It’s said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This is true of any hike —though tens or hundreds of miles might be more accurate—but it’s also true of the process of breaking in hiking boots. It may be tempting to unbox your new boots and hit the trail, but in this instance, patience is a virtue. Save yourself pain and anguish on the trail by breaking in your boots ahead of time. Trust me, your feet will thank you later.
What does it mean to break in your boots?
Good quality hiking boots are an investment. If you’ve put in the time to find a properly fitting pair of hiking boots, why do they need to be broken in? Studies have shown that hikers who didn’t break in their boots were more likely to get blisters. This is because new boots, especially rugged ones that are ideal for hiking, haven’t had a chance to form to the unique structure of your feet yet. If you decide to use them on the trail without adapting them to your body, you’re likely to get hot spots, blisters, and even cuts. This is more likely when it comes to leather boots, but even boots made of synthetic materials, like GORE-TEX SURROUND® Footwear, still need to be put through a light breaking-in process to truly become your boots.
Step 1: Plan ahead
There are many steps to breaking in a pair of boots, and it can take multiple weeks to go through them all. Make sure you give yourself at least a month to break in your boots after buying them to ensure they’re perfectly suited to your feet before they hit the trail.
Step 2: Indoors only
After you get your new boots home, treat them like slippers. Wear them indoors with your hiking socks and any other inserts or arch supports that you’d use on the trail. To make sure the boots crease correctly as you break them in, lace the boots snugly and position the tongue in just the right spot. Then, move around in them as you normally would at home. This gives you a chance to see how they feel during light use. Just be careful if you’re doing something like cooking—you want to keep your boots clean just in case they prove to be too uncomfortable for you to keep. The goal here is to get an idea of any potential hot spots in the boots. A few spots of irritation are normal at this point. Treat the painful areas on your feet by covering them with moleskin or duct tape. Then you can begin to work on the parts of the boot that are causing you pain. Leather softener or leather conditioner adds moisture and oil to the leather boots, making the fabric easier to reshape so that it better fits your foot. You can buy these at shoe stores, drug stores, and retail stores. Once you put some on your boots, you can stuff them with newspaper or towels and leave them to dry, or you can put them back on so they more closely contour to your foot. You can also use a rubbing bar or any other blunt, round object to dull the spots on the inside of the boot that are causing you pain.
Step 3: An introduction to the outdoors
If you can walk around inside without incurring more than minor irritation, you can start taking your boots out for short walks. Take a quick walk around the block when you get home at night or use them to run short—no longer than 10 minutes—errands. In this period of time, you should notice that creases are starting to form across the front of your boots, about where your toes connect to the ball of each foot. Bend the boots gently at this crease a few times each day. It will make the soles more flexible and give your feet more room to move.
Step 4: Embrace the outside world
Once your quick walks become easier, gradually increase how long you spend walking in your new boots. If 10 minutes feels easy, start taking 20-30 minute walks every day for a week. The next week, tack on an additional 10-15 minutes. Make sure that you don’t just stick to the sidewalks. After all, these are shoes meant for the trail. Walk through parks and cut through the grass. Find some short hills to go up and down. The last week of your month of breaking in, make sure to walk while carrying your fully weighted pack. This will help your boots settle into their final form and carry a load well.
Tips and tricks
Of course, there are a few ways to help your boots become more pliable beyond bending them manually or using leather conditioner. Here are a few “hacks”:
- If you’re noticing tightness in a particular part of the boot, such as the span of your toes or through the heel, use a boot stretcher to get some extra slack. If you don’t want to buy your own boot stretcher or don’t feel comfortable doing this alone, most gear stores can stretch them for you.
- Another way to stretch your boots is by using alcohol on them. Soak cotton balls with it, then moisten the spots on your boots where they feel tight. Put the boots on and walk around for a few minutes so the alcohol has a chance to expand the material.
- You can also use a hairdryer to help break in your boots. With your hiking socks and boots on, use the dryer to heat the tighter areas of the boots. Flex your feet while you do and the leather will expand!
- Keep your boots somewhere warm so that when you put them on, the material will be pre-softened.
Once the month is up, your boots should be perfectly suited to your foot and ready to hit the trail. Enjoy your customized fit and happy hiking!