Muddy hiking boots in a puddle

How to clean and waterproof hiking boots

Your trusty hiking boots carry you over kilometres of rugged trails, keeping your feet dry and comfortable through day hikes and backpacking trips. While it may be tempting to kick them off at the end of a long day or week of hiking, it’s important to take care of your hiking boots to help them last longer and stay supportive for years to come.

Here’s how to clean your hiking boots, from what to do after every hike to how to give them a full wash.

How to take care of your boots after a hike

A few minutes of care at the end of a hike can make a huge difference in extending the life of your boots. Even if they don’t look that dirty, small bits of dust, sand, dirt and mud can work their way into the leather or fabric and grind down your boots like sandpaper.

While you’re still outside, bang your boots together to knock off any big pieces of caked-on mud or dirt. Tip them upside down to shake out any sand that’s worked its way inside your boots.

Use a boot brush or an old vegetable brush to gently remove dirt, mud and dust from the outside of the boot. If that takes care of most of the dirt, you’re all set.

How to dry hiking boots

Drying out your hiking boots helps keep them smelling fresh, and it only takes a few minutes.

Pull out the insoles and loosen the laces: Undo the laces as much as possible so you can open up the boot’s tongue. This helps make sure no moisture gets trapped inside your boots, where it can cause odours.

Put your boots and insoles in a well-ventilated area: Out of direct sunlight and away from any heat source, which could dry out the leather and make it crack. Don’t put them directly next to your campfire or on your wood stove, as this could melt or deform the soles!

If your boots are really wet: Stuff them with newspaper to help them dry faster. Check the paper periodically, and once it’s damp, replace it with fresh, dry newspaper until your boots are dry. If you need them dry as quickly as possible, consider investing in a boot dryer, which can dry them out in about 1–4 hours.

Store your boots in a dry place at room temperature: A closet works well. Storing hiking boots in a damp place could lead to mould, and storage that’s too hot or cold (like your car’s trunk) could damage the leather over time.

How to clean hiking boots

If your boots are looking really mucky and a quick brush just won’t be enough, it’s time for a more thorough clean. You’ll need:

  • A brush: a boot brush, an old vegetable brush or an old toothbrush will all work well.
  • A cleaner: special boot cleaner or a mild mix of dishwashing soap and water. If you’re using boot cleaner, make sure it’s made for your boots – leather, suede, fabric and other materials can require different cleaners. Don’t use laundry detergent or hand soap, which can damage leather boots and waterproof membranes.
  • A sink or bucket: never put your boots in the washing machine! This would damage both your boots and potentially the washing machine itself.
  • Maybe some vinegar: If your boots have grown a bit of mould or smell particularly bad, wash them with a mixture of 80% water and 20% vinegar.

Got everything together? Here’s what to do:

1. Fill your sink or bucket: Use water and a little bit of dishwashing soap. If you’re using boot cleaner, read the directions first.

2. Remove the laces and pull the insoles: If they’re dirty or smelly, pop them into a small bucket or bowl of water with a little dishwashing soap and give them a good scrub with the brush. Then let them dry while you wash the rest of your boots.

3. Brush off dry dirt: Use the brush to remove as much dirt as possible while it’s still dry.

4. Start to scrub: Dip your brush in the water and cleaner, and gently scrub the mud and dirt off your boot, following the instructions on your cleaner. Make sure you get into all the small crevices where dirt and sand can get stuck, like in the folds of a gusseted tongue.

5. Rinse your boots: Use clean water to remove all the soap.

6. If you’re going to waterproof your boots: Follow the steps below while they’re still wet. If not, set your boots out to dry in a well-ventilated area away from any heat sources, like a campfire, radiator or heater, which could dry out the leather too much.

7. Store your boots in a dry place at room temperature: Once your boots are dry, put the laces and insoles back and store them in a dry place that’s room temp.

How to waterproof hiking boots

Waterproofers for hiking boots available at MEC

Just a few of many different waterproofers available. Make sure to choose one that’s designed for your boot’s materials.

Most hiking boots come with a durable water repellent (DWR) treatment, so when they’re new, you’ll notice that water beads up and rolls right off them. Over time, that finish wears away, and periodically you’ll need to replace it.

Choose a waterproofing treatment that’s made for your boots, whether they’re made of full-grain leather, suede, nubuck or fabric. Be sure to read the instructions carefully, because different types of boots require different waterproofing.

Waterproofing works best when your boots are clean and damp. Cleaning your boots first means you can waterproof the full boot without missing any dirty spots, and dampness actually helps draw the waterproofing treatment into the boot’s surface.

Here’s how to waterproof your boots:

1. Make sure your boots are very damp: You want the water to be soaked right into the leather. It takes a while for this to happen; just running water over your boots for a minute or two isn’t enough. If they’re not wet enough, wrap a very wet towel around them and let them sit in a bucket or sink for a few hours.

2. Read the instructions on your waterproofing treatment: Apply it following those steps for the best performance.

3. Let your boots dry in a well-ventilated area: You want them to be away from any heat sources (campfire, radiator, heater, etc.), which could dry out the leather too much. If you need to dry them quickly, use a fan or boot dryer, or stuff newspaper into them and change it out as it becomes damp.

4. Replace laces and insoles: After your boots have dried, put the laces and insoles back in place.

How to condition leather boots

Close-up of nice looking full-grain leather hiking boots

Condition full-grain leather boots to keep them supple and free of cracks.

When your skin feels dry or cracked, you use hand or body lotion. Similarly, leather needs conditioning to keep it supple and flexible enough to keep up on your hikes. Use conditioner only on full-grain leather (leather that looks smooth); other types of leather, like suede and nubuck, don’t require conditioning.

You’ll know it’s time to apply conditioner when your boots start looking dry. Apply it according to the instructions, and use a minimal amount; too much can soften your boots and make them less supportive. An important spot to condition is the crease above your toes, which gets a lot of wear and can crack if it gets too dry.

That’s it – now take your freshly cleaned, waterproofed and conditioned hiking boots, and hit the trails!