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How to Care For Hiking Boots and Shoes

This informative video discusses how to maintain and care for hiking boots and shoes.

How to Care For Hiking Boots and Shoes

The following how-to covers a couple of tips for maintenance of hiking and backpacking footwear made of leather, non-leather and combination materials like fabric and leather.


Most shoes out of the box are ready to wear. Many come from the factory with a water treatment that’s applied to the outside to repel water and keep the materials in the upper from absorbing moisture. There are some things you can do, though, to prolong the life of your footwear, as well as make the waterproofing work a little bit better.


The first question related to maintenance is how often you should be maintaining your footwear. This isn’t something you need to do every day, and a lot of it depends on how active you are with your footwear, as well as what kind of conditions you are using it in. When you come back from a longer hike or backpacking trip, that’s a good opportunity to maintain your footwear. The first thing you’ll want to do is make sure there isn’t a lot of sand, grit or dirt collected into the seams and cracks of your boot or shoe. You can use a toothbrush to brush off the outside of your footwear and clean out some of those seams. All the sand, grit and dirt that got stuck in there while you were on the trail last time will slowly abrade the materials while you wear your boot or shoe in the future, so the better a job you can do at removing that dirt, the longer the life of your boot or shoe’s upper will be. There probably isn’t any need to do thoroughly clean your boots or shoes after every hike, but particularly dusty or muddy conditions might make frequent cleanings necessary. If your hike was relatively “clean,” just make sure your footwear is dry and remove the insoles, and then set them aside until the next time you need them.


Thinking about the upper of your boots or shoes again, you need to consider the material they are made from to determine the best maintenance routine. Full leather is probably the most maintenance intensive material, and there are a variety of products on the market that are meant to restore it or restore the water repellency that is living on the outside of the leather. You can apply this product with a toothbrush and maybe an old rag. Before applying any leather conditioning product, be sure the outside of the footwear is cleaned of excess dirt from seams, as discussed above. The main thing to remember is whatever footwear conditioner you’ve purchased, you want to follow the directions on the back of the bottle or tube. Not all directions are the same, so it’s always a good idea to check those before applying any product to your footwear. For example, sometimes the directions request that you dampen the leather before you apply the conditioner. In that case you can use a wet rag and soak the outside of the boot a bit. It doesn’t need to be sopping wet, but you’ll want to see some coloration change where the upper is actually damp.


Once your leather footwear is prepped for conditioning, use your rag to work the product into the seams and right around the edge where the outsole meets the upper; make sure you’ve got all those areas thoroughly covered. Continue to work the product into all of the leather on the boot or shoe. Next, wait a couple of minutes to let the product set into the material, and then use another rag to buff it in. Now just wait for the product to dry, which probably won’t be more than an overnight, and you’ll be ready to go out in your footwear the next day.


If you have leather footwear, you should always have a leather conditioning product on hand. Leather is very susceptible to temperature changes, as well as to drying and being damaged from moisture. When leather gets wet it expands and when it dries it shrinks. For this reason you never want to dry your damp boots by any sort of a direct heat source. Examples of direct heat sources would be woodstoves, campfires, radiators, heaters, blow dryers, or anything that seems like a really good idea for a quick way to dry your footwear; those are usually not good for a leather boot or shoe at all. That kind of drying process shrinks the leather over a short period of time, which results in cracking. Over time, flex lines will form in your leather footwear in places where it gets worked the most, such as behind the toes. This is just the sort of place where your footwear is most susceptible to cracking because the leather is weakened there. These areas especially need to be conditioned and kept from high heat sources.


Another thing to be concerned with regarding outdoor footwear, as far as maintenance goes, is the waterproof barrier that came applied from the factory. This will wear off over time, and a good indicator that this is becoming an issue is the outside of your boot becoming water logged. You might even think your boot is leaking. The fabrics in your footwear’s uppers will start absorbing water, and they will be heavy and quickly soaked while wearing them in wet conditions. You can use another product to update or improve the water repellency on the outside of your footwear; as with the leather conditioner, make certain to follow the directions on the back of the packaging and work it into all the areas of your footwear’s uppers. Let the material absorb this product, and then wipe the excess away before leaving your footwear to dry completely before your next hike.


There are a few other things to avoid when cleaning footwear. Number one is never wash your boots or shoes in a washing machine! Try not to store them in any location that is overly hot. For example, the trunk of your car in the summer or a hot stuffy closet; exposure to high temperatures of that sort will start to melt some of the glues used in the soles, and your outsoles could delaminate. You also wouldn’t want to store your footwear in any place that’s overly damp or wet because this will lead to mildew or rot.


We’ve mostly focused on how to condition leather footwear in this article. Other types of footwear are maintainable in much the same way through a variety of different products designed to work specifically with fabric or synthetic leather footwear.