Most fabric backpacks can be machine or hand-washed using heavy-duty laundry detergent in warm water. If you use the bag daily, consider washing it at least once or twice a year. Backpacks used for gym clothes and sporting equipment should be cleaned and disinfected more frequently. Never machine dry any type of backpack. Leather or leather-trimmed backpacks should be cleaned differently; care for them as you would for a leather jacket.
Continue reading for step-by-step cleaning instructions and tips for disinfecting, drying, storing, and repairing these essential bags for school students, hikers, and almost everyone who prefers these bags for toting their things.
Equipment / Tools
- Vacuum with nozzle
- Washing machine or tub
- Soft-bristled brush
- Heavy-duty laundry detergent
- Pine oil, phenolic disinfectant, or disinfectant wipes
- Mesh laundry bag or pillowcase
|How to Wash a Backpack|
|Drying Cycle Type||Do not machine-dry|
|Special Instructions||Wash in mesh bag and air-dry|
|Iron Settings||Do not iron|
|How Often to Wash||Once or twice a year|
Empty Every Pocket and Vacuum
The first step in cleaning any backpack is to empty everything from the pockets. 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.
Read the Care Label
Look for any tags that offer washing instructions. Most fabric backpacks can either be washed by hand or machine-washed.
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). These detergents contain enzymes that break apart the soil so you can flush it away with warm water. Allow the straps to soak for 30 minutes to loosen the 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 it in a clothes dryer.
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 and your regular laundry detergent.
Make a Disinfectant Solution
Once in a while, a backpack needs a serious cleaning to get rid of bacteria. Disinfect a bag if gym clothes are left in it 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 pine oil or a disinfectant wipe. Mix a one-to-one solution of the disinfectant and warm water.
Disinfect the Backpack
To disinfect the inside and outside of the backpack, use a clean sponge or cloth to wipe down the surfaces carefully. You can also add the disinfectant to the wash water (follow the label directions for the correct amount) when hand-washing or machine-washing the bag.
Air-Dry the Backpack
Use an old towel to wipe down the inside of the pack and each pocket. Allow the backpack to air-dry by hanging it with the zippers and pockets open as much as possible. Don't place it in a hot dryer or dry it in direct sunlight because that could damage some fabrics.
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.
Care and Repairs
A broken backpack is of no use, especially if holes and broken zippers let contents fall out of the bag. Mend interior pocket rips with a needle and thread if you can reach the tear, typically on a seam. Fix exterior mesh pocket tears with similar fabric patches, making the pocket functional again.
Depending on the design of the straps, you can fix broken ones. 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 with the right tools to fix handbags. Before replacing a zipper, see if pliers can fix bent teeth or a distorted slider.
Storing a Backpack
A backpack is generally designed to take a beating. Hanging a backpack on a hook or placing it on a chair or table is an ideal way to store your backpack daily. If you need to store it long-term, 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.
How Often to Wash a Backpack
Fortunately, a backpack doesn't require frequent washings. Cleaning once or twice a year will suffice unless it becomes soiled beyond daily wear and tear.
Tips to Keep a Backpack Cleaner Longer
- If washing by hand, fill the tub or large sink with enough lukewarm water to cover the item and add about 1 tablespoon of laundry detergent. Allow it to soak for 15 minutes, and then swish the backpack through the water to remove the soil. Drain the soapy water, and rinse very well. Don't wring or twist the bag because it can damage zippers and trim. Hang to air-dry.
- When hand-washing, you can roll the backpack up in a large towel like a jelly roll and press on it gently to remove excess water before air-drying to speed up the process without damaging zippers and trim.
- 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. Apply a waterproofing spray to replenish the lost waterproof coating. Ensure 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.
Can a backpack be cleaned in a washing machine?
In most cases, you can wash a fabric backpack in a washing machine; however, check the manufacturer's label to be sure. Never wash a leather or suede backpack in a washing machine. Also, if you have a camping backpack with a frame, only wash it if the frame is removable.
Is is safe to put a backpack in the dryer?
Do not dry a backpack in the clothes dryer. Instead, turn it inside out to air dry. Open all the pockets and dry it in a place with a lot of air circulation, like outside.
How do you remove odors from a backpack?
Empty the backpack. If you find where the smell comes from, work on the area by wiping it down with a disinfectant solution. Also, add pine disinfectant solution to the rinse cycle. For another option, mix dish soap and vinegar solution and use it to deodorize the bag.
Gupta, Aditya, K., Versteeg, Sarah, G. The Role of Shoe and Sock Sanitization in the Management of Superficial Fungal Infections of the Feet. Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association, 109,2,141-149, 2019, doi:10.7547/17-043
Reregistration Eligibility Decision for Pine Oil (Case 3113). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.