How to clean climbing shoes

Fight the funk of your smelly climbing shoes.

how to clean climbing shoes

Picture this: you’ve been wearing your new climbing shoes for the past couple of months and they’ve become your favorite worldly possession. They’ve broken in perfectly and they have molded to your feet like a beautiful second skin. However, there’s a problem: your friends don’t want to sit next to you anymore because your shoes stink. So, you throw them into the washing machine and the problem is solved, right? Wrong.

Devastation hits: they’ve shrunk and your rubber is peeling like a third-degree burn. That extreme heat and traumatic experience you have just subjected them through means they will never be the same again. Poor bastards.

So, how can we avoid such a terrifying mishap? How can we properly clean climbing shoes without damaging them? Good question.

It’s not secret, climbing shoes smell bad. They’re warm from your feet and damp from all that sweat; this makes for the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. When you’re desperate to fix those smelly climbing shoes, it’s important to be careful or you run the risk of sending your shoes to an early retirement.

Here, we will share how to clean climbing shoes without doing any permanent damage, as well as a few of our favorite tips on how to stop climbing shoe from smelling for good!

How to stop climbing shoes from smelling

This is probably the single most common reason why people want to clean climbing shoes.

When it coming to smelly climbing shoes,  your top priority should be prevention. Funky-smelling shoes are such a common problem partly because most climbers exercise without socks. Bacteria – and therefore odor – is attracted to the moist environment caused by your sweaty feet.

It is also worth remembering that some types of climbing shoes will retain odor more than others. Because of it amazing natural properties, leather climbing shoes are considerably more breathable than synthetic climbing shoes, and therefore, are better at regulating foot temperature and odor than their vegan-friendly counterparts.

While it is possible to wash climbing shoes (we’ll cover that soon), you’ll want to keep this to a minimum and only resort to water when times are desperate.

Here are a few of my favorite solutions to stop climbing shoes from smelling.

Solution #1: Take Them Off

Reduce the risk of smelly climbing shoes by taking them off and letting them air out after a couple of climbs. Similarly, when you get home, don’t leave your climbing shoes stuffed in the bottom of your bag. Let them air out for a bit, then store them in a suitable place.

Solution #2: Apply Some Product

Utilizing odor-fighting accessories prevents the need for frequently washing your climbing shoes. Not only is it less hassle, more importantly, there’s no chance of causing long-term damage your shoes.

Consider giving your shoes a spray of odor eliminator, or leaving a dryer sheet inside when not in use. There are also some brilliant products out there like the Boot Bananas, which I personally use, that are designed to fight smelly climbing shoes.

If you prefer a DIY approach to cleaning climbing shoes, then grab some baking soda from the kitchen. Baking soda will neutralize the conditions needed for bacteria to thrive, which will, in turn, reduce the smell of your shoes.

You might need to give them a wipe down after, but that’s a small price to pay for fresh-smelling climbing shoes!

Solution #3: Keep Your Feet Clean

You’ll also want to consider the state of your own feet, after all, they are the culprits that started the stink in the first place.

Always make sure that your feet are clean before you slip the shoes on. If your feet tend to get extra sweaty, you may even want to consider applying a bit of chalk to your feet. As strange as it may sound, think of the effect it has on your hands. Just make sure you aren’t overdoing it. A light dusting with a chalk ball should do the trick.

Can you wash climbing shoes?

A common question we get asked is ‘can you wash climbing shoes?’ 

Surprisingly, there’s a lot of contradicting information on this question. Even climbing shoe manufacturers can’t seem to agree on the answer.  

Some, like Evolv, don’t recommend washing climbing shoes at all, and they say it can weaken the glue that maintains the structural integrity of your shoe.

Scarpa, on the other hand, suggests it’s perfectly fine to wash your shoes. In fact, they encourage it. The Italian shoe manufacturer suggests that the salt, and other chemicals, in our sweat reduce the elasticity and strength of the shoe’s materials.  According to them, a good clean every now and then can do your shoes a world of good.

In my opinion, carefully (and correctly) washing climbing shoes occasionally will have little impact on their performance or life span. I have washed countless pairs of shoes, both leather and synthetic, and I have never had issues arise as a result of a good clean.

How to clean climbing shoes

Was it a really muddy day at the crag? Or are your gym shoes just smelling worse than an a NFL changing room?

Whatever the reason, when things get really bad and a deep wash is called for,  you have two options on how to clean your climbing shoes: machine wash or hand wash. In every case, I would highly recommend a gentle hand wash. This will minimize the chance of damaging your precious shoes.

Machine washing is almost never recommended, although it is possible with a few synthetic shoes. The La Sportiva Oxygym, for example, is designed specifically to be machine washable. That said, even if your shoes say they are suitable for a machine wash, don’t use hot water, choose a lukewarm temperature setting.

For 99.9% of climbing shoes, hand washing is the way to go.  I’m going to quickly walk you through the fool proof process I use to clean climbing shoes.

Step 1: Grab your cleaning equipment 

I really like the Evolv Agro, although, like many synthetic shoes, they have a tendency to absorb a lot of sweat and stink to high heaven. Despite using my Boot Bananas and letting the shoes air after every session, it’s reached the point that I feel bad for anyone who comes within the near vicinity of me in the gym. My flat now also has a distinct smell of climbing shoes, which isn’t exactly ideal either. It’s time for a wash.

cleaning climbing shoes

As well as your shoes you’re going to need a few pieces of cleaning equipment. A soft brush is essential. You can get ones like this from Amazon, or if you are cheap like me, then an old toothbrush works too. In honesty, a toothbrush is an ideal shape to get right to the bottom of the footbed. 

I also like to have a cloth handy, I use this to rub the more delicate parts of the shoe like the logo on the heel rand. 

Now that you have your shoes and your equipment, it’s time to get cleaning.

Step 2: Cleaning using running warm water

When it comes to washing your shoes, all you need is warm running water, ideally in a shower or a sink. Don’t use hot or boiling water, as you will run the risk of damaging your shoes.

On a related note, I have heard people recommend using rubbing alcohol for washing climbing shoes, which I wouldn’t recommend either. Alcohol can break down adhesives which could cause the glue that holds your shoes together to dissolve.

how to clean climbing shoes

Begin to flush your shoes with water and gently brush the footbed and inside of uppers. You will be amazed/disgusted at how brown the water is at first. If your shoes have a padded tongue make sure you give them a gentle rinse and squeeze too, they absorb their fair share of sweat.  Continue to gently scrub the inside and outside of the shoe until the water starts to run clear.

Step 3: Drying the shoes

Once your shoes are squeaky clean, it’s time to dry those babies out. With a dry towel or microfiber cloth, give them a quick wipe down. Then, stick a cloth inside the shoe and give it a gentle press, this will help absorb some of the water from the inside and significantly decrease the drying time. 

Now that your shoes aren’t dripping wet,  gently stuff them with paper or a microfiber cloth to help them dry out and retain their natural shape. Open them up to allow air to circulate and put them somewhere warm (not hot) ideally with a draft. 

how to dry climbing shoes

Do not put them in the drying machine and never expose them to excessive sunlight. This will inevitably melt glue, misshape shoes and cause rubber degradation. Sunlight and extreme temperatures are the natural enemies of climbing shoes.

Step 4: Enjoy clean climbing kicks!

After a few hours, your shoes will be dry and ready to climb in again. If you want to speed up the drying process, you could use a hairdryer, just ensure that it’s on a low heat setting and keep it well away from your shoes. You aren’t trying to heat your shoes up here, just offering some extra airflow.

Following the steps I just shared with you, here’s how my Agros look now.

clean climbing shoes

As you can see, I wasn’t able to get rid of all those awkward stains, but they look significantly cleaner than they did yesterday. More importantly, they don’t smell at all. Because I didn’t use overly hot water, any chemical substances, or leave them in sunlight, the shoes fits exactly as they did pre-wash.

Cleaning dirty soles

Take a look at the soles of your shoes. Most people don’t think to check, but a culprit of slippery footholds can sometimes be a dirty sole. In the gym, this means a thin layer of chalk, while outside you’re likely to attract smears of dirt.

A little bit of water and a good scrub  with an old tooth bush can do wonders for your soles. You could also try rubbing alcohol in the case of more stubborn stains, although again, I recommend just sticking to the water, it will clean 99% of dirt shoes perfectly.

To prevent an excess build-up of dirt, and therefore give your shoes some extra grip, try wiping your shoes off before getting onto your climb. Whether that’s with a cloth, your pant leg or a swipe of your hand, I guarantee you will feel a big difference.

Cleaning your rubber doesn’t just help with grip, it can also contribute to improving the lifespan of your shoes. If you are climbing outside a lot, scrubbing your soles help reduce wear caused by the grinding of dirt on your shoes. When in the gym, this means less dirt-covered holds for all. It’s a win-win!

If you want some more ideas on how to improve the friction in your shoes, take a read of our article on how to make your climbing shoes sticky again.

How to wash climbing shoes

Ready to clean those climbing kicks?

For those of us with extra smelly climbing shoes, there are some steps you can take, from basic prevention to more drastic measures like a good hand wash. That being said, you’ll want to be careful. High heat should always be avoided during the washing and drying process.

Depending on the construction of your shoe, it is possible to ruin that perfect break-in you worked so hard to achieve. Avoid shrinking your shoes or destroying the upper’s material.

Better yet, take good care of your shoes. Be proactive, practise good footwork and don’t walk through mud! As you become more considerate of your shoes they’ll last you that much longer.

Truth be told, the majority of us do not wash our shoes as often as we should. Unless you’ve got a particularly bad case of smelly feet, you’ll probably blend right in.

When all else fails, embrace that natural funk!

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