Hiking boots are the most important piece of equipment for any hiker or backpacker, simply put, you rely on them to get you where you’re going. Just like regular cleaning, hiking boot maintenance also means replacing the DWR. Almost all new hiking boots are factory-treated with a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) finish, so they rarely need waterproofing treatment straight from the box. However, eventually this finish will wear off and the boots will become less and less waterproof, so you can update the coating in order to keep your boots in the best possible condition, and to keep your feet dry.
Once the water stops beading and rolling off your boots, and absorbs into the material instead, you’ll know you need to revamp the waterproof coating. It’s a fairly easy task, and well worth it to keep your feet dry and happy. Wet feet are not only incredibly uncomfortable but also contribute to blisters and can actually be very dangerous in cold weather. Waterproofing your boots is just a 20-minute task, and will keep your feet dry and your boots in great shape.
Ideally, a waterproof pair of hiking boots would stay that way throughout their lifetime, however, with the wear and tear of hiking, the coating will deteriorate sooner or later. The more miles you put into your boots, the sooner you’ll need to replace the coating. If you want to keep your feet dry and help your boots last, waterproofing is a must. The process of waterproofing is usually very easy, so don’t worry, you aren’t adding a huge task to your to-do list. Instead, most of these treatments take less than 20 minutes from start to finish, so there’s no excuse not to keep your feet dry.
Why waterproof your hiking boots?
- Dry feet help prevent blisters, every hiker’s worst enemy. Keeping your feet dry is the most obvious reason, you’ll be much more comfortable on the trail.
- It makes gore-tex liners work better. Many boots are equipped with a gore-tex membrane, which helps wick moisture (sweat) away from your feet and out of the boot, so we waterproofing will actually improve the effectiveness of this feature.
- Waterproofing will help significantly extend the life of your boots, just like cleaning and drying them after hikes, proper maintenance of your boots will make them last you much longer.
There are many products to choose from for waterproofing hiking boots, each for different boot materials. Before buying a waterproofing treatment, check your boots’ materials, so you can get the right product.
Leather boots, also called full-grain leather boots, appear smooth and shiny when new. Leather is actually naturally waterproof, and some full-grain leather hiking boots also have a breathable waterproof membrane to improve it further. Nubuck leather looks similar to suede, it has a brushed effect from being buffered down. This makes if thinner and less durable than full-grain leather, and also lessens the waterproof properties. A good example of these boots are Timberlands, which are some of the most well-known hiking boots in the industry.
Because of this, many unbuckle leather boots also have a breathable waterproof membrane. Synthetic hiking boots are any pair that isn’t made of leather. They’re made from a large range of non-natural fabrics, varying from brand to brand. It’s important to note that synthetic boots are not always waterproof, but the presence of gore-tex and a DWR coating helps make the fabric both waterproof and breathable.
Different waterproofing treatments
Most waterproofing treatments are made for full grain or unbuckle leather. Wax-based treatments used to be popular, but nowadays you should avoid them if you want to be able to re-sole your boots, as they can have a negative effect on the adhesive used in this process. Many people think that Gore-tex never needs waterproofing, but just like the rest of the boot, eventually, wear and tear will lessen its effectiveness. Gore-tex will deteriorate over time, but using a waterproofing treatment on it can help revitalize the material.
How to waterproof your hiking boots
Step 1: Preparation
Waterproofing products work best on clean, damp boots. You don’t want any dirt to get in the way of full coverage and penetration of the materials, and the water on the exterior layer of your boots (making it damp) will help draw in the chemicals from the treatment. It’s essential that your boots are as clean as possible before treating them, to make the process as effective as possible.
- Gently clean off the dirt and mud with a soft brush
- Remove the laces
- Wash your boots using a mild detergent or boot cleaner
- Soak your boots in water (but not nubuck leather, this will stain and over-soften them, and the same goes for suede boots)
- Rinse the boots off
- Towel dry
Step 2: Applying a waterproofing treatment
For leather hiking boots:
Lots of full-grain leather boots actually don’t have a waterproof membrane, so they rely heavily on leathers natural waterproof qualities. However, after a little use, leather has a tendency of becoming a bit leaky. Applying waterproofing treatment before this happens will keep your boots in better condition for longer.
Once your boots are clean and prepared, start waterproofing straight away, while they’re still wet. Just running water over them isn’t sufficient, the water must be fully soaked into the leather, which takes some time. If they seem too dry, wrap your boots up in a very wet towel and leave for a few hours in the sink. Having the boots being fully soaked allows the treatment to fully settle into the leather, making it much more effective.
Here are a few waterproofing product options for leather hiking boots:
Atsko Sno-Seal Original Beeswax Waterproofing
- Wax is great for conditioning boots as it works without softening the leather
- You should never use wax on Gore-tex as it can affect its breathability
- This method is a little more time consuming than other more convenient products like sprays
- This wax is great at maintaining flexibility and waterproofing in freezing temperatures
- To use the wax, soften it first by heating it, you could use a hairdryer or another heat source
- Work it into the clean, wet leather of your boots with a cloth
- We recommend wearing rubber gloves
- Repeat this process
- Leave to dry fully before your next hike, with your newly waterproof boots
Obenauf’s LP Boot Preservative
- This wax is good for both leather and synthetic materials
- It makes your boots look great, and has great water repelling properties
- One application is enough for most needs, but two coatings will provide an amazing barrier between your boots and whatever the world throws at them
- At room temperature, apply the wax by hand as your body temperature will help the wax melt into the leather
- If you’re doing two applications, allow an hour between treatments
- Once it’s dry, buff smooth leather with a clean cloth, for extra shine
Nikwax Waterproofing Wax Liquid for Leather
- This product is water-based, biodegradable, and free of fluorocarbons and VOCs
- It works the same way as wax, but actually absorbs into the leather faster
- To apply this Nikwax product, use the sponge applicator on clean, wet leather
- Leave to set for a couple of minutes
- Wipe off the excess, and buff with a clean cloth
- Make sure to leave your boots to dry fully before their next use
For nubuck hiking boots:
Hiking boots made with nubuck leather require a little more care and attention than those made with full-grain leather. Using wax on these boots would ruin their sort, brushed finish, and could even stain them, so make sure you use a treatment specially designed for nubuck.
Clean your boots thoroughly, but be very careful not to soak them in water. However, most waterproofing treatments for nubuck do require boots to be damp, to encourage the uptake of your chosen product. Just make sure to check the instructions of the product of your choice before beginning.
Here are a few waterproofing product options for nubuck and suede hiking boots:
Gear Aid Revivex Suede Protector
- This spray can actually be used on hiking boots of any material, including Gore-tex
- It maximizes the breathability of your shoes to keep your feet dry and fresh
- This waterproofer comes in a spray bottle, so it’s really easy to apply
- You should first test this spray on an inconspicuous area, to make sure it won’t stain your boots
- Apply to dry footwear in this case, not damp
- Once your boots have been cleaned, allow them to dry
- Then saturate your hiking boots with the spray, on all surfaces
- After 5 minutes, use a clean cloth to wipe away the excess
- For even more effective waterproofing, leave your boots to dry overnight and then apply a second coat
Scotchgard Suede and Nubuck Protector
- This spray-on treatment will add a layer of waterproofing to your nubuck or suede boots, without altering their appearance
- You should still test it on a small section, just to be on the safe side
- During application, spray liberally onto clean, dry nubuck from about 15cm away from the shoe
- Leave this coat to dry, then proceed with another application
- After doing two treatments, leave to dry completely before use
For fabric or synthetic hiking boots
Most hiking boots made from synthetic materials hold very few natural waterproofing properties. They rely heavily on having a built-in waterproof membrane, as well as a DWR coating to repel water from the surface of the boot. Its also important to note, because of all the seams in the boot, which are a weak point when it comes to water penetrating your hiking shoe, you should also know how to waterproof Gore-tex boots.
Just like with leather boots, the majority of treatments for synthetic boots require the shoes to be wet beforehand, but always check the instructions first.
Here are a few waterproofing product options for synthetic hiking boots:
Nikwax Fabric and Leather Proof
- This Nixwax treatment can actually be used on both leather and synthetic shoes, making is a great choice for boots which combine the two
- It works by coating the individual fibers that make up either the fabric or leather
- To achieve this, this spray uses a DWR treatment that is both flexible and maintains breathability
- In order to apply this waterproofing treatment, start by spraying onto clean, wet boots from just 5cm away
- Leave to dry for a couple of minutes before wiping away any excess
- Then, leave your pair to dry fully before their next use
Gear Aid ReviveX Nubuck Suede and Fabric Waterproofing
- This treatment is a great option if your boots are made from several different materials, including having a membrane made from Gore-tex
- Gore-tex membranes provide waterproof protection for your feet while keeping your boots breathable
- This treatment adds a DWR coating to the surface of your boots, so they can actually repel water
- To apply, spray on to clean and damp boots
- Leave for about 5 minutes, then use a cloth to wipe away the excess
- Then simply leave to dry fully before your next hiking trip
Drying your hiking boots after treatment
Because wet leather is neither supportive nor breathable, you need to have dry boots before you set off. For some waterproofing product, drying is the final step to complete the process, solidifying your new DWR layer.
- It’s best to dry your boots at a normal temperature, in a place where there’s not much humidity.
- Don’t be tempted to use a heat source to dry, and this includes the sun.
- External heat can damage the glue which holds your boots together.
- If you want to speed up the drying, use a fan.
- You could also stuff your boots with pieces of newspaper. If you do, change it regularly to help them dry as well as possible.
- You can put out the insoles from your shoe and allow them to dry separately, this will help your boots dry faster.
Conditioning your hiking boots
If you have leather hiking boots, a leather conditioner will help keep your boots supple, and in good condition. It’s important to use these treatments sparingly though, as walking boots aren’t designed to be too soft, or else they will lose their supportiveness. You should only condition your hiking boots when you see the leather beginning to dry out and crack, certainly not every time you wear them.
Leather conditioning works best when boots are slightly damp, as this will help the product to absorb better. As the water on the boots evaporates, it will actually pull the conditioner deep into the leather’s pores.
- Work a very small amount of conditioner into the leather on your boots, using either your fingers or a clean cloth
- Include the welts and seams, all areas can benefit from conditioning
- Let the boots sit at room temperature for a few minutes, then remove any excess conditioner with a cloth
- Allow the boots to dry naturally, without applying them to a heat source
How to store your hiking boots
You should store your hiking boots in a place where temperatures are stable, and ventilation is regular. Don’t store them in attics, garages, or car trunks, all of these places can be damp, hot, and unventilated, which is not good for your shoes. Follow these storage guidelines to help extend the lifetime of your boots, they should last you much longer this way.
Waterproofing your boots is an important part of gear care and maintenance. The most convenient way to waterproof your hiking boots is using a spray, however, if you’ve got the time it’s worth putting the effort into waxing your boots. However before doing this, check that wax, and not spray or cream is the ideal choice for you.
Having properly waterproofed boots is vital to staying safe and comfortable on hiking trips. Keeping your feet dry will mean you can enjoy nature without worrying about squelching in puddles, and with less fear of blisters too. Because applying waterproofing treatments to your boots also helps prolong their working lives, there’s really no reason to add waterproofing to your gear maintenance schedule.
If you follow all the steps laid out in this article, your boots should take you the extra mile, and keep your feet happy, safe, and most importantly, dry! If you’re unsure about your next camping destination, read here about where to go for the best hiking in Washington State. Known for being a rainy place, your newly waterproofed boots should come in handy. We recommend Deception Pass State Park, where you can hike miles off trails along lakes and beaches, and where it’s possible to spot orcas and other amazing wildlife.