How to Clean and Care for a Backpack

A yellow backpack sitting on a counter

The Spruce / Ana Cadena

Overview
  • Working Time: 15 - 30 mins
  • Total Time: 1 hr
  • Skill Level: Beginner

Backpacks have transformed from a hiker's necessity to both a fashion statement and a favorite way to carry essentials for people of all ages. Whether you're toting camping equipment, gym clothes, or school supplies, your backpack is eventually going to need to be cleaned.

How Often to Clean a Backpack

Fortunately, a backpack doesn't require frequent washings. A cleaning once or twice a year will suffice unless it becomes soiled beyond daily wear and tear.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Vacuum with nozzle
  • Washing machine or tub
  • Soft-bristled brush
  • Towel

Materials

  • Heavy-duty laundry detergent
  • Pine oil, phenolic disinfectant, or disinfectant wipes
  • Mesh laundry bag or pillowcase
  • Water

Instructions

Materials for cleaning a backpack
The Spruce / Ana Cadena
How to Wash a Backpack
 Detergent  Heavy-duty
 Water Temperature  Warm
 Cycle Type  Gentle
 Drying Cycle Type  Do not machine-dry
 Special Instructions  Wash in mesh bag and air-dry
 Iron Settings  Do not iron
  1. Empty Every Pocket, and Vacuum

    The first step in cleaning any type of backpack is to empty everything from the pockets. You'll be amazed at what you find. Leave every pocket unzipped, unfastened, and turned inside out, if possible. Take off any added clip-on accessories, removable straps, or metal parts, if you can.

    Once the backpack is empty, run a vacuum nozzle along all the seams (inside and out) to remove any dust or debris.

    Someone removing items from a backpack
    The Spruce / Ana Cadena
  2. Read the Care Label

    Look for any tags that offer washing instructions. Most fabric backpacks can either be washed by hand or machine-washed. Leather or leather-trimmed backpacks should be cleaned just like a leather jacket.

    Someone reading the care label on a backpack
    The Spruce / Ana Cadena
  3. Clean the Straps

    If the straps need to be cleaned and are removable, wash them by hand in a solution of heavy-duty liquid laundry detergent (like Tide or Persil) that contains enough enzymes to break apart the soil so it can be flushed away with warm water. Allow the straps to soak for 30 minutes to loosen soil, and then use a soft-bristled brush (or an old toothbrush) to clean heavily stained areas. Rinse in cool water, and allow the straps to air-dry. Don't place in a clothes dryer.

    Someone scrubbing backpack straps
    The Spruce / Ana Cadena
  4. Add the Backpack to the Washer

    Place the backpack in an old pillowcase or a large mesh laundry bag, and wash in warm water using the washer's gentle cycle along with your regular laundry detergent.

    A backpack in a pillowcase on a washer
    The Spruce / Ana Cadena
  5. Choose a Disinfectant

    Once in a while, a backpack needs some serious cleaning to get rid of bacteria. This is especially important if gym clothes are left in the bag for several days. Athlete's foot fungus can easily transfer from socks and shoes to other surfaces.

    To disinfect a backpack or gym bag, skip the chlorine bleach, which can damage the fabric. Instead, choose a pine oil, phenolic disinfectant, or disinfectant wipe. Pine oil disinfectants are effective in warm water. (Brand names include Pine-Sol, Spic and Span Pine, and Lysol Pine Action.) To be effective, the product must contain at least 80 percent pine oil. Phenolic disinfectants are also effective in warm water and will not harm fabrics. Lysol disinfectant is available in a liquid, wipe, and spray formulas.

    Someone wiping down a backpack
    The Spruce / Ana Cadena 
  6. Disinfect the Backpack

    To disinfect the inside and outside of the backpack, mix a one-to-one solution of the disinfectant and warm water. Use a clean sponge or cloth to carefully wipe down the surfaces. You can also add the disinfectant to the wash water (follow label directions for the correct amount) when hand-washing or machine-washing the bag.

    Someone wiping a backpack with a sponge
    The Spruce / Ana Cadena 
  7. Air-Dry the Backpack

    Use an old towel to wipe down the inside of the pack and each of the pockets. Allow the backpack to air-dry by hanging it with the zippers and pockets open as much as possible. Don't place in a hot dryer or dry in direct sunlight because that could damage some fabrics.

    A yellow backpack on a hanger
    The Spruce / Ana Cadena

Storing a Backpack

A backpack is generally designed to take a beating. Hanging a backpack from a hook or placing it on a chair or table is an ideal way to store your backpack on a daily basis. If you need to store it long-term, however, make sure it's clean and empty before putting it away. When not in use, store it flat, dry, and clean in a plastic bin, or place it on a closet shelf.

Repairs

A broken backpack is of no use, especially if there are holes and broken zippers that let contents fall out of the bag. Interior pocket rips can be mended with a needle and thread if you can reach the tear, which is typically on a seam. Fix exterior mesh pocket tears with similar fabric patches, which will make the pocket functional again.

Depending on the design of the straps, broken ones can be fixed. If the strap goes through a buckle, you might need to cut down the strap and use an anvil to create another hole for the buckle. If a strap, zipper, or buckle needs replacement and the fabric is too tough to sew through with a needle and thread, consult a shoe repair professional who also has the right tools to fix handbags. Before replacing a zipper, see if pliers can fix bent teeth or a distorted slider.

Treating Stains on a Backpack

If the backpack says it shouldn't be washed, spot-clean a stain using a one-to-one solution of detergent and water, but try not to oversaturate the fabric. Rinse using a clean white cloth dipped in water. Blot until no detergent or soil is transferred to the cloth, and air-dry the bag.

Tips for Washing a Backpack

  • If washing by hand, fill the tub or large sink with enough lukewarm water to cover the item, and add about 1 tablespoon laundry detergent. Allow it to soak for 15 minutes, and then swish the backpack through the water to remove soil. Drain the soapy water, and rinse very well. Don't wring or twist the backpack because it can damage zippers and trim. Hang to air-dry.
  • If a backpack is waterproof, wash it only once or twice per year. Too much washing and detergent can lessen the pack's ability to repel water. Waterproofing sprays can be used to replenish lost coating. Be sure the backpack is clean and completely dry before spraying.
  • Don't bring a backpack to the dry cleaners. The dry cleaning process and the solvents involved could ruin the shape and finish of your bag, especially if it's waterproof.