If your boots have been languishing in the closet all winter, or you’ve been using them to stomp through the snowy season, it’s time to get them cleaned, conditioned, and ready to go. Here’s the three-step process I recommend. (And while this post is geared toward all-leather hiking boots rather than boots constructed from fabric or some fabric-leather combo, some of the info is useful for any type of boot.)
Before you apply any sort of conditioner or treatment to your boots, it’s important that you thoroughly clean them first. This includes removing any dirt lurking in boot crevices and the leather itself. More importantly, it’s critical that you remove any salt residue that may have accumulated in the leather during winter around-town use; salt crystals act like a million microscopic razor blades in the leather and can cause lasting damage if not flushed out. Salt and dirt also absorb water, which compromises your boot’s waterproofing.
To clean your boots, remove the laces, rub off any dry and caked dirt, then run them under water or soak them in your sink. The goal is to fully saturate the leather to flush out the salt and dirt, which can take a while. Use a sponge with an abrasive side to scrub the saturated leather and help draw out the dirt and salt. If you’re really motivated, you can purchase and use a specialized boot cleaning tool, like the Sof Sole Boot Brush ($7).
Once cleaned, you’re ready to move onto the next step, which you can do either with the boots still wet from cleaning or after you’ve let them dry (my preferred method, but takes more time).
Lest you forget, leather is skin. Cow skin. And like your own skin, leather can dry out and crack if it’s not occasionally moisturized. This effect is often particularly pronounced around your boot’s flex points, especially where the front of the boot flexes as you walk. To keep the leather supple and durable, and to prevent it from cracking all the way through, you need to apply a leather conditioner every once and a while.
My go-to has long been NikWax leather conditioner, a water-based option that absorbs quickly into dry weather ($9). Apply it liberally to the leather and then let the boots sit for 10 minutes or so; you can almost watch the leather suck in and absorb the conditioner. Wipe off any residue and then re-apply conditioner again. Keep re-applying it until the leather no longer absorbs any more conditioner.
In terms of boot maintenance, steps 1 and 2 above are all that’s necessary to ensure the long-term durability of your boot leather. If you’ve got boots with a Gore-tex or equivalent liner, they will be waterproof regardless of whether you apply an additional waterproofing treatment to the exterior. If your boots lack Gore-tex, or you want to add an extra layer of protection to your boots to shed water, you can consider a waterproofing treatment like water-based NikWax Fabric & Leather Proof ($9), which you apply the same way you do the conditioner in step 2.
Other waterproofing treatments are available but be wary of wax-based options, such as the venerable Sno-Seal. These certainly work but they do so by plugging all the pores in the leather with wax, which dramatically reduces breathability; your feet will get a lot sweatier and moist inside your boots, especially in the warm days of summer.