There is a lot of conflicting information available about how to reduce or eliminate shoe smells. This post aims to get to the bottom of it all and give tips to keep your shoes smelling reasonable. If they already smell to high heaven, we’ll let you know how to safely clean your shoes and also how to mask the offensive odors already present.

Why do shoes smell

The smells emanating from your shoes are caused by bacteria that thrive on the sweat and dead skin built up in your shoe.

After climbing, if you throw your climbing shoes in a bag, you effectively seal in all the sweat, moisture, skin cells, and warmth, creating a perfect environment for bacteria to party. The bacteria eats the delicious sweat and replaces it with their waste – experienced as a nasty odor that just seems to get worse and worse, and worse.

So the real smell problem is: the bacteria and all the stuff it eats (sweat, dead cells, etc).

Now, there are A LOT of different methods climbers use to get rid of or hide the smell. Many are herbal remedies while some are more urban myth. We’ve attempted to include only solutions that will work for all shoes, synthetic or leather, instead of proposing methods that may wreak more havoc on shoes (in case you didn’t notice they had a particular feature set).

The best way to prevent smelly shoes

This may sound a little over-the-top but it is absolutely the best way to reduce existing stench and prevent future smells.

Before Climbing: Wash your feet. Rub off the dead skin that’s been building up during the day. No access to water? Get some alcohol rubbing pads or baby wipes and give them a good once-over. This is especially important if you’re climbing later in the day because you’ve already spent a majority of the day sweating in your socks and breeding bacteria.

After Climbing: Store your shoes where they can air out. Open your shoes to the max, and leave them in a non-sunny area where they can completely dry out.

Certainly it’s acceptable to put your shoes in a bag for short periods of time, during transit, but the more you can limit this the better (carabiner them to the outside!). Nothing promotes a bacteria orgy like a hot shoe without ventilation. Not only does stuffing you shoes in a pack for long periods of time increase odor, but the more you cram your shoes in a pack the more deformation occurs, which can result in permanent damage to the shoe. If you have to put your shoes in a bag, try to give them room to roam.

Going Further. If you’re willing to put in the time and energy to reduce the smell as much as possible, you can also:

  • Help dry your shoes after you use them. After you’re done climbing, wick the moisture from the shoes by inserting a shirt, rag, newspaper, fabric softener sheet, ball of kitty litter, paper towels, anything absorbent will work. This speeds up the drying process.
  • Keep your shoes out of the sun and hot areas. If they must be stored in the car, keep them in the darkest, coldest part of the vehicle for as short of a period as possible. Scarpa says that in the direct sun, car temps can skyrocket 50+ degrees in just minutes which can mess with the heat activated glue and could lead to delaminations of the rand or sole or cause rubber deterioration.

The best way to clean your shoes so they stop smelling

Kill the bacteria! Spray or wipe a disinfectant in your shoe.

  • hydrogen peroxide – a disinfectant that is far less harmful than a chemical like bleach that can be found at any grocery store. You can put it in a spray bottle and spritz the inside of your shoes. Or you can use a cotton ball / sponge / toothbrush and rub the entire inside of your shoe, concentrating on breaking up anything you can see that is not naturally a part of the shoe. If you get a little overzealous, dry off the extra liquid with a rag.
  • tea tree oil – WebMD agrees it’s great for fungal infections and getting rid of athlete’s foot. Alternatively, use lavender oilanother natural disinfectant. To use, make up a spray bottle filled with water and add 3-8 drops of the oil. Spritz shoes and let them air dry.

If the methods above don’t work, then your shoes may have some seriously caked on sludge. You’ll actually have to wash them with the aid of room-temperature soapy water (the type of soap doesn’t matter here, but it wouldn’t hurt to use an antimicrobial one) and get the scrub brush out.

While scrubbing, try to avoid saturating your shoes with water (especially leather ones!), and instead work on cleaning any gunk out with the scrubber / toothbrush with help from the tepid soapy water.

After washing, help your shoes dry by stuffing them with newspaper and then let the shoes finish drying in an open area or use a fan to speed up the process (no hairdryers!). Once clean, use the methods listed above to keep ahead of the build-up.


This video is a little slow, and a little cutesy (there are kids involved) but it is the best video we found on the subject of fixing the stinky shoe problem. To skip the pretty humorous blind-fold smell test, start the video at 1:50:


 

Additional ways to prevent smell

These methods do not make shoes suddenly smell better–they’re simply ways to further reduce the chance of smelly shoes. They also all have downsides.

  • Take your shoes off between climbs. This prevents your feet from heating up and sweating more, and it starts airing out/drying your shoes, too. Caution: Walking around with your shoes off will pick up other crap (chalk, dust, etc) that you don’t want in your shoe, so make sure if you’re taking your shoes off between climbs you’re not adding more contamination and funk to the problem.
  • Wear thin wool socks. Wool is anti-microbiotic, so socks may absorb some of the nastiness to get it out of the shoe / prevent further stench from getting trapped. You can do it occasionally and it’ll still help. Caution: Wearing socks will reduce sensitivity, could stretch your shoe, and is generally considered a newbie move.
  • Only buy unlined leather shoes. Leather shoes breath the most. Synthetic shoes breath the least. The more natural materials involved, the better the breathability. Caution: Buying only leather will limit your shoe options and your shoes will still smell if not taken care of, just not quite as bad.
  • Rotate the use of your shoes so each pair has more time to dry out (yup, this means you need a few pairs)

Quick fixes, that mask the smell

These will not eliminate smells, but could tide you over for a roadtrip with friends you care about. 

For all of these suggestions, be light-handed! Powders and sprays can build up a gunk that is just as terrible to deal with. These are only short-term solutions.

  • shoe fresheners / dryer sheets / tea bags
  • pantyhose (or old chalk balls) filled with: coffee beans, potpourri, kitty litter, etc
  • deodorizers / odorcide spray / McNett MiraZyme (a bit more natural than some)
  • antifungal powders (be light-handed to prevent build-up!)
  • Friendly Foot, Dr. Scholls, Doc Martin, Odorban’s, Lysol, etc.

Methods to avoid

  • Washing shoes in a washing machine. Yes, there are many reports of climbers who have done it successfully. And it can be done with synthetic, slip-lasted shoes, on low spin, no heat, BUT it’s not a guaranteed safe way to clean shoes. And if you don’t realize your shoe has leather parts (or a board-last), you could end up changing the fit or breaking down the materials of your shoe accidentally. There are blatant exceptions to this rule such as the La Sportiva Oxygym (there are men’s and women’s models) that were specifically made to withstand the washer.
  • Freezing your shoes. This may temporarily help as it will slow down the bacteria metabolism or even kill some (not all) of the smell. Unfortunately, it can also stink up your freezer, and this method overall is pretty ineffective compared to the methods we mentioned above. And it has risks of harming the materials of the shoe as freezing is not a commonly tested temperature.
  • Powdering your feet. This is just adding more junk to the mix, and most powders will get goopy fast. You could probably get away with putting liquid chalk on your feet as a drying agent, but really, the goal is to keep your shoes as clean as humanly possible. Clean your feet instead!
  • Baking the bacteria in the sun. The biggest concern here is that the heat activated glue used to put your shoe together can warm and cause delaminations of the rand and sole.

Summary

To most effectively prevent smells

  1. Before you climb, wash your feet. Clean off the sweat, bacteria, and dead skin so they don’t transfer to your shoes.
  2. Keep your shoes dry and in open air environments — always leave the shoes as open as possible, in areas where they have access to new air. Do not leave them in the car.

If your shoes already smell

  • Use a disinfectant to kill the bacteria. Rub/scrub either hydrogen peroxide over the inside to kill the smelly bacteria, or spritz your shoes with tee tree or lavender oil (mixed with water). If your shoes are extra nasty, you may need to scrub harder to get all the gunk off/out.

You can use a “deodorant” to mask smells as a short-term solution

  • dryer sheets, cedar chips, popurri, odor-eating antifungal sprays will all help to hide the problem temporarily

 


 

Bonus insights (and stories) we came across while writing this article

Each of your feet has more than 250,000 sweat glands capable of producing more than a pint of sweat per day. – via SBClimber

This bacteria and sweat is why your slippers feel slimey days later, or why your lined shoes end up stiff and crinkled. -via Chris Weidner

“A rotten, nasty smell can be an indication that the leather is actually decaying,” says Eric Pauwels, owner of Rock & Resole in Boulder, explaining that this often happens when moisture builds up under the rand. -via Kate Nelson

The only time I got real funky shoes was when I missed a crashpad in a swampy bouldering area, and then forgot my shoes in a plastic bag in the trunk of my car for a week. My friends would moan every time I brought those shoes out. -via Michael Collins

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Alison Dennis

Alison Dennis

Alison (she/her) runs WeighMyRack from her 17' travel trailer. She is currently touring the US and would love if you contacted her to meet up to talk about climbing, climbing gear, or if you have any fun and/or ridiculous adventure in mind.

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