How to Keep Your Luggage and Clothes From Stinking

Shawn Forno, Megan Lee

Before you travel, have a gameplan for how to defunk your stuff—because travel should rarely stink. Here are a few simple, effective ways to stop your luggage from smelling terrible.

Anyone with a travel pack stuffed full of clothing knows that a quick jog or a sweaty bus ride can be the demise of a once-fresh collection. What are you supposed to do when you’re still a few days away from laundry, but you want to smell less like a gym bag now?

Before you travel, have a gameplan for how to defunk your stuff—because travel should rarely stink. Here are a few simple, effective ways to stop your luggage from smelling terrible. Smelling so fresh and so clean is easier than you think. From laundry hacks to what materials/gear to buy, this handy travel guide will help you feel fresh n’ clean on the fly. And it’s TSA-friendly.

Pack Materials That Stink Less

Athleisure is Your Friend

Some of the best fabrics for travel are athletic-inspired, made to repel sweat. Their sweat-wicking and antimicrobial properties will avoid absorbing bad odors and scents. 

Many companies will claim that their clothing is built with “Anti-Odor” fabric and materials. Not all technology works with all body types, so we recommend testing these in advance, prior to your travels, to see if their claims hold up.

Natural Fibers Fight Stink

If your #1 goal is stink-free travel, then I recommend that you opt for clothing made out of a natural materials like cotton, bamboo, wool, and linen. These fibers absorb moisture but not bacteria, so are an effective preemptive tactic to avoid stinky laundry while traveling.

On the flipside, polyester and other synthetic materials can end up being the most odorous overtime. 

Merino wool is the darling of travel clothes, as it can be reworn multiple times before you get a trace of odor. If you’re the travel-type who prefers to bring along the same top in multiple colors, we’d highly recommend a lightweight merino option.

Keep in mind, though, that these materials often take longer to dry, which can be annoying for travelers on the move frequently. A combination of quick-drying fabrics and thicker, natural fabrics will do your pack good.

How to Keep Clothes Smelling Fresh in a Suitcase

Separate Dirty Clothes

It may seem obvious, but a lot of people struggle to separate their dirty clothes from their clean ones while they’re traveling—especially in a carry on bag. However, this one tip is one of the easiest and most effective ways to keep your clothing smelling fresh on the road.

Use Packing Cubes

If you’ve tried a few of these on-the-road clothes freshening tactics and nothing is working, consider segregating your stinkiest stuff into a bag of its own. Even simple plastic bags with zippers (like gallon-sized sealable Ziploc bags) can keep the stink from infiltrating your fresh and clean clothes when the space is tight!

If you’re traveling with packing cubes, designate one for clean and one for dirty.

That Pocket You Never Use

Everyone has that pocket on their travel suitcase or backpack that they never use. You know which one I’m talking about. Yeah, that one on the side/front/back/top. Well, now you have a great use for it.

Use the empty, often forgotten “extra” pocket of your backpack as a dirty laundry compartment. Once it’s full, it’s time to do a wash.

Separate Your Shoes

My biggest tip for keeping your bag from smelling musty dusty and gross is simple—separate your shoes. Or better yet—don’t pack a second pair of shoes at all!

I know that’s a lot to ask, so if you insist on bringing a second or even third pair of shoes with you, do it right. That means:

  • Wrapping your shoes in a shower cap to keep them from getting dirt and crap on all of your clean clothing
  • Wrapping them in a plastic bag — It’s simple and effective, plus you never know when you’re gonna need a spare plastic bag
  • Stuff newspaper in your shoes—Paper’s porous properties will eat up most odors
  • Sneaker-balls are also great backups for this, especially if you prefer to devour your news digitally.
  • Insert one of those dashboard odor things in the shoes when you’re not wearing them

That last tip is serious. If you’ve got stinky feet (I do), don’t let that smell permeate the rest of your clothing. Toss a little Christmas tree shaped scent thingy inside your actual shoe and you’re good. Or go with the Pina Colada scent if you’re feeling tropical. Especially if you like getting caught in the rain.

Duffle Bag Travel

The best way to keep your bag from smelling like old shoes is to keep them in a separate compartment. That’s the reason I like the Setout Duffle Bag so much. The dedicated shoe compartment means that my sweaty sneakers will never come in contact with my merino wool shirts. And that’s fantastic.

Using Color to Mark Dirty Clothes

I learned this next level travel hack straight from the Minimalists documentary on Netflix. The way it works is you pack one different colored pair of underwear (or red shirt or black bra or whatever). Then you use that colored piece of clothing as a marker of what’s “clean” and what’s “dirty.”

For instance, any underwear that’s on top of the red pair of underwear is clean. Anything below it is dirty. You wear the colored pair either first or last and start the cycle again with all clean clothing.

It’s great for people who are on the go for long stretches of time (like the Minimalists on their year-long book tour), and it’s a simple hack to help keep your bag organized. I’m a big fan.

Pack More Tops Than Bottoms

Your look will appear entirely new when you swap out a top but reuse a pair of bottoms. One caveat? Pack bottoms that aren’t light colored—this will help you avoid wearing unsightly stains between washes, too.

Jeans are the perfect pair of travel pants for resisting odors without washing.

Bring Reusable Laundry Bags

Laundry bags can make laundry-on-the-go a little less stressful and a little more organized. Have a bag for wet stuff, a bag for stuff that needs laundering ASAP, a bag for stuff that can be reworn but has already been worn once… you get the idea. Packing cubes can doubletime as laundry bags for space-constricted travelers!

How to Make Clothes Smell Good

Dryer Sheets

This is an old packing hack, but it’s still a good one. Toss a fresh dryer sheet in with your clothing, or stuff it in an internal pocket in your main compartment and you’ll have a fresh lavender scent every time you open your bag. Especially if you choose a lavender scented dryer sheet. 

Be careful with dryer sheets though—I’m not a huge fan of the overly chemical smell of some dryer sheets. And they can also mask real odors on your clothes that you might not notice until someone points them out to you on the train. Which sucks. Use with caution.

If you’re super artsy, you can pack a small sachet of actual dried flowers or potpourri. Not only will it smell great, but you’ll get a half dozen new followers on Pinterest.

Pack Cedar Chips

A small cedar chip is a great alternative to scented dryer sheets. Toss a small cedar or even pine block into your bag (relax, they’re lightweight) and do it old school, like a fancy globe-trotting lumberjack.

Travel Febreze

I’m not a huge fan of travel Febreze because, like dryer sheets, it just masks the problem with chemical scents instead of actually eliminating odors. Useful in a pinch, but I’d rather just pack enough clean quality clothes to wear for a while, washing them when they get dirty instead of trying to revive them with fake scents that honestly smell kind of weird.

Essential Oils

Essential oils are a much better solution to smelly clothing than Febreze. Why? Because they actually smell awesome, and keep clothing smelling that much for longer.

More travelers are packing a small vial of scented essential oils in their carry on bag (and I mean tiny, like 2 ounces) because of the pleasant smell and use as a sleep aid. Just dab a little lavender oil on your temple (clearly, I like lavender) and you’ll be out in a sweet smelling dream land. Plus, your bag will have a subtle, pleasant smell from the bottle itself.

Hand Wash Underwear in the Sink

Packing a travel-sized bottle of Dr. Bronners soap is a tried-and-true strategy for travel veterans, regardless of the number of countries they have under their belt. Hand wash your underwear, boxers, bras in the sink with this castile soap and hang to dry nightly. Ta-da!

Keep Your Sock Game Strong

Wool only. Period.

Here are the best socks for every kind of trip. You’re welcome.

How to Freshen Up Clothes Without Washing Them

Hang Up Your Clothes When You Arrive

One of the easiest solutions for stinky clothes is to give them space (and time) to air out. When traveling, this means prioritizing moving your stuff from your backpack to hangers whenever possible. 

Hang Stinky Clothes in the Sun

If you’re into exercising or being highly-active while traveling, be sure to air out your workout clothes in the sun itself. The ultraviolet rays of the sunlight can kill the bacteria (often odorous) that your body sweat produces.

Turn your shirt inside out and hanging it up in direct sunlight on a sunny day. It won’t completely remove the stench, but this strategy can be a good preventative tactic before days of build up.

Vodka: It’s Not Just for Happy Hour

Vodka is known to work wonders for your confidence, but did you know it can help freshen your stinky travel clothes, too? Take a mini spray bottle and fill it ? with vodka, then fill the rest with water. Spray liberally on the areas-of-concern; it will dry odorless, kill bacteria, and remove smells quickly. We’ll drink to that!

Keep Your Bag Smelling Fresh: How to Clean a Backpack

Packing hacks and dryer sheets are great, but how do you actually clean your backpack?

If you’ve been using your bag for a while (read: a few long sweaty months of travel) it might be time to give the old workhorse a wash. Here’s how to hand wash a backpack:

  1. Dump out each pocket to get rid of dirt and crumbs – Use a vacuum attachment to get seams and crevices clean
  2. Trim loose threads, especially near the zippers
  3. Pretreat any obvious stains with soap, Tide pens, or something like OxyClean using an old toothbrush. Wait 10 minutes then rinse and dry
  4. Fill a large sink or tub with cold or room temperature water (hot water can damage your backpack)
  5. Add some Dr. Bronners or other gentle detergent
  6. Submerge your backpack, but don’t soak it!
  7. Scrub any dirty spots with that same toothbrush, paying attention to threads, patches, and embroidery as they can get extra dirty
  8. Clean zipper teeth with the toothbrush to remove any grit or build up (just like your teeth!)
  9. Drain the tub, refill with cool water and rinse the backpack
  10. Wring it out (as best you can)
  11. Hang dry with all the pockets and zippers wide open

TL;DR

Keeping your bag smelling fresh is more important than you think—especially if you want to make friends while you travel. Luckily, it’s easy to keep your carry on backpack and your travel clothing smelling great on the road.

  • Pack a small dry bag or extra packing cube to separate dirty clothes
  • A cedar chip, lavender sachet, essential oils, or scented dryer sheet will keep your bag smelling fresh for weeks
  • Invest in a few pieces of quality merino travel clothing to stretch your travel wardrobe further between washes
  • Pack more shirts than pants—they get stinkier more quickly
  • Keep your shoes separated with a plastic bag, shower cap, or separate compartment
  • Hang up your clothes when you arrive
  • You should wash your backpack every now and then (steps above)
 

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