How to Wash Your Backpack In, Oh, 7 Easy Steps

We’re enjoying(?) an early spring here out West, and beginning to take stock of our warm weather gear, seeing what needs mending, washing, or carting out to the garbage with a clothespin clamped to our noses. Washing our backpacks is the first thing on the list. What? You don’t wash your backpacks? It’s a real easy way to make them look and smell as good as new. – Ed.

It was time.

These past few years, my cherished Osprey Exos has been to many spectacular places with me. From snowbound 12,000-foot mountain passes in Colorado, to snowbound 3,000-foot passes in Washington, and from blisteringly hot multi-day grunts through the Emigrant Wilderness, to, uh, pleasantly foggy treks along the Northern Californian coast. Beaches too. Oh, and the overhead bin in airplanes, and tossed into bulk storage on a train, and even pressed into picnic duty, stuffed with cheeses and meats. I have a propensity to hike shirtless too, so the shoulder straps have absorbed many gallons of sweat, often after days without bathing.

My backpack, I’m sorry to say, had The Funk.

I was recently sorting through gear in my garage with nordic ski missions in mind and I was probably imagining it, but thought for sure I could smell my Exos from a couple feet away. I looked over at it and admired its lovely dirt/sweat patina marring the bright blue fabric which I’d grown quite proud of. As much I think it makes the pack look well-seasoned, when combined with the ripe smell, it hit me real fast that the pack needed a wash before I used it again this winter. In public, anyway.

You don’t even need to be pressing your backpack into winter duty though, to realize it needs a good cleaning. If you’re starting to dig out warm weather goods after the cold months, this the best time to clean it. Continuing to press it into use while full of grease and body oils and dirt can break down the sensitive fabrics that lovingly contain your cherished gear.

But how? Spot cleaning with a sponge won’t come anywhere near cutting it. Normally, that’s how I’ve always cleaned packs, but when you have a particularly dirty bag, you want to clean the whole thing, not just trouble spots where you spilled oatmeal or beer on it. If the pack has a frame, tossing it in the washing machine is out of the question. I settled on an unbelievably easy method: soaking and handwashing in a tub with warm water and a technical fabric cleaner like Nikwax Tech Wash. Nathan’s Power Wash is also excellent.


How to Wash Your Internal Frame Backpack


• Open all compartments and shake the living hell out of the pack to free dirt, sticks, loose sandwiches, etc.
• Wipe down zippers to remove any grit that might bind the teeth—can’t have those teeth getting bound
• Fill a big plastic tub with lukewarm water, and a couple good capfuls of your preferred synthetic fabric detergent
• Drop the pack in, walk upstairs to grab a beer (optional)
• Plung arms into the water and vigorously scrub the pack with a scrub brush in problem areas
• Remove pack, hose down with freshwater
• Hang pack to dry

Wowza, my pack looked brand new when it dried. Smelled fine. Not perfect, but much, much better. I considered adding a splash of mouthwash to the water when I washed it (works wonders on wetsuits and booties, by the way), but wasn’t totally sure it would play well with the Exos’ fabric.

If you can remove the frame of your pack, you can probably toss it in a pillowcase to keep the straps and buckles from catching on everything then toss it in a washing machine. I’ve done this with regular book-oriented backpacks and it worked great.

Also, some backpack manufacturers warn against submerging their packs in water. Possibly because the frame shouldn’t get wet? Honestly, not sure. But Osprey gave the okay for the big dunking, and it hasn’t seemed to make the bag any worse for wear.

Bottom line: Wash your gear. It will last longer. It can hold at bay the ever-encroaching desire for shiny new gear. It gives you a blank canvas on which to paint new dirt pictures. I can’t wait to muck up my Exos all over again.

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