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How to Clean Hiking Boots

Wait. Hiking boots are supposed to get dirty aren’t they?

So why are we trying to clean them?

First, why you’ll be happy you cleaned your boots and then how to actually clean them.

Why clean hiking boots?

Boots last longer when you clean them

They might not look dirty from the outside but all that dirt, grit and sand from the trail gets into the creases. Every step you take forces it deeper, grinding like sandpaper on the leather, fabric and waterproof membrane in the boot.

Rub sandpaper on anything long enough and it’ll stop working. The leather breaks down, the fabric will start to fray and holes appear in the waterproof membrane.

On top of that, mud sucks moisture from leather as it dries. That leaves your leather boots less pliable with weaker creases.

Hiking boots can be expensive. The longer we can keep them in good working order the more money in your pocket to spend on other hiking gear. And keep those boots out of the landfill.

Ideally, boots are cleaned every hike but that doesn’t mean a long involved process. Just banging your boots together outside or quickly brushing off the dirt before putting them away is often enough.

A quick pass through some wet grass or puddles at the end of a hike might be enough to get them all clean.

If those boots are proper dirty though, they’ll need a good clean. Here’s how.

What do you need to clean boots?

You don’t need much to clean a pair of boots:

  • boot brush, old vegetable brush or old toothbrush
  • boot cleaner, saddle soap, or very mild solution of dishwashing soap and water
  • A sink or tub of warm water

Make sure that the boot cleaner is ok for your boots. Some are meant for leather (smooth feel to it), suede or nubuck (leather with a fuzzy feel), or fabric/synthetic (not either kind of leather).

If you are using soap, don’t use bar soap or detergents. It can be harmful to the leather and waterproof membranes.

How to clean the uppers

The outside of hiking boots is mostly just the soles (rubber part on the bottom) and the uppers (rest of the boot on the top around the laces).

There’s also the laces, inside of the boot and insoles, but we’ll get to those below.

First pass:

  1. bang the boots together, knocking off the big chunks.
  2. Tip upside down and shake out any crud inside
  3. Brush off all the dust and dirt

You might be done at this point. The boots might not be very dirty. Skip ahead to storing your boots.

If they still look like you just walked off a trail that got 50mm of rain:

  1. Remove laces and insoles
  2. Put a hand towel or paper towel inside to keep it dry
  3. Rinse off with warm water in the tub or sink. Try to keep big chunks or rocks out of the drain.
  4. Wash with boot cleaner like Nikwax Footwear Cleaning Gel if they’re still dirty or stained.
  5. Rinse with clean water

When washing, make sure to get into the cracks and folds, especially around where the laces were.

If there’s any mold on your boots, try a washing with a rinse of 20% vinegar and 80%.

Lastly, give the laces a wash if they’re muddy.

And never put boots through the washing machine. That’ll likely wreck your boots (and possibly the washing machine too).

Cleaning outsoles

Since the outsoles are usually very durable rubber, it doesn’t do any damage to leave them muddy but you won’t get as much traction if they’re packed full of stuff from the trail. And chances are if the outsoles are dirty the uppers are too.

If you like to hike in many different areas, there’s a chance you can bring an invasive plant species from one area to another.

Cleaning the outsoles is easy, just brush off all the dirt. Clean out the rocks if there are any stuck. Hose off what’s left. If there is any stubborn mud left a sock in a tub should loosen it up.

Cleaning inside

The insides of hiking boots don’t get as dirty as the outsides but they still need a wipe now and then. If they did get a full mud bath you might need to fill with water, soak and wipe out.

For the most part, you can use a sponge or a damp clothe and wipe out the insides. Salty sweat deposits can build up over time and work their way into the waterproof membrane.

If they still smell a bit, some shoe odour spray can help. Take the insoles out and wipe them down too. A bit of baking soda can help with smell on the insoles.

Waterproofing

All hiking boots will have a DWR or Durable Water Repellency coating on them from the factory. This coating helps water bead off your boots, keeping them cleaner and preventing water from soaking into the outer laters. When water soaks into the outer layers moisture can’t escape from the inside.

Technically, the DWR coating isn’t the ‘waterproof’ layer, the leather or the waterproof membrane is that, but the coating helps keep things working properly.

So when your boots stop beading water off, it’s time to re-waterproof or apply more of the DWR coating. Products like Nikwax Fabric and Leather Proof spray onto the boots when they’re wet from cleaning and restore the beading coating.

For more instructions see our guide on how to re-waterproof boots.

Drying boots

Once you’ve cleaned and waterproofed your boots again, it’s time to let them dry.

Keep the insoles and laces separate and make sure they’re dry before putting back in. Open up the tongues so you’re not trapping anything inside.

Set your boots in a well-ventilated area with a stable temperature about room temperature. Make sure they are not put beside a hot heat source like the sun, a heater, fire or stove. This can damage the leather, waterproof membrane and shape of the soles.

To dry a bit faster, point a regular fan at them or put them on a boot dryer. Having dry paper towel or hand towels stuffed inside can help. Make sure to rotate out with dry ones. These are really the only ways to speed up drying safely. It can take a couple days.

Storing boots

Try and store your boots in a room-temperature, well ventilated area. Keep them out of airtight containers.

Big temperature swings or a lot of moisture can damage the adhesives or the fabrics. Attics or car trunks that will get extremely hot or cold aren’t the best places for boots.

Conditioning boots

Once your boots are all clean, you might want to condition the leather. For fabric boots, this step doesn’t apply.

Leather can dry and crack over time and just like our skin, needs to be moisturized.

Nikwax Conditioner for Leather works well. A small amount is enough to moisturize the boots but not make them too soft and supple. We still need that structure to keep us upright hiking!

Comments

What are your best tips for cleaning and keep your boots and good working order? Do you have any boots that have lasted a long time? How do you take care of them? Share your best tips in the comments below.

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