How do you wash a backpack?

Mariko has spent the last 10 years writing about travel, outdoor adventures and humanitarianism. When she's not travelling, you can find her on a local hiking trail, exploring the Canadian Rockies, or researching her next exotic destination.

A good backpack is an investment, one that should last a long time. And while they’re tough enough to flog all over the trail, your backpack needs a little extra love to stay clean, strong and as waterproof as possible.

Cleaning your backpack will also rid bad odors and keep more ambitious critters at bay. It’s an essential part of your backpack care and repair.

Before you wash your backpack

Before you wash your backpack, carefully read and follow the care instructions on the tag. If you’re still unsure, always choose to hand wash your backpack.

Open everything

Open all zips, turn out the pockets, turn your backpack upside down, and give it a good shake to remove any rubble. 

Remove the loose debris

If it’s been a long time between cleans (or this is the first clean), run a hand vacuum or a gentle vacuum hose along the internal and external seams to remove more stubborn debris. If the pack has any dried mud on the outside, remove those with a soft-bristled brush or a damp cloth.

Check for fit

If the backpack is machine washable, check that it can comfortably fit and move around in your top or front loader. If not, choose to hand wash your bag instead.

How to machine wash a backpack

Because of the high-performance material used to create Kathmandu backpacks, we advise not machine washing any of our backpack range, as this can compromise the structural integrity of our bags. For Kathmandu packs and bags, follow our advice for hand-washing your backpack instead. For other backpacks, be sure to check written advice either attached to your bag or that came with the bag during its purchase. 

Step 1: 

Where possible, remove any detachable items from your pack. Keep all zips open and pockets turned out. If your backpack has them, remove any metal frames.

Step 2:

Check the internal compartments and the exterior of your bag for obvious stains. To treat them, apply a small amount of gentle, diluted detergent directly to the blemish. 

Use a soft-bristled toothbrush and a circular motion to gently encourage the dirt towards the surface. Avoid any bleach products.

Step 3:

Place your backpack into a large laundry bag to protect the bag’s buckles, toggles, and zips.

If you don’t have one handy, grab a large pillowcase and secure with a rubber band. If your backpack is flexible enough, you can turn it inside out.

Step 4: 

If available, wash using the care label instructions as your guide. If there are no specific washing instructions, add a small amount of gentle laundry detergent, and select a cold or warm wash on a gentle cycle. 

How to hand wash a backpack

Only allowed to hand wash your backpack? Follow these steps.

Step 1

Locate an appropriate washing vessel, like a large plastic tub or your laundry sink. If you’re washing a bigger bag of 55L and above, the bath tub is a good option.

Step 2

Where possible, remove any detachable items from your pack. Keep all zips open and pockets turned out. If your backpack has them, remove any metal frames.

Step 3

Add a small amount of gentle laundry detergent, and fill your tub with plenty of lukewarm water. If the care instructions allow, submerge your backpack and remove dirt with a soft cleaning brush or cloth. If you can’t submerge your pack, spot clean with a cloth and toothbrush. 

Pay particular attention to the areas that have the most contact with your skin  like the straps and back of your pack.

For more stubborn stains, apply a small amount of gentle, diluted detergent directly to the blemish. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush and a circular motion to gently encourage the dirt towards the surface. Avoid any bleach-based products.

Step 4

Empty your tub or basin and refill with clean water. Thoroughly rinse your backpack of detergent until the water is clear.

Step 5

Air dry your backpack until completely dry.

How to dry your backpack

Like most outdoor gear, your backpack must be completely dry before use or storage to avoid a build-up of mold. Besides being a pain to clean, mold imparts a bad smell, shortens the lifespan of your pack, and in some cases, damages your gear beyond repair.

To air dry your backpack properly:

  • Find a warm, well-ventilated area and hang your bag upside down. Avoid drying your bag in direct sunlight as this can damage the material.

  • The length of dry time is variable but allow at least 24 hours before your next use. To quicken the dry, you can absorb some of the excess moisture with microfibre towels.

Don’t use a machine dryer. You’ll risk shrinking the materials, damaging the external accessories, and damaging your dryer.

Backpack Care and Repair FAQs

What’s the benefit of deep cleaning my backpack?

In short, you’ll extend the life of your backpack. Dirt, sweat, and general debris all contribute to faster wear and tear. It’ll also smell much nicer.

How often should I clean my backpack?

This will depend on your individual use and activity, but as a general rule, spot-clean your backpack whenever dirt is visible and deep clean at least once or twice a year. 

For instance, if you hike all summer, you should clean your pack before it goes into winter storage. The oil and salt from your skin will accumulate into your pack’s harness and straps and contribute to faster degradation.

Otherwise, keep your pack in good condition by giving it a shake and a quick wipedown after each use.

How do I keep my bag clean?

To minimize your cleaning, invest in a waterproof bag cover. Available in multiple sizes, they’re ideal for hiking, traveling, commuting, or on any backpack that could use a little added protection.

Bag covers will minimize exposure to dirt and help keep your backpack dry   an important preventative to stop mold and mildew. Keep it in your daypack and slip it on during unexpected downpours or wet and muddy conditions.

How can I deodorize a backpack without washing?

Backpacks are partial to lingering smells from improper drying, smelly hiking gear, or the occasional burst tuna pouch. 

The best way to treat funky odors is with a deep clean, but the next best thing is a spot clean with Grangers Footwear & Gear Cleaner. Apply the spray as per the instructions and allow your backpack to air out for as long as possible.

Can I use hot water on my backpack?

No. Hot water for either machine or hand washing can cause the colors in your backpack to run, so stick to cool or lukewarm water.

Can I dry clean a backpack?

Unless your care tag states otherwise, we don’t recommend it. The cleaning process is too hot and harsh for most backpacks.

Can you wash a waterproof bag?

With regular washing, you’ll improve the performance of your waterproof backpack. Dirt attracts moisture and can impact the performance of the Durable Water Repellency (DWR). Aim to deep clean your bag once or twice a year to improve performance and longevity.

Over time, it’s natural for DWR to slowly diminish in performance due to dirt, sweat, abrasion and regular use. Usually, the DWR treatment will encourage water to bead up and roll off the surface of your bag, but as the treatment fades, the fabric will start to absorb water instead.

If you notice your backpack wetting out, it’s time to deep clean your backpack, and reapply the DWR treatment with Grangers Tent & Gear Repel.

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