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When to Waterproof Boots

Q: I just received some new hiking boots (Gore-Tex lined), and they had instructions to waterproof the boots before wearing. When should you waterproof boots and how? I assumed new boots wouldn't need that much care, but maybe they do. A good primer on what you recommend for waterproofing/cleaning/sealing for boots would be nice.

Thanks in advance,

A: Many boots are made with Gore-Tex as an inner lining. While this lining will keep your foot dry, there are two things to keep in mind: 1) the outer layers of the boot are not inherently waterproof and will become waterlogged, which contributes to 2) your feet feeling wet because your feet cannot breathe since the Gore-Tex cannot breathe through the waterlogged outer.

You may have noticed that just out of the box, your boots repel water—all hiking boots are factory coated in a DWR (durable water repellent). DWR is only a surface coating and will quickly wear off. I recommend wearing the boots until you notice them picking up water, and then waterproofing them. If you are leaving on a trip before breaking in the boots, you want to waterproof them right away. Start by cleaning you boots very well with a new kitchen sponge (or similar) and tap water, getting off all the dirt and factory DWR—you have succeeded when the boot is uniformly wet.

There are different types of waterproofing. I prefer bee's wax based products. It is a bit old school because of the work involved in applying it and it only works on all-leather boots (though it is exceptionally long lasting). Most people use a waterborne wax-based product, like most of the Nikwax product line. This stuff is easy to apply, dries comparatively quickly, and isn't much mess; downside is that you generally need to re-apply it every season or so, depending on use.

For leather boots, try Nikwax's Nubuck & Suede Treatment. Or, for smooth leather, you can use Nikwax's Aqueous Neutral Waterproofing to get longer-lasting waterproofing with nice smooth look—it will darken the color of your boots significantly, though. For boots that are a fabric/leather mix or all fabric, I recommend Nikwax's Fabric and Leather Treatment; this product provides the best protection for fabric, but it does wear off quickly.

I do not recommend spray-on waterproofing for boots because it wears off quickly and the chemicals tend to detract from the durability of leather or nylon. Also avoid waterproofing agents like mink oil—while it will work, it weakens the leather and makes is softer and less supportive.

This month's Gear Guru question was submitted by Brian from South Carolina. He will receive a Nalgene bottle for his question. Enjoy, Brian!