’s PCT hikers.
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