How to wash a backpack — by hand or in your washing machine

Lookin' clean on the go

Three pastel backpacks on soap bubble background
(Image credit: Future)

Backpacks are one of those things that you (probably) don’t really think about needing to wash. Yes, they’re an essential daily item that you use to carry all your must-haves, from your laptop to your lunch, but it’s easy to forget that they need cleaning, isn’t it?

When you really think about all the surfaces your backpack touches (gross) —washing it seems like a no-brainer. Just think how much dirt, grime, and germs the outer fabric of your backpack must pick up. It’s enough to make you shudder. 

You're in need of some serious cleaning hacks. But, the question is — what does it take to give your backpack a good ol’ clean without ruining it? And, should you hand wash it or stick it in your washing machine

Good to know

Time for handwashing: 10 to 15 minutes of hands-on work, plus the drying time. 

Time for machine washing: Five minutes of hands-on work, plus the time the wash cycle will take and the drying time. 

Difficulty: Intermediate 

Helpful hints: When choosing a stain remover, make sure to think about the type of fabric your backpack is made of. It’s also important to make sure that you always read the care label of your backpack, to ensure that you’re not going to damage it.  

Here’s what you’ll need

How to wash a backpack by hand

Step 1: Prepare your backpack 

First things first, you need to empty out your backpack. The last thing you want is to accidentally leave something important in your backpack and end up ruining it while washing it. So, take your time and make sure that you check and empty every pocket. Noticed any crumbs or dust inside backpack crevices? Use your vacuum cleaner to suck them out. 

Step 2: Treat stains 

Next, focus on any visible stains. Using a fabric stain remover that’s color-safe (this stain remover from Tide is available at Amazon and comes highly recommended), spritz the affected areas and leave to sit for the recommended time according to the product’s instructions. Use a soft (clean) toothbrush before rinsing off the formula with cold water. 

Step 3: Give it a good ol’ scrub 

Fill a sink with warm water and add a squirt of laundry detergent (this Tide laundry detergent gel from Amazon should work well). Submerge the backpack and leave it to soak for five minutes. Then, using a clean sponge, scrub the entire bag, including the straps. When cleaning the inside of the bag, it’s a good idea to turn the bag inside out to make the process a little easier. Once your bag is completely clean, give it a rinse off with fresh, cool water. 

Step 4: Dry your backpack 

Once you’ve cleaned your backpack, you’ll then need to dry it. Start by wringing it out and removing as much water from the bag as you can. Then, hang it out to air dry. For best results, place your backpack outside to dry. 

How to machine wash a backpack

Step 1: Empty the backpack  

Before you can start the actual cleaning process, it’s vital that you empty out your backpack fully. If there are any crumbs or compacted areas of dirt, it’s worth taking the time to use a vacuum hose to remove them. Also, be sure to check your backpack's label to look for laundry symbols describing how to wash it.

Step 2: Pre-treat stains 

Next, use a color-safe stain remover to pre-treat any stains before popping your backpack in the washing machine. Spritz the stain, let the stain remover soak in, and leave it to sit for the recommended amount of time. (For a bit of added stain-removing oomph, you can give the stain a scrub using a soft toothbrush.) 

Step 3: Wash on a cool cycle 

The next step is to place your backpack in the washing machine on a cool cycle setting (always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for this), along with some laundry detergent. Then, turn the machine on and let it do its thing. 

Step 4: Dry your backpack  

Once the cycle has ended, remove your backpack from the washing machine and allow it to air dry outside or on a radiator. 


Can you machine wash a backpack?

Whether you can machine wash a backpack depends on its care instructions. If you're not sure, check inside your backpack for a care tag or contact the manufacturer. 

Is it safe to tumble dry a backpack?

Because of the possibility of the backpack shrinking, it's probably best to air dry a backpack (or hang it on a radiator to dry) rather than tumble drying it. 

Beth Mahoney
Freelance journalist

Hi! I’m Beth Mahoney and I’m a former staff writer at Real Homes. I’ve been a journalist for the national press for the past six years, specializing in commerce and trends-related lifestyle articles, from product reviews and listicles to guides and features. With an eye for pretty things (think: quirky wall prints, scalloped edge furniture, and decadent-looking tableware) but a limited budget, I love nothing more than a bargain buy.