How to clean a hiking backpack

Table of Contents

You get to the end of the hiking season and notice that your backpack has a hole in it…oh wait, there’s two!

Must be a lousy backpack, cheap quality.

Wrong!

If you had taken proper care of it and cleaned it when you are supposed to, the material wouldn’t have broken down so quickly.

I have found myself in the above situation multiple times, but that was before I actually started taking care of my gear. I would never bother with things like cleaning my backpack. (who has time for something like that after a long hike?)

But when I started taking care of my gear and paying attention to things like the care label, I noticed my gear was lasting longer. (and looking fresher out on the trail)

cleaning a hiking backpack

Steps to keeping your hiking backpack clean

Deep clean

Deep cleaning your backpack at least once a year is the best practice. If you use your backpack often or hike in dirty or sandy conditions, you will want to do this twice a year.

The process for cleaning is rather simple and, from start to finish, only takes a couple of hours, depending on how quickly the backpack dries.

The steps to cleaning your hiking backpack are:

  1. Remove all of the gear, food, clothing, etc. from your backpack

  2. If possible, remove the hip belts and shoulder straps

  3. Shake out any debris from the interior, and vacuum out for the best cleaning

  4. Use lukewarm water and detergent-free soap (or gentle/mild soap) to scrub the inside and outside of your pack (it is best to use a soft brush)

  5. Rinse thoroughly with cold water until all soap residue is gone

  6. Hang to air dry, preferably outdoors

Make sure the backpack is completely dry before storing it away for your next trip.

deep cleaning a hiking backpack

Spot clean

You want to stay on top of keeping your pack clean with a spot clear after every couple of hikes. Or after any long hike or dirty/sandy hike.

Spot cleaning your hiking backpack only takes a couple of minutes and goes a long way to maximizing the longevity of the pack. To spot clean your hiking backpack, you want to:

  1. Remove all of the gear, food, clothing, etc. from your pack

  2. Use a wet cloth or sponge and lukewarm water to wipe off the exterior and interior of the pack

  3. If there are any particularly dirty spots, use detergent free soap or mild/gentle soap to scrub tough stains

  4. Rinse the pack with cold water

  5. Hang to air dry

When wiping off your pack, pay attention to the inside of any pockets, all the zippers, and any deep crevices on the pack. Using a toothbrush is a good way to clean these spots.

spot cleaning a hiking backpack

Can I use a washing machine to clean my backpack?

No, do not use a washing machine to clean your hiking backpack.

Hiking backpacks are not made to withstand machine washing, so the lifespan of the pack will be significantly reduced.

Having to hand wash your back may not be appealing, but the small time investment will make sure your backpack lasts longer.

Can I use a drying machine to dry my backpack?

No, putting your pack in the dryer will do more damage than using a washing machine.

Hiking backpacks are not designed to be subjected to direct, high temperatures. Using a drying machine can potentially melt part of your pack. At best, it will weaken the integrity of the pack.

Letting your backpack air dry naturally is a must if you want your backpack to last more than a year or two.

do not use washing machine or dryer

Why should I clean my hiking backpack?

Cleaning your backpack is probably any hiker’s least favorite part. We all love getting back from an amazing outdoor experience and immediately starting the planning process of our next hike. But being diligent about cleaning your gear will make sure that it all lasts as long as possible.

Small particles like dirt and sand always seem to find their way into all the pockets. Small pebbles somehow get into parts of the backpack we swear were zipped up the whole time. Plus, sweat works its way into these places before crystallizing.

wash a backpack to remove dirt and sand

Over time, these things create friction on the material. This seemingly invisible interaction wears down the material with each use.

The hiking backpack material will start to develop weak spots and, eventually, holes. A little bit of sewing can fix this, but those will only last so long. Staying on top of washing is the best way to increase the longevity of your hiking backpack.

What do I need to clean my hiking backpack?

You likely already have all the things needed to clean your backpack at home.

You will need:

  • Water (lukewarm and cool water)

  • Detergent free soap or gentle detergent

  • Soft brush

  • Handheld vacuum or narrow nozzle attachment for regular vacuum

  • Hook or line to air dry

items you need to wash your backpack

How often should I clean my hiking backpack

You should spot clean your backpack after each use.

This is to prevent a buildup of dirt, sand, or other small particles from accumulating. You want to pay particular attention to any visibly dirty areas or stains on the bag’s surface.

You want to do a deep, thorough cleaning at least once a year. If you do a lot of hikes or commonly hike in dirty or sandy conditions, twice a year is preferable.

I deep clean most of my backpacks twice a year, usually before and after the summer season. This is when they see the most use, so I like to start and end the season with a deep cleaning.

when to do a thorough wash of your backpack

What soap should I use to clean my hiking backpack

You want to use mild or gentle soaps. You want to avoid detergents as they are made from synthetic compounds that hiking pack materials are not designed to withstand over time.

Castile soaps are great options for cleaning backpacks. Plus, they are very versatile, so you can avoid having to buy a product only for cleaning your backpack.

Additionally, I like Nikwax Tent and Gear Solarwash because it can be used for backpacks and tents. Plus, it helps protect against UV damage to the fabric.

Conclusion

Nobody goes their whole hike just waiting to get home and clean their backpack inside and out. (nobody I have met at least)

But, just because it isn’t a glamorous thing to do does not mean that it is useless.

Manufacturers include care instructions for a reason. They want their product to last as long as possible, and cleaning your backpack regularly will do just that.

The build-up of sweat, dirt, sand, and other debris will shorten the longevity of your backpack. But a little warm water and a mild soap are all you need to make sure you get your money’s worth out of your hiking backpack.

view from mountain pass

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