As someone who takes a certain pleasure in maintaining and caring for my possessions, it appalls me to see so many people letting their hiking boots dry out, rot, and fall apart. When I used to manage a high end specialty outdoor store, I would make sure my employees were wearing well-treated leather boots, and would hand them waterproofing if they came in with scruffy, dry, tired looking boots. My reason is simple—most people don’t treat their leather boots frequently enough! Yes, your boot may have a Goretex liner, but that will wear out and start leaking far before you wear holes in the leather, and properly treated leather is already waterproof and breathable–it’s skin, and that’s a naturally occurring aspect of skin. Even in the era of laminated materials and Kevlar blends, nothing has come close to matching the durability, performance, and classic look of a high-quality leather boot. A high-quality resoleable leather boot can last for decades. These days you buy cheaply made boots, expect to get a few years at most out of them, and throw them away. It used to be the case that every shoe you owned was expected to last nearly a lifetime, but people also knew how to treat their shoes, and cared for them because they were so expensive to make. It boils down to this–the original owner of that leather, Mr. Moo Cow, is no longer around to take care of it, so it’s now your responsibility!
Initially treating your leather footwear:
When you bring your new leather boots home, they may come with care instructions or waterproofing product recommendations. You should keep these and follow their advice. While some boots may come from the factory with a DWR, I like to put some leather conditioner on my boots to help with the break-in process. This is optional, but in the case of particular stiff leather uppers, especially smooth leather full grain uppers, I think it helps. Yes, leather conditioner will darken the color of your leather boots, but that’s why you’ll find some of the highest end boots already in dark colors. Don’t use too much–just a little bit is all that is needed, sometimes only in the flex points on the boot. Nikwax makes a great conditioner, but others are available. I would avoid anything made with mink or neat’s foot oil at all cost. You want to moisturize the leather, not soften it, and animal-based fats will turn your hiking boots into floppy work boots quite quickly.
Treating your leather boots:
First off, before saying anything else, let me say for the record that most people don’t treat their boots frequently enough. How often should you treat your boots, you ask? If water doesn’t bead off the surface of your boot, they need to be treated. Just because your boot is soaking wet on the outside doesn’t mean it’s actually leaking, but it certainly isn’t breathing as well as it could, and it’s absolutely heavier than it needs to be. More to the point, leather is damaged when it goes through wet/dry cycles repeatedly, and that’s where you’ll see cracks forming in the leather. Properly conditioned, waterproofed leather remains pliable and flexible and doesn’t “crack”.
If you know you want to preserve the look of your leather at all costs, perhaps because it is an attractive Nubuck or light color, then I suggest spraying your boot with a fluoropolymer spray like Tectron. In one Backpacker Magazine test, Tectron outperformed every other waterproofing except silicone sprays, which will darken leather. So it definitely works. It will not, however, condition the leather. As an aside, Nubuck (or Nabuck) is just smooth leather that has been distressed or sanded to create a soft napped surface. Its real value is that if you scratch the leather it’s hard to notice. I personally like to buy my leather without someone having pre-scratched it. If you treat Nubuck with a paste or wax, the nap will flatten out and you will effectively have a shoe that looks like it’s made of smooth top-grain leather again.
For smooth full-grain leather boots, there are several good choices out there for treating footwear, including water-based waterpoofings and pastes. In the water-based category are products from Nikwax and Grangers, both of which are highly recommended by major manufacturers. These products can be applied even to wet boots, so they’re great for applying right after a trip, or bringing with you for spot treatments. The great thing is they won’t work on your boots if your boots are already repelling water, so you’ll only use as much as you need. I like to use these in conjunction with a paste wax, as the water-based products will penetrate deep into the leather, while the waxes tend to sit on the surface and seem, at least to me, to last longer. There are three pastes I recommend. The first is Biwell, now repackaged as Toko wax, which is a combination of beeswax and silicone. The second is the popular Nikwax Paste Wax. The third, and my favorite for really heavy-duty boots (but never light duty boots) is Limmer Boot Grease, which contains lanolin for extra conditioning for the thickest and most robust leathers.
The one paste wax I don’t recommend for high-end leather boots that you want to keep forever is Sno-Seal. While Sno-Seal is an excellent and highly durable waterproofing, it has two big drawbacks. The first is that it tends to attract dirt and can build up on the surface of your boots, potentially causing grit and grime to wear at them, and the second is that it will prevent any modern cemented boots from being resoleable. For welted boots this is a perfectly fine product, but Sno-Seal was not designed for modern leathers or cemented soles, and it prevents glue from adhering to the shoe. If you have a leather product that you never expect to resole, or if it won’t tend to get dirty or if it doesn’t matter to you (work gloves, leather hats, briefcases, etc.), then Sno-Seal is amazing stuff.
Always follow directions according to manufacturer recommendations for best results.
Cleaning and Storing your boots:
Nothing will kill your boots faster than letting them dry out all covered in mud and sand–all that grime gets into the leather and acts as an abrasive, wearing your boots out from the inside out. When you get home from your trip, remove your footbeds, rinse your boots off with a hose (or in the bathtub, but beware of others using the tub) and brush them thoroughly inside and out with a stiff bristled brush. If they are heavily soiled, you can use saddle soap or a cleaning product made specifically for cleaning shoes. A mild liquid castile or glycerin soap like Dr. Bronner’s can also be used, but avoid any household detergents. Once the boots are rinsed clean, apply your water-based waterproofing, stuff them with paper towels or newspaper, tie the laces up, and let them air dry. Don’t put them next to a heat source, because it can damage both the leather and the glue holding the sole in place. Normal room temperature is fine. If you want them to dry faster you can use a fan, but heated boot dryers are not the best option. Alternately, there are some companies that make highly absorbent devices you can put in your boots to make them dry quickly. They work, but so do cotton socks and paper towels. Store your boots in a dry area without temperature fluctuations, and if you’re keeping them in storage for a while, give them a quick coating of a paste wax before you put them to bed. Follow this advice and your boots may outlast you!