Properly fitting hiking boots are one of the most important pieces of outdoor equipment you will own.
Sure first-aid kits and tents are also crucial, but boots protect your feet from hazards, support your ankles when carrying heavy loads, and provide warmth in cool and wet conditions.
These tips are handy for boots constructed of all materials — particularly those made with leather.
A pair of muddy boots may be a romanticized, rustic image on the trails, but in a closet the same dirty boots are damaging the leather. To ensure you get as many miles as possible from your hikers, let’s look at how to clean and care for them.
After each outing you should clean your hiking boots. Depending on how dirty the boots are, cleaning may only require a light brush to wipe away loose dirt or a more thorough washing with soap and water.
It is particularly important to remove mud from boots. As mud dries it draws moisture from the leather. This causes the leather to weaken and it loses its ability to flex, which can cause cracking and poor water repellency.
Before you wash and clean your boots, remove the laces and insoles. Next, lightly brush off any loose dirt before wetting. To remove stubborn dirt or stains, use warm water with a soft brush and soap for cleaning your boots’ material. See what the manufacturer recommends for cleaning solutions specific to your boots.
Remove rocks from the boot tread with a sturdy object, such as a flathead screwdriver, and soak mud caked soles in an inch of water to loosen dirt.
Also pay particular attention to the joint between the upper of the boot and the sole. This section is usually covered with a rubber strip, called a rand. Thoroughly clean this area so that you can properly waterproof it later. The same advice applies to the tongue as both are primer areas for water to enter the boot. To finish cleaning, scrub the laces in a mild soap solution, and wipe the inside of the boots with a damp cloth to remove salt deposits from perspiration.
The process for waterproofing your boots will vary depending on their material. Boots should always be clean before applying a waterproofing treatment and new boots should be treated before wearing them outside for the first time; however, many treatment instructions recommend you break boots in to ensure they fit and to loosen the leather before applying the treatment.
There are two main types of waterproofing solutions — wax-based and silicone-based products — which can come in water based or non-water-based solutions. Non-water-based waterproofing agents are usually applied to dry boots. While most water-based sprays or liquids are applied to damp boots, and as the boot dries the leather absorbs the waterproofing agent.
Contact your manufacturer or place of purchase for specific information on waterproofing products for your footwear. Finally, after waterproofing, allow leather boots to dry at room temperature because placing them near direct heat will damage the leather and weaken glue.
You should condition your boots once annually, or more if your boots appear to be getting dry. Conditioning your boots involves simply applying a moisturizing product to the leather to ensure it does not dry, crack or become stiff, but remains flexible and supple.
Some waterproofing solutions, often wax-based, have a conditioner built into them, but don’t assume waterproofing your boots is enough. Again, check with your manufacturer about conditioning products compatible with your boots.
When conditioning your boots, pay attention to the creases in the leather, such as the area over the toe box when your foot flexes, as these areas of movement are more prone to cracking.
Once your boots are cleaned, waterproofed and conditioned, you can store them in a closet until your next hike. If you’ve kept them hidden over the winter, check the leather to see if it has dried during storage and apply conditioner if necessary before taking them to the trail.
Caring for your boots is a wise investment of your time. Good hiking boots are not a modest purchase and finding a quality pair can take a lot of effort.
Keep your boots clean and in good condition and they’ll be one less thing to worry about on the trails.