I Washed My Backpack and So Can You

We need not hike in funk-covered backpacks

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.

Recently, I began sorting through gear with nordic ski missions in mind for later in the winter and I was probably imagining it, but thought for sure I could smell my Exos from a couple feet away. It has a lovely dirt/sweat patina marring the bright blue fabric which I’d grown quite proud of, and 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.

But how? Spot cleaning with a sponge wasn’t going to come anywhere near cutting it. Normally, that’s how I’ve always cleaned packs, but when you have a particularly dirty bag, you may want to clean the whole thing, not just trouble spots where you spilled oatmeal or beer on it. I can’t remove the frame in this pack (at least, I don’t think I can), so tossing it in the washing machine was out of the question. After rooting around the internet for a little while, I settled on an unbelievably easy method: soak and handwashing in a tub with warm water and a technical fabric cleaner (I like Nathan’s Sport Wash).

Worked like a dream.

Here’s what I did:

• Opened all compartments and shook the living hell out of the pack to free dirt, sticks, loose sandwiches, etc.
• Wiped down zippers to remove any grit that might bind the teeth—can’t have those teeth getting bound
• Filled a big plastic tub with lukewarm water, and a couple good capfuls of Sport Wash
• Dropped the pack in, walked upstairs to grab a beer
• Plunged arms into the water and vigorously scrubbed the pack with a scrub brush in problem areas
• Removed pack, hosed down with freshwater
• Hung pack in the garage to dry

Wowza, 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, and 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 much up my Exos all over again.


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Showing 6 comments
  • jim

    not sure what’s in febreaze but a few squirts did wonders with my kids’ soccer cleats. those things were deadly…

  • Joromo

    If you can remove the frame, the washing machine works very well. Hang dry. Good as new. I’ve had similar results with climbing shoes.

  • Mo

    Finally, people who wash backpacks! I’ve always thought they were disgusting, especially when I see them put on the seats and even floors of public transit trains/buses! And then people put them on their sofa or even their bed when they get home? EEEWW!

  • Bill

    After I wash and rinse my packs, I spray them with a DWR material (Nikwax Tent and Gear Solarproof). This helps add a little protection that may have worn off over time, and makes it easier to clean in between major washing.

  • Dave P

    Yep, pack washer here as well. Even took some heckling at an REI class when I admitted it. Bathtub with Nikwax Techwash. It’s like having it all new and shiny again. I hang it upside down from the rod with the belt to let it drip dry for awhile.

  • Mike Day

    lol’d at “The Funk” is that an Old Greeeeeeeeeeeeggg joke 😉 glad to see other folks wash their gear too.

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