How to Wash a Backpack in Just a Few Easy Steps

Lynn Redmile, Good Housekeeping Institute
·5 min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Good Housekeeping

Commuting to work, going to school, hiking or even just enjoying a day in the park can all leave their marks (literally!) on your backpack. Whenever your backpack heads outside, it’s exposed to dirt and grime. And even if you give your bag a once over with a disinfecting wipe when you get home, that’s not enough to thoroughly clean it. Spills, stains and general grime can all make a backpack look old and worn, but the good news is that it’s easy to clean your backpack so it looks practically brand new again.

Before you start cleaning your backpack

No matter what brand your backpack is, what material it's made from, or what cleaning method you're using, you'll want to follow these tips first before doing anything else

  1. Empty the backpack completely, and unzip all the pockets.

  2. Flip the backpack upside down over an open garbage can and shake out any debris and food particles. You can use a soft brush to loosen dirt, or use the crevice attachment on your vacuum to suck up all the crumbs and fuzz bunnies that may be trapped deep in the seams.

How to machine wash your backpack

Yes, you can put your backpack in a washing machine provided the instructions on the care label say you can. If you have a nylon or polyester backpack, it can be cleaned in the machine on a gentle cycle, with non-bleach detergent and stain remover to treat spots. Wash it solo, not with a full load of clothes — if you don't have a large mesh laundry bag, you can put it inside an old pillowcase first to help contain the straps. "However, even if the fabric is machine-washable, doing so may cause some backpacks to lose shape," notes Carolyn Forte, Director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Cleaning Lab. So use the shortest, gentlest cycle your machine offers.

You do not want to tumble dry the backpack, as that will damage it. Instead, skip the dryer and use a clean dry towel to blot the interior and exterior well, then hang it upside down to air dry, preferably in a place with good air circulation.

How to wash your backpack without a washing machine

If the care instructions for your backpack recommend spot cleaning, here's how to do that:

  1. If the straps are made of woven fabric and can be removed, first wash them in a warm sudsy solution of water and a deep-cleaning detergent, like Good Housekeeping Seal star Tide Hygienic Clean, to break down any heavy grime embedded in the woven fibers. Rinse the straps well in cool water, blot them in a clean towel, and air dry.

  2. Then, mix a few drops of dish soap in a small bowl of warm water.

  3. Dip a sponge or cloth in the sudsy mixture and use it to wipe the interior of the backpack itself. Use a soft scrub brush, or an old toothbrush, to scrub difficult stains. After you’ve cleaned the interior, tackle the exterior of the backpack the same way, paying particular attention to areas that often touch skin and rest against the body.

  4. Using a clean, damp microfiber cloth (our favorite is from eCloth), wipe down the entire interior and exterior of the backpack. Rinse the cloth in clean water, wring, and repeat to remove any remaining soapy residue.

  5. Hang the backpack upside down to air dry. Do not tumble dry.

If the care instructions on the backpack’s label say you can hand wash the backpack, follow these steps:

  1. Fill a basin with warm water and non-bleach detergent.

  2. Gently swish the backpack in the solution, and use an old toothbrush to scrub any visible stains.

  3. Rinse the backpack in cool water multiple times, then squeeze and blot in a towel to remove excess water.

  4. Hang the backpack upside down to dry where there's good air flow.

How do you clean a leather backpack?

Whether your backpack is made of all leather, or just has a leather bottom that you’d like to clean, first empty out your bag. Then, similar to how you'd clean a leather couch, use a leather cleaner and conditioner, like Weiman's Leather Cleaner and Conditioner, or a little saddle soap, on a damp cloth to remove grime. Follow up with a clean damp cloth to remove remaining residue. When the backpack is completely dry, apply the leather conditioner sparingly to the leather for added protection.

Tips for sanitizing a backpack

Every now and then, damp gym clothes may get left inside a backpack for days. Athlete’s foot fungus and bacteria from sweaty socks, shirts and towels cause odors and can transfer onto the bag itself. So, can you disinfect a sweaty, smelly backpack? In a word, no. While you can kill germs on soft fabric surfaces, they technically cannot be disinfected. "Only hard non-porous surfaces can be cleaned of germs to the level required to be disinfected," says Forte. However, soft surfaces can be sanitized. While chlorine bleach can damage the coating on the interior of a backpack, you can instead try a non-bleach disinfecting wipe like those from Lysol:

  1. First, thoroughly wipe out the interior of the backpack, paying careful attention to the seams and other nooks and crannies.

  2. Use multiple wipes if necessary so the interior surface stays wet for the length of time stated on the wipe's label.

  3. Spray the bag’s fabric exterior with a fabric sanitizer, like Good Housekeeping Seal star Tide Antibacterial Fabric Spray.

  4. Make sure your backpack has completely dried before using it.

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