There are 2 main ways to clean a climbing rope: hand wash in a tub (or container) of water or wash in the washing machine. We’ll discuss the steps and nuances of both, along with the best way to dry the rope.

First, some pros and cons for choosing which system is right for you.

Washing Machine

Pro

  • Faster / Hands off

Con

  • Need access to a front loading machine with low heat, delicate settings and that you know has not had bleach or other harsh chemicals recently

Hand Wash

Pro

  • Have control over every step of the process (you can literally see what is going on during every step)

Con

  • Time consuming (easier with 2 people)
  • Takes more physical effort than you might expect

At WeighMyRack we’ve always hand washed our ropes because of the following reasons:

  • We either didn’t have easy access to a front load machine or we didn’t trust the machine (like those at the laundromat) since we don’t know what chemicals people have put in the machines before us.
  • We’re very curious people. Seeing every step of the process and having the control to adapt (seeing how dirty the water is, adding another rinse, more soap, etc) is something we value.
  • We use a rope tarp whenever we single pitch climb and have a lot of ropes (to test), so our ropes rarely need washing.


Washing Machine Details


 

Important Notes

  • Only use a front loading machine – unless the top loader has no agitator (it is an empty drum with no stick in the middle). You’ll find various folks on the internet say you can use a top loader that has an agitator. Do not. It’ll tangle/twist your ropes unnecessarily and it has a good possibility of breaking your machine if your ropes get tangled in a way that puts undue stress on the turning mechanisms.
  • If this is not your personal machine (where you you know what detergents have been in it), it is prudent to run an empty cycle on hot or run a no-detergent load of laundry on hot, to rinse the machine and remove as much of the potentially remaining chemicals (especially bleach) from the previous users.

1. Prep the Rope & Add to the Machine

Flake the rope in a mesh laundry bag (or similar sack) then add to the machine. It’s also possible to daisy chain the rope and add it to the machine with or without a bag. Do NOT flake the rope into the machine on it’s own as this will absolutely create a tangled mess and has the distinct possibility to put unnecessary stress on the rope in those tangled areas when it’s wet and most susceptible to permanent damage.

Anybody who has washed bra’s will understand that this is similar but even more extreme – the amount of stretching, twisting, and looping is endless.

2. [Optional] Add a Mild Detergent

You can forgo the use of soap entirely, or use a very mild detergent. “Mild” means zero heavy cleaners including bleach, anything with acid (this includes Woolite), color preservers/enhancers, stain removers, whiteners, softeners, strong perfumes, or anything that says “keep out of the eyes.” Mild detergents are most easily identified as “baby” or “eco” or both.

There are also rope manufacturers who offer concentrated rope-specific cleaners, like Beal, PMI, Sterling, Tendon, and Teufelberger (Maxim). Otherwise we’d recommend a detergent with plant-based ingredients with no dyes, optical brighteners, fragrances, or synthetic chemical masking agents, like Seventh Generation Free and Clear laundry detergent.

3. Adjust the Machine Settings & Turn On

Adjust the temperature of the machine to something less than 30˚C / 86˚ F – typically this is the cold setting. For machines, hot is ~130°F and warm is usually 90°F to 110°F but the water temperature in a machine is entirely dependent on the temperature setting of the water heater, so it’s debatable what you’re actually getting. This is one of the reasons we don’t like the washing machine method: You can’t tell what temp the water will actually be.

30˚C is a temperature deemed safe by all rope manufacturers. Hotter may cause issues with the rope construction. For example, some ropes use an adhesive to bond the sheath and core, and hot water can easily melt this glue or change it’s properties.

Use a delicate cycle – Ideally this means a lot of soaking and then very slow rotations to mix the rope and water. No rapid spinning! The spinning can cause knots and put undue stress on the rope and the machine.

When completed

When done, undo the daisy chain, or you could do this cycle again for a particularly dirty rope.

For drying (scroll down for details). Quickly: Do not use a dyer machine. Not only is the heat difficult to accurately control the heat setting, but the spin cycle can be really hard on the rope while it is wet and the nylon is vulnerable. Also, the unusually heavy load could damage a dryer.


Hand Washing Details (in Tub or Container)


 

Notes

  • Although washing in a bathtub sounds perfectly simple, it’s actually not that great. First you have to clean the tub and after you’re left with dirt rings to clean the tub again. Also, the dirt on the rope can actually scratch/scuff the surface of the tub. We’ve started using a plastic container inside the bathtub to have easy access to a controlled water supply, easy drain, and no issues for spills.
  • If you don’t have a bathtub, no worries, a plastic storage bin, or clean garbage can in the shower will work well. The shower is to have easy access to fill the container with warm water – we’re not talking about showering with your rope. Though that’s probably been done before. 🤷‍♀️
  • Below when we say “tub” we mean either a bathtub or a plastic tub container.

1. Prep the Rope

Flake the rope into the tub. This is a great time to inspect for damage as it’s a great excuse to touch and look at every inch/cm of your rope.

Rope Inspection | Rope Cleaning 1
Inspect the rope as you flake it, slide it slowly through your hands feeling for any differences and visually look it over.

2. Add Water

30˚C / 86˚ F is what every brand agrees is safe which is cool water, just under a lukewarm temp. You don’t need a thermometer here, just shoot for cool, and if it starts to feel warm, add more cold water (completely cold water is fine too, like out of a garden hose). Add water and fill until the rope is completely submerged.

One of the reasons not to use hot water is because of the rope construction. Some ropes, for example, use glue to hold the sheath/core together and this glue could easily melt or change properties when exposed to hot water.

2 Submerged Rope | Rope Cleaning 2
Add water until the rope is submerged (the rope will want to float).

3. Add A Mild Detergent

“Mild” detergent means any soap completely free from bleach, acids, or strong perfumes. Clorox (bleach), Woolite (acid), color brighteners, clothes whiteners, stain removers, and fabric softeners are to be avoided completely along with anything that says, “avoid getting in the eyes” or “flush eyes immediately.”

Low pH environmentally friendly soaps and gentle soaps that are ‘safe for babies’ will be good. Examples we’ve used are baby shampoo and unscented Dr. Bronners. Folks around the internet recommend Dawn, though we haven’t tried it. There are also rope manufacturers who offer concentrated rope-specific cleaners, like Beal, PMI, Sterling, Tendon, and Teufelberger (Maxim).

You can also forgo the soap entirely and eliminate the risk of a detergent harming any rope fibers. Another reason to go soap-free is if you’re washing a dry treated rope – this will ensure you do not wash any dry treatment off. Also, note that gentile Castile soap (like Dr. Bronner’s) can leave a soap scum residue when mixed with hard water.

3 Soapy Rope | Rope Cleaning 3
Adding the soap under the running water will help to disperse it vs adding it after the water stops running.

4. [Optional] Let Sit & Soak

At any point you can take a break and let the rope sit for 15 – 60 min if you feel it’s extra dirty and needs some soaking time to loosen the grip on the dirt particles. It will help to agitate (slosh) the rope in the water with the detergent before letting it sit.

5. Clean (& Repeat) & Rinse

The best way to clean a rope is using an official rope brush. Beal and Edelweiss make them, there are also a bunch on Amazon (one of the few instances where we’re ok buying climbing related gear from a completely unknown brand). You can also get a similar rope brush effect with 2 cheap soft bristle scrub brushes to create a brush-rope-brush sandwich.

This process is best done with two people or expect a solid shoulder workout with one. To clean, hold the rope and brush below water (person one), and then pull the rope through the apparatus with the other hand (ideally person two, able to pull hand-over-hand for momentum).

When the water turns dark/dirty, pour the water out and repeat the process until the water looks clean. This could be 2-10 sessions depending on how dirty the rope is and how much effort your willing to put in to clean it. We say a minimum 2 sessions as the last pull-through should be a “rinse” without soap.

4 Dirty Rope Water | Rope Cleaning 4
Likely it'll take multiple times of rinsing and cleaning before the water is clear.
5 Rincing Rope | Rope Cleaning 5
Repeat the soaping and rinsing until the water is clean.

6. [Optional] Ring Out The Rope

Use your thumb and forefinger to create a tight hole to run the rope through. The more water you ring out of your rope out, the faster the drying time will be.

How to Dry a Rope

Whether you’ve machined washed or hand washed your rope, drying is the same.

Do

  • Flake out the rope on the ground/floor (or other flat surface). On a clean tarp is ideal, and can protect your floors from getting wet, but any clean surface should be fine.
  • Air dry in a warm or cool environment. Avoid hot / cold: no heaters or direct sun and no icy cold areas.
  • Expect the drying to reasonably take 24 – 48 hours. It depends on temperature, humidity, how saturated the rope is, how spread out the rope is, and the diameter of the rope.

8 Rope Drying | Rope Cleaning 6
In this case we used large contractor bags to protect the wood floor and be able to spread out the rope.

Do Not

  • Do not hang your rope to dry (wet ropes are heavy and this has the potential to cause uneven stretching and uneven handling).
  • Do not set the rope in direct sunlight – especially in intense sun and/or high altitudes (a wet rope’s nylon fibers are particularly sensitive to UV rays).
  • Do not put it in a place easily disturbed by kids or pets (pulling, biting, peeing, re-adding dirt or hair fibers, etc are all less than ideal).
  • Do not dry in a machine (the temperatures can be wildly unpredictable and the tumbling can hurt your rope. Tumbling may also hurt the machine as a wet rope is much heavier than the load of clothes which it was designed to handle).

How Often Should You Clean a Rope?

The cleaning frequency will depend on how clean you (and your partners) keep your rope and how much dirt you are willing to tolerate. Once a season or every couple of seasons is an average range.

That said, we witnessed a brand new rope that desperately needed to be cleaned after a single 9 pitch route (due to a complete lack of rope management).

Even if you are careful, ropes get dirty. When you pull a rope from the anchors it may inevitably land in the dirt, chalky hands add dirt, and belaying on top of rocks/ledges all have an effect.

Here are some examples that will indicate that your rope is dirty:

  • the rope literally looks dirty (darker/duller coloration) or has black marks
  • you get dirty / black hands when belaying
  • you noticing your belay device getting grimy

Dirt prevention is key to not cleaning. Always using a rope tarp is the best way to keep your rope clean. You can also be careful to stack or hang your rope to reduce the amount of rope that may touch sand, dirt, mud, leaves, etc.

Why Clean A Rope?

The most important reason to clean a rope is to help it last longer and keep it from becoming stiff.

This exceptional video by HardIsEasy demonstrates the tremendous impact that dirt/chalk have on the lifespan of a climbing rope.

Cleaning a rope is also a perfect opportunity to thoroughly check for damage, as you run every inch of the rope through your hands.

Should I Wash A Dry Treated Rope?

If it’s dirty, yes! Washing with water (and no soap) is the best option, as water will not affect the dry treatment.

Although there are no public studies – internal testing at different brands shows that all kinds of soap (including those that are recommended / sold by the manufacturers) can reduce the dry treatment coating.

Fortunately, dry treated ropes will not get dirty as quickly as non-treated ropes. This is because the dry treatment protects against water and dirt. Though, any rope will succumb to sustained abuse. (We can’t say it enough: Use a rope tarp as much as possible.)

Summary

The main reason to wash a rope is to ensure longevity and smooth and consistent handling.

You only need to wash a rope if it’s dirty (if it looks dirty, if it makes you dirty, or it feels dirty/stiff). This may be once a season or it could be every few seasons. The best way to keep your rope clean is to always use a rope tarp.

There are two ways to wash a rope: in the machine or by hand. A machine is much faster but only use a front loading machine that you know is free of bleach/acids/softeners from the last user.

Hand washing takes longer (and can feel strenuous) but gives you more control of how much to clean. Soaking the rope will help here.

Want to See All The Ropes (over 1000)?

At WeighMyRack, we list every rope and give you filters to find the right length, diameter, middle markings, level of dry treatment, and brand. Find eco-based ropes that are bluesign® certified or use a PFC-free dry treatment.