How to clean and care for your rucksack: A step-by-step guide in 2024

By: Andrew Forrest - September 2023

Rucksack cleaning equipment and products

In this comprehensive guide on how to clean and care for your backpack, we'll explore the ins and outs of cleaning and caring for your rucksack from basic preparation to reproofing.

Is your trusty backpack looking a little worse for wear? Perhaps it's starting to smell or has too many accumulated reminders of your walks, hikes, camps and adventures. Fear not, for a clean and well-maintained rucksack can not only look better but also last longer, saving you money in the long run.

Table of contents 

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What we will cover in this 'How to clean and care for your rucksack' guide

  • How to prepare your rucksack for cleaning
  • How to hand wash your rucksack
  • How to machine wash your rucksack
  • How to air-dry your rucksack
  • How to regularly maintain zippers, straps and pockets as well as special materials such as leather backpacks
  • How and where to store your rucksack


Buying a rucksack can be a big investment, and once you have it you need to care for it to ensure it will function correctly and serve you for many years to come.

Manufacturers use the words rucksack and backpack interchangeably (as I do), so all this below works just as well for hiking backpacks as it does for rucksacks.

Preparing your rucksack for cleaning

A well-prepared backpack is the first step to a successful cleaning process. On returning from your walk or hike, begin by emptying your backpack and storing any detached items in a plastic bag, so you do not lose them. Pockets should be left unzipped, and any metal frames and any detachable items should all be removed before washing.

Ensure you brush off any visible dirt and then turn your rucksack upside down and shake to get out any last bits of remaining rubbish/dirt. Sometimes, turning your rucksack inside out, if it can be, can make this easier. If there is any hard-to-reach dust/debris left inside, this could be removed with a handheld vacuum.

While preparing your backpack for cleaning, it's also essential to keep a close eye on any potential issues that could arise during the washing process. For example, if you notice any loose threads near the zips, be sure to trim them before washing the backpack and repair them if necessary.

Before moving on to the next step, locate and read the manufacturer's care label for specific cleaning instructions - these will tell you whether you can machine wash or whether you can only wash by hand. Some instructions are on material labels attached to the rucksack, some may have come on a separate card insert when you bought the rucksack. If you are struggling to find it, check out the manufacturer's website.

When you have spent money on buying your new rucksack, you want it to perform and last. By following these preparatory steps, cleaning will be more effective and by addressing any potential problems in advance, you'll help ensure the longevity and durability of your backpack.

Hand washing your rucksack

If your rucksack care label allows it, hand washing is a gentle yet effective method of cleaning it. Always follow the manufacturer's care instructions. To hand wash a backpack, start by filling a large sink or large bucket/flexi-tub with cold or ideally lukewarm water and gentle detergent or specialist cleaning product.

If the rucksack has a built-in frame and won't fully fit in your sink/flexi-tub, simply clean the half of the backpack that sits in the water and then turn it upside down and clean the other half. You don't need a bath full of water to do this!

Flexi-tub, rucksack and Grangers cleaning products

Flexi-tub, rucksack and Grangers cleaning products

I've found that cold or lukewarm water works the best and doesn't affect the material. The care label should state the maximum temperature of the water to be used. Do not use hot water.

I use high-performance cleaners such as Grangers Tent and Gear Cleaner, where you pour 2 caps full (100 ml) for every 5 litres of water, to clean my rucksacks.

Grangers Tent and Gear Cleaner

Grangers Tent and Gear Cleaner

Then, using a brush or sponge, scrub the backpack, paying special attention to any stained or particularly dirty areas.

Most hiking rucksacks are made of durable material, but if there are any delicate materials or embellishments on your rucksack you can gently wash those by hand washing, which allows for greater control over the cleaning process, reducing the risk of damage. Again, using a mild soap or specialist cleaning product can further ensure the gentle treatment of these delicate items.

With all the pockets unzipped you can ensure you clean the whole of the insides of the rucksack.

Not all care labels suggest this, but if you have gentle detergent (or the Grangers cleaner) in the water, I find just leaving the rucksack to soak for about 30 minutes in the warm water, helps refresh and loosen the dirt, making cleaning much easier.

Stain treatment for your rucksack

When dealing with stubborn stains, it's crucial to use the right approach. Apply a stain remover (NOT bleach), to the affected area and let it sit for the required time as suggested on the product's packaging before scrubbing. This will help loosen the dirt and make it easier to remove during the washing process.

Some stain remover products can be used specifically for fabric. Depending upon what the stain is (sweat, oil, blood etc.), certain stain removers on the market will remove these, but always ensure they are compatible with your rucksack fabric before using them.

If you know what the stain is, simply look up a stain remover for that substance on Amazon (other retailers are available!). It doesn't cover all stains, but I have found Dr Beckmann Stain Devils All Purpose Stain Remover works quite well on most things I've had on my backpacks.

If some of the stain residues remain after attempting to remove them, there is a good chance they will disappear once the bag is washed.

Scrubbing techniques for your rucksack

Effective scrubbing techniques will vary depending on the material and design of your backpack. For tough stains, a brush is the most suitable tool. On the other hand, a soft brush is recommended for cleaning mesh areas (or using your hand), while a toothbrush is ideal for small crevices.

By using the appropriate tools for each part of your backpack, you'll achieve a thorough and efficient cleaning experience that leaves your bag looking and smelling fresh.

Rinsing your rucksack

After washing your backpack, it's essential to get rid of the dirty water and then rinse it with clean, cool water. This will help remove any remaining soap or dirt.

I generally at least rinse 3 times, with clean water each time to ensure all the soap and dirt have gone. If not, the next time you use your rucksack and it rains, you may find soap bubbles appearing again coming out of your rucksack! I find it also helps if you are proofing your rucksack.

Once you've rinsed your backpack, shake it out gently, taking care not to damage the material or structure of the bag. If you can, I generally hang the backpack upside down to drip dry for a while and to let the water drain out and off the material. I then use a thick towel to absorb and remove any remaining water. This helps speed up the drying process and prevent any unpleasant odours from developing.

I generally then just leave it in the fresh air for it to dry completely.

Machine washing your rucksack

For those of you whose backpacks are machine washable, using the machine wash method can save both time and effort. However, always follow the manufacturer's care instructions and take precautions to prevent damage during the washing process.

A couple of my rucksacks do allow for machine washing, but my preference is still to wash them by hand.

Pre-wash preparation

As with hand washing, if necessary before placing your backpack in the washing machine, apply a stain remover to any stubborn stains, and let it sit for 30 minutes or however long the stain manufacturer's instructions say, if shorter. This will help break down the stain and make it easier to remove during the wash.

Additionally, protect your backpack and prevent potential snagging on the washing machine by turning it inside out or placing it in a closable pillowcase or laundry bag. This will prevent non-removable straps and zippers from becoming entangled in the machine and potentially damaging both your backpack and the washing machine. Unfortunately, not too many rucksacks can be turned inside out, especially if you have a built-in frame in the back.

To ensure the bag inside remains secure, fasten any loose straps before placing it in the laundry bag. Any detached straps, if you want to wash them, can also be placed in the laundry bag.

Washing cycle and detergent selection

Choosing the correct washing cycle and detergent is crucial for washing your backpack using a washing machine.

Always read the manufacturer's instructions first as to what washing cycle and detergent to use.

If the manufacturer's label says you can machine wash but provides no further instructions, then always choose the coldest and shortest cycle. This gentle cycle will help prevent potential damage to the material or structure of the bag.

Additionally, ensure you use a very mild detergent suitable for backpacks, as regular detergents can be too harsh and may cause damage. The detergent should be fragrance-free and not have any additives.

Do not use a fabric softener as that can damage the material of the rucksack or the backpack fabric.

As detergents and fabric softeners could still be in your washing machine drawer from a previous wash, if I do machine wash a rucksack, I always run a quick empty wash first to remove any lingering detergent and fabric softener.

Do not choose a cycle with a spin, as that can also damage the structure of the rucksack.

By selecting the appropriate cycle and detergent, you'll be able to clean your backpack effectively while preserving its quality and durability.

Post-wash care

When you remove your backpack from the washing machine, as with hand washing, shake it out gently, taking care not to damage the material or structure of the bag. If you can, I generally hang the backpack upside down to drip dry for a while and to let the water drain out and off the material. I then use a thick towel to absorb and remove any remaining water. This helps speed up the drying process and prevent any unpleasant odours from developing.

Then just leave it in the fresh air for it to dry completely. Hang the backpack upside down inside or in the shade outside as UV light can degrade the fabric.

Drying and maintaining your backpack

Proper drying and maintenance are key to keeping your backpack in prime condition for years to come.

Air-drying your rucksack

As mentioned above for both hand washing or machine washing or even for just bringing home a wet rucksack after a walk, once the excess water and excess moisture are removed, hang the rucksack upside down, either indoors or outdoors to let it dry out completely.

Ensure the zippers are still open and from time to time, turn the rucksack around, so any last remaining water will drain out. An absorbent cloth will dry up any water left in small pockets or hard-to-access areas.

Be sure to avoid drying in direct sunlight, as this can cause fading or damage to the material.

Whatever you do, DO NOT tumble dry your backpack, as the heat and cycle can damage your rucksack.

By allowing your backpack to air dry naturally, you'll be preserving its shape, preventing potential damage caused by other drying methods and prolonging its lifespan.

Zipper and strap maintenance

Proper care for zippers and straps is essential for maintaining the functionality of your backpack. Once the rucksack is dry, apply silicone spray lubricant to all the zippers and sliders, then zip them open and close a few times to distribute the lubricant evenly.

Ensure you don't scrub the zippers, as many of them have a water-resistant coating, which may be removed if you scrub.

To clean Velcro and hook-and-loop fasteners, use a small hand-held brush or an old toothbrush to clear away any debris from the material. If straps and adjusters aren't functioning correctly, soak them in lukewarm water to loosen the embedded dirt.

Regular maintenance of zippers, straps, and all the pockets will help ensure your backpack remains functional and reliable.

Caring for your rucksack between washes

Depending on how often, where and in what conditions you wear your backpack, will determine how often you need to wash it.

On returning from any walk or trip, I generally:

  • Empty all backpack pockets
  • Remove all items from the main compartment and shake it upside down to remove any dirt and debris
  • Give the inside of the backpack a wipe with a clean damp cloth, not using any detergent or cleaning product.
  • If there are any stains or marks on the outside, I spot clean and scrub those with a cleaning product such as Grangers Footwear & Gear Cleaner spray and then rinse off just that area with cold water on my cloth

    Grangers Footwear and Gear Cleaner
    Grangers Footwear and Gear Cleaner
  • Hang it up to dry naturally
  • Store it in a well-ventilated space without folding or crushing it, so that it maintains its shape


Then usually about 3 times a year, I hand wash my rucksack using the methods set out above.

Caring for special materials

Hiking backpacks and rucksacks are generally made of durable fabrics due to conditions they will face whilst out on a hike, so do not generally contain special/delicate materials.

There are some backpacks though that will require special care due to unique materials in their construction, such as leather or delicate embellishments, although I have very rarely seen these on hiking backpacks.

The first thing, as with any backpack, is to always consult the care label for specific instructions on how to care for these materials.

To maintain the quality of a leather backpack, clean it with a leather cleaner, saddle soap, or a damp cloth, and apply a leather conditioner afterwards. This will help remove dirt and grime while keeping the leather soft and supple.

Reproofing your backpack

Most backpacks are not waterproof - they provide some water resistance but your gear is generally protected by a rain cover, drybags or a combination of the two. If you have a waterproof rucksack, ensure you follow the manufacturer's instructions if you want to reproof it.

Whilst proofing your non-waterproof rucksack will not make it waterproof (water can still get in through access points, zips etc.), I have always found it does help keep things dryer and tends in my view to repel some of the dirt that can get ground in over many walk and depending upon the proofer used, can provide some UV protection.

Reproofing your backpack involves applying a waterproof coating to protect it from moisture and dirt. This not only keeps your backpack looking clean but also extends its lifespan by preventing damage caused by water and dirt. The Grangers Tent and Gear Repel proofer that I use also helps protect against UV.

Be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions for applying the proofer and consult your manufacturer's website if you are unsure whether you can use it.

With the Grangers Tent and Gear Repel proofer, you spray it onto your backpack or rucksack whilst the rucksack is still damp or wet. You spray evenly from about 6 inches and then wait about 3 minutes before removing any excess with a cloth. You then just allow the backpack to dry naturally.

Grangers Tent and Gear Repel

Grangers Tent and Gear Repel

I find the 500 ml bottle allows me to reproof my rucksack about 6 times, so lasts a couple of years if just used on the one backpack.

If you need a cleaner and proofer, Grangers do a Tent and Gear Care Kit, which includes the cleaner, the proofer and also an expanding sponge that you can use in your cleaning process, which is usually better value than buying them separately.

Grangers Tent and Gear Care Kit including Tent and Gear Cleaner and Repel

Grangers Tent and Gear Care Kit including Tent and Gear Cleaner and Repel

Storage tips for backpack longevity

Once your rucksack is completely dry, store it empty in a well-ventilated space. Avoid folding or crushing it to maintain its shape. This will help maintain its shape and prevent any potential damage.

By taking care of your backpack even when it's not in use, you'll ensure that it remains in the best possible condition for years to come.

Summary

In conclusion, proper cleaning, drying, and maintenance of your backpack will not only keep it looking great but also prolong its lifespan and keep it functional, saving you money in the long run.

By following the tips and techniques outlined in this guide, you'll be well-equipped to care for your backpack. Give your trusty companion the care and attention it deserves, and it will continue to serve you well on every adventure that lies ahead.

September 2023