If you were to come up with a list of things nobody likes, wet socks would certainly be on it. That awful, cold, wet, squishy feeling is pure misery– but when you’re hiking, it can be more than that. It can be downright dangerous to have wet socks. At the very least, you run the risk of blisters as the socks cause your feet to slip around uncomfortably inside of your boots– but there are far more serious risks, like hypothermia.
Fortunately, it isn’t too hard to take precautions against wet socks. To keep your feet dry, just make sure that the water stays outside of your boots. This can be done with waterproofing. Waterproofing involves coating your boots with a durable water repellent coating, or DWR.
Why Waterproof Your Boots?
There are plenty of great reasons to waterproof your boots. When you’re hiking, water is sometimes the enemy. You will often encounter wet conditions such as rain, puddles, streams, and snow, and these can cause lots of problems for your feet. Wet feet can quickly lead to discomfort and blisters, which can ruin your hiking experience. Waterproofing helps maintain a dry and comfortable environment inside your boots, allowing you to enjoy your hike without distractions. In cold or wet weather, wet boots can reduce your foot’s insulation properties, making you feel colder. Waterproofing helps to maintain the insulating qualities of your boots, keeping your feet warm.
There are other comfort considerations, too. Wet conditions can make trails slippery. Waterproofing helps prevent your boots from becoming waterlogged, maintaining better stability and reducing the risk of slipping and falling. Waterlogged boots are significantly heavier than dry boots, so waterproofing helps keep your boots lightweight.
Waterproofing can also extend the lifespan of your hiking boots. Moisture can weaken the materials and stitching over time, leading to premature wear and tear. Waterproofing helps protect your boots from the damaging effects of water, mud, and moisture. Waterproofed boots are highly versatile and can be used in various weather conditions, from rainy days to hiking through shallow streams or snow, making them great for all hiking seasons.
Downsides of Waterproofed Boots
There is one major downside to waterproofing your boots, and that is the lack of breathability. Waterproofing boots involves sealing any pores that let water in– but that also means that water and sweat that accumulate in your boots can’t get out. By creating that waterproof membrane, your boots lose their breathability. Comfortable, moisture-wicking socks will help keep your feet dry, but in truly waterproof boots, once the water gets to the outside of the socks it doesn’t have a lot of places to go.
Waterproofing can also make boots stiffer and less flexible. This isn’t necessarily a permanent condition; it just means you may need to re-break them in after applying new waterproofing. Waterproof coating can also wear off over time, so you will need to reapply it occasionally.
Also, it’s important to remember that waterproofing isn’t invulnerability. The boot’s waterproofing only extends to the top of the boot. If you step in water that goes past the top of your boots, water can still get in! Sometimes this is inevitable, like when making a deep creek crossing. This is why it’s always important to carry extra socks and take the time to let your boots dry out.
Do Boots Come With Waterproofing?
Many hiking boots already come with a waterproof coating. This waterproof coating is durable, but not permanent, and if you’re an avid hiker, you might need to reproof your boots a few times per year. This is true for both leather boots and synthetic uppers– even synthetic boots need to be treated to be waterproof, and just like with a waterproof coating applied to leather, the waterproof coating on synthetic boots can wear off over time, too.
How to Waterproof Boots
The way you waterproof your boots depends on the type of waterproofing product you use and the type of material your boots are made from. There are several types of waterproofing products available. Typically they are comprised of synthetic DWRs, but some hikers do use natural products like mink oil to improve the water resistance of their boots.
No matter what type of product you use, start with clean boots. Depending on the product, your boots may need to be dry, or they may need to be damp. Check the manufacturer’s instructions to see what they recommend. Brush them down and make sure that there’s no dirt built up in the crevices, around the eyelets, at the place where the sole meets the upper, and around the seams. Remove the laces, and consider stuffing the boots with newspaper to fill them out and let them retain their shape. This may be especially helpful if you’re using a wax and need to apply heat to your boots.
Waxes are solid products that you rub into your boot leather (or synthetic uppers). They usually come in a tin and are worked into the surface to create a waterproof membrane. Waxes are usually less messy than a cream or paste, but require a lot of rubbing to get into the pores of the boot material. Waxes can also be more time-consuming to use. Additionally, wax can be a problem if you ever plan on resoling your boots. It can interfere with the ability to adhere a new sole if it’s built up at the place where the upper joins the sole, so a cream or spray might be preferable if you really put a lot of wear and tear on your boots.
Rub the wax evenly onto the surface of your boots using a cloth or sponge. Pay special attention to seams and areas that tend to get more wear and tear. Apply a thin, even layer rather than a thick, heavy coating. You may need to use a hair dryer to melt the wax into the boot’s surface. The heat helps the wax penetrate the leather and create a waterproof seal. Keep the heat source at a safe distance to avoid damage to your boots.
Once your boots are waxed, use a cloth or brush to buff them– this helps evenly distribute the product and removes any excess. Once the boots have cooled off from the drying process, they’re ready to go!
Creams and Pastes
Creams and pastes are messier than wax, but apply more easily. Use a clean cloth or applicator brush (many creams come with one) to apply the product evenly to the surface. Try not to get it on your hands, and if you do, make sure you wash them before touching your face. You don’t want DWR cream in your eyes. Pay special attention to seams, eyelets, and high-wear areas. Let the cream or paste soak into the boots for the recommended period on the packaging, and then buff with a clean cloth or clean brush to remove any excess.
Using a spray is one of the easiest and least-messy ways to waterproof your boots. Simply set them out and spray away! Make sure you do this in a well-ventilated area, as these sprays have a strong chemical scent. Also, make sure to avoid direct heat while the boots are drying. Leave the boots to dry for the recommended period on the packaging, and keep in mind that you may need multiple applications depending on the product. Sprays have a longer drying time than creams and pastes or waxes, but their ease of use makes them very popular.
What About Wash-In DWR?
If you’re familiar with waterproofing other types of gear, you may be familiar with wash-in waterproof coatings. For big pieces of gear like tents, wash-in DWR makes a lot of sense. However, you shouldn’t use wash-in DWR on boots. First, this will add waterproofing to both the inside and the outside of the boot– ruining any breathability. Second, the complex contours of boots mean that it’s easier to make sure the product gets into all of the crevices. And finally, most wash-in DWR coatings require heat to activate. If you put your boots in a hot dryer, it can damage the soles– so stick to the other applications!
Best Boot Waterproofing Products
There are several reputable brands of boot waterproofing products.
Nikwax is one of the best-known in the outdoor industry; they make DWR coatings for all types of boots and other outdoor gear.
Gear Aid manufactures a range of outdoor gear care and repair products, including waterproofing sprays and treatments. Their DWR spray works well with technical fabrics, including GORE-TEX.
Granger’s produces a wide array of waterproofing products, including sprays, creams, and wash-in treatments.
Kiwi has a full line of shoe care products, but they’re not just for dress shoes. Their waterproofing will hold up to the demands of hiking.
Sof-Sole’s silicone spray is extremely effective, although it should not be used on breathable technical fabrics like GORE-TEX.
Sno-Seal is a popular brand for wax-based waterproofing treatments, especially for leather boots. Their products are known for creating a durable and long-lasting waterproof barrier.
Waterproof vs. Non-Waterproof Boot Materials
Different types of boot materials respond to waterproofing differently. This is based on these materials’ structure. For example, natural leather– animal hide– has pores. These tiny pores are somewhat sealed during the tanning process, but remain open enough for water to pass through. This makes natural leather breathable and comfortable with some natural water resistance due to the decreased opening of the pores during tanning. Waterproofing leather boots means sealing these pores by creating a membrane and filling them in.
Synthetic boot material is often engineered to be breathable, meaning that these boots are less waterproof than leather. They are often treated with DWR coatings during manufacturing, but may benefit from additional treatments if you want them to be more water-resistant right away.
However, some hiking boots have synthetic materials that are waterproof by nature. If your boots have GORE-TEX in them, for example, you aren’t going to need to add additional waterproofing for a while. Depending on the condition of your boots, you might never need to reproof them if there’s a membrane like GORE-TEX in there– but even GORE-TEX’s manufacturers note that their product may need to be refreshed.
When to Reproof
When you hike, your boots take a beating. Between the constant movement of your feet and friction and abrasion from trail conditions, the waterproof coating on your boots is likely to need replacement more frequently than say, the waterproof coating on your tent. You’ll know it’s time to reproof when you get your boots wet and the water doesn’t bead up and roll off the surface right away. If your boot “wets out” and you see the water sinking into the surface, that’s a sure sign it’s time to add more DWR.
Waterproofing and the Environment
Many hikers are concerned about the impact of chemical gear treatment on the environment– and rightfully so! Up until about 2015, most waterproof treatments used long-chain fluorocarbon-based chemicals, which were highly effective, highly durable, and highly toxic to the environment. Today, many governments have actually banned these chemicals, called PFAS.
The good news is that modern waterproofing isn’t nearly so toxic. While the trade-off is that you have to reproof more frequently, shorter-chain molecules are less dangerous for the ecosystem. Additionally, experimental DWR finishes, like silicone-based treatments, produce similar effects. However, these lack durability, especially when exposed to dirt and oils. If you want the most environmentally-friendly boot-waterproofing, look for the terms “PFAS free” and “PFOA free.”
Ultimately, waterproofing your boots is likely going to be a very occasional chore. It’s not something you have to worry about too frequently. Just make sure to monitor your boots and reapply when necessary, and you’ll be good to go.
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about