Backpack TLC: The Art of Backpack Cleaning

Key Points

  • Always consult the manufacturer's instructions before deciding how to wash a backpack.

  • Follow the proper steps when cleaning your backpack in a washing machine.

  • Handwashing is the more thorough method and saves energy.

  • Consider routinely disinfecting your backpack to kill any microorganisms living in the material.

  • Take extra care when washing a backpack constructed from leather.

It's probably time to give your backpack an excellent scrub! When did you last wash your bag? Most hard-working, backpack-wielding people don't think to wash a backpack, but it is still an important process. Unlike skivvies, socks, shorts, and any other article touching your body, backpacks tend to get a free pass from laundry day.

It's time to revoke that pass. Backpacks accrue filth without you noticing. It's only a matter of time before you've got a whole ecosystem of verminous microbes living rent-free in that storage compartment strapped to your shoulders. Gross! Cleanliness is next to godliness; start your journey towards deification by taking the time to wash a backpack.

Washing Methods

Take the time to get to know your backpack and learn about what it needs from you. It's a symbiotic relationship. If you give it the TLC it needs, your backpack shall remain durable, stylish, and capable of holding everything you need for years.

Check the manual for the best washing practice; read the instructions or go to the manufacturer's website for more information. Most brands offer instructions on how best to care for their products.

If your backpack is not suitable for a washing machine, skip ahead to the handwashing techniques. If your backpack is machine washable, then continue as scheduled.

Clean Your Backpack With a Washing Machine

Most backpacks are suitable to put in a washing machine. The various strands of backpack-washing ideology are a hot topic among Ivory Tower elites, but general guidelines apply to people of every political flavor.

Empty the Backpack

Remove everything from the backpack; there are three levels of tragedy when you forget and wash something in your backpack.

There's the "Oh, that sucks" stage. Leaving lip balm in your bag and discovering that it melted and absorbed into the lining of your backpack is a good example.

The following level is the "Well, that's very annoying" stage. This is when you wash a crisp fifty-dollar bill and find it disintegrated before the wrath of the spin cycle.

Finally, there's the "My disappointment is immeasurable, and everything's ruined" stage. Imagine leaving the most expensive or precious item you own in your backpack and destroying it.

Avoid all these stages by completely emptying your backpack.

Spot Clean the Stains

Give icky stains a pre-wash scrub. Attack them with a damp cloth and mild detergent. You might have to spot clean several times. Lots of stains hunker down deep in your backpack's fabric, and it takes more than a light cleaning to get rid of them.

Spot cleaning a backpack

Spot clean the dirtiest parts, wash them off, and spot clean again if the stain is still visible. Rinse and repeat until you think the washing machine can handle the rest.

Prep the Backpack for Washing

To ensure a thorough clean, turn it inside out and zip up all the compartments. If there are any detachable parts, remove and wash them separately.

Wash It Alone

Your backpack doesn't play nice with others. Wash it alone! To protect the straps, place them inside a mesh laundry bag or an old pillowcase.

Choose the Proper Washing Cycle

Even machine-washable backpacks break down under a brutal washing regimen. Use a gentle cycle, cold water, and mild detergent to ensure the integrity of the pack's structure.

Air Dry

While putting a backpack in the dryer is possible, avoid it. The tumbling and heat damage the fabric and zippers of the pack. Like drying a tent, air dry your backpack in a well-ventilated area that is out of the sunlight.

If you're in a rush, put it in the dryer on a low heat setting. If time isn't of the essence, stick with air drying.

Reattach the Removable Parts

Once completely dry, reattach the removable parts — like the hip belt or shoulder straps. Make sure to readjust them.

Washing Different Materials

Whether you don a canvas, mesh, or polyester backpack, you must know how to take care of it. These examples are all durable materials, so it's a-okay for them to take a trip through the washing machine.

As always, consult the manufacturer's instructions first. When it comes to leather, tactics must change.

Hiking backpack


Putting a leather backpack in the washing machine guarantees its demise. Washing machines dry out the leather, strip it of its oils and sheen, and cause it to wrinkle, crease, and crack.

Purchase Leather Cleaner and Conditioner

Choose a quality leather cleaner and conditioner.

Obenauf's is a funky name and a high-quality brand containing natural oils and beeswax. The formula restores leather fibers and protects them against future wear and tear.

Their Heavy Duty Leather Preservative is a wax-based conditioner that protects against moisture, salt, and any other elements nature throws your way. It enriches the leather and protects its longevity.

Apply the Cleaner

Dampen a cloth with the cleaner, but be careful — a little goes a long way. Wipe down the entire pack but don't drown your leather bag in cleaner. Certain areas — such as the handles and bottom — accrue more dirt and wear out faster. Focus on these areas.

If you scrub the leather like a fiend, you do more harm than good. Move the cloth in slow, circular motions to avoid scratching the leather.

Follow with a damp, clean cloth to wipe away the remaining residue. The leftover formula dries up and becomes hard to remove.

Let the Backpack Dry

Let the backpack air dry completely, and keep it out of the sun. Avoid using a heat source — like a hairdryer — to speed up the drying process unless you want dry, cracked, and warped leather.

Apply the Conditioner

Don't submerge your backpack in leather conditioner; again, a little goes a long way. Apply a small amount to a damp, clean cloth, and rub the product into the leather with gentle, circular motions. Too much conditioner leaves the leather greasy and sticky.

Buff the Leather

Use a clean, dry cloth and repeat the circular movements.

Buffing removes dust and dirt that has accumulated on the leather, restoring its natural, shiny beauty. It also prevents scratches or scuffs on the leather's surface. This practice nourishes and protects the leather, redistributing natural oils.

Wait Before Using the Backpack

You're undoubtedly itching to flex your leather swag around town but hit the brakes. Give the leather time to absorb the cleaner and conditioner. If you use the backpack right after cleaning, some of the product may rub off on your clothes.

Man with hiking backpack


If you're a Luddite or looking to conserve water and energy, the handwashing strategy works just as well as a washing machine though it's more time-consuming. Plus, repeated trips to the washing machine eventually ruin your backpack, and handwashing is the gentler approach.

Empty the backpack and give some extra attention to the stubbornly nasty spots. Spot clean the dirty areas with a damp cloth and mild detergent.

Sometimes your backpack reaches a Code Red level of dirtiness, like when you spill broccoli cheddar soup in the main compartment and leave it there for five days. If you're in that situation, your best bet may be to throw the backpack in a volcano. If there aren't any volcanoes in your vicinity, a hose works just fine. Open up the backpack and spray out the nastiness with the hose.

Once the backpack is relatively clean, submerge it in a basin of lukewarm water with mild detergent. Let it soak for 15-30 minutes.

Use a soft-bristled brush and gently scrub the filth away. An old toothbrush works well if you want to avoid heading to the hardware store for a brush.

Remove the backpack from the soapy water and rinse it off. Lukewarm water is ideal, but the hose in your garden works fine. Make sure all the suds are gone. Focus on all the little pockets in your backpack; they often harbor a lot of hidden soap.

Before air drying, squeeze or wring out as much water as possible. If the backpack is waterlogged, it will take longer to dry. Bacteria will stake a claim to your bag and thrive off the moisture; don't give them a chance by eliminating the extra water.

Let it dry in a well-ventilated, shaded area until it's bone-dry.

Disinfecting a Backpack

Microorganisms often survive the onslaught of cleaning. A simple brush and water combo, or even a washing machine, isn't enough to slay these tiny dragons. You need a new arsenal specifically designed to conquer these tiny but terrifying enemies.

Cleaning removes dirt, debris, and other contaminants from your backpack and doesn't kill the microorganisms living on these foreign substances, and disinfecting kills those little critters.

For example, if you left a pair of socks riddled with ringworm in your backpack over the weekend, you're going to have some problems. First, take care of that fungal skin infection.

A musty smell is probably brewing in your backpack, and that odor comes from bacteria and fungi. Now that's nasty! To kill these intrusive organisms, you need to sanitize your backpack.

A clean backpack

Wipe the interior with a non-bleach disinfectant wipe; bleach causes the interior lining of the backpack to deteriorate over time. It's a harsh chemical that weakens most fabrics. Discoloration ensues, and any water-resistant coating disintegrates under the unrelenting acidity of bleach.

When wiping the interior, try to get every part — even the ones that already seem clean. Microorganisms spread quickly, so be thorough to ensure their destruction.

Once the interior is spick and span, move to the outside of the backpack. Spray the exterior with sanitizer. Sometimes, the damage is immense, and you must disinfect your backpack several times.

Determining Your Perfect Backpack

While the idea of perfection is — at best — impossible, it's still feasible to find a backpack that checks all your boxes.


Determine the purpose of your backpack; a leather Gucci bag seems silly when camping in the mountains. To choose the right pack, consider your needs and travel locations.

If you're a frequent traveler, get gear that meets size regulations for flying and gives you easy access to your essential items. You also want a backpack that matches your type of travel; a businessperson has different storage needs than a full-time vagabond.

If you're a student, get a backpack that accommodates the piles of homework, textbooks, and other academic materials you must carry. Consider one with a laptop sleeve.


A good backpack must be comfortable since you'll probably wear it for extended periods. Look for bags that cater to your comfort needs, like padded straps and back panels. Heavy backpacks wear down even the most muscular backs after enough time. 

Ease up the burden by getting a pack with hip straps, which relocates the bulk of the weight from your shoulders and back to your hips — the strongest part of your body.

Size and Capacity

Figure out what items you'll routinely carry. An 80-liter backpack is a bit much if you just need a place to store your laptop and textbooks between classes.

If you're traveling with your backpack, consider your trip's length.

A weekend getaway usually requires a backpack between 30-50 liters. If the amount of stuff you bring exceeds this capacity, you should examine what you need when traveling or get a bigger bag.

If you're taking a trip between three to five days, get a pack between 50-80 liters. Backpacks of this size hold almost everything you'll need to bring.

A trip of five or more days demands a backpack of 70 or more liters. You're verging on vacation status if you're out of town for more than five days, and packs of this capacity allow you to bring all the necessities plus extra.


For better or worse, people determine a lot about you based on your style.

Your bag choice speaks volumes about your personality, interests, and lifestyle. It is a proclamation of your values.

If you want to make a statement and project your vibe, explore the different styles, materials, and colors.

Hiking with a big backpack

Rapid Reviews of Top-Tier Backpacks

You know what to look for in a good backpack and how to clean it. All that's left is to check out some of the best backpacks on the market in early 2023.

Osprey Atmos AG 65L

The Osprey Atmos AG 65L has plenty of holding capacity. Even when full, it's not too heavy due to its anti-gravity suspension system that distributes the pack's weight throughout your body.

The adjustable harnesses and hip belt ensure it fits your body, and the side compression straps prevent the pack from bouncing around.

If you're looking to lighten the load for a while, the top lid of the back is removable; store your necessities there and enjoy the freedom of carrying less weight. It's a perfect feature to make you more versatile.

There's also a hydration sleeve, so you always have water ready.

Gregory Baltoro 65L

The Gregory Baltoro 65L is an excellent pack for people looking to do some hardcore camping.

It comes with a hydration sleeve and a rain cover to protect your gear, ensuring that a lack of drinking water or a sudden rainstorm doesn't cut your trip short.

The pack has a U-zip compartment that gives you easy access to all the gear in the main compartment. Front zippered pockets are ideal for storing your phone, charger, and other smaller items.

If you need more space, there is a 75-liter option.

Carrying heavy weights for long distances guarantees a sweaty back. This pack has an air-cushioned back panel that gives your back some space to breathe and removes pressure from the regions that generally take the brunt of the burden.

Deuter Speed Lite 20L

The Deuter Speed Lite 20L is a backpack for folks on the move who do not want to carry much. Its lightweight frame feels like you're carrying air, and the flexibility of the pack allows complete freedom of movement.

It has a large main compartment, a front stretchy pocket, and side mesh pockets for water bottles.

The waistline belt firmly secures the pack to your back. It's ideal for extreme endurance athletes, hiking and camping, and even snowshoeing. It also works as an everyday option if you don't usually carry many items. Regardless of your motives, check out this durable and light backpack.

Patagonia Black Hole Daypack 25L

The Patagonia Black Hole Daypack 25L is ideal for various activities.

Carry it on the train or subway, pack it for a weekend getaway, or take it trekking in the mountains. As Shakespeare probably didn't say, "A backpack for all purposes doth open up many universes."

It's made from recycled fabric, both durable and weather-resistant.

There are several storage options; the main compartment holds several nights' worth of clothes and has a padded laptop sleeve. There are several smaller zippered pockets ideal for keeping personal items. The front sash pocket is extremely easy to access, a prime place for essential items.

The shoulder straps come with extra padding, while the sternum straps add more stability. Each side is outfitted with a pocket for water bottles.

A cool fact about the company: It's Fair Trade Certified, meaning the people making these packs earn what they deserve.

REI Co-op Flash 22 Pack

If you require a backpack suited for day hikes, the REI Co-op Flash 22 Pack is your choice. It's a minimalist option without any unnecessary flare or accessories. It makes traveling light and quick a breeze, and everything you need for an outdoor outing stays comfortably attached.

The drawstring closure of the main compartment ensures your things stay in place, while internal, zippered pockets organize your keys, phone, snacks, and other small objects.

One of the standout features is the back panel pad; it's removable, offering you a convenient seat when you need a rest.

If you frequently carry tools, there are tool loops on the top and bottom of the pack, and the side loops hang more gear or add compression.

If you need a backpack on the trail that enhances your journey, the Flash 22 Pack is that backpack.

Girl with hiking backpack

A Clean Backpack for a Great Adventure

Life is dirty. No one goes through it without getting a little messy. You see it daily on the stains of your clothes, the dust bunnies scurrying around your house, and the legions of disinfectant brands on supermarket shelves. Accepting a little dirtiness is okay; only clean freaks insist on keeping things spotless.

As the former prime minister of the UK Benjamin Disraeli said, "Cleanliness and order are not matters of instinct; they are matters of education, and like most things, you must cultivate a taste for them."

Unlike clothing, it's not always easy knowing when to wash your backpack. However, it is critical to keep it routinely clean. This is especially true for adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts. Backpacks collect dirt and bacteria rapidly, and this nastiness rubs off on everything you store in your bag.

Whether made from leather, canvas, polyester, or some other mystical material, take the time to clean your backpack. There's no excuse now; get to cleaning!

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