How to Waterproof Hiking Boots

A good pair of waterproof hiking boots can be hard to find – “too waterproof” and they don’t breathe, only water-resistant and you get wet feet. Even if a manufacturer claims their footwear can withstand submersion, an extra layer of protection never hurt.

If you’re still in the market for the best hiking boots, we can certainly point you in the right direction, but first, we’re going to talk about how to waterproof, clean and care for leather boots.

When to Waterproof?

The best time to waterproof boots is when you first break them out of the box. Unless a manufacturer deems a hiking boot as submersible, there is a strong chance they are not entirely waterproof. You also have to pay close attention to the market terms as there’s a huge difference between water-resistant and waterproof.

If fully submersible hiking boots are what you’re shooting for, that may be impossible. The design and laces play a large part in this particular problem as water, like life, will find a way – given the opportunity. It’s also worth noting any treatment you apply will eventually wear off, so pay close attention to the back of the bottle or can.

How often you wear your hiking boots matters as well. Unless you hit the trails every weekend or live in the mountains, you may not have to treat them monthly. Either way, be sure to treat your hiking boots well in advance of any excursions out into the wild.

How to Waterproof Hiking Boots

how to waterproof your hiking boots

Before you get started…

If your boots are brand new, you can skip over the cleaning aspect of our little guide to waterproofing hiking boots. You’ll just need to wet them down and go to work with the solution of your choice. If you plan on treating dirty old boots or hiking boots that have lost their first layer of protection, you’ll want to follow these quick tips.

  • Remove the laces and the insoles from your boots, then grab a soft bristled brush and start scrubbing.
    In most cases, warm water and elbow grease will do the trick, but you can use cleaners if needed.
    Be sure to heed the directions on the bottle as you may need to wait longer before applying the waterproofing treatment.
  • Once you have removed most of the grit and grime, you’ll want to make sure the boots stay wet.
    This is where most folks make their first misstep, so don’t reach for a hair dryer or set them out to dry. This would be a mistake, and extreme heat has never been a friend to leather.
  • Before you waterproof the boots, any leather parts should be thoroughly wet (inside and out) to ensure the treatment can properly penetrate the leather. If time is a concern or you live in an arid area, you can wrap the boots in wet towels as well.

Choosing the Right Waterproofing Treatment

What type of leather are your boots made from?

While you don’t have to know the leather’s country of origin, you do need to figure out whether it’s full-grain or suede. This helps you decide which type of waterproofing treatment you need and ensures you don’t damage your footwear with a simple mistake.

  • Full-Grain Leather
    This is the most common type of leather you’ll see with hardcore hikers, work boots, and even some tennis shoes. It’s made from the outside part of a tanned hide and can take a beating compared to other types of materials.

    You’ll typically use an oil or waxed-based waterproofing treatment for this style of boot. Treating boots with oil or wax can be time-consuming compared to our next option, but there’s a reason folks have been using them for over a century… they work.

  • Nubuck
    While very similar to leather, there is one distinct difference between these two types of hides. Nubuck is also the outer layer, but it’s been sanded which gives it a softer look but makes it less resistance to weather without some help.

    That said, you can’t use the same type of treatments on Nubuck as you would with full-grain leather. While they do need some extra attention, they are generally easier to treat.

  • Suede – Last but not least is suede. Elvis sang about it, and it’s a popular option in the hiking boot world as well. This type of leather features the inner layer of skin which has also been sanded down to give it a plushy look and feel.

    It’s also the most delicate form of leather, and not something you want out in the rain untreated. Thankfully, many waterproofing sprays available will work with both Nubuck and suede, a popular combination with all the major manufacturers.

Other materials used in boot construction may or may not need treatment as well – it depends on the boot.

Gore-tex is already waterproof and won’t need treating, so you can give them a good wipe down and move on. Keep waxes and oils away from any exotic materials and don’t wax those mesh membranes.

Boot Care Tips to Live By

  • You may need to treat your boots every few months depending on your usage. Regardless of when you treat your them, always makes sure they are dry before heading out.

    We know it can be tempting to slap a coat of protection on a few hours before hitting the trail, but the treatment needs time to set in, and those boots need time to dry.

  • Usually, wet boots are something you want to avoid, but it’s a necessity for treatment with some forms of leather.

    If you do need to speed up the drying process, you will be amazed by how quickly wadded up newspaper can suck the moisture out of boots. Never use a hair dryer or other methods capable of producing high heat.

  • On the flipside, when it’s time to store your boots, wipe them down beforehand as salt, and other substances can wreak havoc on leather. Keep your hiking boots stored in a dry place away from humidity, dampness or too much heat.

    Boots can take up plenty of space if you have large feet, but they don’t belong in an attic or basement during the off-season.

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