Primer: How To Clean A Backpack

There’s nothing more exhilarating or adventurous than a spontaneous trip into the unknown. Whether it be on foot for a multi-day hike, atop a UTV threading the needle between dirt, mud and forest foliage, or even via an off-grid overland excursion into no man’s land the true adventure seekers will attest to the thrill — and eventual addiction — to a life lived on the edge of contemporary society.

Loftiness aside, there are some commonalities to consider for any level of exploration: the gear. And where there’s gear, there’s the consistent need for storage of said gear — i.e. your backpack. Manifested in all shapes, sizes, and materials, the backpack is one piece of gear as ubiquitous across adventurists as the innate desire for exploration. One caveat hangs in the balance, however — the need to keep it clean and well-maintained. Because if we’ve learned anything up until this point in our lives, it’s that your gear will only perform as well as you treat and take care of it. So with that mindset, we figured it was time to provide some insight into how to properly clean or wash a backpack. Because, as time wears on and dirt collects, your trusty pack will without a doubt begin to fail you if care is not taken to ensure longevity.

How to Clean

4 Simple Steps

Despite what you may think, cleaning a high-quality backpack isn’t some arduous activity when completed regularly. It’s only after things have become so caked-on and dirt-ridden that a little time, effort, and elbow grease are required for continued dependable use. Basically, there are two ways to get this done — either via a deep clean or a light clean — both by hand. Here’s how it’s done:

  1. Empty The Belongings This should be an obvious first step as it’s key to making sure everything is emptied from the pack before getting started. This means, pens, papers, various gear from the previous outing, hats, old t-shirts, etc. You get the picture. If it’s removable and didn’t come with the pack when you bought it, remove it.

  2. Prepare Your Bath Just like a bubble bath when you were younger, it’s time to prepare a lukewarm bath for the backpack. Keep in mind that it’s highly advised to not use hot water as this can cause the dye in the pack’s fabric to run.

  3. Add Your Soap Add a small amount of detergent-free soap to the water. The key here being “detergent-free.” We recommend this because any type of detergent or even fabric softener can damage the backpack, even more so if there’s any DWR coating on the pack. Instead, best play it safe with some mild soap.

  4. Time To Scrub Now, once the backpack is somewhat wet and the soapy bath prepared, scrub the pack using a soft brush and/or cloth — first focusing on the areas that are especially dirty and moving on from there. Also, an old toothbrush could come in handy to help remove any tough stains or clean those hard-to-reach areas.

  5. Let It Dry Naturally This is probably the most crucial step in the process — letting the backpack dry naturally. Here, it’s imperative to not put the pack in the dryer as this will cause damage to the pack. Instead, hang it upside down outside (but not in direct sunlight) or in the garage, and make sure the pack is completely dry before storing it. No-one wants a moldy pack.

Pro Tips

Here are some helpful tips to keep damage control at a maximum and stress at a minimum:

  • Never wash a pack in the washing machine
  • Never use hot water
  • Hang your pack outside in the shade as UV light can negatively affect the fabric
  • Keep your zippers clean to prevent them from getting stuck down the road


Knowing When To Deep Clean

After years of use and abuse without the most responsible mindset in keeping it clean — don’t worry, we’re guilty too — your pack may actually require more of a deep clean. This, of course, is a more involved process than what was outlined above but still follows the same principles and tenets of cleaning your backpack of choice.

  1. Vacuum The Inside After emptying the pack from all its belongings, gently vacuum the seams as well as the crevices in all the pockets found in both the main body and along the exterior. Naturally, the goal here is to rid the pack of any loose dirt, food, dead leaves etc. before getting it wet.

  2. Strip It Down Here, you want to get the pack down to its bare essentials. Meaning, disconnect the hip-belt and shoulder straps from the pack — if possible — and wash them separately with some gentle soap and warm water. Also, if the pack comes with a removable frame, go ahead and separate that as well.

  3. Make Your Bath Next, fill your bathtub or sink with some lukewarm water and take your mild soap (still no detergent) and fully submerge the backpack in the bath. Since this is a deeper clean, you’re going to want to be a bit more vigorous with the agitation — sponging and brushing exterior spots with vigor.

  4. Drain & Dry After the bath, empty the sink and refill with clean warm water. Be sure to rinse the pack out well so there’s no soapy residue left over. Hang out to dry in a cool, shaded area.

For a more visually-appealing step-by-step process, allows us to let REI take the reigns for a minute with this educational video.

The Best Solution?

Keeping It Clean After Every Outdoor Use

While a deep clean can be necessary after extended use in the outdoors, we’ve found the best solution is to gently clean your pack after every use. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean a full-on bath is in order after a short weekend away. However, emptying the pack from any old belongings, trash, and food items, will go a long way in enhancing the longevity of the piece. Keep in mind, it’s the little things that matter most and we can all attest to the notion that multiple short and easy cleanings far outweigh one large deep cleaning. We do understand that the rougher you play, the dirtier your gear is going to get. So for some of us, a thorough deep clean might just be required after each and every outing.

Primer: How To Clean Your Pocket Knife

In the likely chance cleaning your backpack is just one of several gear cleanups you’re after, then be sure to check out this guide on how to clean your pocket knife. Because there’s nothing worse than a dull and rusted knife when you need it most.