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How to Break In a Pair of Boots, According to an Expert Bootmaker

Tips from White’s Boots president, Eric Kinney.

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Gear Patrol

Welcome to Guide to Life, a series of tips, tricks and insights designed to help you get the most from your gear.

When you buy a pair of boots, they should be well-built — built for tough terrain, tough jobs and, most importantly, the long haul. So it’s worth shelling out a bit more cash to step up your boot game. You are standing and walking in them all day, after all. That said, just because you invest some decent coin in fine footwear doesn’t mean they’ll feel like a cloud from the first lace-up. They’ll take you to task if you don’t take the proper steps to break them in.

So, we looked to one of the most respected names in the boot world to glean some wisdom on how to break in a pair of boots properly. White’s Boots — based in Spokane, Washington — has been around since 1853 and is known for its line of heavy-duty boots designed for rigorous jobs like logging and firefighting. Eric Kinney started on the White’s factory floor, learning every part of how to make a boot and, over twenty years on, he’s now the president of the prestigious company. We asked him for his tips on breaking in a new pair of boots and here’s what he had to say.

Don’t Wear Them for Too Long

It’s the most counter-intuitive piece of advice, which is why Kinney says he sees people making this mistake all the time. “The most common thing people do that is wrong is to wear them too long," he says. "Our boots are different than most. When we talk about break in, we mean getting the foot used to the higher arch. Yes, there can be hot spots or wear spots but when a boot is fit correctly, that is minimal.”

Even with the most well-fitting shoe, there will be some time before your feet and the shoe itself get fully acquainted. The leather needs to be flexed, stretched and softened in order to mold to your feet. That requires putting in the time in, but your feet may not like it — at least, not at first. How often should you wear them, then?

“A few hours a day should be good,” Kinney says. “Some people have no problems and can wear them all day right out of the box. On average it’s around 80 to 100 hours to get them where you shouldn’t have any issues. Add hours everyday until your feet get used to the new fit.”

Use Leather Oil

While the break-in process can be demanding, you don’t have to tough it out without any outside help. Leather oil can help accelerate the process. Normally, leather oil is used in boot maintenance, to help condition and nourish leather boots in addition to other supplemental shoe care products. But it can also be beneficial in the early stages of a boot’s life.

“We recommend using a boot oil like Obenauf’s two to three times the first week to treat the vamp of the boot,” Kinney says. That’s the area of the shoe that spans from the balls of the feet to the toe. It’s the area of the boot that will be doing all the flexing or, put another way, the area that’s causing the most growing pains. Leather oil will penetrate deeper into leathers over leather creams, so it’s best for thick, heavy-duty leathers like the kind you’ll find on most work boots. Applying leather oil will soften the leather and allow for it to stretch as it forms to your feet.

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But remember to apply it strategically. “We don’t recommend using oil on the quarters of the boots at first. You want the leather at the ankles to stay firm and not stretch,” Kinney says. “If you have a spot that is rubbing, you can use a small amount to soften that spot up. Once a month a small amount of oil can be used on the whole boot to keep the leather conditioned. If you work in concrete or dry conditions, use a little more than normal. A little goes a long way, though.”

Let your boots air dry or buy a boot dryer but never put them over a heat register. Drying the leather out is the worst thing for a pair of boots. Always brush off mud and debris daily to avoid drying the leather out.

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Skip the Laces

One of the easiest things to do is to use the laces only where you need them. For instance, if you’re not doing a lot of kneeling or squatting, Kinney says you can skip lacing up the upper eyelets of the boot, around the ankle. This will save your ankles from undue soreness in the beginning. Once you’ve softened the main areas of the boot around the vamp and in the insole, then you can lace up the last few eyelets.

Wear the Right Socks

There’s no miracle pair of socks that’ll magically turn your burly boots into a pair of slippers overnight. But choosing the right pair of socks is still worth considering. Kinney says that a medium thickness sock in cotton or wool will do the trick. “I would recommend wearing the same sock that you were fit up in," he says. "Keep everything the same until the boot is broken in. Then you can adjust your sock to the season you are in.”


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