me pinching my nose

How To Clean Your Smelly Travel Shoes

During the course of my travels through 50+ countries, I’ve gone through a lot of pairs of shoes. In the beginning, I used fairly heavy hiking boots, but over time I’ve switched to wearing running shoes. One thing has stayed consistent though: after only a month or two, my shoes start to stink! I develop really bad, smelly shoes.

What’s worse, is that this smell is really hard to deal with. It just doesn’t seem to want to come out of the shoe. After some reading and experimenting, I finally figured out some things to do to try and treat the issue. Let’s go through my findings and I’ll explain how to clean your smelly shoes or why it might not be worth it.

Why Are Your Shoes Smelly?

The biggest revelation I had in trying to figure this problem out was discovering that the root cause of the smell was moisture. Unfortunately, just being alive means that you sweat a little bit during the day. If you’re not super active, you won’t be sweating a lot, but it’s still happening. This means you are constantly producing moisture.

Next, your feet are covered in a bunch of bacteria that live there and this is normal. Also unfortunately, these bacteria feed on sweat and moisture and this produces bad odors. Hence, your smelly shoes.

Why Is The Smell Worse While Traveling?

I plan on starting a whole blog category on exercise and how it relates to traveling soon, but I mention my athletic activities here because very curiously, my boots that I hike in and do sandbag workouts with aren’t nearly as smelly as my travel shoes. How can this be? I’m sweating profusely while working out, and yet my workout shoes smell much better than my travel shoes.

The problem is that you’re moving around a lot while traveling, meaning your feet are sweating constantly. But, you’re also probably carrying only one pair of shoes. Carrying multiple pairs of shoes around isn’t practical for most travelers. It simply takes up too much valuable packing space. So because you’re wearing the same shoes day in and day out, they aren’t getting a chance to dry. Then, because they’re always wet, the bacteria has a plentiful and continuous food source, and so you end up with nasty smelly shoes. In contrast, my workout shoes are only on for a few hours, and then they get plenty of time to dry before I use them again.

Also, what’s weird, and I still don’t know the reason for this, but if that smell gets bad enough, it suddenly changes and becomes much worse and it’s like it burns itself into your shoes. Even if you do get them nice and dry, they smell horrific. If you’ve hit this threshold where your shoes have gone from smelling bad to suddenly smelling like death, they may not be recoverable. You’ll definitely notice if you hit this point. Try the following steps, but it may be easier to just buy a new pair of shoes.

How To Get Rid Of The Smell In Your Shoes

There’s a few things you can try to get the smell out of your shoes. Really, these are various ways of cleaning the bacteria out of your shoes. These are in order of what you should attempt first.

1. Don’t just stuff your shoes anywhere when you take them off. If you like to place your bag on top of your shoes or have them upside down or whatever, stop this. You need airflow to dry them out. Rest them against a wall with the opening side down so that gravity is pulling the moisture to the big opening with the most airflow.

shoes leaning against a wall, opening down
Putting your shoes up like this just takes a couple seconds, but makes a big difference.

2. If that doesn’t work to reduce the smell, try to put your shoes in the sun for a few hours. UV light from the sun naturally kills bacteria, and is warm, so sunlight will dry your shoes and kill the bacteria pretty effectively.

3. Soak your shoes in a non-bleach antibacterial solution. This may be really hard to find in many parts of the world, so may not be an option. Just soaking your shoes in soapy water can potentially make the smell worse since your shoes are now really wet. It has to be antibacterial. I prefer to use Lysol Laundry Sanitizer for this.

Lysol Laundry Sanitizer bottle

4. If the above fails, buy new shoes. Everyone on Earth wears shoes so finding new shoes shouldn’t be an issue. The only difficult part may be finding your size if you have really big feet (11+ for men) because some country’s peoples can be a little more petite.

These steps are fairly simple but they make a big difference if you catch the smelly shoe issue early. But, if you’re in, let’s say, the rainforest like I was in Costa Rica, where’s it’s literally always wet, getting rid of the smell and cleaning your shoes might be impossible.

Soon I’ll post about steps you can take to prevent the smell to begin with. Keep an eye out!

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