How to Clean Gear Bags

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You’ve got the gear, your kits are assembled, you’ve been out into the field. You worked hard and it shows, especially now that you’re back. Whether it’s your deployment bag, duffel, rucksack, chow, bug out, rifle, tool bags or backpack, they’re covered in dirt, leaves, random stains and more. It’s a mess that you’ve got to clean to keep your gear in pristine shape. Forgetting about your gear bag can lead to a shorter lifespan of the bag, causing you to spend more money replacing them than you need to. Leaving dirt and soil ground into the bag can cause abrasion, and abrasion will wear through any fabric. And let’s be honest: not caring for it can build up odors, debris, mold and mildew, and more.

We’ll show you how to keep your gear bag in peak condition whether you’re out for the weekend to hike or readying for the next deployment.

Clean it A.S.A.P

Just like your fatigues or uniform, if you don’t take care of whatever it is you’ve got on it, it’ll probably stay there. If you’re out on the field or out on a long hunt and it gets dirty, the minute you have some down time, tackle the dirt, leaves or stains. The longer they sit, the harder to clean. You don’t have time to spend three hours fighting with stains that could have taken you a few seconds of washing to remove.

Thoroughly clean between every single trip.

If all you’ve got is time enough to keep your gear in order and brush off the mud, then take the time to thoroughly take it apart, empty it and clean it between every single trip. Especially if it’s a chow bag.

What’s it made of?

If you’ve emptied your gear bag out and are ready to clean it, the first and most important step is knowing what the bag’s made from. What material, synthetic or natural? Is it waterproof? Has it been treated with a water repellent finish?

Read the tag

It’s common that every bag comes with a tag. If you haven’t lost yours, find your gear bag’s tag to see if they have washing and cleaning instructions. If you don’t see a tag but know the manufacturer of the bag, chances are they’ve got a website with care instructions that will help you figure out how to start cleaning it.

If you’re unsure or can’t find the tag, we’ve got some basic general steps that will keep your gear bag cleaner and lasting longer.

1. Vacuum it.

Always start with vacuuming the outside and inside of the bag first before washing it. Loosening the dirt or stains first with a good vacuuming can help lessen them and make them even easier for you to wash out. Double-check before doing this you removed everything.

  • Take a clean, soft brush to the outside and inside.
  • A toothbrush can reach very small compartments or areas the vacuum missed.

2. Remove extras that can be removed.

If your bag has webbing, a waist belt, shoulder harness, frame sheet, shoulder pad, strap and so on, remove or unclip and set aside. Especially if your gear bag says you can toss this in the washer. Things like this can get tangles in a washer or worse, possibly break it.

3. Pretreat heavy stains.

You vacuumed up what you could, but there are still stains. Maybe its grease, coffee, food, ground in dirt, ink or blood. Don’t wash the bag before treating these! Washing it can just set it in for good. If you can identify the stain and know the material, you can figure out the best way to treat that stain. (If you aren’t sure, always test a hidden area of the bag to see if there are any negative reactions such as color lifting or fading.)

  • Soft-bristled toothbrush, brush, clean undyed cloth for spot treatment.
  • Always dampen or wash spots with cold water.
  • Mild uncolored dish detergent may work for grease or oil stains. However, always test first. Even some very mild dish detergents that contain surfactants are difficult to rinse off and can permanently reduce fabric water-repellency.
  • Mild laundry detergent for regular grass or dirt.
  • Hydrogen peroxide (test first!) for set in or stubborn blood stains
  • Denatured or Isopropyl alcohol for marker/ink stains.

4. Hand wash or machine wash.

As per the instructions on the tag or according to what sort of material your gear bag is made of, you should have already vacuumed, cleaned out all compartments, made sure it was empty and vacuumed inside and out—so get ready to toss it in the machine or the bathtub.

Some materials can’t be machine washed. Many gear bags have coatings on the inside that shouldn’t be machine washed. Some bags that have or use foam shouldn’t be soaked all the way through. Double-check you don’t have any foam-padded areas. If you do, you don’t want those areas to get wet at all, because it’s near impossible to completely dry out. Bags that can’t dry out can mold, mildew, and start smelling pretty ‘funky,’ fast.

If you don’t have any foam padding in your bag, or it’s not coated inside or out and the tag says you can machine wash it, then go ahead and:

  • Set the washer water temp on cold.
  • Turn the bag inside out
  • Wash it by itself or with like colors. Some bags bleed.
  • Don’t use standard laundry detergent on bags that have been treated with a protective coating to make it waterproof or water repellent. Use a specialty soap, mild, made specifically for such materials.
  • If you don’t know if you can use any detergents, wash in plain cold water to be safe.
  • If you do use a detergent, double rinse to be safe. Leftover soap residue can ruin certain fibers, coatings and leave a funky smell.
  • If your bag has foam padding, protective coatings, or the tag says it must be hand washed or cannot be submerged:
  • Fill a container with cool to cold water.
  • Find a clean, soft, undyed (white) cloth or uncolored sponge. You don’t want to use a dyed cloth or sponge as they may bleed color out onto your gear bag.
  • Dip the cloth in the water and wring out excess. Start wiping down your bags with firm but careful motions. If your gear bag has colored fabrics or trimmings, such as leather, avoid wetting those and care for trimming according to the fabric material.
  • Keep at it with patience until clean, rinsing the cloth or sponge often and ensuring you don’t soak the cloth or your gear bag.
  • If it can be hand washed and soaked in water—place it in a container with cool to cold water. Check the tag on the bag to see if it allows you could add very mild, non-standard detergent, but if you don’t know for sure, stick to using clean cold water.

5. Air drying is the safest bet.

Some bags may tell you it’s fine to toss into a machine dryer, on very low temps and gentle tumble. The truth of the matter is, machine drying eventually wears out material and can ruin waterproof finishes. Your safest bet for drying your gear bag is to air dry it to keep it more durable and ensure its long-lasting.

  • Hang your gear back with openings facing down.
  • Hang your gear back in the shade. Sunlight can fade it and shrink it.
  • NEVER dry MOLLE gear in a heated dryer!
  • Always try and hang it in a cool, but dry place.
  • Use a fan to help it dry faster if you can. The longer your gear bag stays wet, the more chances of that dampness causing damages and odors.

Your gear bag holds the tools necessary for your job and your life. Keep it lasting as long as you need it with our tips.



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