How to clean a hiking backpack

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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.


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.


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

traveling with a hiking pack

Can a hiking backpack be a carry on?

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You are about to hop in the car to head to the airport for your next outdoor adventure.

Except you have waited till now to consider whether your hiking backpack will be allowed as your carry on.

Plus, what about that backpacking gear that you left at the bottom of your bag, is that allowed?

I have flown many times with hiking packs as my carry on and as a checked bag.

To address the questions about using your pack as a carry on, I researched TSA regulations and individual airline policies to compile the information into one place.

Whether you fly Delta Airlines, United Airlines, or one of the domestic budget airlines, this article contains the information you need to avoid a last-second hang up at the airport.

traveling with a hiking pack

Are you allowed to use a hiking backpack as a carry on?

Yes, you can use a hiking backpack as a carry on.

There are a couple of things to consider before you head off to the airport, though.

Airlines have different maximum size dimensions that they allow for carry ons, and some hiking or backpacking gear that you may have in your hiking backpack is not allowed in carry on luggage.

Items you may have in your hiking pack

I went through the full list of TSA prohibited items and identified common items that may or may not be in your carry on bag.


Can you have it in your pack?


Yes, if less than 3.4 oz and 140 proof



Bear spray


Bug spray

Yes, if less than 3.4 oz. and has a button/nozzle

Camp stove

Yes, as long as it doesn't have fuel attached to it


Yes, but TSA as authority to deny if they feel they pose a threat

Disposable lighter

Yes, non disposables must have no fuel in them





Hand warmers


Ice axe




Lithium battery



Yes, unless it has a knife


Yes, if under 4 inches long

Tent stakes


Trekking poles are a bit of a tricky one for most people, so I will address it outside of the above table. Canes or other walking sticks that are needed for mobility are allowed. Since hiking poles are not needed, they are not allowed in your carry on.

As is standard for travel, all liquids must be 3.4 oz.

What size backpack can I use as carry on luggage?

The average maximum size for a carry on bag is 22″ x 14″ x 9″.

Some airlines have slightly different dimensions, so I compiled a list of major US airlines and their maximum allowed size for carry on luggage.


Maximum Size Dimensions

Alaska Airlines

22" x 14" x 9"

Allegiant Air

22" x 16" x 10"

American Airlines

22" x 14" x 9"

Delta Airlines

22" x 14" x 9"

Frontier Airlines

24" x 16" x 10"


22" x 14" x 9"

Southwest Airlines

24" x 16" x 10"

Spirit Airlines

22" x 18" x 10"

Unitied Airlines

22" x 14" x 9"

In my experience, it is not common for airlines to measure your carry on, so if yours is within an inch or so, you may be fine. That said, don’t rely on it if your backpack is over the limit.


Are there weight restrictions for a carry on?

Most airlines do not note a weight limit for their carry on luggage. Some do, like Frontier limits it to 35 pounds.

So for most airlines, I would try to keep it under that 35-pound limit.

I also could not imagine hauling around 35+ pounds in most day hiking backpacks.

What if my backpack is too big to carry on?

If your backpack is too big, you will have to check it.

There are some items that are allowed in a carry on that are not allowed in checked luggage.

So if your pack is close to the size limit, I would always check it at the ticketing desk versus getting to the gate and having to check it there. It will save you from having to pull items out of your bag.

For example, some lithium-ion batteries are prohibited from being in your checked luggage. If you have an external battery power bank, to recharge your electronics on the trail, it cannot be in your checked luggage.

You can save yourself some headaches by knowing whether your hiking backpack is too big to carry on and what items are not allowed.

airplane seat

Can I use my hiking backpack as a checked bag?

Yes, you can use hiking backpacks as checked luggage.

If you have a larger day pack or a backpacking pack, you will have to check it if you want to bring it with you.

Generally, the weight limit for checked is 50 pounds. Beyond this, you will get into extra charges, so if you are going to be close to that limit, have a carry on or personal item that you can pack some items in.

Getting to the counter and realizing you’re going to have to pay an extra fee is a great way to start your adventure out on the wrong foot.

How to pack your backpack as checked baggage

There are a couple of things you should consider before checking your backpack.

  1. Pack any fragile items (or any expensive or irreplaceable gear) in the middle of the pack, preferably surrounded by something soft. (I.e., wrap it in your sleeping bag)

  2. Make sure all the buckles are either clipped in or removed. These can easily get caught and ripped or broken throughout the loading/unloading process. You do not want to arrive at your destination with a couple of broken buckles.

  3. If possible, tie your shoulder straps together. This can also get caught on something during the loading/unloading process, and you do not want to get to your destination and realize some stitches holding your shoulder strap on were ripped.

  4. Pack your backpack within a duffel bag. If your hiking bag fits within a larger duffel that you have, do that. It better protects the backpack from damage. I once did the three things listed above, only to have the mesh pocket of my pack ripper when I picked it up off the baggage carousel.

Can I use my hiking pack as my personal item?

Yes, a lot of day packs fit the size requirement for use as a personal item.

As with carry on luggage, each airline has different maximum sizes. I went ahead and researched each major US airlines’ personal items policy and put it into one table.


Maximum Size Dimensions

Alaska Airlines

No specific dimensions, must fit under seat

Allegiant Air

18" x 14" x 8"

American Airlines

18" x 14" x 8"

Delta Airlines

No specific dimensions, must fit under seat

Frontier Airlines

18" x 14" x 8"


17" x 13" x 8" (must fit under seat)

Southwest Airlines

16.25" x 13.5" x 8" (must fit under seat)

Spirit Airlines

18" x 14" x 8"

United Airlines

17" x 10" x 9"

Generally speaking, if your pack fits underneath the seat in front of you, it can be used as a carry on.

For reference, the REI Flash 22 is 19″ x 11″ x 8″. So if you had this pack (or a similar-sized pack), it would be close to use as a personal item. As long as you don’t have it fully packed, you should be fine, though. It can compress a little bit to meet most of the size dimension limits.


Using your hiking backpack as your carry on is an easy way to bring along a lot of your gear, and in some cases, it allows you to avoid checking a bag.

Though, there are size restrictions for how big of a bag you can bring. A popular pack like the Osprey Exos 48 is not going to cut it as a carry on. But if you have a day hiking backpack in the 20 L range, it will most likely work.

Also, make sure to do a double-check through what you are packing because some common hiking gear is not allowed in your carry on.

Nothing starts your next outdoor adventure off right quite like getting through airport security without a hassle and all of your gear arriving in good condition!

backpacking trip picture

How to pack a hiking pack

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Knowing how to pack your bag for your next hiking trip is a skill that few pay attention to, but if done properly can make your hike so much better.

At first, it doesn’t seem like it should matter how you pack your bag; it’s the same weight regardless, right? True, but think about the difference between carrying around a 20-pound bag in your hands versus on your back.

The same principle applies to your hiking backpack. You can make it easier or harder for yourself, depending on how you pack.

To make it as efficient as possible, you just need to know the different sections of a backpack and which pieces of gear go in them.

How to pack a backpack for your next hike

When packing your day pack for your hike, there are a couple of key points to keep in mind:

  1. Put any low-density items that you won’t need often at the bottom

  2. Keep your denser, heavier items toward the middle-top of the pack (preferably at the top and close to your back)

  3. Put your quick-access or commonly used items at the very top of your pack or in an exterior pocket

tips for packing for day hikes or backpacking trips

It may seem arbitrary and irrelevant how you pack your items, but there are a couple of reasons why it is important.

  • Proper weight distribution

  • Ability to access items efficiently

Weight distribution. You want to avoid having too much weight at the bottom or top of the pack. This throws off your balance (top-heavy or bottom-heavy) and will lead to you feeling pulled backward, especially when ascending a climb.

Efficient access. It doesn’t make sense to put something at the bottom of your pack that you plan to need multiple times throughout your hike. Having to take your pack off and pull out all your gear, only to have to repack it all just to get a snack, makes no sense. If you anticipate wanting/needing something, keep it in a place that is quick and easy to get to.

Different sections of a pack

different sections of a backpack


The lower third of the pack is where anything that is light, low-density, and likely won’t be needed goes.

For a day hiking trip, these would be items like:

  • Emergency shelter

  • Rain jacket (if it is unlikely to rain)

  • Insulating layer (if it is unlikely you will use it)

  • Extra clothing items

If you are planning an overnight trip, items like:

  • Sleeping bag

  • Sleeping pad

Anything else that compresses down and is relatively light should go toward the bottom of the pack.

what to pack in bottom of pack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, rain jacket


The middle section is where you will want to pack your heaviest gear.

This sets you up best to have an evenly distributed pack and not get thrown off balance easily.

On a day hike, this would be:

  • Food

  • Camera gear

  • Extra water (this is generally where a hydration bladder will sit)

For an overnight, the middle section is where you should keep:

  • Tent

  • Any cook fuel or cookware

  • Bear canister (if applicable)

Any other heavy gear should be kept toward the middle. You ideally want the heaviest item sitting in the middle of the pack along your back. This keeps the pack balanced and your center of gravity in an optimal place.

packing middle of pack, food, camera gear, extra water, liquid fuel for cooking


The upper section of your pack is where you want to keep items that you would want to be able to grab quickly.

On a day hike, this includes:

  • Rain gear (if you are expecting rain)

  • First-aid kit (if not kept in an external pocket)

  • Snacks

  • Insulating layer (if you anticipate needing it)

For an overnight backpacking trip:

  • Hygiene items

  • Maps

  • Lighting (headlamp)

Basically, anything that you anticipate needing that you wouldn’t want to have to dig around your pack for should go near the top.

what to pack in top of pack, rain gear, bathroom kit, first aid, lightweight items


External storage includes:

  • Hip belt pockets

  • Side pockets

  • Mesh, stretchy front pouch

  • Shoulder pockets

  • Any zippered pocket on the outside of your pack

  • Any loops/lash points/attachment points on the outside of the pack


I love external storage and tend to maximize the external pockets on my packs because of the easy access.

Items that would go in these areas would be:

  • Water bottles

  • Snacks

  • Sun protection (sunscreen)

  • Phone

  • Map

  • Sunglasses

  • Water filter

Anything else that is small and light can be stored on the outside of your pack.

If you are backpacking, I love using the mesh front pouch as a way to dry my wet gear/clothes. You can put it halfway into the pocket and let the sun and wind dry it out after a rain shower.

packing the exterior pockets, water bottle pockets, hip pockets, mesh pockets

Order of packing

The easiest way to pack a backpack for a hike is from lower to upper. Pretty obvious, huh?

But there are a couple of tricks to maximizing space and getting a well-packed backpack.

  • Minimize empty (dead) space

  • Utilize compression straps on the pack

Minimize empty space. If you do not pack your gear into the pack tightly, you end up with a lot of dead space for items to move around. This has the potential to throw you off balance and leave you with an unorganized pack.

Use light, compressible items (I.e., an extra jacket or another clothing item) to fill in the empty spaces. This is most notable when backpacking with a bear canister. The round shape leaves space around it that is perfect for stuffing an extra layer or sleeping bag in. This prevents the bear canister from constantly shifting around.

Utilize compression straps. A lot of packs have some form of compression straps (some more than others), and these will help ensure that the backpack is tight and compact. They will reduce the interior volume of the pack closer to the amount of space you are actually using.

This is one of the reasons I love roll-top closures. They let you easily roll the top of the pack down to the level of your gear. This goes a long way toward reducing the empty space inside, plus it makes the pack a lot more versatile.

keys to pack gear for hiking trip

Packing differences for a day hike and backpacking

Day hike

Packing for a day hike is much easier because you don’t have to worry about larger items like:

  • Tents

  • Tent poles

  • Sleeping bag

  • Sleeping pad

Generally, you won’t have any really heavy or bulky items. Some exceptions are if you bring camera equipment, rock climbing equipment, or something like that.

You still want to follow the packing guidelines for each section of the pack, but you definitely have more wiggle room. Plus, your hike will not be quite as miserable if you don’t have the pack dialed in.

pictures of dirt road from hike


Backpacking requires more attention to how you’re packing your items.

You have more items with you and a backpacking pack is larger, so there is more space for items to get moved and lost in. Especially if it is a multi-night trip, I recommend taking 5 minutes in the morning to ensure your pack is organized well. This allows you to make sure you have everything and that you don’t have an unbalanced pack.

Should I use a stuff sack for items

should you use a stuff sack when hiking

Stuff sacks are pretty popular and have some pros and cons


  • Improved organization

  • Creates a modular approach to packing

  • Usually compressible


  • Create dead spaces

  • Not as easy to access items

I am not a fan of using them for any items, whether hiking or backpacking.

They are generally oblong-shaped, which creates dead spaces throughout your pack. I prefer to have the items loose and able to be stuffed between/around heavy items. For example, I usually wrap my sleeping bag around my bear canister when backpacking in bear country.

If you like the appeal of being more organized by using stuff sacks, I would just caution against using too many. I have seen people on the trail who have 3, 4, 5+ stuff sacks, and they have to pull them out to get to one, only to have to reverse the process to put them back. Be strategic and smart about what you put into a stuff sack and how many you are using.

picture from hiking trip

Checklist of items to bring on a hike

When packing for a day hike, there are some items that you should bring every time:

  • Water and electrolytes

  • Nutrition

  • Some form of navigation (paper map, downloaded map on phone, photo of the map, etc.)

  • First aid kit

I bring these on every hike and recommend this as the baseline for what you should take. Depending on other factors, you may want to add some other essentials:

  • Sun protection (sunscreen, sun hoodie, sun umbrella, etc.)

  • Rain gear (rain jacket, poncho, pack cover, etc.)

  • Insulating layer (light jacket, puffy jacket, etc.)

  • Lighting (headlamp, flashlight, etc.)

  • Extra clothing (socks, shirt, shorts, etc.)

  • GPS device (particularly in rugged or remote areas)

Also, things like hand sanitizer, bear spray, hiking poles, toilet paper, and emergency shelters can be good ideas in certain situations.


  1. Put any low-density items that you won’t need often at the bottom

  2. Keep your denser, heavier items toward the middle-top of the pack (preferably at the top and close to your back)

  3. Put your quick-access or commonly used items at the very top of your pack or in an exterior pocket

  • Proper weight distribution

  • Ability to access items efficiently

You will minimize injury risk with a pack that is packed properly. Also, you will not have to be digging around to find something when you need it.

This is a personal choice. I do not like using them because they can be awkwardly shaped and create a lot of dead space in your pack.

On a backpacking trip, you should keep your sleeping bag toward the bottom of your pack since you only need it at the end of your day. 


Packing for a hike or backpacking trip is an exciting time. You’re about to head out for a day or days in nature and get a mental and emotional relief from day-to-day life.

Everyone always stresses about what items to bring (and this is important), but few think much about how they are going to pack their bag.

Knowing the best way to pack a backpack for a hike is an important skill. It is the difference between a fully loaded pack being a nuisance and it feeling like an extension of your body.

If you follow the proper way to pack, you will have a better experience, you won’t feel as physically exhausted during your hike, and you will crave getting outdoors for your next adventure!

picture of lake from hike