Climbers, if I’m being completely honest, we don’t have a reputation of being the cleanest, most well-groomed people on the planet. We spend days to weeks living out of a car or a tent, next to a mountain someplace, eating on the cheap to spend all our time doing what we love – climbing.

Sure, we’ll go for weeks at a time without showering, and that’s ok. You don’t need to shower every day. The one thing many climbers do keep spotlessly clean— enough so you could eat off it (and I’m sure many of us have used a carabiner as an eating utensil), is our gear. It’s something of pride and joy. We might spend hours after a big day of climbing, cleaning most of our gear, making sure it’s tip-top for the next session of big whippers.

But how to clean climbing shoes? Over the years, I’ve experimented with so many ways of avoiding cleaning my climbing shoes. It’s sad but it’s true, that sometimes, they really do just need a wash. I’m going to share with you the things I’ve learned thus far in my career of not disgusting people by the smell of my climbing shoes.

How to clean climbing shoes – the spot clean

The spot clean is done using a high percentage of alcohol (90% plus) after mostly each climbing session.

  1. Take some rubbing alcohol and dilute with a tiny bit of water. Use a toothbrush to brush away at the outer part of the shoe. Not too hard, just enough to clean away any of the dirt. Brush at the areas which are discolored from sweat. Brush the rubber parts (cleaning away the grime will keep the rubber sticky).
  2. Next, put some rubbing alcohol in a spray bottle, and then lightly spray the inside of the shoes.
  3. Hang the shoes and leave them to air dry.

The full wash

Ok, a disclaimer here. It’s better to try all the steps in the section above, and the sections below, before actually washing your climbing shoes. Of course, washing them will remove the smell. But it can, depending on the material the shoe is constructed of, completely alter the fit of the shoe. And fit is something we work pretty hard to get, so I don’t want to wash that away.
First of all, never wash your climbing shoes in a washing machine—even if the label says it’s ok. Instead, go for a hand wash as follows:

  1. Make sure the sink you’re using is clean
  2. Rinse your shoes thoroughly using cold water. Basically, keep the water flowing over them until the water is running clear
  3. Fill the sink with cold water and add some gentle soap or laundry detergent
  4. Using a toothbrush, scrub the shoes all over, including the rubber and especially the inside. Don’t scrub like crazy—not too hard.
  5. Once you’ve cleaned them enough and you’re happy with how brand new your shoes look, drain the soapy water and rinse your climbing shoes thoroughly, again, until the water runs clean and is soap free
  6. Now step six has two options, and because we’re climbers, we’ll call these steps 6a and 6b.
    6a is the way I’m sure, a normal person would want to dry shoes.
    6b is the other way, and a way I find preserves the fit of the shoe. 6b may sound a little crazy, and it’s more effort, but it does work.6a. Once your shoes are rinsed thoroughly, remove as much water as you can by shaking the shoes out and squeezing, then hang them to air dry completely.
    6b. Once your shoes are rinsed thoroughly, remove as much water as you can by shaking the shoes out and squeezing. Thoroughly wash and then dry your feet. Put on the wet shoes. Sit down and watch a movie, allowing the shoes to dry whilst on your feet. Once they’re almost completely dry, hang them to air dry fully. This will be uncomfortable and often painful, but will preserve the fit pretty well.

Prevention is key!

Basically, the reason for climbing shoes becoming so disgusting is due to moisture and bacteria. Go climbing in a cold-weather destination, somewhere like New Zealand—then go to Tonsai or Thakhek. New Zealand shoes will smell like roses in comparison.  Bacteria thrive in warm, moist environments.

Of course, the best way to avoid needing to clean your climbing shoes is keeping them as fresh as possible, for as long as possible. This, we do from the very beginning, from the first time we wear our shoes. What we need to do to achieve this goal is, first of all, to keep our shoes clean, to prevent moisture, and to dry the moisture out as soon as it inevitably arises. This can be done in a few ways.

Keep the shoes dry

One of the best ways to keep your shoes stink-free for longer, takes place immediately after you’ve finished climbing.

Do not—and I repeat—do not, put your climbing shoes into your bag when they are sweaty or even slightly damp. They need to be aired out to dry naturally, immediately. The best way to do this is to just hang them on the outside of your bag with a carabiner, instead of putting them inside. Sure, this can get you some strange looks and wrinkled noses from other commuters on the train or the bus, but it beats the demonic smell that results from leaving them in your bag.

If you must be a polite and considerate citizen, and you must put your shoes in your bag for the ride home, make sure you take them out to air dry first thing. Don’t forget. If you do forget, I pity the poor fool that opens your bag after those shoes have been in there over the weekend…

Wear clean socks

Now an obvious way to avoid odor and to keep shoes clean is to wear clean socks. This goes for all shoes, not just climbing shoes. Socks absorb the sweat and collect the dead skin cells that your feet will shed. Instead of all this sticky, bacteria-filled sweat being absorbed by your shoes; it’ll mostly go into your socks.

As long as your socks are clean, only clean stuff goes into your climbing shoes.

Having said that, this one is hard for me to recommend because I don’t often do this myself. I’ll do it only in the winter when my toes can’t deal with the cold— but when I do, I get far less sensitivity in the feet. I like to really feel what’s going on down there, and socks prevent this. But give it a try yourself, if you don’t notice a difference, rock the socks— your shoes will thank you.

Have clean feet before going into the shoe

If you’ve been walking around all day in a pair of vans, they’re probably going to stink like crazy as it is. Don’t keep this cycle rolling by going directly from sweaty street shoes, into your climbing shoes. This will just transfer all that dead skin, all the bacteria and build up, and you’ll now have it in both pairs of shoes.

Instead, if heading to the climbing gym, duck into the bathrooms and wash and dry your feet before going into your climbing shoes. If you take the socks route, bring a fresh pair so you’re going into the climbing shoes with clean, dry socks.

If you’re climbing outside and not going for socks, you obviously can’t wash your feet before climbing. Wear clean socks on the day with your approach shoes, and before putting on your climbing shoes, let your sock-free feet dry out for a while.

Between climbs, don’t stand around in the dirt. Try to keep your feet as clean and dry as is reasonably possible.

Most shoes smell because of dead skin cells

A large reason why climbing shoes stink so badly is due to bacteria that thrive on eating dead skin cells. As you wear your shoes, dead skin will fall off and be left behind inside your shoe. As you sweat, this whole situation gets worse. Getting rid of as much of the dead skin as you can, you should get rid of most of the smell.

Time to take care of those gnarly feet.

Get a pumice stone, an exfoliation kit or a go out to the woodshop and get a file. Scrub away at all the hard parts of your foot skin. The more dead skin you remove, the less dead skin that will naturally fall away and end up in your climbing shoes. And remember, skin sheds more when it’s dry, so keep those feet moisturized.

Conclusion

Again, prevention is by far the best way to keep your climbing shoes in top shape. It takes a little effort, but doing this from the beginning will make your climbing shoes last much longer, they will be more comfortable, and you will get far less judgmental looks from people on public transport. By the way, clean sneakers are a good idea too!

Unsure which shoes to buy? Check out my guide!