Waterproof Hiking Boots

You care for the ones you love, and at REI we love our hiking boots. In this article we share the best boot-care tips we know.

Here are 4 good habits to adopt:

  • Clean boots after every hike. A brush and some water are the basic tools.
  • Remove insoles/inserts after a hike to permit the whole boot to dry.
  • Do not expose boots to excessive heat; store them at room temperature.
  • When water stops beading on boot uppers, add a waterproofing treatment to restore their water resistance.

Read on for details on how to ensure that your boots enjoy a long life and perform at their best.

When Hiking Boots Are New

  • Keep the care instructions provided. Always follow the boot maker's maintenance advice.
  • New hiking boots rarely require treatment out of the box. Reason: Nearly all boots are factory-treated with a durable water repellent (DWR) finish.
  • Break in new hiking boots before attempting an extended trip. Learn how by reading the REI Expert Advice article, Breaking In Your Hiking Boots.
  • If a flex point of a leather boot is slow to break in, apply conditioner to that spot to make it more pliable.

After Any Hike: Clean Those Boots

Cleaning Tips

Be diligent in cleaning hiking boots. You say you're too tired after a hike to clean your boots? Then clean 'em the following day.

Why bother?

  • With every flexing motion, particles of dirt, grit or sand can creep deeper into a boot's leather or fabric upper and grind away like sandpaper.
  • Mud can suck moisture from leather as it dries, leaving leather less pliable and vulnerable to accelerated aging.
  • Removable sock liners (found in some boots) or insoles are potentially machine washable. Check manufacturer instructions before attempting this. Always remove liners or insoles and let them air out.

Tip: Never put hiking footwear in a washing machine.

Use a brush to gently remove dust and dirt. Choose a specialized tool or an old vegetable brush or toothbrush. For maximum thoroughness, remove laces prior to cleaning. Add running water and a specialized boot cleaner, saddle soap or, if no other options exist, a mild dishwashing soap.

  • Do not use bar soap or detergents; they typically contain surfactants that attract water; detergents may also include fabric brighteners that can leave residues.
  • Mold on the boots? Brush in a mixture of 80% water and 20% vinegar.

If needed, wash off the outsole, too. A tread cleaner can extract stones and other stubborn gunk that plug your traction-boosting lugs. If mud is really caked on, soak the outsoles (not the uppers) in a shallow pan of water for several hours. Then hose away the sludge.

Drying Tips

  • Allow boots to dry at a normal temperature. Rushing the process is unhealthy for boots, particularly leather boots.
  • Remove insoles and let them air-dry separately from the boots.
  • Do not place wet boots close to a heat source (fireplace, campfire, wood stove, radiator, heater, sunny windowsill, whatever). High heat:
    • Weakens the adhesives used in modern footwear.
    • Bakes the upper, which could turn the leather brittle or cause it to shrink and curl, which potentially could squeeze a boot's toe counter (a nylon reinforcement in toe), which would alter its fit.
  • Recommended speed-drying method: Place boots (insoles removed, tongue propped open) in the path of a fan in a normal, room-temperature environment.
  • No fan handy? Stuff a sheet or 2 of newspaper into each boot. Newsprint is a surprisingly decent moisture absorber. Change the paper each hour.
  • Boots dry faster when positioned upside-down.
  • Store boots in a place where temperatures are stable and normal. Do not store boots in attics, garages, car trunks or any unventilated spaces where heat can rapidly accumulate.

After Extended Use: Clean, Condition, Waterproof

REI offers 3 types of footwear-care products. Here's guidance for when and how often to use them:

Cleaner

Use a cleaner when preparing to apply waterproofing, or any time stubborn residue (dust, mud, grime) is visible on the upper.

Use a cleaner periodically. You always want to clean boots after a hike, but a simple brush-off or a rinse-and-wipe is usually sufficient. But if boots are muddy or really dusty, adding a footwear-specific cleaner will optimize your effort.

Tip: Always clean boots thoroughly before applying waterproofing.

Conditioner

Nikwax Leather Conditioner

Use a conditioner when full-grain leather boots appear dry or cracked. It can also be used if new footwear needs to be broken in quickly.

Use a conditioner judiciously. Healthy leather (like our own skin) functions best when moisturized. Yet too much conditioner can make boots too soft, reducing the support they provide on rugged terrain.

Do not use Mink Oil or similar oils better suited for logging/industrial boots; it over-softens dry-tanned leather used in hiking footwear.

Waterproofing

Nikwax Waterproofing

Use a waterproofing treatment when water does not speedily bead up and roll off a boot's surface, allowing water to sink into the exterior layer.

Use it as needed. The frequency depends on how hard you use your boots. It is not uncommon for serious trail hounds who do a lot of wet-weather hiking to apply waterproofing several times a year.

Shop REI's selection of footwear treatment products.

How to Waterproof Boots: Q&A

The information presented in this section is a compilation of advice provided by footwear manufacturers, REI staff members and longtime cobbler Dave Page:

Q: My boots look wet. Are they leaking?

A: In almost every case, no. If water is not beading up on the uppers, it means the durable water repellent (DWR) finish has deteriorated due to dirt, abrasion and sun exposure. When that occurs, moisture can seep into the exterior layer of the uppers causing them to feel wet and heavy. A boot would have to be saturated, though, before moisture soaked through the upper.

For more details about DWR finishes, read the REI Expert Advice article, Rainwear: DWR Care.

Q: My waterproof Gore-Tex boots look wet. Are they malfunctioning?

A: No. Boots equipped with a waterproof/breathable membrane (and most use Gore-Tex® membranes) do not allow water to penetrate to the interior unless the membrane itself has been damaged. The solution for wet boots, whether equipped with waterproof/breathable membranes or not, is the same: Revive water repellency by applying a waterproofing product designed for footwear.

Q: When the DWR finish on boots needs to be restored, what waterproofing product should I apply?

A: Your decision depends on the material used in the uppers of your boots and what brand appeals to you.

Material: Some brands make specific products for particular boot materials:

  • Full-grain leather
  • Split leather (aka reversed or roughed-out leather)
  • Nubuck
  • Suede
  • Synthetic leather or a fabric and leather combo

Brands: REI carries waterproofing products from Nikwax, Granger's and Tectron. (Note: REI's product assortment changes intermittently.)

Grangers Waterproofing

Nikwax is the most prominent brand, endorsed by Asolo, Burton, Merrell, Nike, Raichle, Salomon, Scarpa and other footwear-makers. U.K.-based Granger's products also have a strong following.

Nikwax offers specific waterproofing treatments for all the upper materials mentioned above; REI carries a popular "universal" waterproofer by Granger's that can be used on all footwear types, and Tectron offers a similar water-repellent spray suitable for all footwear types.

Q: How do I apply waterproofing?

A: Step 1: Thoroughly clean your boots. This is a good time to use a specialized cleaning product plus a brush.

Step 2: Follow instructions on the waterproofing product.

Most product-makers recommend that boots be damp or wet when water-based waterproofing products (such as those from Nikwax and Granger's) are applied. For treating leather boots, the wetter the better, says Pete Smith of REI Seattle.

"You want leather to have water soaked into the thickness of it," he says. "The water is what actually draws those products into the leather. If water is only on the surface then the waterproofer doesn't penetrate into the thickness of the leather. It will just stay there on the surface, and when the water evaporates, could flake off."

If you're starting with dry boots at home, Pete has a tip for getting water into the leather: "Take a very wet towel, pack it around the boots and let it sit there in the utility sink for a couple of hours. If you just hold a boot under the tap, water will bead up and roll off, even if the boot needs treatment. It's amazing how long it takes to soak water into the leather."

Apply as directed. Allow to dry without adding artificial heat. (Cobbler Dave Page thinks placing boots in a well-ventilated sunny spot for 10 minutes is a good move. "Your boots sit in the sun that long when you're changing socks in the backcountry," he says. "I think it helps waterproofing sink into the leather.") Wipe off any excess.

Product instructions may recommend a second application. Smith offers this thought on the topic: "If you do a thorough job the first time, there will be no need to do a second treatment," he says. "If you want to apply a second treatment and you're using a water-based product, you HAVE to get the boots wet before you apply it."

Nikwax tells REI that its Waterproofing Wax for Leather products (liquid or cream) can be effectively applied to wet or dry boots but still recommends getting boots wet.

Q: Does treating boots with waterproofing also condition them?

A: In footwear care, "conditioning" is usually equated with "softening." Nikwax tells REI that Nikwax Liquid Conditioner for Leather is designed primarily to restore suppleness in aged, dry or cracked full-grain leather.

It can also be used on newer boots if they seem unyielding in places, particularly flex points. It definitely softens leather and thus should be used judiciously, since leather boots are designed to be supportive footwear.

Waterproofing products also include "tanning agents" that help leather ward off dryness, maintain its natural flexibility and resist bacterial attack, all while boosting the leather's water resistance.

Q: What about using Sno-Seal?

Tectron Water Repellent

A: Unlike water-based formulas used by Nikwax and Granger's, Sno-Seal is a beeswax-based waterproofing paste. Introduced in 1933, it is marketed at outdoor stores under the Tectron label.

Designed originally for boots worn by hunters and outdoor laborers (loggers, for example), Sno-Seal is a waterproofing product with a large following. It carries one drawback: If applied to the leather used in nearly all modern leather hiking boots, those boots cannot be resoled.

Not every hiker considers resoling their backpacking boots. If you deeply love a pair of boots and want to use them long-term, though, it's best to bypass Sno-Seal. "I think Sno-Seal is an awfully good waterproofing product," says Page. "It works fine if as long as you put it on boots that you don't care if they ever get resoled."

Q: Should I apply heat when waterproofing boots?

A: Not when using water-based waterproofing products such as Nikwax and Granger's. Boots should be at a normal room temperature during and after treatment. Cobbler Dave Page thinks it's not a bad idea to give treated boots 10-15 minutes of well-ventilated sun exposure after applying waterproofing.

The maker of wax-based Sno-Seal says boots should be warmed prior to applying that specific product. You should not, however, use heat for drying.

Q: What is the shelf life of waterproofing products?

A: REI is told by manufacturers that 4 years from the date of purchase is advised, though our guess is the products still do their job after that span.

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