How To Clean Climbing Shoes
Fight the funk of your smelly climbing shoes.
- Step 1: Grab your cleaning equipment
- Step 2: Clean using running warm water
- Step 3: Drying the shoes
- Step 4: Enjoy Your clean climbing kicks!
Every climber knows the dilemma, you’ve been wearing your new climbing shoes for the past couple of months and they’ve become your favorite worldly possession. By now they have probably broken in perfectly and they have molded to your feet like a beautiful second skin.
But there’s a problem. Your friends don’t want to sit next to you anymore because your shoes, and by extension you, stink. So, you throw them into the washing machine, and the problem is solved, right?
Devastation hits. Your shoes have shrunk beyond recognition and your rubber is peeling like a third-degree burn. That extreme heat and traumatic experience you have just subjected them to means your shoes will never be the same again. Poor things.
Why do climbing shoes smell?
We all know it doesn’t take much to make climbing shoes smell bad. They get warm and sweaty from all that crushing you are doing. Unfortunately, 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.
So, how can we avoid such a terrifying mishap? And how can we properly clean climbing shoes without damaging them?
Allow me to share with you how to clean climbing shoes without doing any permanent damage, as well as a few of my favorite tips on how to stop climbing shoes from smelling for good.
How to stop climbing shoes from smelling
This is probably the single most commonly cited reason why most people want to clean climbing shoes.
While there are a few options available for fighting that funk, when it comes to smelly climbing shoes, your top priority should be prevention. Funky-smelling shoes are such a common problem, partly because most climbers don’t wear 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 worse than others. Because of their amazing natural properties, leather climbing shoes are considerably more breathable than synthetic climbing shoes. This generally makes them better at regulating foot temperature and odor than their vegan-friendly counterparts.
While it is possible to wash climbing shoes (we’ll get to that soon), here are a few of my favorite ‘quick fix’ solutions for stopping 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’s be honest, we are all guilty of this).
Instead, open them up, let them air out, then store them in a suitable place. This will dry them out and discourage a bacteria build-up.
Solution #2: Apply Some Product
Utilizing odor-fighting accessories prevents the need for frequent washing of your climbing shoes. Not only is it less hassle – but more importantly – there’s no chance of causing long-term damage to 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 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 environment needed for bacteria to thrive which will, in turn, reduce the smell coming from your shoes. You will need to give them a little wipe-down after, but that’s a small price to pay for fresh-smelling climbing shoes.
If the smell isn’t the problem, and it’s more the dirt and grime smeared inside your shoes that are putting you off, then there’s a simple cure for that too. A disinfectant wipe will help bring a bit of the sparkle back to your precious 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 your shoes on. If your feet tend to get extra sweaty (no judgment here) you may even want to consider applying a bit of chalk to your feet. As strange as that may sound, think of the effect it has on your hands. Just make sure you aren’t overdoing it a light dusting should do the trick.
If you’re really looking to prevent your shoes from smelling in the first place, then there’s a sure way to stop the stank. It might not get the approval from your bouldering bros, but wearing socks is by far the best way to stop your shoes from soaking up all that delicious foot juice.
Can you wash climbing shoes?
A common question we get asked a lot is ‘can you wash climbing shoes?’
Surprisingly, there’s a lot of contradicting information out there on this topic. Even climbing shoe manufacturers can’t seem to agree on the right answer.
Some brands, like Evolv, don’t recommend washing climbing shoes at all. They take the stance that 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. This 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 will have very little impact on their performance or lifespan. 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, providing you wash them with the same care as you would a newborn baby, if not even more.
How to clean climbing shoes
Was it a really muddy day at the crag? Or are your gym shoes just smelling worse than an NFL changing room?
Whatever the reason, when things get really bad and a deep clean 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, was 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 99.99% of climbing shoes, hand washing is the way to go. I’m going to quickly walk you through the foolproof process I use to clean climbing shoes.
Step 1: Grab your cleaning equipment
I really like the old Evolv Agro (RIP) 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 my shoes air after every session, it has reached the point that I feel bad for anyone who comes within 10 meters of me at the gym.
My house now also has that distinct climbing shoe smell, which my girlfriend isn’t exactly ecstatic about either. It’s time for a wash.
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 actually the 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 those climbing shoes cleaned!
Step 2: Clean 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.
SIDE NOTE: I have heard people recommend using rubbing alcohol for washing climbing shoes, which I wouldn’t recommend either. Alcohol breaks down adhesives which could cause the glue that holds your shoes together to dissolve. Why risk it when most of us are lucky enough to have instant access to chemical-free water?
Begin to flush your shoes with water and gently brush the footbed and inside of the uppers. Ensure you don’t get overly excited with the brushing or you run the risk of damaging the uppers. This is why a soft toothbrush is an ideal tool here.
You will be amazed and disgusted in equal measure at how brown the water is at first. If your shoes have a padded tongue, then 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 bit of airflow.
It goes without saying that you shouldn’t put them in the drying machine and you should never expose them to excessive sunlight. Like vampires and my ginger mum, extreme temperatures are the natural enemies of climbing shoes. They will inevitably delaminate glue, misshape shoes, and cause rubber deoxidization.
Step 4: Enjoy Your clean climbing kicks!
After a few hours, your shoes will be dry and ready to climb in again. If you really want to speed up the drying process, you could use a hairdryer, just ensure that it’s on the lowest 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.
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 excessively hot water, or chemicals, or leave them in direct sunlight, the shoes fit 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.
Cleaning your rubber doesn’t just help with grip, it will also contribute to improving the lifespan of your shoes. If you are climbing outside a lot, scrubbing your soles help reduce the wear caused by the grinding of dirt on your shoes. When in the gym, this also means fewer dirt-covered holds for all. It’s a win-win!
To prevent an excess build-up of grime on the bottom of your shoes, and give you some extra grip, try wiping your shoes off before pulling on. Whether that’s with a cloth, your pant leg, or a swipe of your hand, I guarantee you will notice a big difference.
A little bit of water and a good scrub with an old tooth bush every now and again can do wonders for your soles, especially if you are an avid outdoor climber.
If you want some more ideas on how to improve the friction in your shoes, take a wander over to my article on how to make your climbing shoes sticky again.
Ready to clean those climbing kicks?
For those of you with extra smelly climbing shoes, all hope isn’t lost. There are plenty of actions you can take, from basic prevention to more drastic measures like a good hand wash.
Whatever climbing shoe cleaning method you choose, just remember to take care. 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, practice good footwork, and don’t walk through the 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.
Just remember – when all else fails – embrace that natural funk!