How to look after your walking footwear

Your hiking boots (please insert the name of your footwear here) are probably the most important bit of your kit. If your boots let you down it can be hell on the hills. I recommend you treat your boots like you treat your family – regular washes will lead to a harmonious relationship.

After every outing you should do the following
1. Clean your footwear thoroughly. I find a damp microfiber cloth works wonders here. Make sure you get into every little corner and clean out the dirt. The sad truth is that dirt can upset your footwear leading to water ingress, rust and material rot.
2. Clean the sole. You may need something to poke out the odd bit of moor still attached or the odd little stone. I sometimes have romantic thoughts that there is a bit of moorland in every garden I have lived in.
3. Let them dry in their own sweet time. This is a process you can’t really hurry without hurting your boots. Never put them near a radiator or put them in a tumble dryer (you might be surprised). Some people swear by scrunched up newspaper stuffed into a boot. This is an ancient technique which used to work because newspaper was very absorbent. These days newspapers are not absorbent and in my experience stuffing them with paper is more likely to slow down the drying process – it stands to reason really because moving air is more likely to dry something than still air. Drying them too quickly can lead to all kinds of trouble and leather boots really don’t like it.
4. You may then need to refresh the waterproofing. You can buy all kinds of good stuff for this but make sure it is a brand made especially for hiking boots. Leather will like a good coating of wax that will also help to stop any cracking.
5. Lift out the footbeds to allow better drying and help avoid nasty odours.

There is some information about the stuff you can use to clean and treat your boots at the end of this page.

New boots?

How nice for you to have some new boots. Your first step should always be to take a look at the manufacturers instructions and if they are provided store them somewhere safe for future reference and pay attention to what they advise.

They are most likely well treated with wax, etc. before they leave the factory so you probably don’t need to do anything. I must confess, though, that I can never resist adding some extra layers of protection to new boots so I can play with them.

They will probably need breaking in – although with modern leathers and fabric boots this is not the necessary step it once was. My first boots were made from a leather that could have been used to build battle ships and required months of painful moulding to my feet before they were comfortable. They don’t make them like they used to. Any wise person would still spend some time breaking in new boots because you don’t want to get out on the hills for a 30 mile hike only to discover that your boots are stiff and rub the back of your heal (believe me, I’ve done it – agony). If they are slow to break in there are products available to condition the leather and make it more pliable – this is usually a little drastic for a new boot so only do this if you really need to.

Storing boots

If the sad day arrives that you think you are not going to be able to go walking for a while then you should store your boots carefully. Find a place where the temperature is fairly stable and they are going to stay dry. I like to give my a good dose of treatment and then store them somewhere dry with a little ventilation (too much would be a bad thing here).

When your boots have taken a severe bashing

Sometimes you go out walking for more than a couple of days over really rough ground and your boots get heavily soiled and whilst it is nice to wear the dirt like a badge of honour – look where I went walking – it is better for your boots to give them a good clean. Of course, proper seasoned walkers will notice that your footwear has taken a bashing but that you bothered to clean them up afterwards earning you deep respect from those ‘in the know’.

One small tip before we start is to gather your laces together and poke them in the top of the boot before you start. Laces really get in the way when you are trying to clean. Of course you may like to remove the laces from time to time to get a good go at the boots tongue.

  1. Start with cleaning off the bigger chunks of detritus – don’t neglect the sole of the boot at this point. I use an old blunt knife for this task but a stick or spatula would do the job. I follow this up with a stiff brush (don’t be tempted to use a wire brush it will shred the material/leather of your boot), I use a cheap small scrubbing brush I picked up at the supermarket for this.
  2. Use some kind of boot cleaner (more about products mentioned below) and clean off all the dirt – making sure you get the dirt out of the stitching etc.
  3. Leave the boots to dry. Don’t try and force the issue they just need time to dry. Never put them in the tumble dryer.
  4. Optional stage is to use a leather conditioner (only on leather boots of course). You will have to judge if your boots need conditioning but remember that overuse of condition can make boots too soft and so they will not be as supportive any longer. I went walking with someone like that once – too soft to be supportive – I had to coax them around the route and was exhausted when we finally got back.
  5. Treat the boots with some sort of waterproofing.

How to apply wax to leather boots

There are various ways you can do this. However, there are some things that apply to all methods. Don’t try and do this when everything is cold because the wax won’t penetrate very well and it is much harder to do. So do it on a warm day or in a warm room and give everything (wax, boot, etc) time to warm up in the room. Some people recommend warming the boots with a hairdryer first but I just can’t be bothered with all that – besides my wife doesn’t like it if I borrow her stuff.

Using your fingers – you can just get stuck in and use your fingers in the wax and rub it direct on the boot. The idea is that the heat in your fingers will help the wax penetrate the leather. It does work but is a little messy and can leave your hand smelling of boot wax for quite a while. I prefer not to have this problem but it does make your fingers really waterproof.

Use a cloth – Similar to using your fingers and the heat from your hand will help the process. I find that you end up less messy this way but you still end up smelling of wax.

Use a shoe polish brush – I now prefer this method. You don’t get the heat benefits but you can use the brush to work the wax into all the seams and corners on the boot. After giving it a good go with the brush I then leave my boots in direct sunlight for 10 minutes or so (or near – not too near – a radiator) to warm the wax and let it soak in.

Finishing touches – I then give the boots a good polish with a soft shoe polish brush (you know the kind of thing). I recon this will rub off any excess wax – it can be a pain to have wax rubbing off on stuff from your boots – but also helps to rub in any warm wax that may still be left on the boot waiting.

What if my fabric boots seem to be getting wet are they useless

You may notice that the water can penetrate the outer fabric (this can happen with leather as well) but it does not get through to your foot. This is because often boots are made with an inner waterproof liner (this may be Goretex or something similar). This is perfectly normal and is what you might expect. However, if it is happening it does mean that you need to give your footwear a good dose of waterproofing so the outer layer will shed the water. You should notice it beading on your boot like it beads on your nice waterproof coat.

In fact nearly all waterproofing works this way because the waterproof layer is less hard wearing than the outer so to protect it the layer is put on the inside – strange but true. This means that even though you may notice the water soaking into the outer layer you are probably still staying dry. This is true for coats, tents, softshells, etc as well as footwear. However, to stop the waterproof layer getting overwhelmed you need as much water as possible to bead and run off the outer layer before reaching the inner keeping you lovely and dry. Which is why we apply waterproofing to everything. Manufacturers are working on a solution to make the waterproof inner layer much stronger so they can make our equipment much lighter and easier to carry.

Footwear treatment manufacturers

There are two main manufacturers of footwear treatment and they both have their devotees and to be honest are both very good. You will find helpful advice on which of their products to buy on their sites and because they seem to improve their treatments often (strange that because the last lot I bought was supposed to be brilliant at what it did anyway) I haven’t added any advice on which to use on this page.
Grangers and Nikwax