If your hiking boots are as clean as a whistle, without a scuff or a scratch or a hint of dirt to be seen, then you’re doing it wrong.
Hiking boots should only look pristine when they are brand new and have never once been worn on the trail or in the back-country. After that, every scrape and stain on those boots is a badge of honor. While it’s fine and good for your hiking boots to look worn, it’s not OK for them to actually be dirty, at least not after each trek has ended. Leaving boots damp, soiled with mud, or caked in dirt can lead to damage over time, as in the type of damage that goes beyond cosmetics and can impact performance and longevity. And that’s no good.
So while there’s no reason to break out the shoeshine kit, you do need to keep your hiking boots clean when they’re not strapped onto your feet.
First, Get the Mud Off
If there are globs of mud all over your boots, get them off, man! Use a damp cloth or paper towel and wipe down the boots, taking care to work around and under the laces and to wipe off the eyelets the hooks on the upper. Go ahead and scrape mud out of the treads with a stiff brush or slender rod, too. You should remove as much mud, dirt, and bits of leaves and brambles as soon as possible, because the longer that stuff sits there, the longer it will keep the boots damp.
Clean the Insides
The dampness your feet produce, along with any moisture that go in there from snow, fog, or rain, can all damage the inside of your boots (with salty sweat or salt water being the worst for this). Pull out the insoles (and wipe them down or launder them, as needed) and then use a damp, clean rag to wipe out the inside of your boots well. Do this step before any more extensive cleaning of the exterior, because once you get the insides dry, you want them to stay that way.
Now Dry the Boots
Unless you are in a fabulously damp location, it’s best to let boots dry as naturally as possible. Using the breeze and the sun is OK, for example, as is setting them a few feet from a fire or heater. Using a hair dryer shoved inside or blowing across the boots is not so wise; this can lead to cracking and damage. You may want to stuff the boots with dry balls of paper, socks, or anything else that’s nice and absorbent. Remove and/or replace the stuffing within an hour or so, as after that time it will have done as much as it can. Getting your boots as dry as possible may take a day or longer.
Bang the Dirt Off. Then Wipe the Rest
At this point, there’s probably still some dirt or mud clinging onto your boots somewhere. Go ahead and slam those boots together repeatedly or whack them over a rock; don’t worry, they can take it. Get off as much of that now dried dirt as you can using brute force, then switch to a good, stiff brush. An old toothbrush is a good choice here; a current toothbrush is likely a much worse choice. Now turn to a cloth dampened with only water and wipe away the rest of the dirt and dust.
Use a Boot Cleaner. Or Use a Bit of Detergent
To really get those boots clean, you should next wipe at them using either a dedicated boot (or shoe) cleaning solution or else a blend of water with a few squirts of basic dish detergent. There’s no need to soak your boots in cleaning solution, just wipe at them until they look clean because… that’s when they’re clean. Now get those boots nice and dry again, using the approach(s) we discussed above.
If you have boots made primarily out of Gortex or some other synthetic material, you’re now done. Go have a beer. If they are made from good ol’ leather, you might want to take further steps to waterproof and condition them. Don’t worry, we’ve got an article all about leather boot care that here for you.