Now that cooler weather is here — and even chillier weather is on the way — it is undeniably boot season. No matter your personal style, there’s a pair of boots for everyone and you should know how to break in boots from outdoorsy hiking lace-ups to sleek Chelsea slip-ons, to heritage-style work boots. Unlike our cushy sneakers or slip-on shoes, though, just about all boots require some breaking in.
Wear ‘em right out of the box to work, a day out on the trail, or even for a long night on the town, and you’ll likely be rewarded with blisters, crushed toes, sore feet, or worse. Don’t blame it on the boots! Take a little time to get to know your new friends—and for them to get to know you— and you’ll be rewarded with years of comfortable wear. Here are a few tips that we’ve gathered to help you and your new boots get closer.
Most boots are made from leather, which may seem as strong as steel, but which is actually, similar to our own skin, made from fibrous layers of collagen. It’s been treated to hold its shape and be durable, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some flexibility. Breaking in a pair of boots so that they are shaped to and fit your feet best is all about molding those fibers, and really isn’t that different from ironing a shirt: It’s all about heat, pressure, and moisture.
First of all, quality really is imperative here. If you spend money on any one thing in your wardrobe, make it quality footwear. Cheap footwear will be made from cheaper materials that will be harder to break in. Also, if you find a brand that fits well, stick with it: Most companies have a last — the form they build their shoes or boots on — that they keep around forever, so if one pair fits you well, most others from that brand should work for you, too.
Be sure to start with the right size. If you’re just starting to wear boots, are getting into outdoor recreation, or have just started a job in or adjacent to the construction industry, this is the time to go to an actual brick-and-mortar retailer. Talk to a knowledgeable salesperson about your needs, and ask to be properly measured and learn about what to expect from the fit. They’ll be able to help you get a better fit if your feet are narrow, wide if you have arch problems, etc. Sure, once you’ve found a boot that fits and is comfortable, you can get away with ordering variations on that style online over and over again.
Once you’ve brought your new pair home, the hard work begins. Put on a nice thick pair of socks. If you’re already planning on wearing beefy boot socks with them, pull on another thinner pair under the boot socks. Put on the boots. Now, this is the tricky part: Hang out. Seriously. Watch TV. Make dinner. Play with the kids. Do a (quick) run to the grocery store. Don’t stay completely stationary, but, again, don’t head out on any major hikes. The simple fact is that wearing them around the house for a few hours a day for a week or so provides some heat and moisture to help the boots mold themselves to your feet. This is especially helpful if you can break in shoes during summer’s heat and humidity.
“Spending time in the boots is really what’s needed to break in a new pair,” says Heidi Dale Allen, Vice President of Marketing for Nikwax, a company that makes high-performance waterproofing, cleaning, and conditioning for all your best outdoor gear. “I like to wear mine around the house over the course of a few days for a slow break-in before I wear them outside or for a long period of time. Plus, if I decide they don’t fit, I can still return them because I haven’t worn them outside!”
Ever watched one of those movies where they show a woman being laced up into a corset? Doesn’t look very comfortable, does it? So imagine that corset is being laced around your feet. In effect, without some lacing tips, shoes tied too tightly (or too loosely), can end up causing blisters. Places where shoes are too loose, can also be a problem as it allows too much movement, and that part of your foot may be rubbing against the side of the boot causing a blister.
A cautionary note here. If you just spent big bucks on a pair of heritage leather boots, you may want to avoid this step: Boots made in a traditional manner with natural materials (like cork) may get ruined by being soaked in water. Check the product description. Some military and hiking boots are made from synthetic materials (in addition to leather), so this method is safer for them. Soak the boots in a bucket of warm water for 30 minutes to an hour. Dry them lightly with a towel, then wear them around the house, again with thick socks.
The heat from a blow dryer can help make leather more malleable, but it can also dry it out or even melt other construction materials. Apply this method sparingly: It’s particularly helpful for hitting specific spots, say where a toe may be rubbing or an ankle. Don’t get the leather super hot, just slightly warmer than body temperature, then use your fingers to push and prod the spot into shape.
Shoe Stretching Spray
OK, can we just say upfront that this product makes us nervous, although many have sworn by it? These sprays are often alcohol-based. Is it a good idea to soak your skin with alcohol? Sure, briefly, to kill germs, but not like you’d soak in it. That can’t be great for your expensive leather boots, either. Like the water soak, these sprays wet the leather so that it can stretch and mold to your feet, and similarly, the idea is to apply the product, put on a pair of socks, and wear them around the house for a bit.
Again, we know people who have used these and swear by them, but unless the stretchers are shaped exactly like your feet, we’re not sure that we see how they can help. They may give you some room from toe to heel, or across the boot; but are they going to compensate for your big ankles, your extra long toes, or your bunion? Not really.
Cold packs or ice
We’re fully admitting that this might be an internet urban legend, but it’s one that just might make sense. Unfortunately, it may also require a lot of room in your freezer (On the other hand, winter is coming). Allow a cold pack (the squishy ones you can use for an injury, not the hard ones for the cooler) to melt. If you’re feeling particularly confident, fill a sturdy plastic bag with water (one that really seals and won’t end up leaking all over your boots). Push the pack into place in the boot wherever you need more room; i.e., in the toe box, or heel. Use a towel or rag to stuff the shoe and hold the pack in place. Freeze the boots. As the liquid in the pack freezes, it will expand, stretching out that part of the shoe.
In any case, as your boots begin to fit your feet, be sure to take good care of them. Mud, dirt, and salt can suck oils out of leather, so be sure to keep them clean with a regular brushing and occasional leather shampoo. After cleaning, or on new boots, use a good leather conditioner or mink oil two to three times a week, and focus on those areas that feel tight.
“Conditioner is a great product to use on new boots,” says Allen. “It softens the leather a bit and adds protection while maintaining breathability. When your new boots start to show some wear and dirt, Footwear Cleaning Gel is great for removing salt, dirt, etc.”
If you can, avoid wearing your new boots every day. It’s a good idea to give boots a chance to rest and allow perspiration to dry thoroughly from the inside out. If they do get wet in rain or snow, don’t dry them on a hot surface like a heat register or radiator (or let them get too close to a fireplace or woodstove). Those surfaces are too hot and, again, not good for the leather. It’s better to stuff them with paper or a towel and allow them to dry at room temperature.
Finally, trust the professionals. Ask your boot seller or cobbler for tips on boot care, and work with them to occasionally restore, resole, and rebuild your comfortable, broken-in boots.
Nikwax’s water-based formula is absorbed into the leather to condition and waterproof leather by replenishing tanning agents and lubricants. It also adds durable water repellency to smooth leather, maintaining breathability. It is non-flammable, contains no harmful solvents, and is free of volatile organic compounds or fluorocarbons.
Dirt on the surface of your boots can attract water, negating any kind of DWR coating. This gel cleans dirt and removes contaminants while revitalizing water repellence, causing water to bead on the outer surface.
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