After graduating from high school, instead of forging ahead along the traditional path of higher education, I decided to enroll in the National Outdoor Leadership School for a semester spent entirely in the bush of New Zealand. For this, I needed a pair of sturdy hiking boots.
In an attempt to save some cash, my father proposed an alternative to our local gear shop: his old hiking boots that had been stashed in various bins and closets for 20 or so years. As he’d be the one ponying up for a new pair, I didn’t have a choice other than to concede and agree to at least look over the boots and slip my feet into them.
When he finally did succeed in obtaining the boots from the maw of our basement, it quickly became clear that they would not serve me on my trip. For one, they didn’t fit. But more importantly, the leather had cracked and dried like over-dehydrated beef jerky; the stiff mass of rubber and leather less yielding than our dog’s rawhide bones — he took one sniff and retreated, and we made our way to the gear shop.
My dad’s boots — I no longer remember the brand — were the type that could feasibly have lasted a lifetime, had they been adequately cared for. Even after years of his use, the lugs maintained their ridges and the welt held fast. It was the leather upper, left to years of neglect, which made the boots un-walkable.
Cleaning and maintaining leather hiking boots is a simple chore that, if carried out regularly, will make a sturdy pair of boots last years. We recommend using Nikwax products to do this because they don’t require heat activation and are easy on the materials, so we reached out to the company for tips on how to best handle the job. Below, Heidi Allen, VP of Marketing, demystifies the process, and the same boots that I bought before traveling to New Zealand get a much-needed cleanse, nearly 10 years later.
When to Clean Your Hiking Boots
“Clean your boots whenever they get really dirty. Leaving dirt caked on your boots will pull moisture from the leather, which can cause premature cracking. If you’re not getting your boots super muddy, the best way to tell when they need care is when they no longer repel water. If they absorb water, it’s time to clean and re-waterproof! If the leather cracks and splits, especially right where your foot flexes, it’s no good.”
How to Clean and Maintain Your Leather Hiking Boots
Clean your hiking boots. “I like to stick a towel in the boot to absorb any air and water so the inside stays as dry as possible. This also shortens the dry time so you’re not left with sopping wet boots after the cleaning. Leave your hand in the boot holding it with a towel, scrubbing the exterior with the cleaning gel under a little bit of running water. Once it’s all nice and clean and rinsed, then you’re ready to waterproof.”
Re-waterproof your boots. “For full-grain leather, we make waterproofing wax for leather. We have it in a cream and liquid format — I almost always recommend the cream. It’s immediately effective and it doesn’t need to dry or cure. Squeeze it on and rub it in — you can use a cloth, the built-in sponge or you can use your hands. Pay attention to the seams — make sure you get full coverage.
Then, wipe off any excess. You don’t want big globs left over; you want it to pretty much disappear into the leather. A lot of other leather products will actually soften the leather, which is problematic if you want any structure to your boot because over time they’ll get floppy. This product doesn’t over-soften, but it still preserves the tanning agents and maintains the moisture of the leather so that it doesn’t dry out or crack.”
What to Do if Your Boots Are Dry and Cracked
“Let’s say you do have a pair of boots and they’re starting to get a little dry and cracky. We make conditioner for leather as well, and you can use it instead of the waterproofing wax and it’ll actually soften the leather. It’s great for rejuvenating cracked leather and it’s also awesome for breaking in a pair of super stiff boots.”
What You Need
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