How to Wash and Disinfect a Backpack

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Backpacks have transformed from simply a hiker's necessity to both a fashion statement and necessity for almost everyone from preschoolers to adults. Whether you carry camping equipment, gym clothes, or school supplies, eventually the backpack is going to need to be cleaned. Learn how to wash and disinfect a backpack to keep it clean and smelling fresh and so it will last as long as possible. Use these same tips when washing gym bags, too!

How to Wash and Dry a Backpack

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. 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.

Take off any added clip-on accessories, removable straps, or metal parts if possible. If the straps need cleaning, wash them by hand in a solution of heavy-duty liquid laundry detergent that contains enough enzymes to break apart soil so it can be flushed away (Tide or Persil) and 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 to air dry. Do not place in a clothes dryer.

If the backpack has stains, use a soft brush dipped in a one part heavy-duty liquid detergent to one part water solution to scrub away any residue. Place the backpack in an old pillowcase or a large mesh laundry bag and wash in warm water in the washer's gentle cycle using your regular laundry detergent.

When the cycle is finished, remove the backpack from the pillowcase or mesh bag. 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 which can damage some fabrics.

If washing by hand, use a large sink, plastic tub, or bathtub so the entire backpack can be submerged. Fill the tub with enough lukewarm water to cover the item and about one tablespoon of laundry detergent. Allow it to soak for fifteen minutes and then swish the backpack through the water to remove soil. Drain soapy water and rinse very well. Do not wring or twist the backpack because it can damage zippers and trim. Hang to air dry.

You should wash a backpack only once or twice per year if it has waterproofing. Too much washing and detergent can lessen the pack's ability to repel water. There are waterproofing sprays that can be used to replenish lost coating. Be sure the backpack is clean and completely dry before using. Waterproofing is a great option for a new backpack because the coating will help repel soil and stains as well as water.

If the backpack says that it should not be washed, spot clean using a one to one detergent/water solution trying not to oversaturate the fabric. "Rinse" using a clean white cloth dipped in plain water. Blot until no detergent or soil is transferred. Air dry.

How to Disinfect a Backpack

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 to other surfaces.

To disinfect a backpack or gym bag, skip the chlorine bleach which can damage fabric and choose instead 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 most areas. 

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. Allow to air dry.

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