Making sure your footwear is well-conditioned and waterproof should be part of your cold weather gear preparation routine. Prior to fall or winter use, it’s important to make sure your footwear is clean and remains waterproof. A visual examination will determine if your boots have collected mud, grit and other minute debris (especially along the seams of the boot). Simply noting that water no longer beads up on the surface is a sure signs the boots have lost their waterproofing.
Footwear is constructed of either leather, ‘rough’ leather (suede, nubuck) or synthetics. For the purposes of more rigorous and rough outdoor, back-country use, let’s stick to the more practical boot materials and not consider suede in this context. That said, both leather and synthetics can be cleaned the same way.
Before cleaning, remove the laces and any liners or insoles. Use a soft brush and a mild soap (not detergent or bar soap) and water to remove dirt from the surface and seams of the footwear.
Don’t worry about getting the boots too wet in the process, waterproofing boots should be done soon after washing while the leather is still damp throughout as the dampness draws the waterproofing treatment down into the leather. Boots with a waterproof liner (GoreTex) don’t need further waterproofing, but be careful not to pierce the liner through use or other treatments.
If you are simply cleaning the boots, it’s best to let them dry slowly in a low humidity environment. You can use a fan to help speed up the drying process. Do NOT use hot air blow dryers, sit near a heat source (cabin stove or campfire) and don’t put in direct sunlight.
Boots that are not wet can be moistened by cleaning first or by wrapping the boots in a wet towel and waiting until the moisture is absorbed throughout the boot.
Again, check with the manufacturer for any special instructions on waterproofing their product. Also follow the directions on the waterproof treatment. Sprays, waxes and creams are the three most common treatments. Some cream applications can darken the leather.
Once the waterproofing has been applied, wipe off any access and let the boots dry as recommended above.
You can also consider conditioners for leather footwear. These can revitalize stiff, old boots and even help with the breaking in process for new footwear. Too much conditioning oil can render the boots too soft for their intended use and support, so apply judiciously.
To get the most from your footwear, select the right boot for the right applications: on-trail hiking, off-trail scrambling or other back-country bush-whacking. Using the footwear beyond its intended use can affect how well it stands up to abuse from the elements as well as its need for frequent waterproofing