How to Clean a Backpack so It's as Good as New

These cleaning methods will make your backpack first-day-of-school photo ready.

Updated August 24, 2023
backpacks sitting on school bleachers

There’s something so adorable about seeing elementary schoolers filing in for their first day with such huge bookbags strapped across their backs that they look like a strong wind could push them over. Of course, it’s cute until they spill milk and pencil shavings or leave a capless marker in the bottom of the bag.

It’s no wonder we need to know how to wash a backpack given all the hardships it can go through. From hand washing to attacking spot stains, we’ll help you clean those backpacks just in time for the Monday morning alarm.

Before Washing Your Backpacks, Clean the Inside

To make cleaning easy, you want to prep your backpacks. It’s as simple as going through every pocket for anything that could stain or be a pain to remove when it gets wet.

After you’ve cleared everything out, take a vacuum cleaner with a long hose attachment and start sucking up all of those crumbs and pesky art project glitter pieces. After you think you’ve done a fair pass, flip it inside out and vacuum it again for good measure.

How to Clean Nylon/Polyester/Canvas Backpacks

person wiping down outside of backpack with washcloth

Today, nylon and polyester are the two most popular backpack materials, though canvas is an up-and-coming pick. They’re durable, multi-use, and pretty easy to clean. And if you’re like us and want to spend as little time cleaning as possible, you can rejoice, because you can toss all these fabrics in the washing machine.  

Washing Machine Method

Wash the backpack on a cool, gentle wash cycle with non-bleach detergent. Once they’re done, either lay them flat or hang them to dry.

Quick Tip

Keep your washing machine from sounding like it's trying to blast off to Mars by covering the bag with a pillowcase to lock the straps and zips in place. 

Hand Washing Method

You can hand wash with a tub or sink full of warm water and some non-bleach detergent if you need to. Just suds up the bag, rubbing the material together to help agitate the liquid, and rinse. Then press out the excess water with a towel and hang or lay it flat to dry.

How to Clean Leather Backpacks

Two kids walking, one with leather backpack

For how cool leather looks, it’s not the most practical from a cleaning perspective. Granted, you’re probably not buying your 10-year-old a real leather backpack, so you can handwash vegan leather to your heart’s content or even toss it in a cool, gentle wash inside of a delicates bag in the washing machine if the laundry tag says it's safe to do so.

But on the off chance you’re sticking with style or have a leather backpack of your own you want to clean, you’ll need to clean the exterior with a leather cleaner and a microfiber cloth. Spot test if you’re not sure how it’s going to react. Then, condition with a leather conditioner to keep it supple and shiny.

How to Spot Treat Ink Stains

If you’re planning on machine washing your backpack, spot treat ink stains by rubbing in some dish soap before tossing them in the wash.

If it’s permanent marker ink, then you’ll want to dip a dish cloth into some rubbing alcohol and blot at the stain. Continue dabbing with new areas of the cloth to lift the ink out. Then, toss it in the wash cycle as usual.

For leather and vegan leather bags, use the same process, but use distilled white vinegar instead of alcohol.

Quick Tip

Only buy washable writing utensils and art supplies if you’ve got a messy kiddo on your hands.

How to Get Rid of the Milk Smell

You’ve got a few options for how you can pull that spoiled milk smell out of your backpack. But to really clear out any smells, make sure you wash the backpack after using any deodorizing method.

Sprinkle Baking Soda Inside

The least involved method is dumping some baking soda inside, zipping it up, and leaving it for a few days. Then vacuum the baking soda up, and the smell should be gone.

Use a Vinegar Spray

Or you can flip your backpack inside out and spray it down with an equal-parts vinegar and warm water mixture. This should help deodorize whatever smell has attached itself to your kid’s beloved bookbag. Let it dry completely before turning the bag right-side-out and using it.

Be Mindful of the Manufacturer’s Recs

We admit it — we’re not the best about looking at the manufacturer tags on our clothes and accessories before washing them. But, if you’re ever doubtful about how to clean a backpack, find the laundry tag and read the recommendations.

For example, Fjällräven recommends that you never put their Kanken bags in the washing machine despite being made out of synthetic fiber like polyester.

How Often to Wash/Clean Your Backpack

Spot treat stains and remove odors as soon as you notice them in order to keep a backpack in great condition. And unless you have a particularly messy kid, deep cleaning every six months or so (or even once a year at the end of the school year) should keep the backpack in good condition so you can get more school years out of it.

When It's Time to Call It Quits

With aisles and aisles full of new backpack styles overtaking the school supplies, talking kids and teens down from needing to replace their hardly used bag from last year can be tough. It’s good to remember that backpacks are meant to last for more than a few months, but you do get what you pay for. For example, a JanSport or Fjällräven will cost more than a grocery store backpack, and they’ll probably hold up for a few extra years.

As long as the backpack is clean and doesn't have a mystery smell that won't go away, you can stick with it. The only reason you’d need to call it quits on your favorite backpack is because it’s not working anymore. Strap seams are ripped, the bottom fabric is practically worn away, and the zippers won’t close. These are all good reasons to invest in a new backpack. 

Keep Your Backpack Clean All Year Long

Your backpack is supposed to carry your art projects, not be the artwork. Clean up last year’s spills and stains with some spot treating methods and a good old toss in the wash. Or if you can’t swing the extra quarters for its own cycle, handwashing your backpack will work just as well.

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How to Clean a Backpack so It's as Good as New