How to Clean a Climbing Rope – A Guide to Caring for Your Rope

Your climbing rope is an essential and possibly the most critical partner for your climbing adventures. With the help of your belayer, it keeps you safe when you drop while climbing a crag or at your local gym. Climbing ropes are expensive, this is why all climbers should know how to clean a climbing rope.

Proper care requires cleaning your rope when it is grimy. Dirty hands after a climb or a dirty neck after coiling the rope are good indicators that it needs a good clean. Apart from saving your life, a clean rope saves you money as a good wash greatly extends its lifespan.

For many beginner climbers, and some experienced ones, this may sound easy – it is not. Climbing ropes are sensitive to certain conditions, and improper washing, drying, and care can reduce their lifespan.

So, is your climbing rope dirty and looking dull? Don’t worry; this guide will help you get your rope back to its original color.

How Long do Climbing Ropes Last?

Climbing rope with carabiner

Before speaking about how to clean your climbing rope, it’s essential to know how long they last. Washing an old rope that’s ready to be retired won’t do much for your safety. This also lets you know when it’s time to say goodbye to your old rope and to make room for a new one.

While there isn’t a set number on a rope’s lifespan, there are numbers that climbers have reached a consensus on. These numbers depend on how the rope is used. How the rope is cared for also impacts its longevity.

You can also tell when it’s time to retire the rope by simply inspecting it. You’re looking for any soft spots and signs of severe wear. You can read more on that later.

When to Retire Your Climbing Rope

For your climbing safety, you should know when it’s time to retire your rope. As already stated above, there’s no specific number of years that determine when it’s time to retire your rope. But you should go by the industrial consensus and common sense – say goodbye to your 10+ years old trusty buddy. He can no longer be trusted.

Here’s the industrial consensus on how long climbing ropes typically last based on usage:

  • Never used – 10 years
  • Occasionally monthly use and adequately cared for – 3 to 6 years
  • Occasional bi-weekly use – 1 to 4 years
  • Frequent weekly use – 1 year

The International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) lists actions that can either increase or decrease your rope’s lifespan. It’s important to use best practices to extend the usability of your rope.

How to Wash a Climbing Rope by Hand

Man with equipment for climbing

Cleaning a climbing rope by hand is probably the best and safest method. It doesn’t have any complicated steps; water and elbow grease work just fine. If you opt to use this traditional method, here’s a list of things you’ll need:

  • A bathtub, large bucket, sink, or sizeable portable tub
  • Rubber gloves – optional but very beneficial
  • Your dirty rope
  • Warm water

Now that the easy stuff is out of the way, the work begins. Fill up your bathtub (or whatever you’re using) with warm water and soak your rope in there. The gloves will help to keep your hands clean.

You can let the rope soak while some of the dirt is pulled out into the water. If it’s got some grittier hardened dirt, you can swirl and swish it around. You can also scrub the rope using a brush, sponge, or your hands if it’s on the dirtier side.

Once the water becomes too grubby to clean any further, drain or pour it out and start the process again. You can then rinse the rope and repeat the process until it has no residual dirt. The washing process is also an excellent time to inspect your rope for any wear and tear.

After a few washes, it should resemble a brand new rope, in terms of color, that won’t draw any dirty looks from your fellow climbers. When you’re satisfied with its cleanliness, you can start the drying process (more on that later). It’s a good idea to wash your rope bag or tarp too; you surely don’t want your clean rope sitting in its former filth.

Washing a Climbing Rope Using a Washing Machine

Multi colored coiled up climbing ropes

An alternative method to rope washing by hand is using a washing machine – preferably a top loader. This method is best for people who don’t want to get their hands dirty and want to save time. You can spend some of that time learning about some unbelievable mountaineering stories by watching these climbing flicks.

Much like washing in the tub, you’ll use water – cold to lukewarm will do. However, there are some specific steps to tick off before throwing it in the washing machine. These ensure both your rope and washer don’t get ruined.

Firstly, run the washer while empty to get rid of residual detergent or soap from previous use. Secondly, you’ll want to tie your rope into a daisy chain; watch this tutorial on how to do that. Additionally, you can throw it into a mesh bag or a pillowcase for added security against damage to your washer.

Afterward, you can throw your rope into the drum by circling it around from the center so it sits evenly. If you have a front-loader, putting your rope into a mesh bag or pillowcase is your best option.

Your washing machine settings depend on your rope, but cold to lukewarm is a universally safe option. Heat can damage some ropes. You will then use your washer’s lowest and most gentle washing setting; this is usually the “delicate option”.

After the cycle finishes and you’re satisfied with the rope’s cleanliness, take your rope out and get ready to dry it. If you aren’t happy, you can repeat the process until you’re happy. Learn all about the drying process below.

Man with climbing ropes and bag

Climbing Rope Care: The Drying Process and Other Care

Drying your rope is arguably the most important lesson when learning how to clean a rope. This is because a rope, regardless of its condition, can be ruined just by how it’s dried. Exposure to the sun or other artificial heat can bleach the rope and negatively affect its core.

You can dry your climbing rope inside the house in a cool, dry area. Conversely, you can dry it outside the house without direct exposure to the sun. Outside is the optimal drying area but inside drying is applicable on rainy days or if you don’t have access to an outdoor space.

You can spread your unstacked rope on a towel, tarp, or similar water-friendly surface. If you don’t have anything suitable, you can hang it over your showering rod, chairs, or a railing. Make sure none of your flaked ropes are sitting on top of each other.

When drying inside, use a fan to circulate air in the room to expedite the drying process. Rotating your rope frequently will help dry it out uniformly. The process can take between 12 and 36 hours, depending on your drying method and regional temperature or humidity.

When it’s completely dry, put it in your clean rope bag or wrap it in your tarp. This will make sure you don’t have to go through this process again – for a while anyway.

Red helmet and climbing ropes

Inspecting Your Rope

Rope inspection is a process done every time you hit the crag or wash your rope – or it should be. Some climbers don’t do it, which can have a very negative impact on your climbing experience. You can have an accident due to a worn-out rope from wear that is easily identifiable using inspection.

You do an inspection by running your hands through the rope from end-to-end. You’re looking for signs of wear, including cuts and soft spots. If you find some soft to the touch locations, it may indicate that your rope’s core is shot.

You should never climb with a rope whose core is vulnerable. Depending on where the soft spot is, the rope has either reached retirement age or it’s due salvation.

If the softness is towards the center, it’s best to retire the rope. If the soft feeling is on the ends, you can cut those out and repair the rope. Cut the soft area and use a lighter to melt the new rope strands on the end you kept.

Remember to track how much you cut, so you know how short your rope is; you can use a logbook. If your rope had a middle marker, keep in mind that it’s no longer accurate.

Helmets, climbing shoes and ropes

Should You Use Climbing Rope Soap?

It’s evident in the above guide that using soap or detergents when washing a rope is not recommended. General use soaps and detergents contain chemicals that negatively affect your rope’s integrity. That’s why climbing industry experts recommend plain water.

There are some soaps and detergents made explicitly for use as a rope cleaner. However, your local climbing shop may not have these. It is for this reason that we toe the line and agree with the experts. Using water avoids the risks that are present when you use soap or detergents.

How to Clean Your Climbing Rope: Final Thoughts

Person rock climbing

Rock climbing is an enjoyable hobby, but there’s a risk associated with it like any extreme sport. Most of these risks exist due to not being focused or faulty equipment, including your climbing rope.

Risk mitigation happens by taking care of your equipment like your life depends on it – because it just might. Therefore, this guide helps all climbing enthusiasts keep their ropes, arguably their most important equipment, clean.

Confident of your rope cleaning and caring skills? Learn how to clean your climbing shoes next.