FABRIC CARE: Waterproofing, Cleaning and Maintaining
Author: Taylah Danaë Baggs Date Posted:21 November 2018
With the right care, high-quality outdoor clothing can last for many seasons. In this blog post, we will run you through how to clean and waterproof the most common materials amongst outdoor clothing.
Your sports and hiking clothing and boots keep you warm, dry and comfortable during your outdoor adventures. Their high-performance, technical fabrics are often windproof, waterproof and/or breathable. But in order to keep your outdoor gear at peak performance, you need to clean and maintain it on a regular basis. After all, you want your gear to last for as long as possible. Thankfully, specialist fabric care brands such as NikWax, Gear Aid and Grangers make this task an easy one.
Just like regular clothing, specialist materials require cleaning. Sweat, body oils, dirt, makeup and other contaminants will build up over time on any fabric. If you leave these impurities to build up, they may grow bacteria that can destroy the bonds between the fabric and its waterproof membrane or seam-sealed tape, resulting in leaks. Even if your garment isn’t waterproof, keeping it clean will still prolong its performance.
Outdoor clothing doesn’t need to be cleaned as often as regular clothing. Essentially, you should wash your outdoor clothing as often as necessary (i.e. if they look dirty or feel damp and clammy) but as little as possible. Clothing should generally be washed after 10-12 days of intensive use, or every 20-30 days if you’re only using the garment lightly.
When washing your clothing, close zips and fasten all pockets, flaps and straps, including the main front closure. Carefully check the garment’s care instructions, which should tell you whether to hand wash or gentle machine wash the garment. As a rule, do not dry clean or use powder detergents, stain removers, conditioners, bleach or fabric softeners: these will all clog the garment’s micro-pores or damage the fabric.
Even waterproof materials may eventually lose their waterproofing treatment over time and through hard wear. You can use specialist waterproofing products to reinforce DWR (durable water repellent) and similar waterproofing or water-resistant treatments.
To test whether your garment is treated with DWR, drip some water onto it. If the water beads on the surface to form fine droplets, your gear is sufficiently DWR treated. If the water absorbs into the surface and forms a dark patch, then the garment needs waterproofing treatment.
Heat reactivates DWR treatments common to waterproof clothing. Tumble dry on a warm, gentle cycle for 20 minutes once the garment is already dry. If care instructions don’t allow you to tumble dry, iron the dry garment on a gentle (warm, no steam) setting after placing a towel between the garment and the iron.
Other waterproofing treatments use Gore-Tex or similar waterproofed linings under leather (in boots) or other materials (in clothes). This gear will look darkened and wet by water, but the water should not pass through to your skin or baselayers. A waterproof liner can get clogged up with dirt particles and stop performing as well, so it's important to clean your gear with specialist cleanser every once in a while.
If you need to replenish your garment's DWR or waterproofing, use a specialist gear waterproofing treatment. Garments should always be cleaned with specialist cleanser before being treated.
Shoes and boots deal with the toughest conditions of all your gear. They will get dirtier and wetter than anything else you own. Take good care of your boots, so that they can keep taking care of you on the trail.
Boots should be cleaned after every major walk, because even small dirt particles can work their way into leather or fabric fibres, resulting in abrasion and break down. Shake out sand, gravel and dirt from the shoes, then use a cloth or brush and lukewarm water to gently wipe off the stickier mud and dirt. Oil-based dirt and stubborn grime will need a cleaning gel to be successfully removed. Wipe the boots’ linings with a damp cloth to clean out the salt left from your perspiration.
To dry wet boots, remove their laces and inner soles. Allow your boots to naturally dry at room temperature, out of direct heat (no sun or fire!), which can be harmful to leather and adhesives. Leave your insoles out in the sun if you can, however, as sunlight acts as a natural deodoriser and helps prevent odour-causing bacteria. If your boots have become completely soaked, stuff them with newspaper. Replace the newspaper when it soaks through and repeat until your boots dry.
Waterproofing your boots will keep your feet comfortably dry in inclement conditions. If your boots are made from leather, maintaining their waterproofing will preserve their lifetime. Once wet, leather can stretch, shrink, weaken and become brittle as it dries. Even Gore-Tex (GTX) boots, which are completely waterproof, still need extra treatments occasionally. To waterproof your boots, clean them with water and then, while the boots are still damp, apply the appropriate waterproofing treatment to the entire boot. Pay special attention to stitching and any hardware (spots where the material has been punctured, e.g. by lace eyelets), as these are the spots where water is most likely to soak through. For best results, allow your boots to dry for 24 hours before using them. Reapply the treatment after use in severe conditions or when you notice that water is soaking into your shoes rather than beading off them.
If your boots are made from smooth leather, you may need to condition them to maintain their suppleness. Nubuck, suede and synthetic boots do NOT need to be conditioned. Leather boots may take a long time to “break in”, or to mould to the shape of your feet and become comfortable. Leather can also dry out over time, particularly if it keeps getting wet, and become stiff and brittle. If you’re experiencing either of these problems, using a leather conditioner will quickly soften up the leather for you. Condition sparingly: too frequently and you run the risk of oversoftening the leather, causing your boots to lose some structure and support.
Spray-On vs. Wash-In
Wash-in waterproofing is ideal for single-layered fabrics such as a tent rainfly, shell pants, or single-layer jacket. It’s simple and convenient: you just have to place your waterproof or water-resistant fabrics in the washing machine and replace your normal detergent with the wash-in waterproofing liquid.
Spray-on waterproofing should be used on non-machine washable garments, or items with wicking linings. In the latter case, you only want to waterproof the outer layer so that the inner layer can retain its breathability. Spray-ons are usually best applied to a wet garment and spread evenly over the fabric with a clean, damp rag or sponge, with extra applied to high wear-and-tear areas like cuffs and shoulders.
For products only available as a wash, you can also create a solution by mixing the liquid with water and sponging off your tent, rucksack or other gear that can’t go in a washing machine.
Even the very best of outdoor gear may develop a rip, tear or leak under poor conditions or with rough treatment. Luckily, there are plenty of great products available to temporarily (field) or permanently repair your gear. Make sure that you come prepared to a campsite or a hike. You don’t want to be caught out in the wilderness with a leak in your air mattress or a rip in your down jacket. Repair products are often small and lightweight so they’re easy to keep in your pack.
Use this table to find out which products are best for your fabrics.
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