How to Clean Climbing and Bouldering Shoes

Climbers, if I’m 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. I’ve put together the easiest and quickest guide to keep your climbing shoes clean.

So, how to clean climbing shoes? There are two methods of cleaning climbing shoes, machine or hand wash. Follow the detailed steps below to clean your climbing shoes and get rid of stench and dirt. This guide will not only help you keep your shoes clean, but also get rid of the smell and help to make your shoes last longer.

Table of Contents

Guide to Hand Washing & Cleaning Rock Climbing and Bouldering Shoes

Things You’ll Need 

What Why How to use
Large bucket or tub Holds the water to clean the climbing shoes Use any household bucket or tub, can use sink too
Mild detergent for clothes A mild detergent will clean your rock climbing shoes spotless Don’t use too strong detergent; it can damage your shoes
A small, soft brush (toothbrush) You use it to remove stains and dust Don’t use a brush with steel brushes; it will destroy the rubber of your rock climbing shoe
Handwarm water Warm water removes dust and stains easier than cold water Don’t use HOT water – it will damage the material of the climbing shoe! 35 Degree Celsius or 95 Degree Fahrenheit is enough

Detailed Steps

Step 1: Fill a Tub With Water

Fill the tub or sink with warm water. It should be around 30-35 degrees Celsius (or between 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit). This temperate will make it easy to remove any dirt, dust, and debris. Don’t use hot water, it will destroy the rubber on the sole, and cold water won’t work good!

Step 2: Use Mild Detergent in the Water

A mild detergent helps to remove sweat and dirt. If you use no detergent at all, it will be hard to remove sweat and residues as the water itself doesn’t go into the cracks and niches of your shoes enough. Don’t use harsh chemicals or strong detergent, as they will damage the soles of your shoes and upper liner. Strong chemicals can also make the leather wear down faster or even damage it.

Step 3: Brush off Dust Before Shoes Get Wet

Use the small brush to brush the dust from the shoe BEFORE you actually let the shoes get wet. This way, you avoid working in small particles of chalk and dust into the shoes by turning them into mud and paste… Brush over the shoes gently, and blow some air over the shoes with your lips to remove any dust particles.

Step 4: Turn Shoes Upside Down and Pad Them to Remove Debris and Small Rocks

Then turn the shoes upside down and pad them lightly on the toe box to make sure little crumbles of chalk, rocks, and stone fall out on the bottom opening.

Step 5: Gently Scrub Outside of Shoes

Wet the shoes a little, then use the small brush and scrub the outside. Make sure to include the upper, tongue, and sole. The brush is perfect for removing stains that are hard to remove otherwise. Don’t press too hard with the brush though, be gentle, your goal is not to remove the soles or damage the material but get the shoes clean!

Cleaning the sole is important too, make sure to dip the shoes into the lukewarm water, it will make the dirt come off easily by loosening it. Make sure to submerge and soak them totally; this way, you remove germs and bacteria that promote bad smell.

Step 6: Clean The Shoes From The Inside

Use your small brush to scrub your shoes on the inside gently. But wash the scrub before you clean the inside, as your scrub will be dirty from the outside scrubbing you did before! It’s important to try and clean the hard to reach places in the toe box and upper of the shoe, and if you cannot reach a corner, use your fingers to clean and rub the area. Dunk the shoes into the warm soapy water after cleaning them, multiple times if needed, to remove any brown and colored water. The soapy water will remove the loosened dirt particles!

Step 7: Rinse your Rock Climbing or Bouldering Shoes with Lukewarm Fresh Water

Drain out your sink or tub and rinse it thoroughly, then refill with lukewarm fresh water. Now place your rock climbing or bouldering shoes in the tub and move them around, up and down, sideways and turn them around. You want to swish them around a little bit, so water can get into any opening and hole and completely remove any soap leftovers. Do this at least 2-3 times, until there is no soap and dirty water coming out of the shoes anymore.

Step 8: Completely Dry the Shoes

Shake the shoes to remove any leftover water. Then use a clean towel to wick and wipe the shoes, soaking in as much moisture as possible. I found that the best way to dry climbing shoes is to open laces and velcro as far as possible, and then place them somewhere with a light breeze in a warm room. Stuff them with some newspaper or clean paper towel to accelerate the drying process. Don’t let them sit in direct sunlight; the UV rays are going to damage the material. In winter, it’s best to put them somewhere near a radiator but not directly on top of it. Let the shoes dry completely and don’t wear them before they are completely dry!

Guide to Machine Washing & Cleaning Rock Climbing and Bouldering Shoes

Make sure to use this method ONLY on synthetic climbing or bouldering shoes. Leather shoes will be ruined if you machine wash them!

Things You’ll Need 

What Why How to use
Machine Washer Cleans the shoes Machines with delicate or synthetic setting work best
Mild detergent for clothes A mild detergent will clean your rock climbing shoes spotless Don’t use too strong detergent; it can damage your shoes
A small, soft brush (toothbrush) You use it to remove stains and dust before throwing the shoes into the machine Don’t use a brush with steel brushes; it will destroy the rubber of your rock climbing shoe

Detailed Steps

Step 1: Brush off Dust Before Shoes Get Wet

This is the same as for handwashing. Use a small brush to brush the dust from the shoe BEFORE you actually let the shoes get wet. This way, you avoid working in small particles of chalk and dust into the shoes by turning them into mud and paste… Brush over the shoes gently, and blow some air over the shoes with your lips to remove any dust particles.

Step 2: Turn Shoes Upside Down and Pad Them to Remove Debris and Small Rocks

Then turn the shoes upside down and pad them lightly on the toe box to make sure little crumbles of chalk, rocks, and stone fall out on the bottom opening.

Step 3: Set Your Washing Machine to a Gentle Washing Cycle

If your washing machine has a program for synthetics or delicates, use this program. Synthetic climbing shoes can take a wash, but don’t set your washing machine to anything above 1000 rpm. I’ve found that 500-800 rpm works best with a temperature of 30-40 °C (85 to 100 °F)

Step 4: Add Some Mild Washing Detergent. Don’t Use Bleach

As with hand washing, you only want to use a very mild detergent. Synthetic detergent works good, and it will kill smell and bacteria. I cannot stress this enough: Don’t machine wash shoes with leather! Set the machine washer to a synthetic or delicate cycle, if possible!

Step 5: Rinse your Rock Climbing or Bouldering Shoes with Lukewarm Fresh Water

Like when hand washing, after the washing machine is finished, give the shoes another round of cold water rinsing – sometimes a machine leaves some residues!

Step 6: Completely Dry the Shoes – NO Hot Dryer

NEVER use a hot dryer for climbing shoes, it will destroy your sticky soles and damage the rubber! You need to dry them by hand and air! Shake the shoes to remove any leftover water. Then use a clean towel to wick and wipe the shoes, soaking in as much moisture as possible. I found that the best way to dry climbing shoes is to open laces and velcro as far as possible, and then place them somewhere with a light breeze in a warm room. Stuff them with some newspaper or clean paper towel to accelerate the drying process. Don’t let them sit in direct sunlight; the UV rays are going to damage the material. In winter, it’s best to put them somewhere near a radiator but not directly on top of it. Let the shoes dry completely and don’t wear them before they are completely dry!

Guide to Cleaning Your Rock Climbing and Bouldering Shoes When You Are Outdoors or Camping

Sometimes you are not around buckets full of hot water detergent, like when you are outside camping or on the move, but your shoes are dirty.

Things You’ll Need 

What Why How to use
Rubbing Alcohol Cleans the shoes from bacteria Be careful with leather; it can work but make sure to use a little bit on a small portion of the leather and try
A brush or towel Used to wipe off dust and stains Don’t use a too hard brush

Detailed Steps

Step 1: Mix Rubbing Alcohol

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.

Step 2: Brush The Climbing or Bouldering Shoes

Gently brush at the areas which are discolored from sweat or dirt. Brush the rubber parts too, use a paper towel if needed (cleaning away the grime will keep the rubber sticky).

Step 3: Use a Bottle to Keep The Alcohol Mix And Spray The Shoes

Next, put some rubbing alcohol in a spray bottle, and then lightly spray the inside of the shoes.

Step 4: Dry The Shoes

Hang the shoes and leave them to air dry.

The Reason Why Climbing and Bouldering Shoes Smell

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 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. And it’s a good idea to follow these bonus tips to avoid dirty and smelling shoes in the first place!

Tips To Prevent Dirty and Smelling Climbing and Bouldering Shoes

If you want to avoid dirty and smelly rock climbing and bouldering shoes, we collected some easy to follow tips. If you obey these rules, you will have to wash your climbing and bouldering shoes less often!

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.

Tip 1: Wash Your Feet More Often!

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. This is especially important if you don’t wear socks, as bacteria can enter shoes easily then.

Tip 2: Dry Shoes Smell Less and are Cleaner

One of the best ways to keep your shoe 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…

Fungi and bacteria all love some warmth and moisture, and that’s why you should always make sure to enter climbing shoes with dry feet.

Tip 3: Store Rock Climbing & Bouldering Shoes in an Open Container or Space

You should always store your rock climbing shoes in an open space. Tight spaces are not good for climbing shoes, as they won’t let your shoes dry out. As they keep them wet and moist, they will promote bacteria growth, which makes your shoes smelly. Let the shoes dry out in an open space; it will minimize bacteria and fungi growth!

Tip 4: Take Shoes Off Between Your Climbs

Don’t walk around with your climbing shoes between climbs. If you belay or rest, take the shoes off. It’s good for your feet and shoes. This way, your shoes will be dry and smell better.

Tip 5: Use Some Baking Soda or Air Fresheners

Baking soda sprinkled on the inside of the shoes while washing the shoes will work wonders to remove smell and keep the shoes crisp. And the baking soda is not damaging the material! Air fresheners can be a good idea too, just put them into the shoes overnight, and you’re good to go!

Tip 6: Wear Thin and 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.

Related Questions

First, clean the rubber soles of dirt, oil, sands, and chalk. You can use a dry towel or some rubbing alcohol. After that, the sole will be really sticky again!
Climbing and bouldering shoes can get wet, but you should try to dry them completely afterward! Keep in mind; leather can get stiff when shoes become wet!

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 how climbing shoes should fit? Check out my guide!

Read more about why you should get some climbing shoes, and if you need some new ones, here are the best models for 2020, we reviewed them.

 

 

 

 

 

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