How you clean your backpack will be very similar to how you clean a tent. Understanding the manufacturer guidelines for that specific product is important, but much of the process will be the same.
How often you clean your backpack will depend on the frequency of use and how dirty it is when you’re back from a trip. Keeping your gear clean is one way to extend the lifespan and make using it more enjoyable. No one likes hiking with a dirty pack that smells like body odor, and a build-up of dirt and grime can wear down the integrity of the bag’s fabric if it is left to sit for seasons on end.
Unfortunately, cleaning a backpack isn’t as easy as tossing it in the washing machine. The good news is that most of the time, you won’t need to deep clean your pack if you keep up with spot cleaning and care throughout the rest of the hiking season.
How to Clean a Backpack
Leaving your bag a little dirty is tempting, especially since you only use it when you’re outdoors. The downside to that is leaving grit, body oils, salt, and dirt to accumulate in the fabric can make them break down faster. In areas that collect a lot of grime, the fabric can become more prone to ripping.
Spot cleaning is one of the best ways to keep your pack clean throughout the hiking season. A deep clean of the pack is only really necessary at the end of a season before storage, after an extended trip, or if you hike and camp near saltwater.
No matter the reason for cleaning the bag, never use a washing machine or a dryer for this process. With all of the buckles and snaps on a backpack, they can easily get snagged and damaged in the machine. We outline two effective cleaning methods that won’t take too much time and are unlikely to cause any damage while you do it.
For either cleaning process, the materials needed will be very similar:
- Mild soap
- Cloth, sponge, or another scrubbing device
- Optional: soft-bristled brush
You only need a tub for a deep clean. If you do not have a bathtub in your home, use a large storage tub, a kiddy pool, or any other basin large enough to fit the pack and some water.
A light cleaning or spot cleaning is a good habit to get into after a backpacking trip. When you are unpacking and cleaning out the rest of your bag, you can check it over to look for dirty areas or spots that may need repair.
Having a sponge and soft-bristled brush to spot clean can help you find specific areas that need more attention.
How to spot clean a backpacking pack:
- Empty the backpack and pockets of all gear and trash.
- Shake the bag out to get rid of any loose dirt or debris.
- Using your sponge and some lukewarm water, wipe out the interior and exterior of the bag.
- Look over the exterior to see if there are any spots or stains.
- If there are stains, use your sponge or brush to lightly scrub them with soap and water.
- For areas washed with soap, use a clean sponge or cloth or wipe it clean and remove all of the soap.
When spot cleaning your pack, avoid using soap as much as possible. It is harder to remove all of the soap during this process and you also don’t want soap scum on the pack fabric. If there are several dirty areas and stains, it may be best to do a deep clean.
You won’t need to deep clean your pack very often. You don’t even need to do it every year. We recommend deep cleaning your bag if it is noticeably dirty and grimy, if you’ve just done a long-distance hike, or if you camp somewhere around saltwater. The salt build-up in the fabrics can deteriorate it much faster than things like dirt and oils, so we recommend cleaning any gear you use near saltwater once you’ve returned home.
As mentioned, do not put your pack in a washing machine. Machine washing packs can easily damage and snag areas of the bag. Follow the instructions below instead.
How to deep clean your backpack:
- Dump and shake out any loose dirt and debris. Vacuum out the pockets to get the rest.
- If you can, remove the hip belt and shoulder straps. Taking the bag apart makes it easier to clean, and you can wash them independently.
- Check manufacturer guidelines to see if the pack’s frame can and should be removed before washing. If so, remove it and set it aside.
- Gather the other materials and fill a large tub with about 6-8 inches of lukewarm water.
- Add mild soap to the water and apply some soap to areas of the pack that are excessively dirty with a sponge.
- Submerge the pack in the water and let it sit for 10-15 minutes.
- Swirl the pack around and agitate some areas to loosen dirt from the fabric. Scrub heavily soiled areas with some extra soap and your sponge/brush. Zippers may need special attention here (a toothbrush works well to scrub zippers).
- Drain the water from the tub, and refill with cool, clean water to rinse the soap off.
- If the pack is still dirty, repeat the washing section.
- Rinse the bag until the soap is all rinsed out. You may need to rinse the bag a few times to achieve this.
The pack is likely to drip while drying, so find a shady place outside or hang dry it inside over a bathtub or in a shower. Avoid putting the pack in the sun to dry as the UV rays can weaken the fabric with prolonged exposure.
When in Doubt, Ask About It
For gear maintenance and cleaning, follow manufacturer care instructions for best results. The information provided in this article may work for most bags, but there may be specific care instructions for the product you own. Even if you bought your backpack used, you can usually find care and washing information on the manufacturer’s website.
Q: Can I put a backpack in a washing machine?
No, we do not recommend washing your pack in a washing machine. The buckles, straps, and seams on the pack make machine washing too aggressive and can easily damage the pack.
Q: How do you dry a backpack after washing it?
Hang dry the pack after washing it in a shaded area or indoors. Do not use a dryer and avoid putting it in direct sunlight as both can damage the pack.
Q: Will washing a backpack ruin it?
Machine washing a backpack can ruin it. Certain types of soaps and cleaners can also destroy a backpack. Follow manufacturer instructions on care and cleaning for best results or follow the above instructions.
Q: How long does it take to air-dry a backpack?
After a deep clean, it can take a day or two for the pack to fully air dry. If you hang it outside, it may dry faster because of the wind, but avoid direct sunlight. Facing a fan towards the pack as it dries inside can also speed up the process.
Q: Can I use detergent to clean a backpack?
Mild soap with no fragrance works best for cleaning most gear, including backpacks. Most detergents are not mild and contain ingredients that can damage the fabric—things like biodegradable soap, mild dish soap, or Castille soap work best.