How to Wash a Backpack

Fred Perrotta

You probably fall into one of two camps.


  1. You love having a filthy, dirty backpack because it shows what you’ve been through or
  2. You want a clean, well-taken-care-of backpack because you want to protect the investment you made in it.

This article is for the second group. Read on to find out how to wash a backpack after a trip.

Getting Started

 First, make sure to wipe off your backpack any time you spill something on it or otherwise dirty it. A few seconds of effort right when it gets dirty will prevent more work later when the stain has set.

Always follow the care instructions on your backpack’s label (if it has one).

In most cases, you should hand wash your pack to prevent damage or discoloration. If the care instructions tell you to machine wash the bag, go for it. In that case, you can skip ahead to the section on machine washing your bag.

How to Hand Wash Your Backpack

Hand washing your backpack will allow you to target problem areas with a little extra elbow grease and prevent a washing machine from damaging the zippers or tearing the straps.

First, fill a large sink or bathtub with cool to lukewarm water. By not using hot water, you’ll avoid burning yourself or damaging your pack.

Add a gentle detergent or natural soap like Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap to the water. If you use detergent, make sure it’s free of dyes, fragrances, and chemicals which could damage your bag or irritate your skin.

Dr. Bronner’s should be strong enough to clean most packs. If not, you can always rewash the bag with a stronger cleaner later.

Prepping Your Bag

While you’re filling the sink or tub, prep your bag.

Empty each pocket and dump out the contents of the bag. If it has dirt or crumbs inside, turn the pack inside out and use a handheld vacuum or attachment to clean the interior.

Brush off any loose dirt from the outside and wipe the bag with a wet cloth. This will prevent any large, solid debris from mixing in with your clean, soapy water.

Trim any loose threads, especially those near zippers. Since zippers are a common fail point in most bags, we want to clean them out and make sure they’re running smoothly. Older zippers can become damaged and prone to snagging.

 Before washing, you can pretreat any stains with either a direct application of soap or a slurry of Oxiclean and water. Follow the directions on the package for how much of each to mix, up to 1 scoop of Oxiclean per 16 ounces of water.

 Use your finger to apply the soap or an old toothbrush to apply the slurry. Then wait up to 10 minutes. Do not allow either to dry on the bag. After 10 minutes, blot it well with a white towel and rinse the area thoroughly. Then you can proceed to the next section on washing.

 If you have something sticky on your bag (don’t worry, I won’t ask), try GooGone to remove it.

Washing Your Bag

 You can submerge your bag while cleaning, but do not soak it. Wash it then move on. This part shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.

Move your backpack around vigorously in the water. Use an old toothbrush for extra cleaning power on problematic spots. Make sure to give embroidered areas extra attention with the toothbrush as dirt can get lodged between the threads.

Run the toothbrush gently along your bag’s zippers to clean between the teeth and keep them running smoothly.

Once you’ve thoroughly cleaned your bag, drain the soapy water from the tub. Then refill it with clean water for the “rinse cycle.”

Gently rinse your bag out with the clean water. You can even run water over the bag if you do so gently. Use a nozzle, rather than the open spigot, for this.

Once you’ve rinsed your bag, remove it from the water and wring it out as best as you can. This will help it dry faster.

Finally, hang your bag to air dry. Open all of the compartments and pockets to prevent mustiness. A shady but open space is best as direct sunlight can cause your bag’s colors to fade.

How to Machine Wash Your Backpack 

If your backpack’s care label recommends machine washing, feel free to wash it at home or at the laundromat. Make sure to follow the instructions on the label.

To prevent damage, especially to your bag’s straps, wash it in a laundry sack or oversized pillowcase. The column in the center of most washing machines can catch on straps and rip them. Plus, machine washing is much rougher on your bag than hand washing.

Set your machine on gentle or delicates and use cold water. These settings will prevent damage (gentle cycle) and color bleeding (cold water).

Keep an eye on the washing machine in case your bag gets stuck on one side and causes an “unbalanced load.” The machine will stop, so you may need to move your bag around or add a counterweight to restart the cycle. 

I’ve had this problem before when washing large items like rugs. You can add another item like a towel or two to help prevent this problem. 

Your bag’s care instructions should include directions for drying the bag. Dryers can also damage bags because they are rough and use intense heat.

I recommend air drying your bag, even if you machine washed it. If it has foam (most bags do), this is doubly important.

Final Notes

Congratulations, you now have a clean bag! Its “experience” is no longer an eyesore.

Once your bag is dry, treat the zippers to keep them running smoothly. A non-greasy, non-staining silicone spray will help lubricate the zippers and keep them from rusting. The helpful users at Ask Metafilter recommend using paraffin wax, powdered graphite, or even a crayon to keep zippers running smoothly.

Wiping down your bag after a trip is always a good idea, but you shouldn’t do a full wash too often. Once or twice per year is plenty. Excessive washing can damage the bag and wear away its day-to-day water resistance.


Want more like this?

Get weekly gear reviews, travel hacks, and packing tips sent straight to your inbox. As an added bonus, we’ll send you a carry on packing list right away.