How to Keep Your Luggage From Stinking

Shawn Forno

Smelly luggage sucks. We can all agree on that. But if you travel a lot, or for long stretches of time, there’s a decent chance that your bag—and your clothing—might start to smell a little musty.

And that’s not ok.

Nothing ruins a trip faster than being labelled as “the smelly guy or gal” on the plane, bus, or at the hostel. Seriously, you do not want to be that person.

So, to help you avoid the travel funk and keep stink out of your packing list, here are a few simple, effective ways to stop your luggage from smelling like crap. Smelling so fresh and so clean is easier than you think. And it’s TSA-friendly.

How to Keep Your Luggage from Stinking

Packing Tips

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

I like to pack an extra small, empty packing cube for dirty clothes. As I go through socks, underwear, and shirts I simply stuff them into this cube until it’s full. Then, it’s time to do laundry. The packing cube packs flat, weighs nothing, gives me a little extra “stash spot” for dirty clothes. 

Wet/Dry Bags

Dry bags are another great travel laundry bag option because they can seal shut, locking the smell of dirty laundry away from the rest of your clean clothing. And if you take your clothes to the laundromat, you’ve got a built in carrying case.

Dry bags fold down to nothing when you’re not using them, don’t cost much, and even “double” as dry bags for your tech gear when you go to the beach. I know. Who’da thunk it?

Outbreaker Wet/Dry Bags ($29), with an anti-microbial stink proof coating on the inside, are obviously great, as well as Sea to Summit dry bags for more size options (2 – 20L sizes).

Travel Laundry Bags

Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of so-called “travel laundry bags.” If you haven’t seen them before, they’re basically clear dry bags with a mesh pouch for filling with water and doing laundry on the go. Here’s a full review of a travel laundry bag from a few years ago. 

These bags are fine for what they are, but at the end of the day, they’re just another piece of gear that you don’t really need to bring with you. They’re slightly better than hand washing in a sink, but still not as good as an actual washing machine.

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.

Packing Hacks for Cleaner Clothes

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
  • 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 new 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.

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.

How to Keep Clothes Smelling Fresh While You Travel

Packing hacks and tips can only take you so far. Here are a few ways to keep your clothing from smelling musty.

Hang Your Clothing Up

This should be a no-brainer, but a lot of people can’t be bothered to hang their clothing up once they arrive at their destination. If you want to wear something more than once (and you do if you’re traveling in a carry on), you have to let it air out. 

Buy Better Fabrics

A few pieces of “travel” clothing can transform your bag from a locker room duffle into a digital nomad capsule. You just have to get a few pieces of odor-resistant clothing to stretch your wardrobe for days or even weeks between washes.

Merino wool is my go-to travel fabric, especially for travel t-shirts and travel underwear. It’s comfy, great for hot and cold climates, doesn’t wrinkle, and can be worn multiple times between washes. If you only pick up one or two pieces of “travel clothing” for your next trip, try to make them merino.

Shirts Matter More Than Pants

If you have to choose between packing an extra shirt or another pair of pants, go with the shirt. Most of the unpleasant stench of travel comes from your armpits (sorry, it’s true). You can wear a good pair of travel pants for a week without much smell, but your shirt can pick up your unique musk in just a matter of hours.

I like to pack a few tank tops to help insulate my t-shirts from my sweaty back on travel days, and they double as my main shirt when it’s hot. Win-win.

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
  • You should wash your backpack every now and then (steps above)
  • 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

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