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How to Clean Hiking Boots: A Step-by-Step Guide

Last Updated: November 4, 2022
Close-up on intermediate climber tying her shoelace

A good pair of hiking boots can go through a lot in a single day. They’re constantly being trampled through muddy trails, all so you can get to your final destination. Not only do they take great care of your feet, they never even complain about how much they smell. Mud dries on and you need more than another puddle full of warm water to get them clean.

Cleaning your hiking boots is one way to show your boots some love. It’s a simple maintenance task that a lot of experienced hikers tend to forget about after they leave the trail. 

Hiking shoes and boots work hard and need a washdown just as much as we do at the end of a long day.

Key Takeaways
  • Cleaning hiking boots is an important part of taking care of them and extending their lifespan.
  • Boot cleaning can be done with warm soap and water, a stiff brush, and leather conditioner.
  • Hiking boots should be cleaned regularly, depending on how often they are used.
  • If you're using your boots heavily, you should condition them more often than if they just sit in the closet.
  • It is important to store hiking boots in a cool, dry place that gets air circulation.

Why wash your hiking shoes?

It’s clear how hard you can work to get to the end of a long hike or summit a mountain. On a rainy and muddy day, it’s obvious how much more of a toll the hike can take on your body. What we can easily forget is, each step we take will add to the accumulated stress and use that our hiking boots take on. Washing your hiking shoes is one of the best ways to ensure the best possible performance for the longest time

Have you ever hiked a muddy and wet trail in tennis shoes? If you haven’t I don’t suggest trying it. A pair of tennis shoes will only soak up more and more water until your feet are swimming in their own personalized foot swamps. An unloved pair of hiking boots that were once waterproof and durable can quickly become an old soggy sneaker.

Washing your hiking shoes allows for the different properties of the boots to stay alive and rejuvenated. Certain materials, like Gore-Tex, function best when completely clean. Other materials will slowly start to decay when wet and muddy. Cleaning your boots will easily increase their lifespan and performance.

How often do your hiking boots need a good wash?

Fortunately, we’re not hiking on muddy and wet trails every single time we go out. There are days that the hiking boots travel through a beautiful, dry, desert landscape and come home almost as clean as they left. 

It’s not necessary to wash your boots every time you head out on the trail. Actually, this could end up deteriorating your boots a little faster as you are putting them through more use just by washing them. 

After every hike you do, it’s good practice to simply pull the insole out and let the boot air out. A lot of bad smells come from hiking boots not getting enough air at the end of the day. Do you know that friend that has to leave their shoes outside at everyone’s house? Chances are, their boots are going straight into an enclosed shoebox or closet when they get home. 

A thorough cleaning is necessary when you’ve been on a muddy trail or your boots start to look dirty. In that case, go through the whole process and make sure that your boots are still given the time to air out and breathe. This doesn’t need to happen every time, but it’s good practice to do it often.

What kind of things do you need?

Learning how to clean hiking boots? Well, luckily, it's a task that requires little to get started. Washing hiking boots isn’t a complicated chore that requires a full toolbox of specialized tools. You can wash your boots well with soapy water and an old rag. There are, however, a few things that help the process along. 

Synthetic boots and other hiking boots with a Gore-Tex membrane are more complicated than walking shoes or running shoes. They need to be treated differently.

An old soft brush (even an old toothbrush, or one of those friends who’s been really mean lately) is incredibly helpful to get in every small crack and crevice. 

The treads of your boots can easily trap mud and dirt, making them nearly impossible to clean. A small brush or hose with some serious water pressure will be incredibly helpful to loosen this dirt up. 

How cleaning hiking boots works, step by step

This guide is a general how-to for cleaning hiking boots. It’s important to remember that each pair of hiking boots is different and may require specialized cleaning due to different materials. Check the manufacturer’s instructions before really diving in. Follow the washing instructions, adding waterproofing spray or waterproofing treatment as needed, to best clean your hiking boots.

Scrub off the dirt

Step one in the entire process is to get rid of the excess dirt before getting your boots wet. This way, you don’t end up with a big bath of muddy warm water. Well, you get slightly less mud at least. 

Work with a brush or just your hands to remove the bigger clots of dirt. The more you can get off in this step, the better. I like to use a toothbrush and sometimes a toothpick for the loose dirt and caked-on mud in deeper treads on more aggressive hiking boots. 

If you can, try to complete this step as soon as you get home from the hike. The more time the mud has to dry, the more difficult it will be to remove. Get as much off as quickly as possible to make your life just a bit easier. 

Remove laces

Pull the shoelaces out of your boots and set them aside. I like to let the laces soak in warm and soapy water to give them a quick and easy wash. They don’t tend to trap much dirt, but dirty laces eventually lead to a crusty shoelace that will snap when you try to tie your shoes. 

Pull out the insoles

The space between your insoles and the bottom of the boot is where all of the nasty food odors tend to get trapped. It’s here that the tiny little smells go to grow and eventually cause you to lose friends due to the smell of your hiking boots at the end of a long day. 

Take the insoles out of your boots and rinse them down, or preferably scrub them with soapy water. After you’ve soaped and rinsed the insoles, leave them in a spot that gets plenty of ventilation for them to dry fully. 

Wash the boots

Here’s the real meat of the washing sandwich, the actual washing of the boots. There are plenty of different options when you head towards this step, and it comes down to the opinion and style of boot that you have. Like we mentioned, check with what the manufacturer recommends to get the best idea of what you should use. 

There are different boot cleaners on the market and you can pick those up at any local outdoor store. Picking the right boot cleaner will be up to you. Saddle soap is a popular choice for hikers that have leather boots and still want to give them a good scrub down. If you aren’t into buying extra products, you can simply use a mild solution of dishwashing soap and water

Some people will throw their boots straight into their washing machine. Just don’t do it. It can be incredibly brutal on the boots and actually end up reducing their lifespan, rather than increasing it. If you hate your boots, go ahead and toss them into the washing machine. Leather boots and suede boots especially should never go into the washing machine. This can quickly lead to buying a new pair altogether. 

If you’re doing this by hand, a soft-bristled brush will be the perfect fit. If you have an old vegetable brush laying around, it will do the trick. If you really want to get the boots clean, you need to scrub. A hiking boot has plenty of spaces that will store dirt, and you need to get everywhere to get rid of it all. 

Rinse the boots

The final step of the washing process is to thoroughly rinse the boots. This step is incredibly important because soap that doesn’t get rinsed out can become hard and crunchy, making your boots uncomfortable. Not only that, but old soap can lead to an itchy foot, which makes hiking a terrible activity. 

How do you dry the boots properly?

Too much moisture can lead to mold, which leads to a terrible stink and a need to buy new boots. That's only one reason to get your boots dry.

One trick of the trade is to stuff your boots full of newspaper to absorb moisture. 

While this will help for damp boots, you may need to amp up your game after having just washed them in a full immersion scenario. There are great boot dryers on the market that slowly feed warm air into the boots while upside down, but aren’t necessary. 

If you’re looking for a quick dry, grab the hairdryer and start warming the boots with circulating air. Be careful though because leather or waterproof membranes, or even just the glue, can melt and make your shoe become more of a sandal and less of a pair of waterproof hiking boots.

Drying boots is a slow process. You want to air dry them in a place that they can drain, which means upside down and the toe in the sky. You also need good air circulation. Mold loves damp dark corners that never see the light of day. Utilize the outdoors and the sunshine to get a crisp and dry boot, just keep away from the hot sun as direct sunlight gives a lot of UV that weakens the synthetic materials and the full-grain leather of the shoes' surfaces.

A good fan aimed at your boots will ensure that they dry out efficiently. The air carries the moisture away, leaving the space for more moisture to wick out of the hiking boot. 

Where you store boots will greatly affect the moisture content. Store your boots in a cool, dry place that gets air circulation. That way, you don't need to clean your hiking boots as often to get rid of the smell.

Conditioning leather hiking boots

Conditioner is one aspect that sets leather boots away from other clean boots. The right amount of conditioner will reduce excess wear. Too much conditioner will oversoften the boots and make them more delicate than they are meant to be.

Condition your boots regularly to see the longest lifespan out of them. If you’re using them heavily, this should be even more often than if they sit around in the closet waiting to be used. This is also a huge pro of Gore-Tex boots. You never need to condition them.

It’s the easiest thing to do to extend your boots life

We depend on our feet when we’re out on the hiking trail. Without them, we’d go nowhere. Without our boots, we’d move everyone at a snail’s pace and never see a beautiful mountain vista from the summit. It’s our hiking boots that take the biggest beating, so we should be treating them with love and respect. Wash your boots regularly. Give them some love and end up keeping them forever.

How To Clean Hiking Boots FAQs

Here are our answers to your most commonly asked questions about cleaning hiking boots:

What Is the Best Way to Clean Hiking Boots?

The best way to clean hiking boots is with meticulous attention to detail, warm soap and water, and a stiff brush. If you have leather hiking boots, it’s also important to have the proper finish to polish the boots once they are clean. In general, most boots just need a scrub down and could also benefit from a deep wash to help get the stink out. This will be a more involved process but is simple.

Can Walking Shoes Be Washed in the Washing Machine?

Walking shoes can be washed in the washing machine, but you need to take extra measures to make sure they are taken care of. Take the shoelaces out first, and use a front-loading, delicate washer to wash your walking shoes. This process shouldn’t be your go-to for cleaning shoes as it puts a lot of wear and tear onto the shoes.

How Often Should You Clean Hiking Boots?

Any time your boots start to show a buildup of mud and crusty dirt is a good time to give them a quick clean. You can clean them quickly after every time you get them dirty, but they only need a deep wash every so often. This completely depends on how often you use the boots. If you hike once a month, you may wash your shoes once or twice a year. For those who go out hiking every day, this could be a monthly deep clean, or even more regularly.

Ian Standard is an outdoor educator and wilderness guide based in Anchorage, Alaska. Most recently, he worked part-time at Alaska Crossings, a wilderness program for at-risk youth, and is currently studying for a Master of Science in Outdoor & Environmental Education at Alaska Pacific University.
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