Pretty much every traveler reading this post has spent a bit of time laboring over finding the perfect travel gear, and then probably spent a bit of money in acquiring it.
We often agonize over what to take, and how to pack it, but we often forget about another integral part of the whole process: cleaning and storing our luggage after our trip has finished.
Hey, I’m looking at you, Miss Suitcase in the corner of your room 3 months after you’ve returned home!
Why You Need to Clean Your Luggage
Backpack or suitcase, it doesn’t matter. That baby needs to be cleaned after a big trip away.
We literally drag our suitcases through dirt, poop, spit, and debris on a daily basis; with a backpack, we do the same, and then we wear it.
Now that I’m thinking about how disgusting a piece of travel luggage can become, I’m a little concerned at how close I often keep it — snuggling, holding and sometimes using it as a place to rest my head.
Reason 1: To keep the bag from deteriorating.
Oils and dirt can cause some fabrics or special technical coatings of your backpack to deteriorate over time. Dirt and debris caught in a suitcase wheel could harden and cause issues down the road.
Reason 2: To keep the bag from growing mold.
The last thing you need is to pull your bag or suitcase out of storage before a big trip to find it not only smells bad, but it has also grown mold from those crumbs or spills that weren’t washed out.
Cleaning mold from luggage is a tough task, and more often than not, it will be easier to just buy new luggage! Even musty smells in suitcases can linger – which doesn’t make them a place you want to store your clothes in the next time you travel.
Reason 3: To keep bugs from invading your home.
Yes, I’m talking about the dreaded bed bugs! They could be in your bag, and you might not even know it. Tuck that baby away in a closet without a proper clean, and you might find your home infested with this annoying pest.
And it doesn’t stop with bed bugs. I once opened my suitcase in Bangkok after it had been sealed up for around 24 hours in transit and out popped a cockroach (ew!) from my previous destination that crawled out into my hostel hallway and died (double ew!).
A reader once mentioned that they returned from a trip to a desert clime and the next day noticed a small scorpion in their living room next to their suitcase!
How to Clean Your Luggage
The specifics on how to clean your luggage varies by backpack or suitcase. It is always best to check with your luggage manufacturer for details so that you don’t cause any damage that can shorten your product’s life, or void a warranty.
How to Clean a Travel Backpack
Many backpack manufacturers recommend removing lose dirt and debris first with a soft brush. If washing in a tub or sink, be sure to use a mild detergent (so that you don’t damage any protective coatings on that fabric), scrub dirty spots with a soft brush, and thoroughly rinse before hanging to dry (out of direct sun).
If you don’t have a bathtub or sink to submerge your bag, a spot wash with a slightly soapy sponge with do the trick. Again, be sure to use a mild detergent.
How to Clean a Suitcase
Use a soft brush to remove dirt and debris from around the wheels of the suitcase. If necessary, use a vacuum. Then, use a soft soapy rag to wipe down the lining.
Never submerge a suitcase in a tub of water, and never use oil to lubricate the zips or wheels. The latter could cause more problems and potentially get on your packed clothes when in use again.
Extra Luggage Cleaning Tips:
Cleaning mold from your suitcase or backpack: This is hard to do, and it might be easier to simply buy a new piece of luggage if it’s bad. However, a good tactic is to spray the luggage with a white vinegar and water solution to kill the mold, and then wipe down with a damp cloth.
Repeat the process as necessary, letting the suitcase or backpack air dry in a well-ventilated area. The vinegar smell will dissipate in a couple of weeks.
Removing musty smells from your suitcase: A lot of people recommend using activated charcoal or even kitty litter to absorb lingering, musty smells. After washing with a vinegar solution and letting dry, seal up some charcoal or odor-absorbing litter into the bag and let it sit for weeks or months as needed.
If the smells are on the outside of the luggage, put the luggage into a big storage container that is then filled with litter or charcoal, and then store! These products should absorb excess smells.
Removing perfume smells from luggage: Spilled perfume in a suitcase is just as hard of a smell to remove as must and mold. I’ve read countless stories of people struggling, even after trying all of the standard methods.
However, you can try to blot any perfume spots with rubbing alcohol or vinegar followed by blotting with a clean, dry cloth. Then you can scrub the spot with a mixture of baking soda, water, and dishwashing detergent.
After it has dried thoroughly, try storing the luggage with some activated charcoal or kitty litter to absorb excess smells.
What to Do If You’re Concerned About Bed Bugs
I have done a lot of research on this due to many bed bug scares.
One of the hostels I stayed at in Germany had bed bugs. I was casually lounging in the evening and saw a bed bug run right across the blanket! I luckily got out of the room before spending a full night, but I was still concerned that one or two could have hitched a ride in my belongings.
So, I cleaned and dried all of my clothing (it was time for that anyway), and I inspected and cleaned my luggage thoroughly — just to be sure.
*I was traveling with just a small carry-on suitcase for this trip, so it wasn’t really a huge deal. Another benefit of downsizing.
- Bugs and their eggs are visible to the naked eye. If you inspect your luggage, you should be able to see them unless they are in a good hiding spot. Wipe out all corners and linings with a wet, soapy sponge.
- Bed bugs don’t like heat. Supposedly you can blast a hiding place with heat from a blow dryer, and while it won’t kill it, it will make the bug show itself.
- You can place your luggage in a plastic garbage bag and set in the hot sun for the day. The extreme heat will kill them. (Apparently this may or may not be true – it has to be really hot.)
- Another tactic is to get a bed bug spray or bug bomb and use in your luggage. Be sure to clean and dry the bag before storing away.
- Read more: The Truth About Bed Bugs
>> Be sure to read this helpful fact sheet on bed bugs for tips.
Storing Your Luggage
Store your luggage in a dry place as damp places can lead to mold. Tucking a few dryer sheets into your stored luggage is said to help protect from musty smells, but you can try tossing in some activated charcoal as well.
- Osprey Pack Care, Osprey Packs
- How to Clean Luggage, Clever Journey
- Step by Step Guide to Cleaning Your Backpack, Time as a Traveller
- A Neat Freak’s Guide to A Clean Suitcase, Budget Travel
Tracey - Life Changing Year says
Ewww…I’d never thought of this! And yes, I rested my head on my bag more than once. Never occurred to me it might have poop on it! Thanks for scarring me for life. Think I might buy a new bag!
Haha well I was trying to get your attention with that comment – I’m glad it did the trick! But seriously, my backpack is dropped on so many disgusting floors, who knows what’s lurking on them… ewww.
Hi Brooke, Great post!! The most arduous tasks are often the most important. I think my backpack lost its protective coating a long time ago 😉
Kai Blair says
I actually had a scorpion crawl into my suitcase on the last trip home and found the critter roaming throughout my house right next to my suitcase! Seriously I wish I had taken this advice immediately. It would have saved me from breaking my entertainment system into pieces when he ran there!
SERIOUSLY?! Wow. That is incredible.