If you spend enough time outdoors, at some point, you’ll need to clean your hiking boots.
While your boots are, indeed, designed to be covered in mud and dirt, over time, all of that muck can actually start to destroy them. If your boots get too dirty, even the best-made model will eventually need to be replaced because the fabric will start to disintegrate.
However, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about the best way to clean your boots. Although some people think a simple rinse off with cold water is enough to do the trick, it’s important to realize that hiking boots are an investment that need to be taken care of if you want them to last.
So, to get you started off on the right foot, we’ll walk you through the basics of cleaning your hiking boots, and give you a step-by-step guide to getting your boots back in tip-top shape.
Table of Contents
Why You Need To Clean Your Hiking Boots
Hiking boots are made to get dirty, right? So why would you possibly need to spend your valuable time cleaning them?
Well, it turns out that while, yes, hiking boots are designed to get dirty, if they’re left dirty for too long, all of that dirt and grime can actually take a toll on the shoes, and cause them to wear out prematurely.
How, you might ask? Basically dirt destroys your hiking boots in three ways:
Way #1. The dirt and sand that gets caked onto your boot sticks on, and starts grinding away at your boot’s upper fabric.
When these particles get embedded into the fabric on your boots, they actually dig deeper and deeper into the material with every step you take, causing them to disintegrate faster than they normally would if they were clean.
Way #2. When leather is covered in mud, the mud sucks away almost all of the moisture from the leather as it dries.
This might not seem like a big deal, but, over time, your boots’ leather will become less flexible and pliable, which will eventually cause it to crack prematurely and wear out faster than it should.
Since leather boots can be quite expensive, you certainly don’t want to have to buy a new pair very frequently, so keeping your boots clean is of the utmost importance.
Way #3. When dirt and grime get lodged in the lugs of your boots’ soles, it speeds up the wear and tear process on the rubber.
All of this friction will wear away at the rubber on the soles of your boots, so you’ll either need to get them re-soled or buy a new pair when your toe starts sticking out of the front of your shoe.
The Two Ways of Cleaning Your Boots
At this point, you should understand why you need to clean your hiking boots, so now we can start to talk about how to clean your boots.
Basically, there are two parts to boot care: regular boot cleaning and deep cleaning.
Regular boot cleaning is what you should do after you get home from a hike or from a long day outside. This is the sort of regular maintenance you can do for your boots to help ensure that they’ll stay happy and healthy for the duration of their usable lifetime.
A deep clean, however, is what we should all do once in a while to help our boots stay at peak performance for years. This is a more thorough, in-depth process that you can do every few months (if you’re a frequent hiker) or whenever your boots are particularly dirty.
The deep clean will take up to a half an hour of your time, while a regular clean should only take a few minutes.
Method #1: Regular Post-Hike Cleaning
The following guidelines for a regular post-hike cleaning of your boots should be followed every time you get back from spending a lot of time outside.
This method is designed to be a sort of regular maintenance for your boots to keep them in good condition throughout the span of their useable lifetime. Here’s what you need to do:
Step 1. Remove the insoles
All shoes come with some sort of insole, and hiking boots are no exception. While some insoles provide stability and support for your foot, others are just flimsy pieces of foam that sit under your foot.
It’s important to remove the insoles in your boots at the end of each hiking day. When your boots get wet, either through sweat or water the insoles basically tap a nice layer of moisture inside your boot, which is pretty much as disgusting as it sounds.
When you keep the insoles in your shoes all the time, you basically create the perfect dark and damp conditions for mold and mildew to grow inside your hiking boots.
So, to stop this from happening, take your insoles out of your boots at the end of each hiking day, even if you’re backpacking to let them and your boots dry. This is especially important if you have expensive orthotics that can get destroyed by all that mildew.
Step 2. Rinse with cold water
Whether or not your boots are caked with mud or are just a little dirty, go ahead and give them a quick rinse off with water:
This will help remove any larger pieces of dirt that are stuck either on the uppers or on the soles.
Step 3. Quick scrub
Once you’ve rinsed your boots off with cold water, it’s time to give them a quick scrub. It’s best to use an old vegetable brush, or an old toothbrush to get this done:
Tough, durable bristles are a must with any brush you use because you’ll really need to dig in to get some of the dirt off of your boots.
Since this is just a regular maintenance clean of your boots and not a deep clean, this process shouldn’t take too long. Just focus on getting the dirt out of the lugs on the soles, and getting the obvious dirt off of the top of your boots.
Step 4. Freshwater rinse
After you’ve given your boots a quick scrub, it’s time to rinse them off again. A dash of freshwater from your hose or sink should be enough to wash away any of the dirt that you’ve scrubbed up.
Step 5. Dry
The final step in a regular maintenance wash of your hiking boots is to leave them out to dry. It’s incredibly important that your boots dry out completely, or you might risk mold and mildew growth, which is sure to ruin them quickly.
So, leave them in a dry location with plenty of ventilation to make sure they dry out completely. Setting up a fan near the boots is also a good way to expedite the drying process.
To dry your boots, you can leave them out in the sun for a few hours, or use a purpose-built boot dryer if you need to use your shoes the next day.
However, leaving your boots by a fire is NOT recommended as the soles of many shoes are attached using hot glue (a.k.a hot melt adhesive). This means that if you leave them near a fire, they can start to delaminate and the soles may fall off.
If you do have to leave your boots near a fire to dry them out (perhaps you’re in a damp cabin), keep them at least 5-10 feet away from the actual source of the heat.
You can also try packing old newspapers into the boots to remove the moisture. Replace the newspaper whenever it is soaked until the inside of your boots are dry.
Method #2: Deep Cleaning
If you have particularly dirty boots or you just think it’s time to give your boots a bit of love and care, a deep clean is a solid option.
When deep cleaning your boots, you want to be sure that you’re removing as much dirt and grime as you possibly can to help extend the lifespan of your shoes.
Thus, this process usually takes about 30 minutes to complete because being thorough is key. Here’s what you do:
Step 1. Remove the insoles and laces
As we’ve mentioned, removing the insoles is important if you want to prevent your boots from growing mold and mildew. However, when you do a deep clean, you also want to be sure to remove the laces from your shoes.
Doing so will allow you to do a deeper clean of the boots’ eyelets (the holes that laces go through) and the laces themselves. Plus, it’s easier to clean the tongues of your boots if you remove the laces, so it’s a win-win all around.
Step 2. First rinse
Once you’ve prepped your boots for cleaning, it’s time to give them their first rinse. Depending on how muddy they are, you may want to do this outside with a hose, instead of clogging up your drain with mud and debris.
The goal here is to soften any caked-on mud, and remove larger chunks of dirt before you head back inside to get those boots squeaky-clean.
Step 3. Scrub
Now it’s time to get to work. At this stage, you’re going to want to get that old vegetable brush or old toothbrush back out and scrub away. However, unlike during the routine clean, in a deep clean, we really want to be sure that we’re getting every single bit of dirt off of our boots.
Pay particular attention to the lugs of your boots, as well as any mesh areas on the boots, especially around the tongue.
Mesh tends to trap in little bits of dirt that quickly wear away at the fabric. You’ll also want to be sure that you remove dirt from the crease between the midsoles and uppers of your boots as this area tends to trap dirt, too.
This is also a good time to give your insoles and shoelaces a little scrub to ensure that they’re clean, too. There’s no point in putting dirty insoles or sticking muddy laces back into your shoes.
Also, be sure to check the inside of your boots to see if they could do with a quick scrub. Often, mud and dirt finds its way into our boots so you might want to clean that out, too.
Step 4. Clean with footwear cleaner
If you have it, now’s the time to clean your boots with a dedicated footwear cleaner that’s made specifically for the fabric on your boots. This footwear cleaner from Nikwax is a time-tested favorite.
It’s important that you don’t use regular soap or detergent as a substitute here because they can contain additives and chemicals that can damage leather or certain fabrics.
To clean your boots you’ll make a solution of water and the footwear cleaner, and scrub with a brush to make sure your boots are nice and clean. If a footwear cleaner isn’t available, you can simply skip to the next step.
Should you have mold or mildew in your boots, you can also try cleaning them with a mixture of 80% water and 20% vinegar.
Step 5. Rinse again
For this final rinse, you’ll want to focus on cleaning off any left-over dirt, as well as ensuring that the footwear cleaner and vinegar you may have used are fully removed from the surface of your boots.
Leaving these substances on your boots can cause them to deteriorate the fabric over time.
Step 6. Apply waterproofing
If it’s been a while since you’ve applied any waterproofing product to your hiking boots, this stage in the deep cleaning process is the perfect time to re-waterproof your boots.
You’ll want to do this right after the final rinse. Your boots need to be wet before you apply any waterproofing.
Before you waterproof your boots, you’ll need to find the appropriate products to do it with. We recommend the following for different fabric types:
To apply the waterproofing, simply follow the directions on the container. Generally, these waterproofing products are “brush-on,” so it’s a pretty simple process. Just ensure that you’re using the appropriate product for the specific fabric type of your boots.
Step 7. Dry your boots
In this final step, it’s time to dry your boots. At this point, your boots should be sparkly clean and re-waterproofed, so you’ll just want to set them aside to dry.
As we’ve mentioned, you don’t want to place your boots near a heat source, unless it’s a purpose-built boot dryer.
However, placing your boots in a dry, low-humidity area with a fan can help expedite the drying process. Be sure you dry the insoles and shoelaces separately, too.
Once your boots are dry, you can put them back on, head out into the great outdoors, and get them muddy once again! Woohoo!
Can You Put Hiking Boots In The Washing Machine?
If all of this cleaning sounds like a lot of work to you, you might be wondering if there’s a simpler way to get your boots nice and clean.
Since most of us rarely, if ever, hand-wash our clothing, many people wonder if they can simply place their hiking boots in the washing machine, instead.
The fact of the matter is, no manufacturer would ever recommend that you put your boots in the washing machine, especially if they’re expensive full-leather boots.
Washing machines are actually quite rough when it comes to “delicate” items and they can easily damage your boots or destroy the leather.
That being said, you’ll certainly find people who have had good success washing their boots in a washing machine.
Since there’s so much risk involved, we really can’t recommend that you try it out, unless you have an old pair of boots and want to do a little experimenting in your free time.
How to Remove Odor From Hiking Boots
Besides removing dirt and grime from the outside of your boots, one of the main reasons people want to clean their hiking boots is to remove that wonderful scent that seems to accompany every piece of outdoor gear in the world.
While standard washing procedures will certainly help, giving your boots a deep clean might not be enough to rid your boots of their overwhelming stench.
If you have particularly troublesome boots, you can try the following to get rid of that smell:
Step 1. Check for mold.
It’s possible that a lot of the smell in your boots is from mold or mildew.
Check under the insoles and in the small cracks of the boots for any evidence of mold. If you find some, or have any doubt, try scrubbing the inside out with a solution of 80% water and 20% vinegar.
Step 2. Dry your boots out completely.
After you give your boots a wash with vinegar and water, let them dry out completely. Perhaps let them sit in a shaded spot outside for a few hours to air them out a bit. Then, reinspect them to see if the smell is still there.
Step 3. Try different deodorizers.
One of our favorite, cheap ways to get the stink out of shoes is to stick a pair of dryer sheets inside. You might already have these at home, so this method doesn’t really cost you anything. More often than not, after a few days, the dryer sheets will make your boots smell nice and fresh.
If the dryer sheet method doesn’t work, it’s time to call in the heavy artillery. You can buy a whole slew of different shoe deodorizers online that all do help eliminate odor from your boots.
However, we’d recommend using purifying bags instead of disinfectant sprays as the chemicals in different sprays can destroy your boots.
Clean Your Boots Regularly
At the end of the day, cleaning your hiking boots is an important part of maintaining your gear. Although it might seem like a drag, cleaning your boots regularly can help extend the life of your gear, saving you money and frustration in the long run.
Gabrielle is a professional outdoor educator, mountain guide, and survival expert with a passion for helping others be prepared for whatever might come their way. She is a polar guide in the Arctic region and is an experienced wilderness medicine instructor/EMT.