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Adventure / November 5, 2017

Why your gear reeks (and what to do about it)

Written by: Stacey McKenna

Stinky gear has happened to all of us. Eight pitches up the Eiger Nordwand (or 800 feet into a winter hike), you’ve leaned the wrong way and caught a whiff of your trusty old baselayer.

Yuck. It makes sense for gear to get a bit malodorous while we’re out galavanting in the wild. But certain items (and base layers in particular) seem to hold on to their stench even after multiple washings.

To borrow a phrase, that stinks. So last week, I asked a few winter wear experts how they keep their gear smelling less-than-fetid.


know your enemy

When bacteria feed on the oils in our skin, oils that end up on our clothes, they produce gas. That’s what we’re smelling. And as it turns out, the very fabrics that work best for playing in the outdoors tend to be the most likely to hang onto body odor.

“Athletic fabrics, synthetics, and even things like wool, which have natural oils that make them preferred for high levels of activity—basically, things that wick moisture—are hard to get the stinky out of for the same reason that we prefer them for activity: they are hydrophobic,” says Michelle Anjirbag, a running expert who facilitates outdoor experiences for scouting groups.

“Unlike cotton, which will soak up the water and the detergent and get to the bacteria we leave behind when we sweat, hydrophobic wicking materials are simply harder to clean.”

Still, it’s not hopeless. I talked to runners, (horse) riders, thru-hikers and round-the-world skiers to find out their favorite fabrics and washing tips to keep clothes smelling fresh.


Prevent the stench

Since the smell problem starts long before your clothes see the sink or washing machine, let’s start there.

For many, including skier Steph Jagger and wilderness guide Caroline Owen, it’s all about the fabric. If you can tolerate the itch, they say, you should always choose wool.

For the last several years, Owen has spent summers guiding horseback trips in Iceland‘s blustery, unpredictable climate. Appropriately, she swears by wool no matter the weather. “Wool for all layers!” she says.

“[In Iceland] I wear a lightweight merino wool base layer and slightly heavier merino wool mid layer. If it’s cooler, I add my wool Icelandic sweater and if windy, a wind breaker overall. Last year, I did three trips in a row and ended up wearing the same shirt for about two weeks. I honestly never smelled it at all!”

Steph Jagger spent almost a year skiing all over the world, and although she also sings wool’s praises, she tested its limits while chasing winter from one continent to the next. And she learned the importance of storage.

Her number one tip? Whether you just got off the slopes or didn’t have enough time to finish the dryer cycle, don’t ever pack your gear away when it’s wet.

Jagger and her partner stink up some gear on a skin trail up Argentina's Cerro Catedral.

Cline sports her heavy wool sweater on one of Iceland's black sand beaches.

Wash it with vinegar

Take an informal “stinky gear” survey of folks who like to spend a lot of time being active outdoors and you’re likely to hear two solutions come up over and over again: baking soda and white vinegar.

In her years as a regular runner and backpacker, Anjirbag learned to appreciate the power of baking soda. Yep, the same stuff you kept in your fridge during college to absorb the smell of moldy leftovers. She throws a dash directly on her load of laundry.

“I literally mean I stick the box in the machine and give it a shake… I’ve never measured it,” she says.

When it comes to using vinegar (white vinegar only!) everybody seems to have a preference. The simplest option is to put a cup of vinegar in the washing machine during the rinse cycle in place of fabric softener. If your machine doesn’t let you do this, try soaking your clothes ahead of time. The recommended solution is equal parts vinegar and water for really stinky clothes, but more diluted solutions work for normal washes.

If you’re not so keen on soaking your clothes in vinegar or need something that could work on the go, opt for a vinegar spray. To launder her typical base layers, triple crown thru-hiker and author of Great Hiking Trails of the World Karen Berger relies on double washes, baking soda, and air-drying in the sun.

But when things get really bad, Berger sprays her clothes with white vinegar after they’ve been washed. “So, [I] machine wash, let air dry in the sun, and somewhere during the process, spray vinegar on it if it still seems to have an odor. The vinegar smell dissipates as the item dries,” she says.


Or just buy great detergent

And finally, if you’re not really the home remedy type, there are a number of specialized laundry soaps on the market. My sources recommend these four brands:

Do you have any questions or comments about this feature? Email them to [email protected].

about the author

Stacey McKenna

Journalist Stacey McKenna covers travel, adventure, health, environment, and social justice. She has written for numerous print and online publications, including Narratively, Mind+Body, The Wayward Post and The Development Set. A medical anthropologist by training, she applies her expertise as a researcher and fascination with the human experience to tell deeply-reported stories in context. 

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