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How to Wash a Backpack: A Step-by-Step Guide

How to Wash a Backpack
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Updated October 23, 2023

It won’t cross your mind while you’re enjoying your well earned vacation—but a frequent traveler’s favorite backpack picks up more filth than you’d expect. Think about it: Your luggage moves from the flight, to the hotel, and into the car rental, only for you to double up on dirt for the return trip. Sounds kind of gross, right? Even if your backpack isn’t used as often as a student’s or camper’s bag, it’s simply practicing good hygiene to wash the crumbs, skin oils, and dust from your go-to carry-all from time to time. Since washing a backpack isn’t something we do particularly often, you may not be aware that  the best way to clean it is to run it through the washing machine or hand wash it.  There are also essential techniques to safely clean it without damaging its materials. Thankfully, the process is easier than you may expect. Here, we’ll cover how to prepare your backpack for a wash, how to wash it, the supplies to keep on-hand for this chore, and more. 

Preparing your backpack for a wash

Whether you plan on machine or hand washing your backpack, and no matter what it’s made of, the preparation stage is the same across the board. Open every pocket, zipper, and flap and shake the backpack vigorously over a trash can to dislodge as much debris, dust, and loose odds and ends as you can. Consider vacuuming your backpack’s interior so you remove every last scrap.

If your backpack has a care label on its interior, take a moment to read if it notes any specific washing instructions. When it comes to introducing cleaning products to a cloth item like your backpack—it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Spot treat stains and grime with soap or detergent by gently rubbing the area with a rag or towel to remove or loosen particularly dirty areas. Be gentle when scrubbing, because the pre-treatment will go a long way towards removing those caked-in stains.

How to wash a backpack by hand

Step 1: Fill a container or bathtub with six inches of water and stir in a tablespoon of gentle detergent. Scrub the interior and exterior fabrics with a sponge or towel. Note that a toothbrush is a solid option for finishing off stubborn stains and scouring zippers clean.

Step 2: Drain the dirty water and refill the washing container with fresh warm water to rinse the backpack. Wash away the remaining dirt and detergent, and consider using a showerhead to easily rinse all of the bag’s nooks and crannies.

Step 3: Pat the backpack down with a towel and hang it upside-down in a well-ventilated area to dry.

How to wash a backpack in the washing machine

Step 1: Your backpack will be ruined if its straps get caught in the washing machine, so open all of its pockets and zippers before inserting the backpack into a mesh laundry bag. Note that a large pillowcase will also work in a pinch!

Step 2: Use a small amount of mild detergent and wash your backpack on the shortest and most gentle cycle.

Step 3: Use a towel to soak up excess moisture before setting the backpack upside down on a drying rack. Tumbling a backpack in the dryer will put a lot of unneeded wear and tear on your bag, so air drying is always the best solution.

Supplies for cleaning your backpack:

A towel, sponge, and/or toothbrush

Washing machine, bathtub, or large basin

Mesh laundry bag or pillowcase

Gentle detergent or soap

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The North Face Women’s Borealis Backpack: Dusty Periwinkle/Black

How do you clean a leather backpack?

Just like wallets, boots, and other goods, backpacks made of leather and those sporting leather patches, embroidery, or other components should be washed by hand using the instructions above, with the following extra steps to clean leather parts.

Spray a leather cleaner, such as 303 Leather 3-In-1 Complete Care, directly onto the surface, and use a towel to gently wipe the area clean. Consider using a small amount of leather cleaner beforehand to ensure it doesn’t alter the leather’s color, and if the leather parts of the backpack are particularly grimy, you may need to use quite a bit more spray to effectively clean it.

How to wash a polyester or nylon backpack

As long as they don’t include any leather, suede, or other fabrics, polyester and nylon backpacks are easily cleaned in the washing machine.

How to wash canvas and cotton backpacks

Good news! Both canvas and cotton backpacks are safely machine washable, if they don’t feature any leather or suede materials in their designs.

How to wash a JanSport backpack

JanSport backpacks are particularly popular, and it’s no surprise that owners want to make sure that they’re safely cleaning their favorite bags. The official JanSport website specifically suggests hand washing their backpacks by spot cleaning with cool water and a towel instead of soaking the entire pack and to take special care to avoid getting suede or leather components wet.

Tips for caring for your backpack

Using hot water and scrubbing too vigorously may damage a backpack’s protective waterproof coating, if it has one.

Never leave your backpack to dry in direct sunlight, as too much ultraviolet light may fade its colors and degrade its materials.

Be careful when washing mesh areas, as they are easier to accidentally tear than you may expect.

The quickest way to wash away built-up grime from a clear acrylic backpack is to wipe it away with a cotton ball soaked in an acetone-free nail polish remover.

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The North Face Surge 31L Backpack - TNF Black

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Should I wash a backpack by itself?

If you want to thoroughly clean a nylon or polyester backpack in the washing machine, the best way to ensure that water and detergent evenly flow in and around every pouch, crevice, and flap of the backpack is to wash it by itself in the shortest and most gentle wash cycle on your washing machine.

Can you dry a backpack?

No! Whatever you do, don’t tumble your backpack in the dryer, as the extra wear and tear of a spin in the dryer is likely to damage it. Instead, simply pat the backpack dry with a towel inside and out, and hang it upside-down to air dry. If you’re in a hurry, consider placing the damp backpack in front of a fan for a faster drying time.

How do you clean a smelly backpack?

Funky backpack odors happen to the best of us, but there are a few techniques to efficiently deodorize a bad-smelling backpack:

Wipe the backpack inside and out with sanitizing wipes to eliminate the odor-causing bacteria.

Air out the backpack outside in a shady spot for a while, especially after washing to prevent smelly mildew growth.

Spray deodorizer such as Febreze or Lysol inside the backpack to immediately replace a lingering stench with a pleasant scent like fresh laundry or citrus.

How often do you wash your backpack?

Even if your backpack isn’t particularly filthy, it’s a good practice to give it a good washing one or two times a year. It comes into contact with dust and dirt whenever you set it down, its straps absorb sweat and skin oils, and accidents happen. While it’s always a good idea to spot-clean and toss out trash as needed, you’ll know when your trusty backpack needs a proper deep cleaning.

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Briggs & Riley Rhapsody Essential Water Resistant Nylon Backpack in Black at Nordstrom

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