How to Wash a Backpack: The Do’s and Don’ts


Splish, splash, does your backpack need a bath? If you answered yes, you may be wondering how to wash a backpack. Upkeep is the easiest way to maintain cleanliness—but it’s not always at the top of our never-ending to-do list. Our beloved cargo carriers are our trusty sidekicks as we tackle each new day. They’ve housed sweaty post-HIIT workout clothes, crumbly snacks or maybe even traveled the world. A deep cleaning once or twice per year can do wonders for the longevity of a rucksack. All you’ll need is a little elbow grease, a few household supplies and our easy step-by-step instructions to get started. Read on to find out how to give your favorite backpack the TLC it deserves. 

How to Clean a Backpack: 3 Steps to Prep 

Before we dig into the nitty gritty on how to wash a backpack, make sure you have all your ducks in a row. Dot your i’s and cross your t’s with these three prep steps before you roll up your sleeves and start washing. These quick tips will ensure your cleaning process works like a well-oiled machine.

1. Gather Supplies

Before you start scrubbing away, you’ll need a few supplies in play. The good news? You probably already have all of the household products you will need. For soap, you’ll want a mild, non-bleach detergent that’s free of dyes and perfumes made for sensitive skin. These fragrance-free cleansers will keep the integrity of your pack by thoroughly cleaning and not masking odors. Next, grab a sponge or a few washcloths, an old toothbrush and towels for drying. If you’re planning to utilize your washing machine, we highly recommend first placing it inside a laundry bag. Don’t have one? A pillow case will do the trick. Are you wondering how to clean your backpack by hand? Stay tuned—we have the do’s and don’ts for both. 

2. Prep Your Backpack

It’s time to open every pocket and compartment to remove all contents from your bag. Brace yourself—you might be surprised by what you find. Forgotten food could have caused creepy-crawlies to attack your pack. On the flipside, you might score loose change to stash away in your wanderlust jar. Throw away any trash and place all other items in a separate container to stay organized. 

With all compartments unzipped and open, shake out any remaining crumbs and dust. A lint roller or vacuum attachment will come in handy for those stubborn debris in hard to reach corners. Be sure to remove any metal frames and detachable straps. To prevent snagging or jammed zippers, cut all loose threads and re-zip all zippers. Nice job—step two of how to wash a backpack is complete.

3. Follow Care Instructions

If you were able to find a care instructions label, then you’re one step ahead. Typically, they’re located inside the backpack along a zipper (usually in the main compartment). No luck? Before diving into the next step of washing, do a test swatch on a discrete spot. We recommend the inside of a pocket where you can hide the test if things go awry. Mix a small amount of detergent with equal parts water to ensure no damage or discoloration occurs. This preemptive step when cleaning a backpack is essential to keep your bag looking its best.

How to Wash a Backpack in a Washing Machine

Just like clothes, not all backpacks are created equal. Before seeking guidance on how to wash a backpack in the washing machine, first check if you can. Luckily, most backpacks are made of nylon, canvas and polyester—all materials that can withstand a gentle cycle. Be mindful of the trims and straps as well. If they’re made from a delicate material like leather (we’ll get into cleaning that a bit later), take pause. You’ll want to consider an alternative cleaning solution. Always read the care instructions label, and if it indicates that it’s machine-washable—you’re good to go. Follow these easy steps for how to wash a backpack for squeaky-clean results.

Machine Wash on Gentle Cycle

For the next phase of how to wash a backpack in a washing machine, always use the gentle cycle. Secure any straps to prevent tangling or scratching the inside of the machine. This is when those large laundry bags come in handy. If you’re using a pillow case, secure the opening by tying a knot. Turning the backpack inside out will also work in a pinch. The goal is to minimize impact to your backpack as much as possible while running the wash. 

Fill the detergent to the first line of the cap (you don’t need much since you’re washing your backpack solo). Using detergent packs? Toss one into the wash, and you’re set. If you’re using concentrated powder detergent, measure one tablespoon for this job. Now, run the gentle or delicate cycle. If your washing machine simply indicates a wash/rinse cycle, choose cold/cold. Turn the knob to start and let the suds work their magic.

Can You Put a Backpack in the Dryer?

As you’re patiently waiting for your backpack to finish washing, you might be wondering, can you put a backpack in the dryer? The answer? Never. Like, ever. When researching best practices for how to wash a backpack, leave tumble-drying off your list. Doing so can degrade the integrity of your bag and cause irreversible damage.

Instead, hang-dry upside-down with every compartment open to prevent water from pooling. If possible, place outside to allow fresh air and sunlight to eliminate lasting odors and speed up the drying process. It can take a day or two to completely dry—but triple check that it’s fully aired out before stowing away. A semi-dry backpack is a breeding ground for mold. Eek—need a solution for the mold you found inside your bag? We have a few tips for that later. 

How to Wash a Backpack by Hand

When in doubt, wash by hand. It’s the safest, gentlest method for washing anything you cherish—your trusty backpack included. Follow the prep work listed above, then jump to these remaining steps for how to wash a backpack by hand.

Wash in Sink, Bathtub or Large Bin

For small to medium-size backpacks, choose the largest sink in your house and fill it with lukewarm water. Opt for a bathtub or large basin when figuring out how to wash a backpack of sizable scale. No need to fill the whole tub—add just enough water to fully submerge your bag. Some brands give directions not to submerge their bags, so instead, hook it onto the shower head or sink nozzle while washing. Add a tablespoon of detergent to the water and swirl to mix. Dip your washcloth into the solution and begin scrubbing the backpack inside and out (a sponge will have a softer touch on mesh areas). Wield your old toothbrush to get into the nooks and crannies as well as going after tough stains, like tree sap. 

Rinse with Cool Water

After you’ve scrub-a-dub-dubbed ‘til your heart’s content, drain the dirty water. Rinse your sponge or grab a fresh washcloth and dampen it with cool, clean water. Wipe off any sudsy residue and rinse the bag until the water runs clear. Pat with a dry towel to remove excess moisture and follow the air-drying method described above. Remember: avoid the dryer for longevity. Feel confident knowing you have the answers when someone asks you how to wash a backpack by hand in the future.

Stylist Tip: Sanitize any items you plan on putting back into your bag with a disinfectant wipe to stop the spread of germs and bacteria. This will keep your backpack in tip-top shape even longer. Whip out our instructions for how to wash a backpack once it’s time for a new deep clean. 

How to Clean a Backpack with Leather Details 

Leather detailing always makes a fashion statement. From accessories to shoes, leather items are an investment for your collection. These precious pieces can last a lifetime when taken care of properly. When pondering how to wash a backpack made from leather, we have helpful tips to consider. Do you have a canvas bag with leather straps, or is your bag made completely from soft leather? You’ll want to follow the hand-washing method listed above with a few changes to consider. 

When deciding how to clean a backpack with leather details, you’ll find it’s similar to caring for a leather jacket. Instead of taking it outside to dry, since sunlight can cause leather to stiffen and crack, hang it above your bathtub. Seek out a plastic hanger for this purpose and utilize a shower curtain rod or shower head. If you’re working with genuine leather, apply a sparse amount of leather conditioner like one from Weiman or Leather Honey. If your backpack is made from vegan leather or faux-leather, you can skip the conditioners. Spot treating your bags is your best bet to keep it looking its finest.

Extra Tips for Washing an Outdoor Backpack

Picture yourself decked out in your cutest hiking gear. You’ve fully embraced the biker shorts trend by styling them with a matching cropped tee. A pair of colorful sport sandals (one of our favorite summer 2021 fashion trends) are strapped to your feet. You’re ready for your next adventure through the narrows with a slight chance of getting wet. Well, your sandals got soaked and, uh-oh, they’ve been sitting in your bag for two weeks. Nervous about the state of your beloved outdoor backpack? Don’t fret, we’ve got you. Let’s dive into a few tips on how to  clean your backpack and tackle the moldy smell emanating from it. 

How to Clean Mold out of a Backpack

Mold—a nemesis we all deal with at some point in our lives. If you’re wondering how to clean mold out of a backpack, you’ve come to the right place. We’re mold-fighting warriors and we’re here to help. Shake the backpack outside to prevent the spread of mold spores inside your home. Protect yourself by wearing a mask, and don’t be afraid to make a fashion statement while doing so.

Use a coarse brush to scrape away visible spores. The next step for how to clean a backpack? Create a cleaning solution made of plain white vinegar and water. Apply the solution to a rough sponge and scour the entire backpack focusing on intense stains. The smell of vinegar will dissipate after you’ve given it a deeper clean by hand or in a washing machine. Voilà—mold be gone.

How to Wash The North Face Backpacks

Looking for directions on how to wash The North Face Backpacks? You’ve invested in a high-quality outdoor rucksack and you want to give it the utmost care. We don’t blame you. Always check to see if there’s a product care page for the brand of bag you own. If you’re needing to do more than spot clean, follow our directions for hand washing. As The North Face recommends, don’t fully submerge their packs in water. 

Is your backpack waterproof? After you’ve gone through the step-by-step instructions for how to clean a backpack by hand, you may want to consider additional reproofing steps. A spray-on DWR (durable water repellent) can improve water resistance. Now you’re ready for the splash zone on your next white water rafting excursion.  

How to Wash a School Backpack

Let’s face it, the cost of getting yourself or your kiddos prepared for back to school each autumn is pricey. With textbooks, school supplies and registration fees, you don’t need another item on your purchase list. What if you had helpful ideas for how to wash a school backpack that could extend its life and prevent wear and tear? Our first tip? Invest in a high-quality book bag from brands like Hershel or Fjällräven. With proper care using hand washing cleaning methods, they can last for years. This is far more cost effective than buying a new one each year.  

Reference our washing guides above for a deeper clean, but ultimately, consistent maintenance is key. When gathering tips for how to clean a backpack on a weekly basis, a few simple habits can do wonders. At the end of every day, remove used gym clothes, leftover lunches and half-drunk water bottles to prevent spills. Spot clean stains with a mild soap and an old toothbrush as soon as you notice them. Lastly, a quick swipe with a baby wipe can get rid of any superficial marks before they set in. Now that, you’re basically Mr. Clean and might be looking for ways to get grass stains out of jeans next.

Whether you’re deciding which backpack is right for you or you have additional stain-fighting woes, our team of experts are on stand-by. If you’re ready to add a new backpack into your rotation, take your style quiz, leave a note for your stylist and sit back and relax. Shipping and returns are always free. We’ll send items to try with a backpack that matches your style. 

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