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Now Is the Perfect Time to Deep-Clean Your Travel Gear—Here’s How

By Maggie Fuller

May 7, 2020

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Our gear gets dirty when we travel. Now is the perfect time to give it a little TLC. 

Courtesy of Big Agnes

Our gear gets dirty when we travel. Now is the perfect time to give it a little TLC. 

Experts weigh in on the best ways to clean and maintain your suitcases, backpacks, water bottles, hiking boots, and more.

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It’s been a few weeks since most states began to encourage social distancing and to impose shelter-in-place orders. You’ve cleaned your bathroom, swept under your bed, detailed the stove (twice), and rearranged your living room. Now might just be the perfect time to tackle that closet, crawl space, or section of your garage where you store your travel and adventure gear. 

We reached out to experts to find out the best ways to clean, maintain, and store common travel gear, so that when the world opens up for adventure again, you’ll be ready. 

How to clean a suitcase

Your most trusted travel companion deserves a thorough cleaning after every trip. Whether you’re Team Hard-Shell or Team Soft-Side, start with the interior. Empty your suitcase of any debris, even opening all the pockets and giving it an upside-down shake.

Victor Sanz, the creative director at Tumi, notes that the interior and pockets are often overlooked when you’re cleaning a suitcase. He recommends you vacuum those smaller spaces and corners, especially if you’ve been to sandy destinations.

Then apply a cleanser, like Tumi’s Fabric Cleaner, onto any dirty or stained areas of the lining, and wipe clean with a damp cloth. If you are using a household cleaner, Sanz recommends you test it on a small, inconspicuous area first to ensure that it will not damage the material that you are trying to clean.

If the lining of your bag has plastic pockets, wipe them with gentle soap and water, then wipe clean.

Next it’s on to the exterior. Sanz says, “Start by removing any security stickers or tags . . . and clean off any excess surface dirt.” If you’re cleaning a fabric suitcase, a dry cloth, brush, or sponge should do the trick; for hard-side luggage, you’ll want to use a damp cloth. Then spray on an appropriate cleaner. You can use the same fabric cleaner you used on the interior for a soft-side case, and luggage companies including Tumi sell hard-side cleaner. In a pinch you can use mild household cleansers for both of these. If your bag is leather, use a leather cleaner and conditioner to avoid drying it out. Gently rub the cleanser into affected areas and those places that may have picked up more dirt. After a minute or two, wipe it clean and air dry.

The One Thing You’ve Probably Forgotten to Disinfect While Traveling

Stubborn scuffs on your hardshell? Try a Magic Eraser. And don’t forget to wipe down the wheels of your suitcase with disinfecting wipes. If you find any broken zippers or a handle that sticks, Sanz says that’s often a small job but best left to the professionals. For Tumi luggage, he says, “Most of the time a minor repair or tweak can be fixed in the store, and that’s all you need to get you back on the road.”

Store your bag in a dust cover (if you have one), and keep it in a place that does not get excessively hot or excessively cold. “Suitcases make excellent storage when they are not being used for travel,” says Sanz, “so keep that in mind for any areas of your home that may need organizing.”

Buy now: Fabric Cleaner, $12, tumi.com; Hardside Cleaner, $12, tumi.com

Travel backpacks can be particularly hard to clean since they see more wear and tear than a rolling suitcase.

How to clean a backpack

According to Sam Goodhue, a product designer at Matador, there’s some controversy in the adventure gear world about the best way to clean a travel backpack. “Different manufacturers may tell you different things,” he says. Spot-cleaning with a mild cleanser is your safest bet, but if your pack has become particularly grimy, you’ll want to hand-wash it.

“I fill up my tub with lukewarm water and use an unscented gentle soap like Dr. Bronner’s Baby or, better yet, an outdoor gear–specific soap like Nikwax Techwash,” says Goodhue. “Submerge the bag and agitate by hand, use a nylon brush to gently scrub clean any dirty spots. Once your bag has soaked and been agitated for a few minutes, repeat with a new batch of soapy water or rinse with clean water. Be sure to rinse multiple times to get all the soap out.”

Buy now: Dr. Bronner’s Baby, $19, amazon.com; Nikwax Tech Wash, $27, rei.com

Pay special attention to the bottom of pockets, where debris settles and gets worked into the fabric, as well as high sweat areas like the back panel and shoulder straps. Also the zippers. “If you tend to get sand and grit in your zipper,” says Goodhue, “clean it out with an old toothbrush often.”

Goodhue recommends against washing a backpack in a machine because that can damage the protective coating and cause unnecessary wear and tear. But all backpacks are different so “when in doubt, contact the manufacturer.”

Once it’s done, let your pack dry fully before storing it, and wash it yearly for best results. 

Found some damage? “Many manufacturers offer warranty repair services,” says Goodhue, “and there are some reputable third-party repair centers like Gear ReStore and Rainy Pass Repair.” For smaller rips and tears, he recommends Gear Aid’s patch products or Tenacious Tape, a woven, outdoor gear–specific repair tape.

Buy now: Tenacious Tape, $5, rei.com

How to clean a water bottle

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Many water bottles are easy to clean—some, like Yeti’s drinkware—are even dishwasher safe. But what about those water bottles with narrow necks? Or those stubborn coffee or iced tea stains on stainless steel water bottles? If your water bottle is dishwasher safe, Alex Baires, senior product manager at Yeti, recommends you make sure to put lids and bottle caps on the top rack away from any heat. 

If your bottle has a small opening, your best bet is a bottle brush. Silicone brushes are easier on your bottles and less likely to scratch them. You might also consider getting a small, long, narrow brush if your bottle has a straw, because gunk can build up in those. Hiware sells a great three-brush set designed for water bottles. If you’re not convinced the bristles did the trick, you can fill your bottle with a 3:1 mixture of vinegar, which has disinfecting properties, and warm water, then let it sit overnight. 

Buy now: Hiware 14-inch Silicone Bottle Brush Cleaning Set, $9, amazon.com

To remove stubborn stains, Baires recommends Yeti Cleaning Tablets: “Simply drop a tablet in your Rambler and let it sit for 30 minutes before pouring out, rinsing thoroughly with water, then running it through the dishwasher.” In the absence of cleaning tablets (denture tablets work too!), fill your bottle with water and a quarter cup of vinegar. Leave that overnight, then pour out most of the liquid, and add about two tablespoons of baking soda. Swirl to mix, then use a gentle brush to scrub away the stains. 

Buy now: Yeti Cleaning Tablets, $15, yeti.com

How to clean toiletry bottles

Your toiletry bottles may hold cleaning supplies, but they can get crusty around the tops if you don’t give them some attention every once in a while. Empty any excess product (you can save this if it’s relatively new, but if you haven’t gone on a trip in a while, it may have dried out), then soak your bottles in a bowl of warm water and mild soap and let sit for 15 minutes. You can usually dislodge any stubborn dried product by filling the bottle with a little soap and water, closing it, then shaking vigorously. Finish by rinsing thoroughly and air-drying. 

Like down jackets, tents and sleeping bags are made from high-performance material and need to be cleaned with special detergents.

How to clean a tent

A well-maintained tent is a happy tent, so you should be spot-cleaning it with a wet towel as needed, and shaking it out and wiping it down after a camping trip to keep it free of dirt, salt, grime, and debris. According to Big Agnes repair tech Tercel Fayad, you should avoid machine-washing your tent. When a deep-clean is necessary, do so in a tub of water and be sure to use a detergent made for high-performance, breathable, waterproof fabrics, like Nikwax’s Tech Wash or Grangers Wash + Repel. Then hang your tent and let it dry completely.

Buy now: Nikwax Tech Wash, $27, rei.com; Grangers Clothing Wash + Repel, $15, rei.com

“Keeping your zippers clean will extend their life,” says Fayad. “I like Gear Aid’s Zip Care—Zipper Cleaner and Lubricant, which is water-based.” You also might want to treat it with a UV- and water-proofing product like Nikwax’s Solarproof spray. If you find any rips or tears that need mending, you can use patch kits from Gear Aid, like those you might use on your backpack (above).

Buy now: Zip Care—Zipper Cleaner & Lubricant, $6, goruck.com; Nikwax Tent and Gear Cleaning, Waterproofing, and UV Protection, $17, amazon.com 

Once your tent is clean, dry, and rip free, Fayad recommends you store it in a large cotton or mesh bag, like the ones you may get with a sleeping bag, to allow it to breathe. You can transfer it to a smaller stuff sack before your next trip.

How to clean a sleeping bag

Similar to tents, sleeping bags don’t like being deep cleaned. Tercel Fayad says you should spot-clean them with warm water when needed, use sleeping bag liners (silk and wool liners have microbial properties and can be washed easily), and air your bag outside every once in a while to keep it in good shape. 

But salt and grime deteriorate your sleeping bag’s coatings and possibly cause your insulation to clump, which might be a sign it’s time for a deep clean. Fayad advises using a large front-load washing machine, even if it means going to a laundromat—agitators can rip the delicate material of your sleeping bag. The Nikwax and Grangers fabric washes linked above are great detergent options, but if you’re washing a down sleeping bag, use the down-specific versions.

Then, carefully transfer your bag to a tumble dryer (pulling it out can rip the seams of a waterlogged bag) and dry completely on low heat. This will take a while.  Fayad recommends throwing a few tennis balls in the dryer if you have a down bag, because they’ll break up any clumping of the insulation. Grangers also offers a kit that comes with down balls. 

Buy now: Nikwax Down Wash Direct, $11, rei.com; Grangers Down Wash + Repel 10 oz. Kit, $23, kammock.com

When dry, store your bag in a cotton or mesh storage bag in a climate controlled area.

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“Bags might be some of the hardest gear to fix,” says Fayad. But he loves Noso puffy patches, which come in a range of colors and fun shapes, for small to medium holes—“even larger ones if you have the time and extra hands to help.” For tougher tears, contact the manufacturer, to see if it provides repair services, or send your bag off to a repair center like Gear ReStore or Rainy Pass Repair.

Buy now: Noso Puffy Patch X, $5, rei.com

How to clean hiking boots and walking shoes

Please don’t put your boots, shoes, and sneakers in the washing machine or dryer! That’s a sure-fire way to damage them. According to Brian Hall, director of product development at Vasque Footwear, the best way to clean hiking boots is to remove the laces (you can run these through the washing machine in a mesh bag), brush off any dirt or dust with a soft bristle brush, then apply a store-bought boot cleaner or warm water and a mild soap. “Personally, I’m a fan of Nikwax products,” he says. “They have a wide range of options for cleaning and protecting boots made of different materials and are all water based.” Then rinse and allow the boots to dry out, making sure not to use excessive heat. 

“You can also remove the footbed and use a mild soap and water to gently wash the interior of the boot,” says Hall. “Make sure to rinse them well and dry them thoroughly before replacing the footbed.” Interior and exterior cleaned, you can treat the exterior of the boot with leather conditioner and waterproofing.

Buy now: Nikwax Footwear Cleaning Gel, $9, rei.com; Nikwax Liquid Conditioner for Leather, $9, rei.com; Nikwax Fabric and Leather Waterproofing Spray for Footwear, $11, rei.com

Hall says you should clean and condition your hiking boots once a year “whether you think they need it or not,” if you intend to use them for years to come. “With hard use, particularly in wet and muddy conditions or rocky abrasive conditions, more regular cleaning and conditioning will prolong the life of the leather uppers.”

You can clean running or walking shoes in much the same way, separating the footbed from the shoe, using a shoe cleaner or mild soap, and a gentle scrub brush for stubborn stains. Avoid the temptation to throw lightweight sneakers into a washing machine or dryer—such rough treatment can really damage them.

If you do notice that the soles are starting to come away from the shoe, Hall says you can repair it with contact cement, but suggests leaving it to the experts: “Taking them to a local cobbler or shoe repair shop will guarantee professional results and support a local business.”

Now is the perfect time to clear away carbon buildup from your stove’s burner and also test it so that it’s in working order when you head out on your next camping trip.

How to clean a camp stove

You should make sure to clean your camp stove before storing it, but Stephen Serna, sales manager at Primus and Brunton, also recommends you test it and spruce it up before heading out on a camping trip or even for a picnic. 

“Two-burner stoves are fairly low-maintenance,” says Serna. “A regular cleaning after camping trips with warm water and a sponge or Scotch-Brite pad will remove grease and grime from all of the cooking surfaces.” You can use a lint-free cloth or stiff plastic brush to get rid of bigger bits of debris, but he cautions against using soap and water: “Soap is designed to break down grease and can remove lubrication from critical parts of your stove, which can be difficult to relubricate in hard-to-reach areas.” And don’t forget to clean off valve or hose fittings both after your trip and on your next one, before you attach a fuel source. 

When giving your stove a thorough cleaning and testing, Serna recommends you set up outside on a calm day. Wear eye protection to avoid accidents with a release of pressurized fuel, keep a fire extinguisher handy, and make sure your stove is not connected to any fuel source. 

In addition to cleaning the surfaces, you should also focus on removing carbon buildup from the burner, which can interfere with your stove’s output. You can use compressed air or pipe cleaners to get to those hard-to-reach areas, and if that’s not enough, Serna says carburetor cleaning spray (available at most car parts stores) applied to a lint-free cloth can remove stubborn carbon remnants. Low output could also be a clogged jet, but Serna advises you contact the manufacturer if you suspect that is the case.

When you’re done, make sure to detach any fuel source or canister before storing to maintain the integrity of the stove’s O-ring, which can become brittle and break with prolonged fuel contact. Serna also recommends purchasing a service kit for your stove if the manufacturer offers one. “These kits usually have an assortment of O-rings and other replacement parts. A typical kit often comes equipped with a small tube of lubrication that will help keep O-rings from drying out.” It’s a good idea to lubricate any O-rings before storing the stove for a while. 

How to clean a cooler

You should clean and wipe down your cooler—whether it’s a hard or soft cooler—with soap and water after every use to get rid of funky smells and prevent mold from growing. According to Alex Baires with Yeti, “For hard coolers with tougher stains and odors, customers can use a mixture of warm water and bleach (6:1 ratio) and scrub with a sponge or mildly abrasive rag.”

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