A good pair of boots keeps your feet stable and protected, whether in the urban jungle or out in the wilderness.
But even expensive boots rot out and get torn up quickly when abused. You can throw away a $300 pair of boots in under a year without proper care.
Good boots are an investment. How can you keep that investment safe?
Keep your boots clean and dry.
Obviously, that’s an oversimplification. But if you keep those two concepts in mind, then you’ll have the mindset to get years, not months, out of your boots.
Caring for Your Boots
Boots, like any other item of gear, need your care to not fall apart.
Preventative care helps a lot with keeping your boots around for a long time. So, what kills boots?
Contaminants and moisture.
Keep Them Clean
Contaminants could mean dirt, grease, mud, salt, and anything else that gets on or in your boots. They degrade the leather and wear at the other materials, causing your boots to fall apart well before they should.
I’ll go into cleaning your boots in more detail later. The short of it is you need to remove everything from your boots that’s not conditioner, polish, waterproofing agents, shoes, or your feet.
Generally, a simple brushing off works fine. Use a soft brush or a wet rag. You may need to get deeply clean your boots on occasion, though.
Keep Them Dry
Perhaps even more of a boot killer than dirtiness is moisture.
Wet leather may conform to your feet, but it harbors bacteria and fungi. It’ll eventually rot, and the leather will split. You may also get a foot infection.
Obviously, you can’t avoid sweating into your boots or dodge every raincloud. But occasional exposure to moisture isn’t the problem. The danger comes when your leather is constantly moist.
Waterproofing your boots will help a lot, but you shouldn’t depend on waterproofing alone to keep your boots dry.
Whenever you take them off after a long day’s work, do the following:
- Remove the insoles.
- Put the boots someplace dry, preferably in front of a fan.
- If they’re especially wet, put them someplace warm.
Don’t stick your boots next to the fire, though! You’ll cook the leather, which makes it weak and more susceptible to damage.
If you want to use the warmth from a fire, then put them far enough away for your skin to be a comfortable temperature.
A smarter alternative is to use an electric boot dryer. Those will remove all moisture without damaging your boots.
Buy a Second Pair of Boots
This may seem like a hefty investment, but buying a second set of boots will increase the lifespan of both considerably.
Almost no work boot can dry out completely overnight. So, if you use the same boots day after day, they never dry out completely and will wear down faster.
You can alternate boots with a second pair, which gives each pair enough time to rest and dry out completely. This will increase the lifespan of both by more than double!
It’s also a good idea so you don’t have to buy and break in a new pair of boots if one fails. Backups, whether boots or knives, are always a good idea.
While you can wipe off light dirt, you’ll need to deep clean your boots to get out mud caked into the stitching and gunk that’s penetrated the leather itself.
Here’s how to deep clean your favorite boots:
- Remove the laces. These can be laundered if they’re dirty, too.
- Remove external gunk. Use a brush or wet rag to get rid of most of this stuff. You can also use a soft toothbrush to clean out hard-to-reach areas, like stitching and under the eyelets.
- Apply a leather soap, also called saddle soap. Follow the directions. Typically, you’ll use a damp cloth to spread the soap around the boot.
- Remove the soap. Use a second, clean damp cloth to wipe off the soap, and use a third, dry rag to dry off the boots.
- Condition the boots. Apply some leather conditioner by following the directions. Most of the time, you rub it in, let it sit, then buff.
- Protect the boots. After conditioning (or at the same time with some products) you should apply something to protect the boots. This can be a waterproofing product or a boot polish.
Note that these steps don’t apply to suede. You’ll need to use special suede cleaning products, or else you’ll ruin the color and texture!
What About Stains?
Stains from grease, salt, and other contaminants don’t come out with normal cleaning methods. You’ll have to use one of the following tricks to get the stain out of your boots.
Grease and Oil
Just like with an oil spill, you’ll need to use something absorbent to clean up oil-stained boots.
Baking soda and cornstarch both work. Apply them to the area with a damp cloth. It’ll take a while for them to work, but after several hours, you should be able to wipe away the powder and take the grease with it.
Rubbing alcohol or nail polish remover can be used to remove ink, though be careful because it might also take away dyes in the leather.
Apply the liquid to a clean cloth or cotton swab and blot the ink stain. Don’t rub it in! You’ll just push the ink further into the boot.
You may need to use several swabs before the ink is entirely removed.
Salt stains are rinsed out, so you’ll need to dry the boots for a long time afterward.
Light salt stains may be rinsed out with fresh water. Heavier ones require a vinegar rinse.
If the salt stain doesn’t come out quickly, you may need to soak the boot and let the salt dissolve into the water.
Scuffs aren’t technically stains, but they can sometimes be removed by polishing out the scuff.
If normal boot polish doesn’t work, then try toothpaste. Rub it into the site with a dry cloth then clean it with a damp cloth.
Gel toothpaste won’t work.
By the way, you can use toothpaste to polish plastic headlights, too!
With footwear, “waterproofing” means two distinct things: preventing water from getting to your foot and protecting the leather itself from water.
Both are beneficial for your boot’s health, but the second is far more effective.
Keeping Your Feet Dry
Simply stated, if you want a boot that will keep your feet dry, you need to buy a boot made with a waterproof membrane, such as Gore-Tex.
There are waterproofing sprays you can apply to your boots. They can cause water to bead up and not penetrate. However, in my experience, they last a short period of time: hours, not days—if you apply the spray properly.
Frankly, I don’t find them worth the expense.
I’d rather get wet socks and dry out afterward. With good wool socks and waterproofed leather, it doesn’t matter if the boots themselves are waterproof. Wool socks are comfortable wet and dry quickly.
While a waterproofing spray isn’t any good, a leather waterproofing product will keep your boot’s leather protected from moisture and rot.
Many of these products are made from animal, plant, or petroleum oils. They can also contain waxes and conditioners, so you waterproof and protect in one step.
Classic choices include mink oil and neatsfoot oil. Both are byproducts of animal industries. However, I don’t prefer them, as they can go rancid.
My favorite waterproofing agent is Huberd’s Shoe Grease. It’s made from beeswax and pine tar and softens, conditions, protects, and waterproofs leather all in one go.
Plus, it’s environmentally friendly and can be applied with your bare hands!
Despite your best efforts, your boots will sometimes get damaged.
You can sometimes repair small issues yourself. Almost all of these repairs will harm the appearance of your boots, though.
Leather patches can be used to repair holes and tears in the leather upper.
Shoe Goo can be used when the sole starts to pull away from the leather. Despite their claims, it’s not a permanent fix, but it’ll get you up and down the mountain.
Apply a little shoe goo into the opened area then squeeze it shut. Wipe away the excess and keep the sole and upper together under pressure until the goo dries.
Don’t use the boots until after the Shoe Goo has dried unless you want it squeezing out and covering other stuff with tacky, black goop!
Clean your boots whenever they get dirty and allow them to dry fully before wearing your boots again. Every few months, depending on how often you use the boots, give them a deep clean then recondition and waterproof the leather.
With a few minutes of care, you can extend the lifespan of your boots from under a year to several years. And that’s worth it for a pair of boots that fit well.
Treat them well, and you’ll have happy feet!
If you have not yet decided on boots you want to buy, take a look at guides for: