"I've always looked after my shellwear, I've never washed it, but it isn't keeping me dry. What is going on?"
It's never been washed. That's what's going on. For shellwear to keep out rain, expel perspiration and last for as long as possible, it needs to be kept relatively clean. There is a lot of misinformation out there that the way to look after it is by never washing it.
How is waterproof breathable material made?
Most shellwear garments use a 3-layer fabric. The first layer is the face-fabric on the outside which provides structure and durability to the material. The inner layer is a monolithic or microporous membrane that prevents rain passing through while allowing perspiration vapour out. And the third layer is a lining fabric to protect the membrane layer from abrasion inside. These three layers are laminated, or glued, together.
We're not suggesting that you pack a bucket and laundry liquid to wash your shellwear at the campsite, or that you wash it after every single use, but storing it relatively clean (and dry!) between trips is important.
Shellwear is clothing, and like all clothing, if it isn't washed, bacteria will grow in the sweat, body oils and skin particles that accumulate with use. Leave that bacteria on a t-shirt or pair of undies, and apart from being gross and probably smelly, it won't affect the basic function of those garments.
Leave that bacteria on a piece of shellwear, and it will eventually eat the glue that bonds the layers of fabric together. Once that bond is gone, so is the garment's ability to keep out water.
De-laminating lining and membrane layers of shellwear caused by bacteria.
Keeping the outside (or face fabric) of shellwear clean is just as important. The face-fabric has a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) treatment that beads water off to prevent it from soaking in. DWR won't bead water as well on a garment that is contaminated with a build up of grime or perhaps carbon from campfire smoke.
When DWR isn't working, water won't bead and will instead cling to and soak into the face fabric, and the shellwear "wets out". Wetting out doesn't mean water is soaking through the membrane, but it will cause the breathability to slow, meaning sweat cannot escape. A build-up of sweat is uncomfortable and can even be dangerous in icy conditions as your ability to stay warm is dramatically reduced.
"So, how do I go about washing shellwear?" Follow this simple guide to maximise the performance and lifespan of your shellwear by keeping it clean between uses.
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