Is Breaking in Boots a Thing of the Past?

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Because nothing ruins a trip faster than a bunch of blisters

[Question] I’m in the market for a new pair of boots. Will there be a break-in period? Or is breaking in boots a thing of the past?

[Answer] Generally speaking, with light hikers or burly trail runners being most folks' top choice of footwear for the trail, it's not like it used to be. Many shoes really are good to go, right out of the box. But why risk hot spots or blisters miles from home? I leave at least a couple of weeks to break in new boots before my first big trip. The burlier the boot (think full-leather hightops), the more time you’ll want. You don’t want to get out on day one of your five-day backpacking trip, only to find that your new boots are absolutely killing your feet.

If you’re buying new boots for a specific multi-day trip, you’ll maximize your experience by making sure your hiking boots are as comfortable as possible. The more time you can spend in them close to home, the better. Your boots are your connection to the trail and one of the most important investments you’ll make.

To avoid blisters, break in the boots slowly by starting small. Wear them around the house and out for dog walks before setting out for miles with a pack. While you do, wear the socks you plan to use while hiking. Some people still like an ultralight nylon sock underneath wool-based hiking socks, but that's pretty old-school. Most hikers target the new generation of wool blend socks that are designed to perform without a liner, such as FITS Socks, Lorpen, or Smartwool (three of my favorites) that wick moisture while protecting and insulating your feet.

There’s no substitute for a long day on varied terrain to really tell how a boot is going to fit.

“It’s also important to remember that your feet can swell nearly a whole size from morning to night,” says key gear tester for Backpacker magazine and FiveTen's communications director Nancy Bouchard. So, consider sizing up a bit as a preventive.

But sometimes you just have to break your feet in to your boots a little bit. Make sure laces are properly run and laced tight. Pay attention to how your feet feel and slowly start to add some miles with a pack. Make it part of your training for the upcoming season or a particular trek. I’ve found that there’s no substitute for a long day on varied terrain to figure out how a boot is really going to fit. Toe bump, heel slippage, arch support, and other fit factors all become very evident after an eight-mile day climbing descending rough terrain.

No matter how ready you are to take off your boots at the end of the day, you shouldn’t dread putting them back on the next morning.

If you start to feel a hot spot forming on your heel—or anywhere else on your foot—stop immediately and address the problem. Hot spots are precursors to blisters, and addressing them quickly will save a lot of pain and frustration down the trail and could easily save your trip. Sometimes, hot spots can be fixed by simply adjusting your socks. Maybe you need to put on a dry pair of socks, pull them up, or add a pair of liner socks to your ensemble. Other times, a little bit of moleskin on the hotspot does the trick. No moleskin on hand? In a pinch, athletic tape, duct tape, or a bandaid work as well, in fact some hikers prefer tape. The key here is acting early because dealing with a hot spot is way easier (and less painful) than dealing with a blister.

And remember, the longer your backpacking trip or expedition, the more important it is to start your journey with boots you can put your full trust in. No matter how ready you are to take them off at the end of the day, you shouldn’t dread putting them back on the next morning.

This is article is part of Gear Bible, a column filled with expert advice to answer all of your hiking questions. Have a question of your own? Submit it to the editorial team here.

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