The right way to wash your waterproof clothes

The wrong laundering choices can ruin your rain gear.
Three hikers in rain jackets and other rain gear, hiking through a wet forest, hopefully with well-maintained waterproofing.
You really don't want to wait until you're in a situation like this to realize your jacket's waterproofing has worn out. Greg Rosenke / Unsplash

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No matter what time of year it is, wet, rainy weather keeps many would-be explorers indoors for days or weeks at a time. Quality rain gear can help you stay active in the great outdoors, of course, but it has to be in working condition. If it’s not, you risk sodden sweaters, at best, and hypothermia, at worst.

But when your rain jacket isn’t shedding drops like it used to, zippers are breaking, or tears or punctures are letting in water (or the chill), you might think waiting out the weather or buying a new coat are the only options. Fortunately, that’s not the case: there are ways to care for, repair, and restore your rain gear so you can enjoy the season, no matter the weather.

Why your waterproofing can break down

Almost every piece of rain gear that’s not made of rubber or impermeable plastic is rain-ready thanks to both a waterproof breathable membrane and a durable water-repellent coating, or DWR. 

The former keeps you dry while allowing sweat vapor to escape during intense activities like hiking or playing football in the backyard. The latter is a type of polymer that manufacturers apply to the outer layer of fabric. What this polymer is made out of depends on the brand, but each one coats fibers and enables water to roll off instead of staying put and soaking through. At the same time, it allows sweat vapor to escape, keeping you dry from the outside in, but also from the inside out. 

That’s important because when water soaks the outer fabric, sweat vapor can get trapped inside, causing the jacket’s interior to feel wet and you to feel cold and clammy. You can avoid all of that, and keep yourself warm and dry, by maintaining waterproofing via regular care and maintenance.

How to wash a waterproof jacket

Every rain jacket, from budget-friendly models to thousand-dollar varieties, needs to be washed every now and then, but not just to keep it looking squeaky clean. Regular cleaning is vital to keeping your gear’s waterproof coatings functional, according to Ron Simonds, founder of Boulder Mountain Gear Repair.

According to Simonds, that’s because sweat, dirt, and mud—even near-microscopic particles—can get stuck in the fabric and open up tiny pathways where water can seep through. Sweat does so from the inside, where its acidic pH delaminates fabrics, rendering waterproof breathable membranes ineffective. And once that happens—you’ll see peeling tape over seams and blistering or bubbling material—there’s no repairing it. Regular cleaning can prevent all that.

[Related: 5 simple fixes to keep your clothing around longer]

But you can’t just toss your waterproof jacket in the wash with your weekly load of laundry, says Simonds, who estimates he’s repaired tens of thousands of rain jackets during his 35-year career. “Detergent soaps are the nemesis of your waterproof fabrics,” he explains. Together with fabric softeners, they contain harsh chemicals that delaminate the materials, leave behind residues that attract water, and otherwise diminish waterproofing. He says the only products you should use to clean your beloved waterproof outerwear are rain-gear-specific detergents like those from brands including Nikwax and Gear Aid. Unlike traditional detergents, which tend to reduce a liquid’s surface tension and leave residue that attracts water, these are designed to clean, but also maintain and protect waterproof coatings and breathability. 

As for how often to wash, that depends on how often you use your rain gear, Simonds says. If you wear a jacket every day of a week-long hiking trip and get it sweaty and dirty, wash it when you return home. If you wear it every weekend, wash it once or twice a year. If it’s something you wear daily, clean it once a month. But you should rarely wash rainwear more often than that, or you will shorten its lifespan.

To boost repellency further, follow each cleaning with a wash-in or spray-on water repellent treatment designed for your specific type of gear to restore the DWR to new or near-new condition. This works by re-coating fibers that may no longer be waterproof and reviving the surface of the fabric to encourage water to roll off instead of soak in. The packaging should clearly state that they are intended for waterproof, breathable outerwear. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions, as some products require you to apply heat (like from a clothes dryer) to work.

Follow the wash with repairs

While washing and re-waterproofing are the most common and routine maintenance tasks you’ll need to perform, plenty more can go wrong with rain gear, including zipper malfunctions, tears, and delamination. Given all these potential problems, it’s helpful to know how to handle other fixes to extend the life of your rain jacket.

Two repairs Simonds performs frequently involve zippers and tears. Zippers, especially delicate ones on ultralight gear, can get stuck, break, or lose teeth, and they’re difficult to fix or replace yourself. You can, of course, always try to fix the zipper on your own, but there’s no shame in knowing when to call on a professional and send the garment to a repair shop that can get the job done quickly.

[Related: Tips for buying and caring for long-lasting fabrics]

If it’s lubrication your zipper needs, zipper grease or lubricant will work if you’re unable to run a load of laundry for a few days, but it will attract more dirt and grime in the long run. It can save you in a pinch, but you’ll need to wash the article when you get home to eliminate any residue and grit.

As for holes and tears, there are plenty of patch options you can buy and slap onto your outerwear to seal up holes. These will do nicely if that’s what you have on hand, but for a more long-term solution, Simonds recommends sending your jacket to someone who can apply special heat tape to really seal up holes and tears. Some manufacturers will repair their gear, but a repair shop will, too.

A tip from the pro, though: before you send any rain gear in for repair, make sure it’s not already delaminated or peeling. At that point, there’s not much any shop can do for your jacket.

Store your gear in a safe place

Before you put your jacket away for the season, give it a good cleaning and repair any minor malfunctions so it will be ready to go when the rainy season rolls around again. Just don’t stuff it in an air-tight tub for storage—Simonds says if even a drop of moisture gets in, mold will take over and won’t ever come out. Instead, hang your jacket in a closet away from direct sunlight (ultraviolet rays can damage clothing, too). 

If a storage tub or a damp closet is the only solution available, toss in a few silica gel packets or a moisture absorber to keep your garments fresh and mold-free.

Choose the right jacket for each outing

Finally, if it is truly time to update your outerwear, shop smart to make it last. For example, an ultralight jacket intended for backpacking isn’t going to stand up to the abuse of bushwhacking through the rainforest. A heavy-duty shell designed for winter may fail faster if you’re wearing it in warm weather or during intense activity where you may be sweating more. So choose the right tool for the job to lengthen the life of your equipment, Simonds says. Then treat it right, repair it well, and it will serve you for years to come.