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Hiking Boots: Choosing and Caring for the Most Important Piece of Hiking Equipment

A seven-part series describing how to choose the right pair of hiking boots, what to expect from them, how to care for them, and how to know when it's time for a new pair.

Hiking Boots Series Part I:  Hiking Boots:  An Introduction and Overview Part II:  Types of Hiking Boots and Hiking Shoes Part III:  Hiking Boots:  Parts and Construction Part IV:  Hiking Boot Accessories (socks, insoles, laces, crampons, etc.) Part V:  High-Quality Inexpensive Hiking Boots:  How to Choose and Where to Find Them Part VI:  Backpacking Boots:  How to Choose and Where to Find Them Navigation, Hiking Boots Series
[ Hiking Boots Series ] [ Overview ] [ Types ]
[ Parts and Construction ]
[ Accessories ] [ Shopping for Day-Hiking Boots ]
[ Shopping for Backpacking Boots ]

Part VII: Cleaning, Care, and Maintenance of your Hiking Boots

Good quality hiking boots are an investment that can be expected to last a long time, but only if you take care of them. This article, part 7 of a 7-part series, will tell you how to take proper care of your hiking boots, from breaking them in to having them resoled, so you will get the most value for your investment.

In this article, I will discuss five main points about proper care and maintenance of your hiking boots:

  1. Breaking them in.
  2. Waterproofing.
  3. Cleaning and general maintenance.
  4. Resoling.
  5. Knowing when they've had it.

Search for
hiking boots
at Amazon.com.

For some of this month's best-selling hiking boots, with reviews based on real-world experience, visit OutdoorEquipmentReport's Hiking Boots page.

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Breaking In your Hiking Boots

The purpose of breaking in your hiking boots is to soften them so they will not hurt your feet. They must be soft and flexible at exactly the places where your feet and ankles move as you walk. The best way to do this is to walk in them. The goal of breaking in your hiking boots is to do it in short little walks, so you don't find yourself in the middle of the wilderness with blisters and an inflexible pair of hiking boots.

Hiking shoes or day-hiking boots might not need any break-in at all, but try it just to be sure. Very heavy boots might not actually break in, but wearing them will make the skin of your feet grow tougher in the places where the boots refuse to bend.

In either case, what you want to do is to wear your new hiking boots for short periods of time. Wear them around the house. Wear them on your morning walk. Wear them on your way to work and back (or wear them at work, if your job does not require a lot of walking and if dress codes permit). Wear them on short hikes.

Once the boots are properly broken in, they will feel comfortable as you walk. Then you're ready to take them on a serious hike.

You may have heard of leaving your new hiking boots out in the weather, or soaking them and wearing them as they dry out, or other drastic and exotic techniques for breaking them in. If it seems like a bad idea, that's because it is. Break them in gently, and they will last much longer.

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Waterproofing your Hiking Boots

Most hiking boots are already waterproof when you buy them, but you still have to do some additional waterproofing. Check the manufacturer's recommendation, either in documentation that came with the boots or on the manufacturer's Web site.

Different materials will require different kinds of waterproofing. Leather, whether full grain or split, will require a wax-based waterproofing compound (which is exactly what conventional shoe polish is). Fabric, especially nylon blends, requires silicone-based waterproofing, which is available in spray form.

Since most hiking boots, including virtually all hiking shoes or day-hiking boots, are made of a combination of leather and fabric, you will have to use both types of waterproofing. And be careful, because the silicone-based sprays can be harmful to the glued seams of leather hiking boots. The best approach for such dual-material hiking boots is to spray the silicone-based waterproofing on the fabric panels while shielding the leather, then spray the wax-based waterproofing on the split leather panels and the seams.

If you have full grain leather hiking boots, you can either use a wax-based waterproofing spray or old-fashioned shoe polish. Shoe polish works best on the seams, as you can put it on extra thick and work it into the seams and stitching.

Before you first use them, and after each major hike, clean your boots thoroughly and give them a full waterproofing treatment. Hiking shoes, worn infrequently, might need the waterproofing treatment just once a year or so, but use your judgment. If you see new visible scuff or wear marks after a hike, reapply the waterproofing.

Leather waterproofing compound:

And for synthetic fabric and "Nubuck" synthetic leather:

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Cleaning and General Maintenance of your Hiking Boots

Clean off the mud and dust and other grime from your hiking boots after each day of hiking. Each time you stop for a major break on a hike, check your boots and remove any excess mud or dust. To clean your boots while hiking or camping, just kick against a rock, bang your boots together, or scrape with a stick if necessary.

If you let the mud dry on your boots, it will both leach out the waterproofing and soak into the boot. This slowly destroys leather, and it's probably not good for nylon, either.

Once you get home, or at least every few days on a protracted backpacking trek, wipe your boots with a damp cloth. You want to be sure to get off all the foreign matter, both so you can inspect your boots for damage, and so that there is nothing to interfere with the waterproofing chemicals.

So, while you are cleaning your hiking boots, check for any excess wear, frayed seams, or other damage.

If a seam is coming undone, cut off any dangling threads. If the dangling thread catches on something, the seam will simply come undone that much faster. Depending on the extent of the damage and the cost of the boots, you might want to bring them to a cobbler for repairs, or simply apply extra shoe polish to that seam to hold the loose ends in place and to ensure that the seam is waterproof. I've known people who put silicone caulking compound on fraying seams of their hiking boots. Seems like a good idea.

If your boots have gotten soaked, you want to dry them out slowly. Rapid drying will make the leather parts shrink and pull away from the fabric parts and from the rubber sole. Pack the damp boots full of wadded-up newspapers, and replace the newspapers every few hours until the boots are dry.

In between hikes, a pair of shoe trees will help your boots to hold their shape. And this will be very important to your comfort on your next hike. I've heard of filling old socks with cedar chips (litter for hamster cages) and keeping them inside your hiking boots between hikes. Never tried it myself, but I know cedar is good at supressing mould, and wood in general is good at moderating humidity, so this seems like an excellent idea. I would suggest that you use new hamster litter, not used, but maybe you could put it in your hamster cage after you're done keeping it in your boots. The hamsters won't mind.

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Resoling your Hiking Boots

If you have a good pair of backpacking boots, you can have the soles replaced when they wear out. This will cost anywhere from $40.00 to $80.00, so this investment only makes sense for good backpacking hiking boots. It is especially cost-effective for boots with stitched welts rather than glued welts.

Hiking shoes or day-hiking boots are not worth resoling. Generally, the uppers will wear out at least as fast as the soles, but even if the uppers appear to be in good shape, the cost just doesn't make sense.

Look for an experienced cobbler in your town to resole your boots. There are services on the Web that will do this, too, but the shipping costs add considerably to the overall cost. The main benefit is that all such services guarantee their work. If you don't know a cobbler you can trust with your precious hiking boots, search for “boot resole” on the Web.

After your hiking boots have been resoled, they will be like a new pair. That means you must break them in again. Don't forget! Don't plan on going on a major hike as soon as you get your boots back from the cobbler.

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Knowing When your Hiking Boots are Worn Out

Inspect your hiking boots for wear, and recognize when it's time to replace them or, if they are worth it, to invest in major repairs.

The most obvious wear point is the tread. Sometimes the tread will be visibly worn, such that the cracks between the knobs of the tread are not deep enough to provide traction. On some hiking boots, you will discover that there are two layers within the sole, and after the softer portion wears through, you are walking on a harder inner portion that does not provide good traction on hard rock. When the tread is worn out, you can consider having the hiking boots resoled, or if the uppers are also wearing badly, replace the boots altogether.

Another common wear point is the inside of the scree collar. If the lining has worn through and the foam padding has been exposed, your hiking boots must be repaired or replaced promptly. The foam will not last long without the lining protecting it, and soon you will effectively have no scree collar at all.

Check the lining of the sole of your hiking boots. Very often, you will find a hole wearing through under your heel or toe. (Removable insoles can prevent this, but be sure to replace the insoles regularly.) Such a hole will soon begin causing blisters.

In hiking boots made of a combination of fabric and leather, the uppers will begin to wear at the seams. You may find that the seams are coming apart very rapidly, as friction between the panels makes the fabric weaker, allowing even more movement and more friction.

Hiking shoes and day-hiking boots may fail by the sole separating from the uppers. If this happens before the shoes have begun showing other serious signs of wear, take it as a lesson: Avoid that brand in the future. If it happens in conjunction with other failures, well, it's just time for a new pair of hiking boots.

If your hiking boots contain a lot of leather and only a little fabric, you may find that the leather has slowly stretched from the constant tension of the laces. The fabric will begin to wrinkle as the leather stretches away from it. This is not a reason to discard the boots, but be aware that once it begins, seam failure will soon follow.

Another problem with stretching leather is that after many years, your hiking boots may reach a point where you can no longer tighten them! I have only seen this once, on a pair of split leather day-hiking boots. (Hated to see them go.)

Full-grain leather, properly cared for, is almost indestructible. If not properly cared for, it will begin to crack. There's not much you can do but replace the boots, and try to take better care of the next pair.

hiking boots with the leather stretching

The split leather parts of my day-
hiking boots are stretching, as
evidenced by the wrinkles in the
fabric panels. These boots have
just about had it. (My birthday's
coming up!)

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Take care of your hiking boots, and they'll take care of you. Keep them clean, waterproof them with the manufacturer's recommended waterproofing compound, and they will serve you for thousands of miles on the trail.

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Other Articles in this Series

Read more about how to choose the right pair of hiking boots, what to expect from them, how to care for them, and how to know when it's time for a new pair.

Other parts of this series:

  1. Part I: Hiking Boots: An Introduction and Overview
  2. Part II: Types of Hiking Boots and Hiking Shoes
  3. Part III: Hiking Boots: Parts and Construction
  4. Part IV: Hiking Boot Accessories (socks, insoles, laces, crampons, etc.)
  5. Part V: High-Quality Inexpensive Hiking Boots: How to Choose and Where to Find Them
  6. Part VI: Backpacking Boots: How to Choose and Where to Find Them
  7. Part VII: Cleaning, Care, and Maintenance of your Hiking Boots (This page)
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Copyright © 2008, Charles J. Bonner, All Rights Reserved