Buying new hiking boots is always an exciting time, full of potential, anticipating all the trips and good times you’re going to have wearing them. The boots you’ve bought are not designed to fit your individual feet, and therefore they won’t come out of the box perfectly shaped to your personal needs. Boots are made to fit a mold, which represents an average foot, and then manufactured according to that size and shape.
The problem is, an ‘average’ is just a compilation of different feet which has then been smoothed out into one shape that is intended to fit them all. But we know that there is no ‘normal,’ and everybody’s feet are different.
This is why it’s so essential to break in your boots before you take them out on a hike. How to break in hiking boots properly can be a puzzle for inexperienced hikers, so let’s clear up some of the mystery and examine the best way to get your boots feeling like a second skin.
BUY THE RIGHT SIZE
No amount of breaking in will save you from ill-fitting boots. The process of getting your boots to feel comfortable begins before you even take out your wallet. Take care to try on as many different brands as possible, to get the feel of which size and shape is best suited to your own feet.
When trying boots on, there are a few things you can do to ensure you end up with the correct fit:
- Wear the socks you intend to wear with these boots in the field. It may seem like a minor issue, but the thickness of your socks can certainly affect the fit and feel of your shoes. If you wear thin dress socks in the store, the shoes may be too tight when you change to think woolen socks on the trail. Conversely, if you wear think socks when trying on, changing to thin socks later can cause your feel to slip around in loose shoes.
- Both before and after lacing up, stand in the boots with your full body weight. Make sure the width doesn’t feel constrictive, and that you can wiggle your toes. Your toes should be able to move freely inside the toebox.
- When the boots are laced up, push your foot as far forward as you can, and then slip your index finger into the back behind your ankle. Your finger should comfortably fit down the back of the boot without being squashed. This tests the length of the shoe. It’s a good idea to get a shoe with a bit of extra length as your feet can slip forward when hiking downhill, and you don’t want your toes to bang up against the front of the boot.
- Roll onto the balls of your feet to check that your heels don’t slip up or down in the heel cup. Walk around the store to make sure your heels stay where they should be.
Fitting your boots is the hard part; if you have shoes that fit comfortably, breaking them in will be a cinch.
So, you’ve completed your quest to find the right boot for you and now it’s time to break them in. The first thing to think about is: how much breaking in do your shoes need?
Hiking boots come in different materials, and these react differently to wear. This largely depends on the stiffness of the material. It makes sense that the more supportive and durable a boot is, the stiffer the materials, and more attention needs to be paid to the breaking in.
- Synthetics: Modern hiking shoes are becoming more lightweight, with flexible materials. The emergence of trail runners and low-cut hiking shoes has changed the way that many of us feel about hiking footwear, with mesh and nylon providing a flexible shoe which requires almost no breaking in.
If you’ve bought a pair of trail runners, the only breaking in that may be necessary is a few hours around town before you take them to the trail. Indeed, many hikers claim that you can go straight from the store to the trail with no breaking-in period at all.
- Leather: Leather shoes are very stiff out of the box, but with time and wear, leather can become one of the most supple textiles out there. You just need to put the work in, first. Full grain leather is the stiffest and heaviest, requiring a long break in time. Nubuck leather is slightly softer and can be broken in more quickly.
- Foam: EVA foam midsoles may sound soft, but very dense foam can be stiffer than you would expect. Denser foam will be more provide more cushioning in the long run, but will take longer to break in than a lightweight, airy foam.
- Rubber: Most boots are made with rubber outsoles. This comes is different hardness levels. Thicker and stiffer rubber will need more time and use to soften up. Thinner rubber, found in more lightweight shoes won’t take long. Some people recommend using your hands to bend the soles of the shoes for a bit of extra breaking.
- Shanks and plates: Many boots also contain shanks and plates in the soles.
The presence of these extra supports may also contribute to longer breaking in times, since they are designed to be hard and stiff for extra protection.
Predict the length of your breaking in period according to your own boot and the materials from which it’s constructed. A good rule of thumb is to break in your boots for a month before you can expect to wear them comfortably for a whole day of hiking, however this can vary hugely depending on the shoe you buy.
WHERE TO WEAR
It’s not a good idea to take your boots out on the trail the day after you buy them. It’s true, the best and only way to break in your shoes is to wear them, but you should choose wisely when, where and for how long to wear them. The key is to do things slowly and gradually; aim for baby steps. Begin by wearing them for an hour or so around the house and move on from there, with stages including…
- Around the House: It’s recommended to spend some time wearing your new boots around the house before you even take them outside. Moving from room to room doing housework, cooking or even just relaxing will give you the chance to familiarize yourself with your new footwear. It’s easy to feel pressured in the store, but having some one-on-one time with your boots will allow you to make a confident and informed decision.
Wearing your shoes inside will keep them in pristine condition and allow you to return them to the store should you change your mind. It also means that you can easily remove them if they become uncomfortable, without having to walk a trail barefoot. Start by wearing them for an hour or so, then slowly increase the length of each session.
- Around town: Once you are satisfied with the feel of your boots at home, take them for some short jaunts around town, like walking the dog or taking a trip to the supermarket. This will let you test your shoes on walks without leaving you in agony for hours of wear. If possible, stick with flat surfaces first, then try out some hills.
Again, incrementally increase the amount of time you spend on each outing. Increases can be as small as 10-15 minutes. After a while, you will start to feel like you could wear them walking around for days at a time.
- Off-road: When you feel that you can comfortably wear your boots on lengthier excursions on the streets, it’s time to try them off-road. Road walking won’t give you an accurate impression of how it will feel taking your boots through rocks, gravel, mountains and rivers. Find somewhere in or near town that has a more natural terrain and try some short walks there. A park perhaps, a hill or small stream would be ideal.
This will give you an idea of whether or not you’re ready to take your boots out for a hike. Try to replicate the conditions of your normal hikes; this may include carrying a heavy pack, which will redistribute your weight in new ways and may completely change the feeling of your boots.
- Short Hikes: It’s what you’ve been waiting for – the time has come for a proper hike. Keep it short, an hour or two is sufficient. You might want to bring a spare pair of shoes to change into after your hike too, in case you develop a few blisters.
- All Day: If your feet can handle short hikes with no issues, upgrade to a full day or even weekend trip. After you’ve achieved that, congratulations are in order because you’ve successfully broken in your hiking boots. Feel free to resume your normal hiking habits.
Breaking in gives you time to soften your new boots and allows them to mold to your foot, as well as to identify any problems with them. Doing this before you take them out on a hike will save you a world of pain later.
TO SOAK OR NOT TO SOAK?
One traditional method of hastening the breaking in process in the “soak wet and wear dry” method. This involves soaking leather boots in water and wearing them wet for a day. Another variation of this idea is the “bathtub method,” in which you take a bath with your boots on – apparently cowboys swear by it.
The basic principle is to use the water to expand the leather. Throughout the day (or after your bath), it should mold to the shape of your foot as it dries.
This is a fairly controversial method; it’s been used for decades or possibly even centuries to break in leather boots, but on the other hand some people say it’s an antiquated practice that does more harm than good. It’s true that leather does shrink when it dries, but most of the leather in boots is pre-shrunk and won’t have this problem. It may be uncomfortable or even disgusting to walk around all day in wet boots and socks, so it’s really up to the individual to decide if that sensation is worth it for a quicker break-in period. You will probably sustain a few blisters, too.
The jury’s out on this one, but if you’re really having problems with your boots, you might want to consider giving it a go. At some point in your hiking career, your boots are likely go get wet anyway, so surely your boots will survive the process. Leather can harden after it dries, so prevent this by giving it an oil treatment once completely dried.
Even if soaking’s not the way for you, soft leather is quicker to break-in, and you would do well to buy a leather conditioner. Apply it regularly and it will increase the suppleness of your boot, as well as extending its lifespan.
BLISTERS, HOT SPOTS, RUBBING AND PAIN
Breaking in hiking shoes can be a painful experience. You would be lucky to buy a new pair of hiking boots and go through the process without suffering even one blister. It’s important to stay mindful of the sensations your feet experience when you buy new boots.
During the initial stage of at-home wear, pay attention to any rubbing or pain you feel. If you are getting a lot of this, the boots may be a poor fit and need to be exchanged. If it’s within normal limits however, there are a few things you can do to minimize or prevent problems.
Small issues like a hot spot or minor rubbing can turn into agonizing blisters. A boot that’s either poorly fitted or which hasn’t been broken in yet will not quite match the shape of your foot. This causes your foot to rub against the interior of the shoe, causing friction and leading to a red abrasion called a hot spot. If the friction continues, a blister will develop in that spot.
Don’t wait until a blister develops to do something! Address the issue early by bandaging the area or purchasing one of the many gels or padded plasters on the market, to provide a barrier between your foot and your shoe. If these patches aren’t up to the job, some radical hikers recommend taping up with area with duct tape. Or better yet, simply remove your boots and try them again tomorrow – the benefit of breaking them in gradually!
Even before you put your boots on, there are measures to can take to protect your feet.
Number one is, make sure to keep your toenails well-pedicured. Long toenails can catch on your socks, rub against the next toe, or even push up against the front of your shoe, resulting in pain.
Secondly: prevent moisture in your boot; moisture softens your skin and makes it even more prone to blisters. Avoid cotton socks which absorb sweat and choose wool or synthetic ones instead. Some people find that wearing two pairs of socks, one moisture wicking liner and one thicker sock, can help as the socks can rub against each other rather than your skin.
One last factor to mention is boot customization. It may be the case that nothing you’ve tried is working and your boots are just as stiff and uncomfortable as on the day you bought them. If so, it could be that you just bought boots which were the wrong size or shape for you.
Don’t worry, there might still be a way to fix the situation, without having to shell out for a new pair. Try taking your shoes to a professional cobbler for stretching or consulting a boot-fitter for advice. Even something as simple as replacing the standard insole with a better quality one can make a huge difference.
Breaking in hiking boots may initially seem to be a long and tiresome process, but take the time and care to do it properly and you’ll never regret it. Nothing can ruin a hiking trip faster than foot pain. Don’t spoil your first trek in new boots with blisters and stiffness; wait until your boots are ready for the journey and they’ll reward you for it on the trail. Breaking in gradually gives you the opportunity to avoid buyer’s regret and return shoes which don’t work for you, as well as easing the level of discomfort your feet go through.
Your boots are there to support and protect your feet: they are your friends, so don’t turn them into your dreaded enemies. Buy well in advance of your intended time of usage, and give them the care and attention they deserve. Just remember: be patient! You’ll thank yourself for it later.
Do you have any tips and tricks for breaking in hiking shoes? If so, tell us about it in the comments!