How To Clean A Backpack With And Without A Washing Machine

Christin Perry LitteThings writer by Christin Perry
Christin is a mom and editor specializing in lifestyle content. She also hides cookies like a boss.

If you’re anything like me during back-to-school time, you have to have everything in perfect order before the kids walk through those doors for class. Every year around this time I feel an overwhelming urge to clean and organize everything, never mind the fact that the rest of the year I’m hacking it together and barely keeping up.

At the beginning of the school year, all the laundry must be clean and put away, school supplies need to be bought, and homework areas must be organized. Backpacks and lunch bags also need to be looking their best, which entails some deep cleaning. And that’s what we’re here to talk about today: how to wash a backpack.

If you’re one of those moms who needs everything in order before you send your kids off to school, stick around to learn how to sanitize a backpack and keep it as clean as possible.

What To Do Before You Wash Your Backpack

Empty backpack
Morgan Swofford for LittleThings

It may be tempting to get that backpack in the washing machine as quickly as possible, but taking a few extra seconds to check all the pockets goes a long way. This is especially the case with kids’ backpacks, as they’re bound to contain all sorts of unidentifiable things like gum, candy, lip balm, plastic toys, and snails. You can’t make this stuff up — I’ve found more than one snail in a backpack. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

After you’ve checked all interior and exterior pockets, turn the backpack upside down over a trashcan and give it a good shake. You’ll be glad you did this, too. This is where all the pencil lead, pen tops, errant lunch money (score!) and food crumbs make their exit. 

Next, Mountain Warehouse advises you to check the care instructions on the label — different backpacks call for different cleaning methods, but we’ll get to that later.

Finally, prior to washing, check for any unsightly stains that aren’t likely to come out in the wash. The two most popular? Oil stains and ink stains. Luckily, both are relatively easy to remove.

Removing Stains From A Backpack
How To Remove Oil Stains From A Backpack

Dish soap to get oil stains out of backpack
Morgan Swofford for LittleThings

If the oil stain is relatively recent (I know, the chances of this are slim), suggests you “place an absorbent, such as cornstarch or baking soda, onto the oil stain, and let it soak in for approximately 15 minutes.”

However, if the oil stain is set in, try rubbing some dish soap into it with a toothbrush or scrub brush. It may not remove the entire stain, but doing this should reduce the appearance. For severe stains, check out our WD-40 method here.

How To Remove Ink Stains From A Backpack

Ink stained backpack
Morgan Swofford for LittleThings

If the backpack you’re trying to clean has unsightly ink stains, hair spray may be your best bet. suggests you “thoroughly dampen the marked area with hair spray. Blot the area with a clean white rag to remove the ink from the marked area. Continue blotting the area until you no longer notice the ink transferring to the rag.”

How To Wash A Backpack In The Washing Machine

Putting backpack in mesh laundry bag
Morgan Swofford for LittleThings

Sites like REI advise that you should never wash a backpack in a washing machine. However, this advice tends to be for those mega-expensive-carry-your-life-on-your-back hiking packs. After all, if you’re going to shell out half a month’s rent on a backpack, you’ll likely want to work hard to keep it in tip-top shape.

But when you’re talking about a standard-issue kid’s backpack, it’s typically fine to just throw it in the washing machine. Here are some basic steps for washing a backpack in the washing machine:

  1. Follow the guidelines above to thoroughly empty the backpack and spot-clean any stains.
  2. Put it in the washing machine on the gentle cycle with a bit of detergent and warm water. Placing the backpack in an old pillowcase or mesh laundry bag can protect any straps or zippers from getting caught in the washer.
  3. Remove immediately after washing.
  4. The best way to dry a pack is to air dry, preferably upside down. Refrain from using tumble dry as this can damage or shrink the bag.

How To Hand-Wash A Backpack

<u> How To Hand-Wash A Backpack </u>
Morgan Swofford for LittleThings

Aside from the aforementioned metal-framed hiking sacks, there are some other types of backpacks that are better off washed by hand. Lots of kid’s backpacks have paint that can wash off, gadgets that can fall off, or large plastic panels that can melt in the washing machine. If you’re dealing with any of those, you probably can’t machine wash it. No sweat though — you can still clean it in a snap using these simple instructions on how to wash a backpack by hand:

  1. Fill a bathtub with lukewarm water and a touch of detergent.
  2. For the next step, REI instructs, “Submerge and swish your pack vigorously, sponging off the interiors and brushing exterior spots.” Make sure to agitate and squeeze the bag so that every corner gets a soapy rinse.
  3. Rinse thoroughly with clean, cold water until all of the soap is removed.

How To Disinfect A Backpack

Scrubbing backpack with cloth
Morgan Swofford for LittleThings

Got a seriously yucky backpack on your hands? Kudos to you for resisting the urge to toss it and move on to another one. Whether your backpack has been sprayed by a skunk, or worse, a bodily fluid or two, you’re probably wondering if it’s salvageable. And, unfortunately, you probably won’t be able to use bleach, the go-to disinfectant.

However, The Spruce has some great guidelines for disinfecting a backpack. They advise that you use either pine oil or a phenolic disinfectant. What’s that? It’s just a fancy term for a cleanser that uses phenol, an antimicrobial agent that effectively disinfects surfaces.

Follow these steps in order to disinfect a backpack that needs a little more help than just a spin through the washing machine:

  1. Mix a 1:1 solution of warm water and disinfectant.
  2. Apply solution to bag either by soaking the bag or using a soft brush to scrub tough spots.
  3. Follow by washing in the washing machine if the bag is machine washable, or by submerging in warm water to rinse.
  4. Let dry thoroughly before using.

How To Deodorize A Backpack

Stuffing backpack with newspaper
Morgan Swofford for LittleThings

Maybe your kid’s backpack isn’t a total minefield, and it’s just a bit stinky from the last school year. If that’s the case, it probably doesn’t need to be washed; a simple deodorizing will do.

The best way to get rid of odors in backpacks and lunch bags is simply to shake some baking soda into the bottom of them, then let them sit wide open in the sunlight for an entire day. also recommends dipping a bit of newspaper in vanilla, then wadding it up and placing it into the backpack. Leave it in for the weekend, remove and you’ll have a sweet-smelling pack that’s ready for school!

How To Keep Your Backpack Clean

Washing backpack with sponge
Morgan Swofford for LittleThings

Once your backpack is clean, you’ll want to keep it this way as long as possible, so you won’t have to go through the washing process again. Wiping it down very quickly once a week should delay the need for another wash. And always make sure that the backpack is dry  — a simple spilled water bottle can lead to some messy mold situations.

Good Housekeeping also suggests that you don’t overstuff the packs, as it ruins them faster and is definitely not good for kids’ shoulders.

Backpacks are a crucial part of kids’ school experiences, so making sure that those packs are clean will make for even better days in the classroom.

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