Backpacks and bookbags can get dirty or stained over time, whether they’re loaded up with school supplies, hiking gear, or function as your daily carryall. When it’s time for a deep clean once or twice a year, you’ll want to spot clean stains, gently wash according to the care label instructions and properly air dry. Read on for step-by-step instructions for how to hand wash or machine wash a backpack.

A backpack in soapy water

How to wash a backpack by hand

Hand washing is the safest method to clean bookbags or backpacks. Some bags—especially hiking packs—have protective coatings that could break down in the washer. If your bag is leather, leather-trimmed or has decorations like iron-on patches or embroidery, you’ll want to stick with hand washing.

What you’ll need:

  • Mild (fragrance- and additive-free) soap or detergent
  • Sponge or washcloth
  • Soft-bristled cleaning brush (like an old toothbrush)
  • Old towels
Backpack icon

Step 1: Empty the backpack and brush off visible dirt
Open every pocket and compartment and remove all items, leaving pockets unzipped. Shake out the backpack to remove dirt or crumbs and brush off dirt and buildup on the outside. You can also use a vacuum attachment along the inner and outer seams. Remove any metal frames and detachable straps and hip belts.

Care label icon

Step 2: Read the care instructions label
Care labels are usually located inside the backpack. Follow the instructions for cleaning. If there isn’t a label, be sure to test the fabric in a less visible spot with about ¼ teaspoon of detergent first to avoid fading or damage.

Spot clean backpack icon

Step 3: Spot treat stains
Using a teaspoon of detergent mixed with lukewarm water and a soft-bristled brush or sponge, gently clean any visible stains.

Fill tub icon

Step 4: Gently wash the backpack in lukewarm water
Fill a sink, large basin or bathtub with lukewarm water and a tablespoon of mild detergent. If the backpack can be submerged (check the care label), place it directly in the water. Scrub both the inside and outside of the backpack with a sponge or washcloth. Use an old toothbrush to scrub the zippers to remove any buildup.

Rinse and air dry icon

Step 5: Rinse and air dry
If you’ve submerged the backpack, drain the soapy water and replace with clean, cool water to thoroughly rinse. If you’ve only used a sponge or cloth without submerging, soak the sponge in clean water and go over the backpack to remove any detergent. Use an old towel to gently pat away excess moisture, and hang up the bag to air dry. Never put a backpack or bookbag in the dryer, as the heat can damage the fabric and accessories like zipper pulls.

Maintenance tip: If you plan on applying protective finishes like waterproofing sprays, make sure to wait until your clean backpack is completely dry.

Stainless steel wash basket in a washing machine

How to wash a backpack in the washer

Basic school backpacks and bookbags made of nylon or canvas can usually be washed in a washing machine, but be sure to check the care label first.

What you’ll need:

  • Mild (fragrance- and additive-free) detergent
  • Sponge or washcloth and soft-bristled cleaning brush (like an old toothbrush)
  • Pillowcase or laundry bag
  • Old towels
Backpack icon

Step 1: Empty the backpack and brush off visible dirt
Open every pocket and compartment and remove all items, leaving pockets unzipped. Shake out the backpack to remove dirt or crumbs and brush off dirt and buildup on the outside. You can also use a vacuum attachment along the inner and outer seams. Remove any metal frames and detachable straps and hip belts.

Care label icon

Step 2: Read the care instructions label
Care labels are usually located inside the backpack. Follow the instructions for cleaning. If there isn’t a label, be sure to test the fabric in a less visible spot with about ¼ teaspoon of detergent first to avoid fading or damage.

Spot clean backpack icon

Step 3: Spot treat stains
Using a teaspoon of detergent mixed with lukewarm water and a soft-bristled brush or sponge, gently clean any visible stains.

Gentle cycle icon

Step 4: Machine wash with a gentle cycle
Cut any loose threads around the zippers. Place the backpack inside a pillowcase or laundry bag to prevent straps or zippers from getting tangled or caught inside the washer. Add a small amount of mild detergent (fill to the first line of the detergent cap) and run a gentle cycle.

Air dry icon

Step 5: Air dry
After the wash cycle is complete, use an old towel to gently pat away excess moisture, and hang up the bag to air dry. Never put a backpack or bookbag in the dryer, as the heat can damage the fabric and accessories like zipper pulls.

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