Now that you’ve taken your boots across some prairies, pastures, streams, and steep ravines, it’s time to give them a wash. All that grime, dirt and dust from the trails and backroads slowly starts to accumulate and can negatively impact your performance, hindering your destination arrival in an efficient manner. It’s always best to maintain the proper form of your footwear and for that, we recommend reading through this guide so you’re best prepared on how to clean and respect your hiking boots.
Why clean your boots?
You may be thinking that because your hiking boots are known for their rugged exterior and ability to handle tough climbs and challenging terrain that they don’t need to be washed or consistently maintained. Well to believe that would be obtuse my friend.
And we would hate to accuse anyone of that. Of course, your hiking footwear was an expensive investment that you hope to continue to use for years to come. The best and easiest way to continue riding that expectation of consistent comfort and reliability is to keep up with a system of washing and cleaning your attire.
But beyond simply stating that washing your shoes is a good idea, let’s take some time to highlight the specific reasons why it’s a recommended route.
Cleaning your shoes frequently helps to do four things:
One, it will prevent the leather from cracking. Leather needs to be well-moisturized to keep its strong hold and shine. If wet mud is allowed to accrue and accumulate across the tongue, top and toe base of a boot, the drying process can suck the moisture out of the leather pores and crack the material. It’s a slow process that requires constant attention to detail, and if not your boots will sink into that slow drop towards obsoleteness. And you don’t want to have to run out and buy a new pair of expensive boots just a few short years after investing in the last pair. Not to mention the time-consuming break-in period of a hiking boot, and it’s best to prevent the leather from cracking as effectively as possible.
Cleaning your boots often helps maintain traction. Once you’re moving through muddy areas, dirt and gunk collect inside the rivets and lugs beneath your boot. Initially, you may not notice as you’re more keen to look forward at the infinite steps it feels like it requires to reach the summit of the day’s mountainous hike, but the slow accumulation of these materials will start to show before you can say, “trail mix break.”
It’s important to keep up with this potential hazard because otherwise, your limited grip could lead to injury or worse. To slip on a slick rock would be painful and embarrassing. Amplified by the weight of a heavy backpack and the fatigue of a multi-day trek and the results could leave you off the path for a few days mulling over an injury and a throbbing pain. So be smart and take the considerations seriously.
Also by maintaining proper footwear standards, you will protect the waterproofing capabilities of your shoes. Each time you step, bound and budge your feet a little further along, the materials are pressed upon, allowing dirt and outdoor materials to slowly, slightly, work their way in. Eventually, the waterproof membranes on which the exterior of the boot is protected will succumb to all these unwanted additives and water can find its way into the grains and grips of the shoe.
So to keep your shoes waterproofed and your feet dry and fresh, and please, maintain proper boot hygiene. Nothing worse than being sidelined with a nasty smelling foot emitting an odious door that could’ve been prevented if you were just a bit more careful.
Speaking of carefulness, regular protection of your boot is a great way to keep morale and ego alive on the dreary trails. Take confidence in the appearance and maintenance of your boots as you step the wide swaths of distances you’ve managed to cover by foot. Of course, you’ll be proud of your accomplishments out in the terrain, and let your boots share some of that success as well.
Aesthetic needs often bleed into functional and practical purposes as well, and with proper boot maintenance, you’ll keep your mind and body energetic and eager to continue climbing the mountains ahead.
When to wash?
Now that we’ve highlighted all the important reasons to feet your footwear pristine, clean and polished, let’s start to talk about when washing footwear is appropriate. Of course, you wouldn’t want to stop in the middle of an afternoon (unless of course, you’ve stepped in something you’d prefer you hadn’t) and there is the problem of cleaning your shoes too often as well.
If you’re cleaning your shoes too often, like after every stroll in the park or jaunt with the dog, your overexposure could damage the very same hides you’re hoping to protect. The brush and abrasive cleaning solutions used to maintain proper hygiene on our feet can cause leather or it’s hybrid cousin materials to break down early and eventually, crack and split. That being said, we recommend washing your boots every third or fourth time you give them a go for regular upkeep.
Naturally, if you’re operating in extreme terrain that either muck your boots in mud or stains them with sea salt, of course, wash them more often. We trust your judgment, and we recommend sticking to the golden rule: everything in moderation.
Speaking of leather and its various hybrids and offshoots, let’s spend some time outlining the various materials you’ll come across on a pair of hiking boots.
Hiking boots and their different materials
It’s just about impossible to buy a pair of hiking boots in this era made entirely out of a single material. Different parts of the shoe have different designs, expectations and requirements and the carefully modded and designed boot should follow suit to those expectations. However, there are a standard formal most boot designs stick to, which we will highlight below.
First of all, most hiking boots are made with some sort of leather material. Be it full-grain, suede, nubuck leather or split-grain, there are a few offshoots that all surmise the same thing: an animal hide with some similar properties. Leather is usually the main part of the shoe and is a popular material because of its durability and reliability, as well as its naturally waterproof tendencies.
While leather is expensive, it’s certainly a worthwhile payoff regarding longevity and comfort. Though that doesn’t mean it’s a cinch to clean, and we’ll further elaborate on that point later on. For now, let’s move onto the assisting waterproof membranes that encapsulate the leather and help keep water out.
Waterproof membranes are the synthetic materials used to reinforce your boots’ waterproof capabilities. Normally this is with something called Gore-Tex, an extremely durable and reliable material that keeps your feet cool and dry. Because of its modern development, it doesn’t require continued conditioning like a leather exterior. Woohoo!
But while leather exteriors require some conditioning, let’s move to the interior of a shoe and the synthetic cushioning which keep you upright and spry in your steps. Both to provide insulation and comfort, this cushioning also keeps your feet warm when the winter months drop the sun’s arc low. Cleaning this material is something of a challenge, but because it’s not outward-facing and being constantly embattled by the elements, it’s less of a priority to consistently maintain.
As you’re normally wearing hiking socks when moving around in your boots, they act as a woolen lubricant that keeps your toes dry and these synthetic materials stench free. If you do need to clean these areas, know that they are difficult to dry as airflow can be a bit of a problem, so do your best to clean with as little water use as necessary. Once cleaned, stuff some old newspapers or rags to help soak up the water, and loosen the laces and open up the boot’s tongue. This will all hasten the interior’s drying process.
The rubber exterior is the most important to keep clean of mud or other debris because their traction keeps you upright and moving ahead on the trails. Far away from a suburban backyard, no one wants to feel like they’re moving across a Slip N Slide while stepping over smooth stones at a river pass. Because a boot’s bottom is almost always made from rubber, you have no worries regarding over cleaning or damaging. Any standard cleaner you use will be safe and appropriate to maintain this stretch of the boot. As long as you avoid something sharp that could scrap away the rubber, you’ll be fine. And finally, onto the nitty-gritty specifics of cleaning a pair of hiking boots.
How to clean a pair of hiking boots
Know that these rules and guidelines are all predominantly geared towards the leather boots-wearing audience. That being said the same steps can be followed by any style of boot material. First, we should gather all the necessary materials, which are listed below as the following:
- A bucket or barrel that can hold your boot
- Water for said bucket
- A few rags to dry and rub the grime off
- Something decently sharp to dig out dirt but that won’t damage the rubber (stick, screwdriver, etc)
- A soft brush, either toothbrush or gentle dish brush. Make sure it’s nothing too abrasive like a ball of steel wool or strong sponge which would scratch the leather
The first step once we’ve collected the items in question is to remove any excess dirt from the boots. To minimize abrasions and boot damage, start first by something simple like knocking the boots together or against a hard surface to knock back all the loose dirt and grime. As long as the rubber soles are the point of contact, this is a stress-free step of dirt removal. After about 15-25 seconds of a solid shakeup, go ahead and brush off any remaining freeloaders with a rag to get the boot as clean as possible.
Next, you want to remove the mud and dirt from the underside of the soles. After kicking off the first layer of debris, it’s important to go back over and remove anything else that still can cling to the rubber. Using something like an old toothbrush, you can tack off all the dirt and come away with a cleaner shoe. Once this step is done, you’re ready to get some soap and water and really clean the boot.
First of all, when discussing boot cleaners it’s really important that you don’t use dish soap or anything more intense like dish detergent that directly comes into contact with the leather. Some mild dish soap will do the job; just use a couple drops mixed well with some warm running water and start scrubbing along the tops and sides of your hiking shoes. Warm water works a bit better at opening up the pores of your now wet boots to get them as clean as possible. But anything stronger could be deeply damaging, something we’ll cover later on.
Once you’ve slowly gone around the top and sides of one boot, put it down and repeat for the second. It’s easier if you wear the boot on your hand like a glove, your palm pressing on the insoles within. This gives you a better ability to maneuver around the contorts of the boot as you do your scrubbing and cleaning.
And now that both boots have been cleaned, it’s time to let them dry and condition them as well. For the dring process, you want to keep them away from any direct heat source or a campfire as intense heat could cause the leather to dry out.
By allowing them to dry in a moderate speed, it prevents mold from forming. If the inside of the boot is also wet, feel free to put in some old newspapers crunched up to hasten the dry time. However, never under any circumstances put your shoes in the dryer or use a hairdryer on them. This powerful heat is too much for the boots to bear and will crack a full-grain leather boot or any equivalent.
Finally, once the shoes have had a chance to dry, you want to condition the leather. A leather conditioner is like a moisturizer that helps keep the leather intact and effective. It helps with the feel and appearance of the product and helps maintain a longer life for your boot.
To apply the conditioner, just grab a clean rag and scoop a small amount of cream on the leather and rub it around until it is fully absorbed. Do not use too much as you can unintentionally alter the color of the boot. Like we said earlier, everything in moderation!
Some Common Mistakes to Avoid
We would strongly recommend against using powerful laundry detergents or their equivalents. Many people will be so eager to clean a pair of hiking boots after a long weekend that has them mucked in mud, and hope to use a stronger cleaning material to circumvent the time needed to clean boots. Don’t be like them.
Using something too powerful than even a mild soap will inhibit the durability of your boots and damage them either directly or slowly over time. If you have a tough stain on your boots are hope to remove it, just use a brush and mild soap and take your time. It will be worth it in the long run and your feet will thank you.
Another mistake is to use the washing machine to clean your boots. Sure your crappy skate sneakers can be cleaned this way, but it simply doesn’t work for hiking boots and they will be destroyed effectively immediately. So stay away from the tumble dry options and stick to something simple.
Another concern we have is using excess heat to dry the damp boots after a wash. If you need to dry your boots fast, leave them next to a fan or something else with moving air, but excess heat is a dangerous and short-sighted choice. It can shrink and crack the hides we hoped to clean and improve.
Now that we’ve gone over the rules and expectations, you’re officially reading to grab a brush and start cleaning. The process isn’t crazy complicated, and often the biggest dangers are overdoing it. Just maintain proper maintenance and care of your boot as often as you can, and learn a rewarding habit that extends the life of your boots.
Regular habits of cleaning and maintaining boots should become something like a ritual. After each hike, the very least you should do is knock off the excess dirt. Every few hikes it would be great to take out the soap and brush and do some more in-depth cleaning. Both for the longevity of the boot and safety of the person within them. Now that you know how to clean and maintain your hiking boots, it’s only right that you step out there and get them dirty once again. Enjoy the hike, stay safe, and keep your hiking boots clean and effective.
Bonus tip: Check out this useful video for some more helpful tips on cleaning your hiking boots!