How to Clean and Care for a Backpack

Three kids on bikes wearing backpacks

Ronnie Kaufman / Larry Hirshowitz / Getty Images

Backpacks have transformed from a hiker's necessity to both a fashion statement and favorite way to carry essentials for people of all ages. Whether you are carrying camping equipment, gym clothes, or school supplies, eventually the backpack is going to need to be cleaned. Fortunately, they don't require frequent washings—once or twice a year will suffice unless it becomes soiled beyond daily wear. Before you wash your backpack, you can run a vacuum hose along all the seams (inside and out) to remove any stuck dust or debris.

How to Wash a Backpack
Detergent Heavy-duty for straps; regular for rest of the bag
Water Temperature Warm
Cycle Type Gentle
Drying Cycle Type Do not machine-dry
Special Treatments Wash in garment bag; air-dry
Iron Settings Not Applicable

Project Metrics


Working time: 5 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes, plus air-drying time

Skill level: Beginner

What You’ll Need

Supplies

Tools

Instructions

  1. Empty All of the Pockets

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

  2. Read 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 following the instructions for cleaning leather jackets, shoes, and hats.

  3. Clean the Straps

    If the straps need to be clean, wash them by hand in a solution of heavy-duty liquid laundry detergent (like Tide or Persil) that contains enough enzymes to break apart 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 (an old toothbrush is great) to clean heavily stained areas. Rinse in cool water and allow the straps to air-dry. Do not place in a clothes dryer.

  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.

  5. Disinfect to Get Rid of Bacteria

    Once in a while, a backpack needs some serious cleaning. This is especially important if gym clothes are left in the pack 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 fabric, and instead choose a pine oil or phenolic disinfectant or a disinfectant wipe. Pine oil disinfectants are effective in warm water. (Brand names include Pine Sol, Spic-n-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 brand disinfectant is available in a liquid formula or as a spray.

  6. Disinfect the Inside of the Backpack

    To disinfect the inside 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 inside surfaces.

    You can also add the disinfectant to the wash water (follow label directions for the correct amount) when hand-washing or machine-washing.

  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. Do not place in a hot dryer or dry in direct sunlight because that could damage some fabrics.

Treating Stains on Backpacks

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

Tips for Washing Backpacks

  • If washing by hand, fill the tub or large sink with enough lukewarm water to cover the item and about 1 tablespoon of 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. Do not 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.