Climbing, whether you’re climbing a hill, a rock face, a climbing wall, or a tree, is a fun and physical activity. However, the cleanup afterward can be understandably bad! The shoes you wear on your climbing adventures bear the brunt of your wear and tear, and they often collect the most dirt and sweat, too.
As such, it’s imperative to know how to clean your footwear effectively and safely after a climbing session, lest you do so improperly and shorten your shoes’ lifetime. Climbing shoes aren’t cheap! Knowing how to clean climbing shoes is in your best interest both to keep your footwear secure longer and to keep your own feet healthy and microbe-free.
How to Clean Climbing Shoes: Prevention
As with any shoe, knowing how to clean climbing shoes is all about good habits and prevention. Doing a few smart things before, during, and after climbing will help keep both your feet and your footwear cleaner, saving you time and effort spent cleaning them later on. The less you have to clean your shoes, of course, the longer they’ll last, too.
This is especially true for climbing shoes, as these shoes are usually made of expensive natural materials such as rubber and leather. While doing a full wash of your climbing shoes every so often won’t destroy them, the less you do it, the less you’ll need to worry about adverse effects on the footwear.
Keeping climbing shoes intact and robust is especially crucial because of the safety aspect of wearing them. An unsound pair of shoes can be dangerous in any sport or physical activity, but this is especially true for climbing, as they could cause you to lose your grip or even fall.
This is why prevention is so important! If you allow dirt to accumulate inside of your shoes, not only will the grit wear away at the inside of the shoes, but they’ll give you blisters, too. If you don’t wear socks while climbing (as many climbers choose not to do), this is even truer.
On the other hand, no matter how careful you are not to get your shoes dirty, sweat will still cause just as many issues from the inside. If you don’t take the time to clean and disinfect your footwear, your shoes will create a perfect environment for the growth of bacteria and fungus. If you don’t care about your shoes, you could eventually see all sorts of foot problems and health risks from these conditions!
There are several simple habits you can incorporate into your routine to make keeping your shoes clean easier.
- Only wear shoes that fit correctly. Ill-fitting shoes, if too large, will leave more space for sweat and dirt to collect; if too small, they’ll wear more on the tighter areas of your feet, shortening their lifetime and causing foot deformities.
- Only wear your shoes for climbing. You might be tempted to wear your comfortable climbing shoes while doing other forms of exercise, but resist the urge to do so unless you have no other choice. The more you use your climbing shoes, the faster they’ll get dirty.
- Use a shoe bag. A shoe bag is designed to be explicitly ventilated for shoes. When you throw your climbing shoes into a duffel bag or backpack, they end up sitting in stagnant, stinky conditions, likely with your other sweaty exercise items. A shoe bag, on the other hand, will keep your shoes exposed to fresh air, which acts as a deterrent to odor and bacteria buildup. A shoe bag will protect your shoes from damaging sun rays and other weather patterns, too.
- Don’t walk around barefoot before putting your climbing shoes on. This will minimize the number of dirt particles that make their way into your shoes.
- If you must walk around with bare feet, bring a tarp or towel to protect both your shoes and your feet from the soil.
- Always remove your shoes from any non-ventilated backpacks or bags when you get home (or before you store them if you don’t bring them home).
Cleaning Climbing Shoes: Washing
Regardless of how careful you are to keep your climbing shoes clean, there will eventually be times when you’ll need to go in and wash them. At some point, they will get stinky, or you’ll find that they feel too gritty inside for a comfortable fit. When that happens, look to the following steps for how to clean climbing shoes like new again.
There will be two main parts of cleaning your climbing shoes that you’ll focus on; full cleaning and deodorizing. Deodorization should be done between uses or every few uses, especially when you feel like they’ve built up a lot of sweat or moisture. A full cleaning, however, is only essential every once in a while, such as when deodorization alone is no longer cutting it or when your shoes feel gritty inside.
Deodorization is easy. All you need to do is use a deodorizing compound, such as vinegar, baking soda, or isopropyl alcohol, to remove the odor. However, there is one thing you should keep in mind: not all deodorizers are also sanitizers. Baking soda, for example, while an effective deodorizer, will do less for bacteria and other organisms than an antimicrobial like isopropyl alcohol would.
As such, while simply deodorizing your shoes every few uses is okay, you should mix that with the use of an antimicrobial cleaner every so often, too. Deodorizers like baking soda, dryer sheets, and perfumes are great in a pinch, but they do nothing to address the source of the odor. An antimicrobial, on the other hand, such as isopropyl alcohol or white vinegar, will work to eliminate the source of the smell.
Using one of these deodorizers is easy. Just put the liquid in a spray bottle (or use a commercial aerosol spray) and gently spritz your shoes with it when they need an excellent deodorizing. This will kill most of the germs and fungus in your shoes. (It’s also important to note that, with baking soda or any foot powder, you must be very careful to remove all of it before wearing your shoes again, as powders in your shoes can affect your grip.)
However, at those times when deodorizing is no longer sufficient for cleaning your shoes, it’s time to get after them with proper washing. No, we don’t mean putting them through the washing machine, either – this is an excellent way to ruin your expensive climbing shoes!
We don’t even recommend saturating or immersing your shoes if you can avoid it. Instead, take a solution of lukewarm water and laundry detergent or water and vinegar to destroy the bacteria in your shoes. Use a rag or an old toothbrush to scrub out any dirt, sweat, and caked-on grime from the insides and outsides of your shoes, then rinse them off. Never put your climbing shoes into the dryer, even on air-dry!
When drying your shoes after washing them, make sure to stuff them with newspapers, paper towels, or rags, then let them air dry. Fans and dehumidifiers help, too, if you have access to them. Never place your shoes near or over a heater, as this can cause the glue in your shoes to melt or otherwise come apart. Replace the newspapers, paper towels, or rags in your shoes as they become saturated.
Read Also: How to Break in Climbing Shoes
Other Shoe Tips
Besides washing and deodorizing your shoes, there are a few other tricks that climbers swear by that may help deter odor and microbe development in your precious climbing shoes. We’ll teach you how to clean climbing shoes with these tips in the following sections.
Use the Washing Machine
Some types of climbing shoes, such as those made from synthetic materials, can safely go through the washing machine to sanitize them and remove any dirt. However, do this with caution: even for machine-washable shoes, getting jumbled around and spun in a machine is sure to reduce the life of the footwear. If you do decide to send them through the washing machine, do so infrequently or with caution.
Freeze Your Shoes
Most of us know that bacteria generally isn’t a fan of the cold. While cold temperatures won’t necessarily kill the bacteria in your shoes, they will inhibit the bacteria from growing or spreading. As such, freezing your shoes is more of the lazy man’s method for stopping bacterial growth. We don’t recommend doing it unless you’re seriously strapped for time, as these low temperatures could end up damaging your shoes, too.
Wash Your Feet
Washing your feet is an excellent way to reduce the contaminants and dirt that find their way into your climbing shoes. This is especially true if you have sweaty, smelly feet to begin with! By taking a short time to rinse, soap up, and dry your feet thoroughly before putting your shoes on, you’ll reduce the frequency with which you need to wash your shoes. Just make sure to let your feet completely dry, even between your toes, before you put your shoes on.
Many climbers choose not to wear socks. Many think wearing socks with climbing shoes is “dorky” or “uncool.” While we agree that climbing shoes look dapper without socks, we also believe that keeping cleaner shoe warrants wearing socks from time to time. However, do know that socks affect the grip of your feet inside your shoes, so you may need to practice wearing socks with your climbing shoes before you can get the hang of it.
Dry in the Sunlight
Whether or not you should dry your precious shoes in the sun is a hotly-debated topic among all shoe enthusiasts – not just climbers. The sun provides a fast, efficient, and (purportedly) safe method for drying your shoes, but unfortunately, there are some drawbacks to consider.
For one, the sun’s rays can discolor things over time. If you’ve ever owned an outdoor couch or chair with cushions, you’ve probably noticed how one side of the cushions lose color over time, leaving the other side vibrant and new-looking. In the same way, if you leave your climbing shoes in the sun too much, it could end up leeching away some of their colors.
Additionally, the sun bathes anything it touches in questionable UV rays. These rays can cause shrinkage, damage, and other undesirable effects. Not to mention that too much time spent in the sun can heat your shoes unnecessarily, potentially damaging or melting the adhesives holding your shoes together. This is especially true for black shoes!
If you’ve watched the Olympics, you’ve probably seen gymnasts chalking their hands or feet before they begin their routines. Chalk is an excellent remedy for increasing grip, which is why it’s used in gymnastics and other grip-related sports. However, didn’t we just talk about how powder in your shoes can make things slippery?
It’s true: we don’t recommend using powdered chalk inside your shoes, especially in excess. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to use it on your hands to improve your hand-grips as you climb. However, you might not be aware that athletic chalk actually comes in several varieties, including:
- Chalk blocks
- Chalk-filled fabric pouches
- Powdered chalk
- Liquid chalk
Liquid chalk is the key here. Liquid chalk is the same stuff as the others, but it’s mixed with alcohol that evaporates on contact with air. The chalk is in a liquid form while in the bottle, but after it’s squirted onto a climber’s hands or feet, the liquid evaporates, leaving a durable layer of chalk behind. This chalk layer is excellent for shoes, as it’ll leave much less loose chalk residue than powdered or block chalk would.
Give It a Break
You might not think to remove your shoes between trips up the climbing wall, but this is a crucial way to keep your climbing shoes fresh and clean. The longer you wear your climbers, the dirtier and sweatier they’ll get, so if you remember to take them off between sets, they’ll get a small chance to breathe, too.
Keep a Spare
Keeping a spare pair of climbing shoes is another underappreciated method of keeping your climbing shoes clean. If you keep two pairs of climbing shoes, not only will you give each pair a chance to breathe and lose some sweat before their next use, but you’ll halve the wear put on each pair of shoes, too. Because of this, each shoe will last multiple times longer than wearing just one pair of climbers all the time would.
Read Also: How to Clean Baskeball Shoes
Things to Avoid when Cleaning Climbing Shoes
We’ve already covered the things you should do to keep your shoes clean, fresh, and supple. However, it’s just as important to know what to avoid when taking care of your shoes! In the following sections, we’ll go over the most important pitfalls to watch out for when taking care of your favorite climbing shoes.
We’ve mentioned that you should avoid drying your shoes with heat before in this article, but your avoidance of hot elements should extend a bit further than that, if possible. Try your best to avoid exposing your shoes to any heat, if you can. As we mentioned, heat can damage the glue in your shoes, and depending on what your footwear is made of; it can also melt certain materials (like rubber) and warp others.
Of course, avoiding heat while drying is part of this, but you should avoid them while washing and using your shoes, too. Of course, if you’re climbing a rock face in the desert, there’s not much you can do about the heat, but you should avoid hot water in your washing machine or while hand-washing your shoes.
Rock climbing shoes are made of unique, delicate materials, and these materials can be especially sensitive to powerful and abrasive cleaners. Always be extra careful to make sure your shoe can handle a particular cleanser before trying it on your shoe.
If you have to, try spot cleaning an inconspicuous area on your shoe before cleaning the whole thing, or even better, test the cleaner on a similar scrap of the material before putting it to work on your shoes.
Real leather isn’t a usual addition to our shoes and clothes nowadays, as synthetic fabrics have begun to prevail in most places. However, if you do have leather pieces in your shoes, do note that they will require slightly specialized care. Here you can read how to remove stains from leather shoes.
For one, leather is more sensitive to temperature extremes than other fabrics, especially when it’s wet. Exposing leather to cold temperatures when it’s wet can lead to the leather cracking, and presenting it to heat can cause it to warp or distort its shape. Leather is also more sensitive to regular upkeep, as it needs to be conditioned regularly to stay supple and durable.
All in all, cleaning your climbing shoes isn’t all that different from cleaning any ordinary footwear. It’s the prevention that makes all the difference for climbing shoes. As long as you follow the tips and tricks mentioned in this guide, you’ll notice a measurable difference in the cleanliness (and the stink factor) of your favorite climbing shoes right away.