How to Quickly Wash a Hiking Backpack

Backpacks tend to get dusty and dirty after a long day of hiking, and washing it regularly is important to improve the longevity of the backpack. Here's how to do it.

Wouldn’t it be great if your hiking backpack never got dirty, dusty, greasy, sweaty, you name it? Well, sure, but we all know that’s not the way it is. From the sweat and oils from your skin to dealing with the outdoor elements, many things can cause your pack to get dirty. Even packing a tent inside your backpack can cause it to get dirty on the inside.

Thankfully, cleaning and washing your pack doesn’t have to be a painfully difficult process. In fact, you can quickly wash your hiking backpack by removing everything inside, shaking it upside down to remove dirt, using a sponge without soap to wipe the interior, and then using soap and water with your sponge to scrub off any stains or spots on the outside.

However, a quick cleaning may not always be what your backpack needs. How to wash a hiking backpack may need to be answered with a more detailed approach… so let’s do that right now.

How to wash a hiking backpack (a deep cleaning approach)

a black hiking backpack with water on
Image credits: Dusan Jovic

Okay, so first things first, how can you tell if your backpack needs a deep cleaning as opposed to a quick cleaning? Quite honestly, it shouldn’t be too difficult to tell. It may be a result of you not cleaning your backpack for many years, or it could be that your last adventure with your pack was a really messy one for the pack itself.

The best way to determine if your pack needs a deep cleaning, in our opinion, is to just read the process below on how to deep clean and to use your own personal judgment if such a process would be necessary for your pack in its current condition. Make sense?

So, with that out of the way, here’s a really good method of deep cleaning your hiking backpack:

1. Fully empty out your pack to ensure nothing’s inside.

2. Vacuum out the pockets and all the compartments to remove any dirt, crumbs, and other debris that’s inside.

3. If your pack has a metal frame that can be removed, do so now. Also, if the shoulder straps and hip belt can be removed then do so and wash those separately with a soft sponge and some mild soap.

4. Now, it’s time to fill up either a bathtub or a large sink with some lukewarm water. Go ahead and place your pack inside the water and use a soft sponge and some mild soap to begin scrubbing both the interior and exterior of the pack. Be wary of the mesh pockets as you’ll want to be gentle with them to avoid any damage.

5. Drain the tub or sink and then re-fill it with cool water. This is where you’re going to rinse your backpack to get rid of all the soap residue. This process may need to be repeated a few times to ensure all the soap has been removed.

Some things to keep in mind when washing your hiking backpack

How to wash a hiking backpack can be achieved with both a light and deep cleaning process, as you’ve now seen. However, our work isn’t done here as there are still several points of interest, so to speak, that we want to talk about.

Specifically, we want to discuss some very critical things that should be in the back of your mind when it comes to the washing and maintenance of your hiking backpack.

Regular washing and cleaning are important

It’s not as if you’re going to have to use Flex Seal to repair and clean your backpack, but you’re still going to want to regularly clean it. And it’s also not as if you’ll need to perform a deep cleaning on your hiking pack every single time you go out. Instead, a light cleaning after each hiking trip will typically be just fine.

Maintaining your backpack in this way can actually improve its longevity. Leaving the filth, dirt, and muck in and on your pack can actually cause the quality of the fabrics to degrade over time. General wear and tear of the bag will also have a better chance of increasing if you choose to not clean it.

Dealing with a stuck zipper

As many know, zippers can sometimes be the biggest nuisance to deal with on backpacks. They’re extremely important to the functionality of a backpack, but they can also create problems when they start to get stuck. When this does happen, lubrication can be added.

Now, if one of the zippers on your pack starts to split, lubrication isn’t going to do much of anything. Yet, if the zipper feels like it just doesn’t want to move, there are a number of different lubricants that can help out.

While dedicated zipper lubricants exist on the market, you may be able to use some household items such as petroleum jelly or ChapStick to get the job done.

Can you wash a hiking backpack in the washing machine?

lots of opened silver laundromats
Image credits: Oli Woodman

Ah, yes. Sooner or later, this had to be addressed. After all, the easy answer to the question of how to wash a hiking backpack is to just place it in the washing machine and allow all the work to be done for you. That sure sounds nice and dandy, doesn’t it? Well… we don’t want to be the bearers of bad news, but the washing machine should more or less be avoided.

Now, if the manufacturer of your backpack specifically states or claims that their pack can be safely washed in a washing machine, go for it, but make sure you adhere to their specific steps and guidelines of doing so.

In general, though, a washing machine is not a safe place for your hiking pack.

The aggressive, whirling nature of a washer can easily damage your backpack. Primarily, it’s dangerous to do so due to the number of straps, clips, and various other items on your pack that can get snagged and torn off during the washing cycle. Then again, with all that being said, there are some out there who will wash their packs in a washing machine with great success. It’s a risk… that’s pretty much what we have to say about it.

Can you throw your hiking backpack in a dryer?

So… if the washing machine should probably be avoided, where does that leave the dryer? Quite honestly, you could say that the washing machine is the lesser of two evils in this scenario. Unless you set the dryer on low or no heat, you should just forget about drying your backpack in this manner.

And at that point, you might as well just air dry your backpack anyway. Let’s say that you’ve finished deep cleaning your pack and it’s fully rinsed, you can then take a towel to pat away the excess moisture on the outside and the inside. From there, find a good location to hang your pack up and then allow several hours for it to fully dry.

Here are some general things to keep in mind:

  • Keep the pack away from direct sources of heat
  • Drying it in direct sunlight can result in UV damage
  • Hang the pack upside down for better results
  • Ensure that your pack is fully dry before storing it to avoid mold buildup

Be wary of harsh cleaning chemicals

woman standing with biodegradable soap in hand
Image credits: Sincerely Media

Depending on how severely dirty or stained your hiking backpack is, you may need a more heavy-duty cleaning agent. However, you need to be careful with using certain cleaning agents and chemicals as certain ones may actually end up being harmful to the fabrics in your backpack.

The best way to know if a certain cleaning agent or chemical is suitable for your pack is to do some research on the specific one you have or are looking at to see if it’s safe for backpacks (or similar items). At the end of the day, you can always just soak your pack for a little while to help you get rid of the stubborn stain or spot that’s giving you so much hassle.

Final thoughts

When it comes down to it, most of the time, a light cleaning will probably be suitable when figuring out how to wash a hiking backpack. If you stay on top of things, you won’t have to spend very much time at all cleaning your pack.

Yet, from time to time, a deeper cleaning may be in order. Doing so by hand is always going to be the safer option, and the process isn’t very tedious or strenuous. But, no matter, keeping your hiking backpack clean and maintained can keep it working great for years and years.

Before we go, we’d like to ask you a question. Do you find it hard to account for your shoes when you travel? Thankfully, there are dedicated travel shoe bags that can prevent this from ever being an issue. Just some food for thought there! Have a great day, everyone!

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Tyler Jones

Tyler is much like a swiss knife. Even though he has a degree in Computer Science, he knows almost everything there is to know about camping. He has been writing for HeadlessNomad since 2021 and has contributed with over 100 articles. If you have an outdoor-related question, then Tyler much likely knows the answer.