How to Clean a Backpack: A Step-by-Step Guide 

 July 15, 2023

By  Keith Terrell

Life can be chaotic and messy, especially if you are always out and about using your backpack. Backpacks are used to safely store and organize your valuables. They are extremely essential for parents, travelers, students, and entrepreneurs. That said, backpacks will be prone to getting dirty with use over time - so what is the right way to clean them?

Most backpack stains can easily be removed through spot cleaning, with the use of a brush or sponge dipped in mild soap and warm water. Be sure to always remove the backpack's contents, and check the manufacturer's care guidelines for specific instructions on thoroughly cleaning the pack

In this post, we'll help you tackle different ways of cleaning your backpack. Whether you need a quick spruce up or your bag requires a more intensive cleaning, read on below to find out everything you need for a successful cleaning job. 

How to Safely Clean Your Backpack

Cleaning your backpack regularly is essential to ensure it looks its best and lasts a long time. However, since backpacks come in many different shapes and sizes and are made from a variety of fabrics and materials, you'll want to make sure you clean them correctly.

Depending on the material of your backpack, some cleaning methods are more effective than others. Before you begin to clean your bag, check what the manufacturer's care or maintenance recommendations are. 

When cleaning a delicate material like suede or leather, avoid harsh soaps and detergents; always use a soft damp cloth and mild dish soap instead. Heavier fabrics such as nylon or canvas can be cleaned with warm, soapy water. Some backpacks can be tossed into a washing machine for a more efficient clean, depending on the material. 

For spot cleaning on stubborn stains, use a soft brush or sponge dipped in warm soapy water. Scrub it using gentle, circular motions on the affected area. Either way, always focus on the affected area instead of wiping down the entire backpack and then rinsing it with water afterward.

There are some harsh chemicals sold for cleaning backpacks. However, they can do more harm than good if not handled properly–possibly causing irreparable damage to both the fabric and color of your bag. Make sure you do your research and only use these chemicals when necessary, and on the right materials they are meant for.

Now that you have a better understanding of how to safely clean your backpack based on what type of fabric or material it's made from, let's move on to determining the exact material of your bag in the following section.

Determine the Material of Your Bag

Always clean your backpack based on the material it's constructed out of. Understanding what fabric your bag is made of is key to proper cleaning. You can usually find information on the bag's fabric on its tag, which is also where the manufacturer typically indicates care instructions. 

Not all backpacks can be washed the same way because some fabrics are more delicate than others. For example, canvas and synthetic materials can be machine washed, while others require hand washing. Meanwhile, leather backpacks are higher maintenance as they should only be cleaned by hand simply with a quick wipe down.

When in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of caution by handwashing a bag instead of throwing it into a machine with other laundry items. This can quickly cause irreparable damage to delicate fabrics or metal and plastic parts like zippers and buckles. 

Washing by Hand

Though it is possible to machine wash most backpacks, washing by hand may be the best option for certain materials and fabrics, such as suede, leather, and other delicate fabrics. Before starting, always check for any care instructions for specific fabrics that may have come with the backpack.

Start by wiping the entire surface with a damp washcloth. Use a mild detergent, dish soap, or even hydrogen peroxide if necessary, and spot clean. Pay attention to areas with grime and stubborn dirt.

For deeper stains, create a paste from baking soda and water, rub on the stain, let sit for 15 minutes, and then wipe off. To remove odors, fill a spray bottle with 1/4 cup of white vinegar and 1/4 cup of water and lightly spray the interior of the bag.

For canvas backpacks, use a mixture of one teaspoon of white vinegar in two cups of warm water to gently scrub the dirt off without causing damage to the material. Prop the pack open when possible to ensure all areas are equally washed.

Soak any hardware or metallic parts in warm soapy water or mineral oil to loosen any accumulated dirt or dust. A toothbrush can also be used to help clean smaller corners and ridges of dirt or dust that may remain after washing.

Other bags made from materials like straw, wicker, or woven reeds can be cleaned with a damp cloth and gentle soap to remove spots. A cloth dampened in water and alcohol, or wet wipes, can help remove tough stains that won’t come off with soap solution alone. Be sure to read up on any product-specific cleaning instructions before starting, so you avoid damaging the bag.

After washing, allow the backpack to air dry completely before reintroducing items inside. When drying leather bags, always use a soft cloth; avoid placing them in direct heat as this may shrink or discolor leather over time. 

Now that you have correctly cleaned your backpack, it is time to focus on removing any tough stains that could still remain – this is discussed in more detail in the next section about removing stains.

Washing in a Machine

If your bag is machine washable, you must be careful to select the gentlest cycle possible and use gentle detergents with cold water. Don't use fabric softeners. 

Place the backpack inside a pillowcase if you have one, though a laundry bag will work fine too. This prevents zippers, straps, and buckles from getting tangled inside the washing machine. Use the gentlest detergent available, and don't add any fabric softeners.

The process is relatively simple - just set the washing machine to the gentle cycle with cold water, add your own mild detergent, and slip in the backpack. When it comes to machine-washing a delicate fabric like nylon, some professionals suggest using a lingerie bag or pillowcase.

This will help protect fragile hardware that can break loose during the wash cycle, such as zippers and buckles. However, for tougher and chunkier fabrics like leather or canvas, you may prefer to avoid machine-washing altogether due to potential damage from the tumbling and spinning motions.

Furthermore, there are many products on the market specifically designed for machine-washing backpacks - there are packs of machine-washable laundry detergents tailored for synthetic and waterproof materials available for purchase if desired.

Once the machine cycle is finished, make sure to wring out any excess water from the pack before popping it into the dryer; don’t forget to spin away excess water from straps and pockets. It's important to note that not all backpacks are suitable for tumble drying in a dryer - so proceed with any caution when likely materials could potentially melt or shrink in the heat.

If unsure, air drying outside on a sunny day is always an option; make sure that excess moisture isn't left inside the bag overnight as mildew may form.

Removing Stains

No matter how careful you are, your backpack is prone to developing stains from regular use. Whether it’s dirt and grease, grass, or food and drink, stain removal is key to keeping your backpack looking clean. There are two ways to approach removing stains: spot-cleaning or submerging the bag in a machine wash.


Spot-cleaning works well to target small areas on the bag that need extra attention. Start by identifying the type of stain you’re dealing with; use a mild soap (like dish detergent) for general problem stains. If you’re dealing with more stubborn stains such as oil or rust, use a specialized cleaner. Wet a cloth with some of your cleaning solution then dab the stained area gently with the wet cloth. 

To avoid discoloring or damaging the color of your bag, be sure to test your cleaner in a tiny, hidden area first! Once the stain has been dampened and soaped up, use another clean, dry cloth to wipe away any remaining residue of the cleaner and repeat this process as necessary until you are satisfied with the results.

This method is effective so long as you remove the stains before they are set permanently into the fabric of your pack.

Machine Washing

Machine washing your bag is only recommended if spot cleaning hasn't worked, or if there are far too many stains. If your bag is machine washable, then select one of the lowest settings for either hand washing or delicate machine cycle on your washer and add an appropriate amount of laundry detergent for treating tough stains. Again, if possible, use cold water for laundering delicate fabrics to prevent them from shrinking or fading over time. 

After the washing cycle is complete, hang the pack up away from direct sunlight where it can air dry thoroughly. Once completely dry, inspect each part carefully for any leftover traces of grime—and reapply spot-cleaning methods if necessary—before putting all components back together again.

Prevent Future Damage

It is important to take precautionary steps to ensure that your backpack remains in great condition and as clean as can be. Follow these steps below to keep your backpack in good shape at all times:

Regular Cleaning

Taking care of your backpack is essential, which is why it is recommended to clean it at least every month if used frequently. This not only helps keep your backpack looking good but also prevents grime and dirt from accumulating over time. Be sure to use the proper cleaning solutions for the most effective results.

Weatherproof Materials

Using waterproof or water-resistant backpacks is beneficial since it helps protect the bag from damage caused by rain and snow. It also helps protect your belongings from getting wet. Additionally, properly waterproofing your backpack and its contents can help keep it safe from any liquid damage that may occur during use.

Prevent Wear & Tear

Regular wear and tear can affect the quality and condition of your bag. It is best to consider using durable materials, such as tough nylon fabric or leather, to ensure it lasts longer and looks great for years to come. You should also be mindful of where you store it when not in use; avoid keeping it in damp environments or areas with heavy exposure to the sun.

By taking the appropriate measures and following the above guidelines, you can properly maintain your backpack and protect it from future damage. With this knowledge in hand, you are now ready to explore various natural solutions and remedies for cleaning your backpack – which will be covered in our next section.

Natural Solutions & Remedies

If you're looking for natural remedies to clean your backpack, there are a few different methods to consider. You can use items like vinegar, baking soda, and lemon juice to tackle tougher stains. These eco-friendly methods may require extra diligence, but many individuals prefer not to use harsh chemical detergents.

For light dirt or residue that has built up over time, simply spraying white vinegar on the surface of your backpack can help break down the dirt and clean excess oils. Allow the solution to soak, then gently wash off with a cloth soaked in water and soap solution.

Baking soda can also be a great tool for treating deeper stains that may have accumulated over time. The granules can effectively help scrub away the dirt without completely damaging your backpack fabric.

Make a paste by mixing three parts baking soda with one-part water in a bowl and applying to the dirty areas. Massage it gently with a soft cloth and let sit for five minutes before wiping off any residue.

While natural solutions can be an effective way of cleaning your backpack without harsh chemicals, it's important to note that these methods won't always work for certain types of materials or particularly stubborn stains.

It’s important to consider what type of fabric you are dealing with before settling on a cleaning method. Moving forward, we'll discuss when you should avoid washing your backpack altogether in order to protect its function and form.

When to Avoid Washing

Knowing when to wash a backpack is just as important as knowing when a backpack shouldn't be washed. Water can be damaging to certain backpack materials. Therefore, it’s important to proceed with caution when it comes to choosing the cleaning method for your backpack.

First and foremost, avoid using water altogether if the material on the backpack is not water-resistant. Moreover, do not submerge any part of a leather or suede backpack in liquid as this could permanently damage the material.

Aside from being careful with the use of liquids, refrain from putting delicate or fragile fabric through too much agitation in a washing machine as this can cause abrasion and deterioration. In some cases, manufacturers will even recommend handwashing as it may reduce the performance of certain properties of an item’s material or fabric. 

Although washing a backpack can be helpful, ensure you do so after careful research. In many cases, a wipe-down will do the trick, as there is no need to always wash backpacks. 


It is important to be careful when washing a backpack. Always research the bag's material and its proper maintenance. Do not submerge leather or suede in water, refrain from putting delicate fabric through too much agitation in a dryer, and check for instructions from manufacturers before attempting to clean and spot clean small messes in between major washes. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

What type of materials should be used to clean a backpack?

When cleaning a backpack, it is important to use materials that are non-abrasive and will not damage the fabric. The best materials to use are warm water, mild detergent or soap, and a soft bristled brush. It is also important to be careful when scrubbing - using gentle, circular motions is typically best.

For tougher stains or dirt buildup, mild dish soap with water on a damp cloth works great! Avoid using abrasive cleaning products that may cause damage to the fabric and hardware.

Are there any special drying instructions for a cleaned backpack?

Drying your backpack correctly is also essential to preserving it for long-term use. Generally speaking, always hang the backpack and let it air-dry in the shade after a cleanse.

You should never use a dryer or place your backpack directly in the sun to dry. Direct sunlight can damage the material and color of the backpack, while heat from a dryer can cause shrinkage or cause any remaining water stains to become permanent. 

What items should be avoided when washing a backpack?

Never use steel wool or rough sponges that could damage the material of the bag. Additionally, it is recommended to avoid high temperatures when washing a backpack – high heat can cause certain fabrics used in backpacks to become damaged. 

Never use bleach for cleaning, as this can discolor some fabric materials and may also damage straps or closures on the backpack. 

About the author

Keith is a one bag traveler and the owner of Backpacks Global. His go to backpack is the Osprey FarPoint 40.

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