No matter what kind of traveler you are, there’s a good chance that you own — and no doubt rely on — a decent backpack. Many serious adventurers spend quite a lot of cash on a high quality backpack, in the hope that it’ll last for many years. It’s essential to look after your gear, but sometimes, cleaning your precious backpack can do more harm than good.
In this guide, we’ll show you how to clean a backpack properly and safely, either in the washing machine or by hand. We’ll also discuss some of the things you shouldn’t do!
So, if you want to be sure that your faithful backpack will survive all of your adventures in years to come, here’s what you need to know.
How to Wash a Backpack in the Washing Machine?
So, you’ve come home from an exciting trip, and your backpack is in need of a major cleaning. Don’t just throw it in the washing machine and hope for the best! You’re likely to damage the washing machine and your backpack if you do that. Machine washing is only really suitable for smaller backpacks and daypacks, so that’s what we’ll focus on here.
Step 1: Check the label!
First things first, make sure that your backpack is machine washable! Many materials are not, such as leather. Nylon and canvas are generally okay, but it’s essential to check the specific care instructions.
Step 2: Empty it out
Empty all the compartments and pockets, making sure to check any secret or hidden areas. Even a small, forgotten tissue can create a big mess, while forgetting a tool or electrical device can do no end of damage. Be sure to also remove any metal frames and any other parts of your backpack that are detachable, as these can be washed separately.
Step 3: Pre-wash
If your backpack is really dirty — perhaps caked in mud from an off-road motorcycle trip or covered in the dust of the desert — give your washing machine a helping hand. In case of dust, shake it off as best you can outside, and use a small vacuum cleaner to get the rest. Don’t forget the inside, and use the vacuum to clear away any fluff, dust, or crumbs. With wet mud, stains, and ingrained dust, remove the worst with the shower or a garden hose, and use a toothbrush or sponge for stubborn spots. As you go, snip off any loose threads using a pair of scissors.
Step 4: Wash it gently!
Unzip all the pockets and, in the case of daypacks and smaller backpacks, turn your backpack inside out. Next, put it inside a laundry bag, or even an old pillowcase or something similar. This is important, as it’ll stop things like zips, straps and mesh sections from getting caught up inside the machine.
Set your machine to a gentle, cold wash, with a low spin speed. Avoid using hot water as this can damage some components, while using a high spin speed can cause your backpack to bunch up and wash unevenly. Choose a bleach-free, disinfecting detergent to kill off bacteria and germs.
Step 5: Dry your backpack
Once your machine has finished the spin cycle, take out your backpack and check that it’s washed evenly. Now all you need to do is hang it up somewhere warm and let it air dry, ideally in the sun.
How to Hand Wash a Backpack?
Larger backpacking backpacks aren’t really suitable for washing in a machine — you’ll struggle to fit them in, and if you do you might damage parts of it, like the backpad. But no worries, it’s easy enough to wash any backpack by hand. Here’s how;
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Step 1: Check the label
Check the care label to see if there are any cleaning chemicals that you shouldn’t use for your backpack, or if there are any recommended cleaning products (like nikwax for Osprey packs). This can vary depending on the material, although you should always avoid using bleach-based products, as these can discolor and weaken the material.
Step 2: Empty the inside
As before, empty your backpack out entirely and remove any frames or detachable parts, which can be washed separately. Give it a good, hard shake to dislodge any dust and debris that is on the outside. If you have a handheld vacuum cleaner, use this to get into those tight corners inside and out. A soft bristled brush can also work well.
Step 3: Spot clean the worst dirt
Start the cleaning by using a cloth soaked in warm water to scrub at the worst of the grime. Go over the exterior and remove as much of the surface dirt as possible. This will help later by keeping the cleaning water cleaner.
Step 4: Wash in the tub
Fill a large sink, bathtub, wooden barrel, a laundry basin, or anything else that’s big enough with warm water, around 20 ℃. Add in a gentle, bleach, dye, and fragrance-free washing detergent and submerge your backpack in the tub if it’s okay to do so — check the label! Once soaked, use a toothbrush or sponge to scrub at any stubborn dirt, checking inside and out.
Step 5: Rinse well and dry
If you have access to a shower head, use warm water to thoroughly rinse the cleaning solution from your backpack. A garden hose can also work well. Once you’re sure that you’ve rinsed any detergent away, you can dry the backpack. Try to wring out as much water as possible by squeezing it tight.
One method we’ve found really useful is to lay the backpack on a large, thick towel, then wrap it up into a roll and squeeze — the towel will absorb a lot of the water, so you don’t need to wring it out so much. Then, hang it upside down to air dry.
Can You Put a Backpack in the Dryer?
Never never never! Even on low settings, dryers typically use quite high heat. In the worst case scenario, this can melt the plastic parts of your backpack and cause irreparable damage to both your pack and the machine! Besides that, dryers can cause shrinkage, which ruins the strength of your backpack, as well as the aesthetics.
Instead, always air dry your backpack in a warm and breezy area. Outside is great, but even hanging from the shower rail or on the back of a chair will work.
How to Take Care of Your Backpack
It’s really useful to know how to wash your backpack, but in an ideal world, it’s best to avoid doing it too often. The more it goes through the washing process, the higher the risk of causing damage to the seams and material, even with gentle detergents. Fortunately, you shouldn’t really need to wash your backpack very often — a maximum of once or twice a year (when used intensively) should normally suffice.
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With these backpack care tips, you can ensure you won’t need to wash yours too often.
- Store dirty, smelly clothes and towels in a thick laundry bag rather than directly in your backpack, and consider adding some odor absorbers in there too. This way, sweat and dirt won’t become ingrained in the fabric.
- Store food in sealed containers or ziplock bags where possible and ensure that even if your thermos spills, or your fruit or sandwiches get squished, there’s a layer of protection between them and the material of your backpack.
- Regularly shake out the debris from inside your backpack and if needs be, use a hand-held vacuum to get the worst of the mess out. Things like crumbs will soon cause odors if they stay long enough.
- Check your pockets regularly as well. It’s all too easy to forget garbage in hidden pockets, which over time can cause bad smells.
- Let your backpack breathe after use. If you’ve been using your backpack for an extended period, be sure to let it air out for a day or two, ideally outside, but even just in the bathroom. Simply empty it completely and hang it upside down somewhere breezy. This prevents bacteria from gaining a foothold and also keeps it smelling fresh.
- Spot clean frequently. Small stains and spots of dirt should be dealt with sooner rather than later. In most cases, it’s far easier to clean dirt when it’s fresh, as over time it can seep into the fabric. We normally carry a pack of gentle, non-toxic wet wipes with us, which are ideal for quickly cleaning off mud and other stains.
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For more travel hacks, also check out our other travel tips!