Backpacks can be expensive, so carefully cleaning them is a must. Follow our easy guide—with simple steps—on how to wash a backpack!

By Tracy Guth Spangler
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If you’ve got kids, dirty backpacks—we're talking anywhere from dusty to downright gross—are inevitable. There will be apple juice spills and forgotten bananas and exploding pens, and even sweaty shirts and sneakers stuffed in there. So it pays to know how to actually clean these critical containers.

Of course, the best way to avoid a completely filthy bag is upkeep: Make sure to take wet gym clothes and any food garbage or leftover lunch out of the pack as soon as it gets home, and gently clean stains with mild dish soap as soon as you notice them. Wipe down the bag regularly, and keep it dry on the inside to avoid mold.

And before you give it a thorough wash, be sure to check the care label, likely located in the main compartment of the pack. If the label says the bag should not be submerged in water, just use a cloth and a small amount of gentle cleanser to scrub particularly dirty areas. If there is no label, test-clean a small area of the bag’s surface and interior before you wash the whole thing.

How to Machine-Wash Your Backpack

Can you put a backpack in the washer? With most, the answer is yes. It depends on the material, but most backpacks made of nylon or canvas and are safe to put in the washing machine. (If the bag has leather trim, don’t machine-wash.) “We recommend that you line dry, though, because tumble-drying could damage the padding of the bag and cause ruptures at the corners,” says Kali Shager of Land’s End, who sources fabric and materials for the company’s kids’ products and backpacks.

Step 1:

Empty the bag completely. (Put everything that was inside into a plastic bag, so it all stays together while you’re washing; clean or replace anything that’s soiled, so you’re not putting anything dirty back into a clean backpack.) Make sure to get into every compartment. If there are crumbs and dust in the crevices, use a handheld vacuum get out as much as you can; Shager also recommends a computer-keyboard air blower. For hard-to-remove muck, try a clean makeup brush, she says: “The soft bristles will help loosen the debris while minimizing damage to the fabric.” If there’s a metal frame inside the pack, take it out. Leave all the pockets unzipped. Cut away any threads near zipping areas, so they don’t get snagged during washing. Remove any detachable straps, pockets, or smaller bags and hand-wash them separately.

Step 2:

If there are any exterior or interior stains, gently apply some stain remover with a soft brush or toothbrush to affected areas and let it sit for about 30 minutes.

Step 3:

Turn the bag inside out or place it inside a pillowcase or laundry bag to avoid straps and zippers getting caught inside the machine—or damaging the inside walls of the machine.

Step 4:

Use a small amount of gentle detergent and wash the pack on the gentle cycle in cold water. (If it gets bunched up during the spin cycle, stop the machine and try to spread the bag back out, to allow it to be thoroughly washed and also to avoid the machine getting lopsided with a small load.)

Step 5:

Allow the backpack to air-dry. Leave all the zippers unzipped and hang it upside down. If you can dry it outdoors, that will help any leftover odors drift away. Make sure it’s completely dry before using.

How to Hand-Wash Your Backpack

If you’re planning on a good old-fashioned hand washing, here’s what you’ll need:

  • Pre-treatment stain remover
  • Gentle detergent (free of fragrances, dyes, or other chemicals is best, so you don’t damage the fabric of the bag)
  • Soft brush or old toothbrush
  • Washcloth and/or sponge
  • Towel

Step 1:

Empty the bag completely. (Put everything that was inside into a plastic bag, so it all stays together while you’re washing; clean or replace anything that’s soiled, so you’re not putting anything dirty back into a clean backpack.) Make sure to get into every compartment. If there are crumbs and dust in the crevices, use a handheld vacuum get out as much as you can; Shager also recommends a computer-keyboard air blower. For hard-to-remove muck, try a clean makeup brush, she says: “The soft bristles will help loosen the debris while minimizing damage to the fabric.” If there’s a metal frame inside the pack, take it out. Leave all the pockets unzipped. Cut away any threads near zipping areas, so they don’t get snagged during washing. Take off any detachable straps, pockets, or smaller bags and wash them separately.

Step 2:

If there are any exterior or interior stains, gently apply some stain remover with a soft brush or toothbrush to affected areas and let it sit for about 30 minutes.

Step 3:

Fill the basin with about six inches of lukewarm water. (Hot water could damage the fabric’s colors.) Add a small amount of gentle detergent. Scrub the bag with a soft brush or cloth, focusing particularly on especially dirty areas or spot stains. A toothbrush is good for ground-in stains and hard-to-reach crevices. A sponge might work better on mesh areas than the cloth. Turn the bag inside-out and wash the interior as well.

Step 4:

Drain the dirty water and fill basin with six inches of clean cool water. Rinse the bag thoroughly and wring it out as best you can. Fold it into a thick towel to absorb excess water.

Step 5:

Allow the bag to air-dry. Leave all the zippers unzipped and hang it upside down. If you can dry it outdoors, that will help any leftover odors drift away. Make sure it’s completely dry before it’s next used.

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