Shoes and boots are one of the hardest items to buy sustainably. They are bound to wear out eventually, especially if you are hiking on a regular basis. The best way to prolong the life of your footwear is to maintain the material integrity, store them properly, and keep them clean.
There is a lot of variation in types of footwear for outdoor activities, so for the purposes of this guide, we will focus on hiking shoes and boots. Since many hiking boots are made from synthetic materials, we will discuss care and maintenance in that realm as well as how to treat and clean leather boots.
Keep Your Hiking Boots Clean
All of your outdoor gear should be kept clean. Even if you don’t clean it very often, a good habit is to clean it at the end of every season. If you wear leather boots, cleaning them more often will prevent the leather from drying out and cracking, especially when you’ve hiked in muddy areas.
Cleaning your boots when hiking in a new environment is also important. While it may feel unlikely, you can track invasive species of plants to other areas on the bottom of your hiking boots. Some hiking areas have boot brushes on-site to make brushing off the soles of your boots easier.
Dirt, sand, grit, you name it, can all build up on your boots, and that all wears down the materials over time. Other things like mold, mildew, and body sweat can impact the lifespan of your boots if left unclean.
To clean your hiking boots, you need:
- A brush (toothbrush, boot brush, etc.)
- Soap and water (specialized boot soap works, but so does most mild dish soap)
Cleaning the uppers and soles of your boots will differ slightly and depend on the material. The process for cleaning most boots will be similar, but the primary difference is treatment afterward and the types of cleaning solutions you should use.
We recommend always following manufacturer guidelines on cleaning for best results. The cleaning process described below is a general guide that may apply to most hiking boots and shoes, but there are likely variations between brands and materials.
How to clean hiking boots:
- Remove the laces.
- Brush off debris like dirt, mud, sand, etc., from the boot upper. A brush may work for the boot’s soles, but you can be more aggressive in dislodging mud and rocks from the lugs.
- For dirt you’re unable to dry brush off the soles, soak the soles, and then use running water or a hose to rinse the mud off.
- If dry brushing isn’t enough for the uppers, make a solution of boot cleaner or the mild soap of your choice and apply that using the brush. Scrub gently and rinse often.
- Do not use laundry detergent, bar soaps, or any cleaners that have additives that could damage the boots (this is especially important for leather).
- See which boot cleaner the boot manufacturer recommends for the best results.
- If your boots are moldy or have salt stains, use an 80/20 water/vinegar solution.
- Rinse off the soap using warm running water.
- Repeat this cleaning process until the boots are clean.
- If you want to waterproof your boots, do it while they are still wet. For more details on doing that, jump to the next section.
How to dry hiking boots:
- If you didn’t already, remove the insoles and let them dry outside the boots.
- We recommend air drying the boots in an area with low humidity and at an average temperature. If you have a fan, you can set that up to help speed up the drying process.
- Do not put your boots in the machine dryer, near a fire, by a heater or radiator, or by a wood-burning stove. High heat will weaken adhesives, age leather, and can even cause the boots to shrink.
- If you have a boot dryer, you can use this.
- If you’re struggling to get the inside dry, stuff newspaper, paper bags, or other paper scraps inside the boots while they dry. Swap out damp paper for new paper.
- Once the boots are dry, store them in a dry, temperature-controlled environment.
Not all boots need to be conditioned after they are cleaned. If you have leather boots, move on to the leather boot section below.
Waterproofing and Conditioning Hiking Boots
Many hiking boots are either water-resistant or waterproof. While they should be ready to wear out of the box, over time, the waterproof treatment will wear off and need to be reapplied. To waterproof your boots, they will need to be clean first. So, follow the cleaning instructions in the previous section before attempting to waterproof.
Like cleaning solutions, waterproofing treatments can vary from boot brands and materials. Always utilize the manufacturer’s instructions on recommended products to ensure you use the appropriate waterproof treatment.
Boots with a Gore-Tex or other waterproof membrane should not need a waterproofing treatment in the areas the membrane covers. Other areas may require treatment from time to time, but these materials can be cleaned and dried with no waterproofing.
The most common material that needs a waterproofing treatment is leather. So, if you have leather boots, follow the waterproofing instructions below. There are also spray-on waterproof treatments that can work on synthetic shoes. These treatments generally only add water resistance but help when hiking in wet areas and climates. Follow the instructions provided on the waterproofing treatment for best results.
How to waterproof leather hiking boots:
- Wash your boots and ensure the leather is thoroughly soaked with water. It may take some time for the leather to absorb water through the material, so be patient and take your time with this process. If you have just cleaned the boots after brushing and scrubbing the materials, they should have absorbed a fair amount of water.
- We do not recommend putting your leather boots in a tub of water to achieve this, but just running water over them a few times likely won’t do the trick either. If you are struggling with this step, wrap the boots in a wet towel and let them sit in the sink for a while (1-2 hours). Check them periodically, and rewet the cloth as needed.
- Once the leather is wet enough, apply waterproof treatment as described in the product directions.
- Some leather waterproof treatments also condition the boots.
- Wax-based waterproof treatments for leather may differ in prep. These are generally cost-effective but have become less popular. If you wear leather boots that you plan to resole, wax residue may build up and prevent the sole from binding correctly. So, in those cases, wax treatments should be avoided.
- Allow the boots to dry completely before wearing them again.
Synthetic hiking boots are also easy to waterproof. Follow manufacturer recommendations and the directions provided on waterproofing products. One small tip for synthetic waterproofing boots is to test the product only on a small area first. Some products can change the color of the material, so apply in one area and wait for at least 30 minutes to see if you like the result or not.
Keep in mind that each boot material, from synthetics to types of leather, will have different waterproof treatments. Most products are explicitly designed to be used with only that material type. For instance, leather types such as suede or nubuck shouldn’t require conditioning. Full-grain leather boots should be conditioned after every cleaning and when they look dry, cracked, or are new and need to be broken in faster.
Q: Is beeswax good for leather boots?
Beeswax can be an easy and affordable way to provide leather boots with a waterproof layer. However, wax can build up over time and cause issues when you need to resole the boots.
Q: Should you wax new hiking boots?
No, you shouldn’t need to wax new hiking boots. Most manufacturers ensure that boots are ready to go out of the box. You can use wax and other care over time and with more use.
Q: How do I stop my leather boots from cracking?
To stop leather boots from cracking, they should be properly moisturized. Using a leather conditioner or cream can moisturize and protect the boots from cracking as you walk. Follow the leather boot care instructions above for more details.
Q: Is mink oil good for leather?
Yes, mink oil can be good for leather boot care, but is only recommended for industrial leather boots. It does an excellent job conditioning the leather and providing a protective layer of wax, but because most leather hiking boots are dry-tanned, mink oil will over soften the materials.
Q: Can you put hiking boots in the washer and dryer?
We do not recommend using a machine washer or dryer to clean and dry your hiking boots. Some synthetic boots and shoes may be able to be cleaned this way, but most boots will be damaged. We recommend hand washing them and letting them air dry, sit in the sun, or use a boot dryer.