OUTDOORS

How to Wash a Backpack: Get Rid of That Dirty Feeling

Dennis Owens
Written by Dennis Owens

Backpacking in the wilderness can be a pretty exciting experience for most people, but when the trip comes to an end so does the fun – you will quickly realize that pretty much every piece of equipment you had is filthy and needs a good wash! But you’ve probably wondered how to wash a backpack properly without damaging it – easier said than done, right?

And that is where this article comes to help! After learning a few things, you will have a good idea about how you can clean your backpack without harming the fabric it is made from. On top of that, you can be rest assured that by washing properly, this central piece of equipment will have a long life so you can take it on many more hikes to come.

In order to help you out, we created this article. First, we will take a look at how you should prepare your backpack for the cleaning process. As soon as we are done with that we will take you through detailed processes of how to properly wash your backpack both manually and with the help of a washing machine. So without further ado, let’s get started!

Preparation Is Everything

As with most things in life, if you want to have a job done the proper way, first and foremost you will need to prepare for it in advance.

emptying backpack

This is also true for something as ordinary as washing a backpack. Let’s take a look at what you should do before your backpack will see even a drop of water.

Get Everything Out

This should come as an obvious advice, but emptying the backpack before washing it is a good idea. Why do we keep saying this? Well, even the smallest piece of paper left inside it might turn out to be an ugly surprise once you are done with the job.

Many people tend to forget that their backpacks have small pockets on them, pockets that might contain some smaller items that they have completely forgotten about.

Some items if left inside might not only have aesthetic repercussions, but they might actually leave real damage on the fabric. Even seemingly small items like pins and bottle caps might destroy a backpack, and as soon as you “finished” the cleaning you might notice glaring holes in the material.

washing-backpack

Always look into every nook and double check that nothing remains. If you need these items to be sorted and you are afraid of leaving them behind next time you go hiking, then place everything into separate bags, so you can simply empty the content of the bags back into the backpack once you are finished with the cleaning process.

If some of the equipment is just as dirty as the backpack, it might be a good idea to clean that as well. Surprisingly large amount of dirt, that goes into a backpack actually comes from ill-cleaned equipment and not from outside dirt or stains from plants.

Disassemble

This step is especially important if you plan to wash the backpack in a washing machine. If any extra element is left on the backpack, it could potentially cause serious tearing on the fabric and in a worst case, it might even make the backpack unusable going forward.

Detachable extras (like pockets and ties), metallic or plastic frames and even seemingly unimportant loose threads should be removed before continuing the cleaning process. Make sure that you know exactly how to put it back together once you are done, especially if you have no manual for it.

drying-backpack-with-dryer

Some of the more rigid parts that will need assembly will be harder to put together, once the backpack is soaked and dried. This is natural as many materials change their size even after a single wash. So don’t panic, just use a bit of extra force if needed.

The Secret Lies On the Label

Not many people tend to read the small labels that are on clothes and even fewer do it with backpacks. Don’t be that kind of person, as those tend to have backpacks that last far shorter amount of time than they should.

Cleaning labels often have very important information written on them, from the recommended washing temperature to the absolutely not recommended cleaning and maintenance procedures.

If there is no label on your backpack, then it might get tricky, especially if the backpack material was treated for different benefits in mind, previously.

backpack-label

Try to find the model number and look for the cleaning recommendations online. Many manufacturers do post them. If you still didn’t manage to find them, then simply try out the solutions you want to use on a small, not very visible portion, and see how the material reacts to it.

Stain Treatment Comes First

Before you can start the washing process, make sure that all tricky stains are already pre-treated. There are plenty of well-regarded solutions for this, but even simple generic detergent can do the trick if you mix it up with water and then use it with a smaller brush.

Make sure that whatever solution you will use it does not damage the backpack material. As soon as you have put it manually on every stain, make certain that you wait at least half an hour before commencing the washing procedure.

light-cleaning-backpack

The stains will probably still be there at this point, but this is natural, as they will only disappear once you start washing it with lukewarm water.

Washing by Hand

As soon as you are done with the preparation process, you can finally start the bulk of the work and wash your backpack, so you can use it during your next hike in pristine conditions.

The Temperature of the Water

If you have checked the label and there is no indication regarding the needed washing temperature, then the most sensible option is to prepare some lukewarm water in a tub. Use a fairly large tub, so you have plenty of space to wash it. This way the washing process will be easier.

Do not use hot water. Hot water can result in color bleeding and in some instances it can even affect the integrity of the textile.

washing-backpack-in-a-tub

As soon as you have submerged the backpack into the lukewarm water let it soak up the water for a couple of minutes. Ten to fifteen minutes are more than enough for this purpose and right after that, you can continue to the next step.

Detergents, Solutions and All That Chemistry

This is one question that is often asked. What is the perfect detergent to wash your backpack in? There are so many to choose from and every country has its leading brands. As a general rule try to buy a detergent that is gentle, free of any kind of dye and has no fragrance. It might sound “boring” but they usually provide the best results.

Choosing a good detergent is a pretty important step. They can have a negative effect on the quality of the fabric, on the integrity of the waterproofing and in some cases, the extra chemicals in it can cause some unwanted allergic reaction on your skin. Also, take into consideration that some scents might lure in some unwanted attention in the wilderness.

detergent on washing machine

How much quantity you want to use is up to you, and it’s closely related to the amount of dirt your backpack contains. Usually, there is no need to use a whole lot, so try to keep it on the same level as you would while washing everyday clothing items, so anywhere from one to three tablespoons will do the trick.

Scrub it Really Good

As soon as the backpack is in the water and the detergent is dissolved, you can start scrubbing. You can do this only with your hands if there are no major or hard to clean stains. But if there are some tricky ones, use a brush. Even a simple toothbrush will suffice.

If the fabric is delicate, do not use a hard brush on it. A better solution could be the use of a sponge or a rag. Rub every stain gently, until it disappears and if it does not fade out, leave it as it is. Chances are that in a couple of cleaning cycles it will disappear anyway, but if you force it, you might damage the fabric.

Rinse It Twice

Rinsing should be done with lukewarm water and at least twice. This is no joking matter. If any detergent residue remains on it, it might permanently damage the backpack or the zippers.

rinsing backpack

The best advice that we can give you is to do it until you see no more chemical residue coming out of the backpack, and then repeat it one more time. When you rinse it, you can also check for any stains that were not properly removed so you will know next time which are the ones to look out for.

Dry It Out

Before moving the backpack to a storage spot or actually using it, be certain that it is perfectly dried out. We would not recommend using a drying machine for this as they often cause tearing in the fabric or even break the zippers.

The best way to do it is to let it dry out in mild sunlight. But don’t let it out for days in a row, as it might result in discoloration. Sunlight helps not only in drying but also in disinfecting. So it’s a win-win situation no matter how you look at it.

backpack outside

Never ever put it into storage while the backpack is still wet. This is a surefire way to have a moldy backpack and that usually means that you can throw it away. Always double check if every small nook is dried out every time you take it off the ropes.

Let The Machine Do the Job

Washing a backpack by hand might be the safer solution, but for some reason, you might want to do it with the help of a washing machine. If you keep in mind some rules, this should not be a risky job and should ensure that your backpack is as clean as a whistle without having back pains.

Don’t forget that the preparatory steps need to be taken before putting the backpack into the washing machine, in the same way as you would do it before washing it manually.

Setting Up the Machine

Always make certain that you have checked and double checked the label before setting up the washing machine. Only use a washing machine if there are clear instructions on the label itself, that the material is washing-machine friendly, otherwise only use the manual option.

putting-backpack-in-washing-machine

Never the less, as a base rule, just like with the manual procedure always use only lukewarm water. This is a must even if the label will forget to mention this. Better have an extra stain on there than to have a completely ruined backpack.

Pillow Case for The Win!

This is an old trick that always does the job. Before putting the backpack into a washing machine, place it first into a pillowcase or an old laundry sack. Make sure that those are clean as well.

The reason for this is fairly simple. The pillowcase stops any damage that would be sustained by the zippers if they get caught in the mobile parts of the washing machine. Another good solution is to turn the backpack inside out, but we would highly recommend the pillowcase solution for the best and safest results.

washing with pillow case

As soon as the washing cycle is done, go ahead and dry the backpack out the exact same way as we described it in the manual wash section. If everything went according to plan, you are now the owner of a lovely and clean backpack.

Disinfecting The Backpack

When the time arrives and your backpack needs a good washing it will be fairly obvious, as there will be plenty of stains to remind you that you should finally warm up some water and start scrubbing. But what about disinfection? This is a step that people often forget about or give it no attention whatsoever.

You do not need to do the disinfecting every time you clean your backpack. In our experience disinfecting it after every second or third use is more than enough. Also, stay away from chlorine as it might seriously damage the fabric of the backpack and irate your skin.

Use either pine oil or phenolic disinfectant. They do not harm the fabric at all and do an excellent job, roughly on the same level that chlorine would achieve, when it comes to anti-bacterial properties.

cleaning-backpack

Both are usable in warm water and both are pretty safe for your skin (it would still be a good idea to make sure that you are not allergic to them before starting the disinfecting process). Make certain that you use a 50/50 water/disinfectant solution all the time. This quantity is needed as these solutions are not quite as aggressive as chlorine.

Use some kind of fabric, sponge, and brush to wipe down both the insides and the outside of the backpack. If you are done with this let the backpack out to dry on its own preferably on the sun. Do not dry it in a drying machine as that will take away some of the efficiency of the antibacterial solution.

Clean As a Whistle

At this point, if you have done everything as instructed you should have a clean backpack and one that (hopefully) doesn’t have a single stain on it, thanks for the cleaning process that you used on it. You can now have a sigh of relief on us!

cheap hiking backpacks featured

From this point on you will know how to properly clean a backpack regardless if you want to do it the old, manual way, or want to get some help from our dear friend, modern technology. Be careful, if friends and family members will see your results, you might be in for more than you bargained for.

On the other hand, if you already had to clean a couple of dozen backpacks throughout your life and feel that we might have missed out on some key details, or you have some tips that you would like to share, please do so and leave a comment below as we are always curious to see how other people manage to get through similar situations.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dennis Owens

Dennis Owens

Dennis Owens is a graduate of National Camping School and REI Outdoor School. He knows everything about what gear to take with you, how to plan your trip to stay safe and what to do if you get lost in the mountains. We are lucky to have Dennis with us as he is a ‘walking encyclopedia’ when it comes to the wilderness.