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Beginner Skills

How to Remove Tree Sap From Your Hiking Clothes

Getting pine sap on your apparel can put you in a sticky situation. Get yourself out of it with a little bit of elbow grease and know-how.

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Usually, when we come home with sap stains, we can’t even remember how we got them—squeezing through a couple of tight trees or putting a hand out to steady ourselves on a trunk is often all it takes. But while discovering a patch of sticky, gooey pine sap on your hiking clothes is a pain in and of itself, if you don’t know how to get it out, it can turn into a costly one. Luckily, while loosening up sap stains in hiking clothes can be time-consuming, it isn’t difficult. All you need are a few simple tools and household supplies to get your outfit looking fresh again.

pine cone - how to remove pine sap from hiking clothes
Pine Cone Photo: Christina Rumpf

Why is Tree Sap So Sticky?

All trees have sap, a watery mixture of carbohydrates and minerals that acts like a tree’s blood, transporting nutrients throughout its trunk and limbs. While we often colloquially call that tacky substance you find on pines and other conifers “sap,” it’s actually resin. This thick, sticky substance acts like the platelets in a human body: When the tree is injured by insects, a storm, or human action, the resin leaks out and hardens into a “scab” over the wound.

Unfortunately for anyone who’s gotten it on their clothes or in their hair, resin solidifies as it dries. If you’ve ever seen an insect trapped inside a chunk of amber, you’ve seen just how hard it can get. Those “stones” are just chunks of resin that have fossilized over the millennia. 

Supplies for Cleaning Tree Sap From Hiking Clothes

You won’t need much in the way of specialized equipment or chemicals to clean sap stains. In fact, you probably own most of what you need already:

  • A blunt scraping tool (butter knife, spoon, etc.)
  • A solvent for pre-treating the fabric (rubbing alcohol works well)
  • A rag or old toothbrush
  • Detergent or laundry soap

toothbrush - how to remove tree sap from your hiking clothes
A toothbrush can help you remove sap stains from your hiking clothes.
Photo: Alex / @worthyofelegance

How to Remove Tree Sap From Hiking Clothes at Home

Before you try to wash pine sap out of your clothes, mechanically remove as much of it as possible. Grab a blunt scraper—a spoon or a butter knife works well—and get to work, loosening the dried pine sap. If the sap is still gooey or there’s a lot on there, try applying a baggie full of ice on the affected area to solidify it and encourage it to flake off.

Next, you’ll need to pre-treat the sap-soaked area. Any stain remover will do; just make sure to test it on an inconspicuous spot first to ensure that it doesn’t damage or discolor the fabric. Rubbing alcohol is a reliable and gentle option. Avoid using acetone (nail polish remover), as its harsh chemicals may damage the fibers in your clothing, especially certain kinds of synthetics. Some hikers swear by oil—peanut butter and canola oil are favorite remedies—but keep in mind that it will leave a stain of its own that you’ll have to deal with later. Whatever stain remover you pick, work it in with a rag or a toothbrush and leave it to soak for 15 to 20 minutes.

Once the solvent has had time to work its magic, it’s time to wash your clothes. Launder them on the highest temperature setting that the item will accept (check the tag) with detergent. At the end of the cycle, check your clothing to see if the stain is gone; if not, repeat the process until the sap has disappeared. Whatever you do, do not throw your stained clothing into the dryer until you’ve removed all of the sap. Otherwise, the heat will bake the sap into the fabric, rendering it more or less impossible to remove.


How to Remove Tree Sap From Hiking Clothes on the Trail

On a long trip? You may not want to wait to remove sap from your clothing, lest it smear all over your pricey jacket or sleeping bag. With no washing machine, you’ll need to get a little creative.

Start as above by scraping off as much sap as you can manage (the blunt side of a folding knife works, as does a camp spoon, assuming you don’t mind cleaning it afterward). Then, grab your hand sanitizer or an alcohol prep pad from your first-aid kit and work it into the fabric with your fingers, a paper towel, or your pack towel. (If you’re carrying a flask, a sufficiently high-test hooch will also do the job.) After the alcohol has soaked in, wash off the affected area with camp suds and water, preferably warm. Repeat as needed.

Removing Tree Sap From Wool

If the garment you’re trying to clean is wool, there are a few extra things you’ll want to keep in mind. First of all, avoid any stain removers or detergents that are enzyme-based: Unlike synthetics, wool is made up largely of proteins, and enzymatic cleaners can weaken its fibers. On finer grades of merino, you’ll need to use a softer touch when scraping and brushing the fabric so you don’t tear a hole in it (when it comes to delicate items of clothing, prevention is the best strategy.)

What to Do If You Get Tree Sap on Your Skin or Hair

If you’re cleaning sap out of your clothing, it’s a good bet that you’ve got it on your body as well. Luckily, the procedure for getting sap off of your skin or hair isn’t that different from getting it out of your clothing. Start by using hand sanitizer to begin to loosen up the sap, then just wash with soap or shampoo in warm to hot water.

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